Bossing It: Fern McCaffrey on the Importance of Failure for Growth
As SVP, executive account director at RPA, Fern McCaffrey manages the Honda account team in development of advertising across all channels including digital, social, television/video, print, POP, radio and more. She also oversees the account teams on the Honda Automobiles website, as well as advertising and website development for the Honda Certified Pre-owned Vehicles clients.
Fern began her career at a digital start-up in 1996 in New York City. She polished her online experience over the years working with a variety of clients. For over 18 years Fern has developed a deep understanding of the automotive category including national, market-level and dealer dynamics. Fern is passionate on the topic of finding the right balance between media and creative investment while using all tools at hand to understand performance and optimize at the macro and micro levels.
Fern manages to balance work, clients, her team and her family. She understands and actively supports the flexibility needed to be a working mom and as a result has created an atmosphere where other working moms on her team can thrive and grow.
LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?
Fern> Trial and error. Observing others in leadership positions gave me a lot of ideas about what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do, but you really have to find what works for you, what feels credible and authentic. I’ve also sought out mentoring from other leaders and peers. And I’ve read a lot of books on the topic.
LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
Fern> Early in my career, I got a lot of feedback about my communication style. It led me to read a lot of books and seek classes on management, leadership and communication. These were incredibly helpful to me. I believe firmly in continuous improvement, and self-awareness. It can be very tough to tackle your own blind spots and areas of weakness. But you will never succeed if you don’t do the work. And I am still learning and growing.
LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so, how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?
Fern> I always wanted to have a greater understanding, and to be able to impact things in a positive way. Getting positive feedback from others (my team, peers, mentors) gave me more confidence.
LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?
Fern> You have to at least have some desire to have a vision and work collaboratively to shape, evolve and execute that vision. But there are a lot of things that can be learned. A lot of what goes into leadership is listening, asking questions, cultivating alignment and building consensus on a plan of action. (These are skills that can be taught/learned.) It’s not telling people what to do, it’s helping the group achieve consensus about what to do and how to do it. Not everyone will agree on everything, and that’s okay, but you need commitment from everyone involved to make the plan a success. (See 5 Dysfunctions of a Team.) It’s also so important to be able to identify the strengths of your team and maximise those strengths, and understand where individuals need more skills development, and set them up for success. I wouldn’t give certain people on my team budget tasks, because I know they wouldn’t enjoy the work and the quality would suffer. There are other people who I know would enjoy it, and I’ll give that kind of work to them. You can’t always assign work this way, but when you can, you should.
LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
Fern> It’s incredibly important that team members have a sense of purpose, and feel a sense of ownership and accountability. Finding the right balance between ensuring people have that sense of ownership, and making sure things get done right, is an ongoing process/adjustment. And by 'right' I mean fulfilling clients’ expectations, with an eye towards impacts on the larger team and agency, etc.
Self-awareness is incredibly important. As is a desire to grow and develop your skillsets. And being able to forgive yourself when the day-to-day stresses of life leave you less resilient and you fall short of where you want to be.
Also, merchandising my own contributions makes me squeamish. But this is a necessary and pragmatic part of career growth. I generally try to amplify the contributions of those who I collaborate with rather than putting the spotlight on myself.
LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?
Fern> All the time. There is no learning and growth without failure. When I fail, I try to evaluate what I could have done differently (did I not bring in the right team members, did I not sow the seeds early and often enough on a bigger idea or vision, did I not engage a key stakeholder at the right point in the process, was I not collaborative enough, or were we missing pieces of information that were important). And I try to apply those learnings to the next thing.
LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?
Fern> I’m a big fan of transparency for a number of reasons. Team members have a greater sense of ownership when they understand the context of why things are happening or why decisions are being made. And with great ownership comes greater responsibility to, and accountability for, the end result. The more we understand why we are being asked to do something, the more likely we will do it successfully. Transparency vs. careful/considered also feels like a false dichotomy to me. You can be transparent and also be careful and considered in how you approach transparency. What’s key is to share what you can, and be thoughtful about what you don’t share and why. But I would generally err on the side of transparency.
LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so, who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?
Fern> I’ve had several people over my career who I considered mentors. I’ve talked in other places about the impact Meridee Alter had on me early in my career at RPA. I’ve been very fortunate in that I felt like my direct supervisors over the last two decades have also been mentors and actively invested in helping me find the right career path (shout out to Pete and Brett). What’s key is to listen to what your mentors/coaches have to say, and figure out what resonates with you and what is actionable for you. It has to work for you. I have formal and informal mentoring relationships with people through ThinkLA’s mentoring program, a mentee who found me on LinkedIn, and through RPA. I love mentoring and am happy to do it one-off or on an ongoing basis. People sometimes seek me out because they want my advice on a specific situation or problem they’re running into. And I love that kind of mentoring too. I’m also a big fan of peer mentoring, and there are people at RPA that I seek out for advice who are peers, but I also consider them mentors.
When it comes to how to navigate a mentor/mentee relationship, I don’t have a set approach. Some people don’t have a clear sense of what a mentor can help them with. Other people have a really specific set of things they are trying to accomplish. I try to work with the person to understand their goals and come up with actionable ideas or plans to achieve those goals. It’s usually an ongoing conversation but it could be happening weekly, monthly or less frequently.
LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?
Fern> When all of this started, we were so lucky that we had already shifted to cloud-based platforms and done mandatory training across the agency on using Teams, Sharepoint, etc. I think we were able to seamlessly transition to remote work much more quickly and smoothly than a lot of other companies. In the beginning, we put a lot of emphasis on being on camera, to help keep communication open and clear and to stay connected. We also tried to set guardrails around times of day when people might be needing to spend time with their kids or just need dedicated work or down time. And we set a tone of being flexible and compassionate with how people might be struggling to navigate all of this (with roommates, children and other loved ones needing care, etc.). And I say we because I don’t think I’m solely responsible for the team leadership. I work really closely with my direct reports and my manager to identify challenges and determine different approaches to try. We’re a collective. And I also believe that the best innovations and ideas come from the grassroots, so we want to hear where people are feeling challenged and/or ideas they may have to make the work and our work lives better.
KBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?
Fern> I’m really proud of what RPA has done in the last few years with Represent—our people-powered diversity and inclusion initiative, and programming around education, retention, training and mentorship. But there is always room for improvement. And I’ve been excited to see some of the new things we’ve put into place this year, including employee resource groups. ERG’s are employee-led groups in which associates may choose to participate based on a shared identity. Some examples of our ERGs include those for Black employees, LGBTQ employees, Asian American employees, Hispanic/LatinX employees, and parents/caregivers. The goal of our ERG program is to create a safe space for employees who identify similarly to share experiences and receive support.
I hope that this continues to be a really active dialogue and that we continue to put new ideas into place to improve recruitment and retention, expand our training around unconscious bias, and explore ways to bring more diversity and inclusion into all areas (our executive levels, the suppliers we work with, and the creative work). I would encourage everyone who is passionate about this topic to get involved; and whether you’re passionate about it or not, to consider how you can be an ally to others.
LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?
Fern> When we arrived at People First as our brand positioning, we had explored other areas in the past. But People First was immediately embraced at all levels of the organisation in a way that no previous positioning, that I had seen, had achieved. And I believe that is because it is truly authentic to who we are as an agency. We have always emphasized that our success is fundamentally based in our people, the associates in RPA. I have seen many people pass through the halls over almost 20 years at the agency, and many people have told me after coming here from other agencies, or moving on to new adventures, that there is no agency like RPA. That the culture is unique and supportive in a way they haven’t found anywhere else. When COVID started, we put a lot of emphasis on having regular check-ins in smaller groups and, as much as possible, to be camera-on. Along with team happy hours, having this consistent face-to-face contact makes a huge difference in creating a sense of team and community both internally and with our clients.
LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?
Fern> Two of my favorite books are Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team. I highly recommend both of them. I also took a class at UCLA Extension on Listening and Communication Skills that I found to be very interesting and helpful. I can geek out on brain chemistry and how it impacts human communication.