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How becoming a parent made me a better CEO and business leader

Contagion's Dean Taylor shares what he's learned about inclusivity and "compassionate ambition."

I have always been a hard worker. As a child I always had two jobs and felt it was important to graft and dedicate yourself to the task at hand. I came from a working-class background and was the first of my family to even think about attending University.

Of course, I wanted to attend the absolute best university to make sure I could secure the career that I wanted. I got into the London School of Economics; goal ticked. Each time I attained a goal, it was onto the next one. In fact, I always practiced that one goal would set in motion the next, so in effect there were always two- to five-year plans. In all of this the journey had a singular point: to become a CEO. That really would be the “working class boy made good”.

I joined my first management board at 30, made MD by 34 and was CEO in the world’s most famous advertising network, Saatchi & Saatchi, at 38. For all of you who have craved (and indeed crave) great success, it doesn’t disappoint. Working hard and achieving goals is a very strong narcotic and very addictive indeed. But like many narcotics, it was also unhealthy.

At one point I was working 18-hour days, seven days a week for months at a time. I absolutely prided myself on the fact that I could do longer hours, produce more business and endure the pain for longer than anyone around me. The goal at this time was simply to become CEO, to get that title, to get to the top, to win… but it was the most disappointing role of my life. I genuinely thought if I got there, I could wave some sort of magic wand and my life and those of others around me would be great. My naivety was second only to my ignorance and myopia. But, let’s be clear, this was my choice.

My corporate rise was driven by ambition – or, more to the point, selfishness and ego. The problem is that in corporate life, this was the currency that worked and still does. Quarterly results and shareholder value don’t mind if you exercise little compassion and simply care about the destination and not the journey. They applaud the profit, give you a slice, and hope you’ll do it again. Triple bottom line accounting does not apply. People are just a number on a spreadsheet marked ‘outgoings”. Profits often go off shore and you pay as little tax as legally possible.

The CEO role in a network started to open my eyes. Increasing hiring freezes and staff reductions started to become all too visible to me; you know, the ones ordered anonymously from overseas. The havoc this wreaked on people’s lives wasn’t what I wanted to be involved with. The harm this caused to the families of staff was terrible. I started to really think about the purpose of my journey. Being a CEO in a massive network agency just wasn’t what I wanted. I realised the role was right, but the environment wasn’t.

It was at this point a piece of luck came to me in the form of the opportunity to start my own company with my partner. I became ‘we’. Contagion the advertising agency was born and a very different business path for me in our industry would be forged.

We started with a flying sprint and in many ways pushed the work ethic again. Digital and social was our key proposition when we started. And it worked. But on the birth of our second child we both started to look at the world in a very different way. A more compassionate way and with a much longer-term view. This is also a much healthier way to look at business. Most importantly we had to create the ‘time’ they absolutely needed in this accelerating world to be children, feel nurtured and not second place.

Two years ago we also lost our two founding partners and we really did have a moment to go ‘what now’? It was clear a percentage of clients would leave – and quite a few did. At this stage in any business it is important to have clarity, to have a plan. However, rather than simply go down the road we had been before, we looked at how we could have a business that would appeal to a changing world and fit in with our two young children. We wanted to reshape the company with a culture and benefits that meant you could be there for your kids and still have an incredibly stimulating, creative and ambitious work atmosphere. And to do this we needed compassion.

Compassionate ambition is what drives us. We believe this is the best driver for work, family and a better New Zealand. So we started looking how we could offer a different staffing model that could accommodate people who prioritised family, whilst taking great pride in the work they produced, who they produced it for and who they worked with. We interviewed clients (many with children) and realised that they wanted more experience on their accounts. We actively sought out people who were returning to the workforce having had kids, but were massively qualified after big global roles. Many couldn’t find a role that would respect the time they wanted to spend with their family.

To us this is the most important role. You don’t get that long to be a father or a mother to a young child. You will not get the time back. With this in mind, we have a number of mums who have returned to the workforce who do school pickup hours and four days a week. We are more flexible in school holidays. We find staff are more productive and present at work.

We have implemented benefits that are orientated around families, whilst making sure young people coming into the business have the intellectual and professional opportunities to give them what they need.

Another example is our dog policy. It means staff can bring their best friend to work. They are our “department of well-being”. Sometimes there are three of them in the office. But we take it further than just having them in here. We understand why people want to bring their dogs to work; they love them. So we offer pet bereavement leave in honour of the bond our staff have with their pets.

We now have a business atmosphere that is driven by diversity and inclusivity. Our clients are happier and profits sustainable; we have probably raised the average age of the agency from being 25 to 35 now (full disclosure, I am 48); new clients are working with us because they recognise that a healthy family atmosphere is what they also crave; I have dinner with my two boys every night of the week now. It is a very different company and we are better for it.

As you walk into our office you will see a sign that reads “Kiwi business makes New Zealand a better place.” If we are to thrive in the coming AI and automated economy, business needs to take a look at things differently. We can absolutely beat the world, but we don’t need to perpetuate the strip-mining of family life to do so.

Dean Taylor is managing director at Contagion.

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