Entering the family business might sound like a predictable career path. But for Berlin School alumna, Lea Stankovic, Executive Director of Communis DDB, it was a chance to embark on uncharted territory and lead the family legacy into the digital era of advertising. Having joined the ranks alongside her father Ivan Stankovic, owner of the Serbian advertising outfit, Lea understands well the temptation to simply mimic another leader’s style and mantra, and has seen it ‘end in disaster’ for other organizations. We spoke to Lea about nailing her colours to the advertising industry, the importance of empowering young leaders, and the lessons that stick with her today from her Berlin School Executive MBA class.
Had you always been inclined to enter the family business?
My father has been in advertising for about 35 years. I grew up with it and, like any rebellious teenager, it was the last thing I wanted to do! So I went my own way, which took me to Moscow where I worked at British American Tobacco – which was completely unsuited to me! I’m much more of a communicator – which I’d later find out. I lasted about a year and a half before I returned to Serbia and, pretty much out of boredom, started working at my father’s company. I was only 24 at the time and still very unsure of what I wanted to do. I was also very surprised to find that I really enjoyed the work and that my father had been right – as parents sometimes are! It was an ‘I told you so’ moment.
Tell us about your decision to attend the Berlin School…
It wasn’t too long into my career at Communis when my father sent me a link to the Berlin School website. I was still very young but I wanted to take a chance. It was a great opportunity for me to develop my network and to learn from all these different people and their experiences. I actually think it was good for me to go at that time because I didn’t have so many responsibilities or prejudices yet as a leader. It made it easier to take the time out.
From the moment I recognised that I was committed to leading in this business, our idea – mine and my father’s – was that I would in my own way. You see all too often when children try to follow in their parents’ footsteps and emulate them in some ways, it always ends in disaster. My father gave me the freedom to develop in my own way which was exactly why I focussed on digital from the start. It was a new area at the time, and it’s not something he was an expert in, so I could really spread my wings and fly. Our idea was that I eventually would take over the leadership. For both of us, the school was a great chance to absorb different learnings and see what style suited me, away from the potential pressure of possibly letting down or embarrassing a family member. One essential element of the school is that it’s a safe space to make mistakes and experiment. I think back, almost on a daily basis, to certain lessons and things that were said at the school and I now understand more the significance of what I’d learned.
Do you have a highlight from your classroom days?
I can’t pinpoint the exact module, but I got a lot of value from the classes with Professor David Slocum on learning to be your authentic self and to lead in a way that doesn’t try to simply imitate someone else. It directly impacted my own situation. ‘Decision Making’ was also really impactful to me. There was a lot of talk amongst participants about being in ‘survival mode’ and I can certainly relate that to certain times in my career. Learning about the process of making decisions and of knowing your gut and your instincts, especially when you’re in these tougher times, has been incredible valuable to me. And It was especially important to me as such a relatively young leader.
Would you say you had a unique experience of the school, being the youngest in your class?
I think it comes down to individuals. Everybody comes to the Berlin School with their own ambitions and background. For me, it was good because I could really learn from other people. In fact, what was really inspiring for me was meeting leaders that were about twenty years older than me and seeing how open and thirsty they were to learn. That’s always stuck with me. It’s so important in this industry to remain curious. You have to remain open to new things, and ideas, and people, and not give in to this feeling of being ‘old and wise’. Everyone at the school was really excited and really passionate about their work which is something that transcends age, and nationality, and position.
You seem to have soaked up a lot from being out of your comfort zone. What to you is the value of academic education away from the work environment?
There are lots of ways to learn, of course, and it’s a matter of finding a balance that suits you. But it’s so important to invest in education. The process of learning away from the office and your daily work gives you a totally different perspective, especially when you’re in a class with so many creative minds, hungry to learn alongside you.
This openness is definitely important in an era where industries are changing so much. How have you dealt with the dramatic changes in the advertising world in recent decades?
I think it’s a matter of ‘working for today and planning for tomorrow.’ It’s a little like being an octopus, working on several things with the same intensity. This includes managing the day-to-day while preparing for the future. Throughout my time in Berlin, I got to hear so many great speakers talk about their career and their successes in such a humble, modest way. I think that’s a really important thing to remember especially in the advertising industry which can be quite ego-driven. This way of working stops you from burning out in an industry that changes so much so fast. In fact this is another great thing I’ve seen from my fellow-participants at the school. Over the years, we’ve stayed in touch and I’ve gotten to see them develop and succeed in the plans they made when we were all together. That kind of thing reminds me of the importance of ‘just doing it’; sometimes you have to just get stuck in and figure the details out along the way. Of course, there are benefits to planning, but when the industry changes this fast, sometimes if you see and opportunity, you just have to jump in.
What kind of challenges are you facing specifically in the Serbian advertising industry?
In Serbia, it’s always a case of being a small pond with a lot of crocodiles. There’s a lot of competition. So, we have to think fast in order to remain relevant to the client while producing great work at a more competitive pace. The pressure is on to create engaging and relevant content which will draw attention for the right reasons. Advertising is becoming entertainment and that requires a different way of working on both the client and the agency side. But I don’t think all of that’s unique to Serbia. It’s something you see around the world. Serbia used to be one big country with Yugoslavia, and there is talk of a ‘regional industry’ with huge potential for synergy and collaboration that’s not happening yet. There’s a huge amount of scope for knowledge-sharing and education that I hope we see more of soon.
Your decision to join the school and the focus of your thesis, was based around the topic of succession and empowering the next generation of leadership. Is this something that you prioritise at Communis DDB?
Well, nobody wants to talk about succession in a family-owned business. It acknowledges your own mortality and the fact that people could get by without you if they had to, and nobody likes to be reminded of that. But in advertising, it’s particularly important in terms of talent to nurture future leaders. There are so many other industries it connects to and a lot of sexier places to work between start-ups, client-side positions, and new creative roles popping up in various companies. We have a huge of amount of people with great potential here. I think it’s a case of deciding that you want to stick to this business because it can be pretty stressful and dynamic. To want to progress as a creative leader in the advertising industry today, you have to have made a conscious decision to do so. We bear that commitment in mind in the way we develop talent.
What is the importance of diversity to you as a creative business leader?
Thankfully, the industry is starting to evolve. I feel my responsibility as a human is to lead by example and to encourage people to speak out, be creative and feel comfortable in their work environment. I’m trying to be more in tune with my own behaviour and how it impacts people and try to see things from other perspectives. In that regard, I’m always particularly keen to make sure I’m supporting the young people in my company – I’ve seen some amazing ideas come from our juniors. There’s also lot of discussion these days about ‘imposter syndrome’ which is particularly common amongst women. I try to create an environment where everybody feels encouraged and where great ideas aren’t just coming from those that shout the loudest. Advertising is a business of ideas and I don’t want anybody feeling nervous to speak out.