Climbing Down the Corporate Ladder

Why every CEO needs to apply for an internship… at their own company

“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” – David Ogilvy

Earlier this summer, I decided to climb down from the position of Executive Director at ADC, and demote myself to the lowest position on the totem pole: intern. Not just any intern, but everyone’s intern.

Each one of my staff members had the opportunity to have me work exclusively for them, and it was the best managerial experiment I’ve ever done. I encourage anyone in upper management to lower the gate around the presidential moat and swim with the proletariat at your company, and here’s why.

The leader of a company is not dissimilar to the king in a chess game; an important asset that everyone must protect, yet the piece with the least mobility. The other pieces surrounding the king — the queen, rooks, bishops and knights — can move much more freely. Similarly, the CEO is responsible for the top-level decisions, but his or her employees are often more valuable, as they achieve the day-to-day objectives that make the company move.

“The leader of a company is not dissimilar to the king in a chess game; an important asset that everyone must protect, yet the piece with the least mobility.”

So, the best way to tell if your team is doing a good job is to actually do their jobs. Everyone who works for you should be better — a lot better, actually — at his or her specific job than you would be. Your receptionist should be better at greeting, organizing and managing small details than you are; your financial staff should be better at managing money; your marketing people should be better than you at marketing. It’s not a good sign if you can stand up from the CEO’s chair, walk down the hall and be able to immediately do a better job than your employees at their tasks. If you can, you’re either not hiring well enough or not pushing your people hard enough. Serving as their intern immediately reveals, to both you and them, if they are worthy of their seat or not.

The rules of our intern game were simple: I was the intern for each staff member, one at a time, for an entire day. They prepared my workload for the day so that I could get to know every intricate part of that person’s job. They took me to lunch, but in turn I did anything they asked of me. If they said jump, I asked, “how high?”

I learned a few important things from this experiment. The first was respect. It’s too easy for a manager at any level to bark orders from above, asking for things that seem easy but in fact are not. For example, sending a printed event invitation to the top creative directors in New York seems like a simple task from the Executive Director’s desk. It’s only when I started working for my information department that I realized that everyone we invited last year has changed agencies (oh, advertising), so I had to research a complete set of new contact information and input it back in the database. I now know how long that takes, and the limits of what I can ask. Therefore I will be a better leader. You can’t be the captain of a ship without knowing how to fold the sails or tie knots. If you work for your people – even for one day – they know that you understand the day-to-day of their jobs, and that establishes mutual respect.

“It’s too easy for a manager at any level to bark orders from above, asking for things that seem easy but in fact are not.”

Another important lesson I learned was that advice served from the bottom up is better received than from the top down. In one instance, my ‘boss of the day’ gave me a simple assignment, and I quickly solved it in a unique and creative way. I didn’t brag about it, or tell her that she should have thought about this solution earlier, or even imply that she should employ my methodology in the future. But, she was impressed and eagerly took my suggestions and implemented them into her regular workflow. If, instead, I had imposed some holy executive powers to force her to use that same idea, she might have resented (or completely ignored) me for feeling that it was forced down from the top.

I also learned to lead by example. As a boss, I am very demanding. I hate when things are done late, sloppy, or not up to my standards. It is tiring for me, and for them, to tell people over and over again that they are not doing it right. But by being the intern, I was able to show each of my staff how I like things done by example. I employ an “ABC philosophy” at ADC (when someone asks you for ‘A,’ you give them ‘A’ plus ‘B’ and ask them if they’ve thought of ‘C’). Which means if someone asked me for a simple form, I made sure it was also beautifully designed and on brand. If someone asked me for a list, I made sure it was perfectly formatted, and delivered in both an electronic and a physical format inside a nice folder. These might seem like small details, but by demonstrating my standards, I was able to communicate to each of my team members how I expect things done every time.

Additionally, by taking the time for focus on one discipline each day, I was able to gain a new, clear perspective that was not clouded by the daily distractions that come with maintaining a global and holistic view of a company. I shut down everything external and focused solely on that person and his or her job. I learned a lot from that exercise, and felt a huge sense of accomplishment.

“There’s no better way to get to know your people than to spend one-on-one time with them. I cherry-picked each of my staff at ADC, and I love working with every one of them.”

Running a company is hard work. Your decisions can have grave consequences and your brain is in an infinite amount of different places each day. My ADC internships allowed me to enjoy each job and feel the space of each individual silo with a much more narrow task defined. It comes down to the sum of the parts: it will certainly improve my management of the whole now that I better understand each individual.

There’s no better way to get to know your people than to spend one-on-one time with them. I cherry-picked each of my staff at ADC, and I love working with every one of them. By putting away the invisible gun in the employee-boss relationship, the one that has the authority to fire someone, I was able to chat with each person on a level that we usually cannot or do not. Knowing how people really feel and think is possibly the most important skill of any manager. We don’t manage machines, we manage human beings who have feelings, thoughts, dreams, insecurities and different personalities.

I’ve never had a boss work for me, but it must have felt pretty damn satisfying for my employees to turn the tables on me. I hope the therapeutic value of putting my nose to the grindstone was as valuable for each of them as the insight I gleaned from the experiment was for me. The fact that I got almost 20 free lunches didn’t hurt, either.

Ignacio Oreamuno
Executive Director
ADC