Harold Mitchell’s law of leadership: “You’ve either got it or you don’t”
Tuesday, October 15, 2013/
Company: Mitchell & Partners
Title: Executive chairman, Aegis
Studies: Didn’t complete high school
Motivation: “I hated to lose… in that case you try harder than you could ever imagine.”
Top tip for leadership: “You have to be constantly alive to the fact that you have to point the direction, give leadership, but you should not actually interfere with the people actually doing to work.”
For recently retired media giant Harold Mitchell, leadership is a quality something you either have or you don’t.
Mitchell, the founder of Mitchell & Partners and most recently the executive chairman of Aegis, had a “very poor” formal education, but this didn’t stop him from going on to create Australia’s largest media buying agency.
“I didn’t finish high school, I didn’t go to university and I did no post-graduate work at all. And yet from what I’ve been told I seem to have been a leader from a much earlier time, which means you’ve either got it or you don’t,” Mitchell told LeadingCompany.
“I don’t think you can teach people to be leaders, either they have it within them or they haven’t,” he says.
Sitting in Mitchell’s office in South Melbourne, a small dog bounds over. The dog has recently been rescued from an animal shelter, very fitting given Mitchell has also been involved in philanthropic ventures for around 20 years.
On August 10, 2013, Mitchell officially retired from corporate life, marking 54 years to the day since he arrived in the big city with $2 in his pocket and one set of clothes.
Mitchell grew up in the Victorian country town of Stawell. A sawmiller’s son, he dropped out of high school at age 16 and went to work for his father in the mill before moving to the city at 17 and working as an office boy in an advertising agency.
“It was the beginning of the 50 years of the television era and so I was fortunate to be on the ground floor of something which dominated commercial and family life for the next 50 years,” Mitchell says.
Until he was 33, Mitchell worked at international advertising agencies where he learnt to “absorb massive amounts of information” and to be “very good at many things”.
In business, this would emerge as one of his greatest strengths – his ability to not only adapt, but to pick trends in the industry before anyone saw them coming.
While working in advertising during the 1970s, Mitchell realised an opportunity existed to start a business which focused purely on media buying, effectively working as a middle-man between the creative advertising agencies and the media. Realising this emerging trend was a valuable business opportunity, Mitchell started his own company and became a leader in his own right. “My attitude in the early years wasn’t so much that I wanted to win, but I hated to lose and in that case you try harder than you could ever imagine.”
When it comes to leading, Mitchell says he tries to absorb information and put it to use, but ultimately he believes it’s intuitive. “You can hone your skills, but leaders have to have great imagination as to what they can achieve and enormous courage. There are many hurdles where you have to be able to make tough decisions and most people fall when making decisions like that.”
To be a great business leader, Mitchell says you need to be able to recognise and value the qualities and skills of others.
“Of the people around us, we always tried to hire people who were better than us. You find leaders that fail are people who are intimidated by others, so they hire people who are of a lesser quality than themselves,” he says. “We always hired smart people, people who would press their case if they thought it right and would fight to the end to achieve it, but ultimately when the decision was made, they supported the team to achieve it.”
Mitchell says leaders can often be identified early on in their careers. “People follow leaders because they want to. “They are more often or not people of good character, they can understand an idea and accept it even if it isn’t theirs, they will encourage people around them to support and follow them and they’ll do that through their own actions, rather than an overt pressure to follow them because they’re the leader.”
Mitchell’s role within the company was constantly changing and he says leaders need to know when to trust their employees.
“Leaders often fail because they still want to interfere with the day to day work. You have to be constantly alive to the fact that you have to point the direction, give leadership, but you should not actually interfere with the people actually doing to work.”
Throughout almost 40 years running the business he had a number of formative moments, some of which required a distinct leadership effort.
“Starting the Mitchell Company in 1976 I realised the high level of competition I’d entered into, as every major advertising agency tried to put us out of business. That was a real hurdle we had to overcome and we did.
“Then to ride through a number of financial downturns – the aftermath of the Wall Street crash in 1987, the Asian crisis of 1997 and later September 11 and the GFC. All of these meant we had to be enormously resilient.”
Leadership during downturns, Mitchell says, is “always critical”.
“Our competitors would be under the same pressure that we were, and would be making decisions to protect their business, so we on the other hand saw it as an opportunity to grow our business. During the last two major downturns we actually took market share because we planned long term for the future.”
In 2010 Mitchell sold the company to Aegis for $363 million. Mitchell owned 30% of the company at the time, valuing his stake at $114.9 million, but rather than take the money, Mitchell took a 4% stake in Aegis.
This foresight meant in 2012 when Japanese advertising company Dentsu bought Aegis, Mitchell doubled his money.
Navigating this transition required direction and Mitchell recommends others follow his strategy. “I wanted to achieve the best possible price and so assurance that I and others would stay with the company for not just three months or a year, but in fact two years plus meant there was real certainty of this being an asset which would stay strong for a long period of time.
“I also wanted to make sure that it wasn’t badly influenced right at the beginning by the purchaser who might have thought that they could change it into something different. The strongest thing which could happen was nothing, so I stayed to make sure that happened.”
Mitchell went on to spend two years on the world board of Aegis. “People who are making a change like this should do it like us: Allow a long period of takeover once it happens, avoid all the usual things which happen in a buyout where you maximise short-term profits, plan for a basic no-change policy to make sure you don’t change for the sake of changing.”
Mitchell says people planning on becoming business leaders need to have “a burning desire to succeed and a long-term view to allow it to happen”. But while Mitchell is now in retirement, don’t expect him to slowdown.
“I am retiring from Aegis, but I’m not leaving the industry and my mind is not going to sleep. I plan to live another 30 years and I’m 71. “I’ve never believed in taking a sailing boat for six months and going around the world, and I won’t do that because I’ve embraced life at every step, and I don’t plan to stop that at all.”