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Johnny Tooze has been chief executive officer of Lab since founding it 18 years ago. In September of 2019, he took the company into a new phase: from independent agency to independent agency group. In the last two years, a string of acquisitions and spinouts have resulted in a group of five agencies, which relaunched and rebranded last week. In the first of our new series Founders’ Syndrome, we talk to Jonny about building a group during a pandemic and the complex pleasures of being able to hire a team that just might be better than yourself.

If you have a conversation with an agency leader in 2021, you’re surprisingly likely to end up talking about Buddhism or the inherent flaws of capitalism.

Why? According to Johnny Tooze, part of the explanation is obvious: “Covid has taken its pound of flesh,” wiping out some, challenging others and leaving a good number of our colleagues “dangerously stressed.” With all of us spending at least a few moments over the last few years wondering whether there’s more to life than what’s right in front of us, agency leaders have been no different.

For Johnny, a more acute factor has led to his search for zen: a run of acquisitions and expansions that started back in 2019 and dominated his pandemic work life. With the ink drying on the most recent of those changes, he’s woken up to a problem a lot of us would like to have: a wealth of talent all around him, doing the jobs he would once have done himself (and doing them well.)

“For the first time in the business, I’ve got people who are significantly better than me in their own areas – both strategically and operationally,” he says. “That’s put a chalk outline around my role as CEO and what I should be doing.” 

A bittersweet problem to have, no doubt. One upshot of that is banal to the point (literally) of cliché: like a young romantic finally understanding the meaning of a love song for the first time, the truisms of the leadership industry (“the best leaders’ desks are empty”) started to make a new kind of sense as he realized the value of having space to think.

A more profound consequence of that space to think was an unprecedented opportunity for an encounter with the man in the mirror. “To found a business and grow it successfully, you’ve got to have a bit of an ego and a sense of self-belief.” For leaders, the ego tends to get built up by expanding responsibilities and ever-more people relying on you. But when you’re finally in a position to hire the best people around you, “suddenly you realize that you’re not actually needed as much, and you’re not as important or valuable as you thought you were.” 

And here comes Johnny’s moment of zen: “It harms your ego, but by harming your ego it makes your ego visible, which makes it easier to analyze and realize ‘that was quite an egoic way of thinking.’” Perhaps it’s not so surprising that so many of the world’s hyper-successful leaders and artists turn to Buddhism (and other belief systems that put the self out of the center of the equation) right as their success peaks: an upwardly-mobile career builds the ego up until it reaches a zenith where, strangely, it’s both more and less important to those around it than ever before.

Happily, that doesn’t mean the post-zen founder needs to throw themselves on the scrap heap; in fact, a little bit of ego death might be exactly what someone afflicted with founders’ syndrome needs. “To be a good leader actually requires a zen-like approach.” After all, what do people want from a leader? “They look for calmness. They look at your reaction when the shit hits the fan.” Here he cites work he’s done with the school of management at Surrey University: apparently 70% of a business’s culture is set by leadership – and 70% of that is set by the leadership’s response in a crisis. So just a bit of zen-infused calm can percolate down powerfully.

And what about that relaunch – how does a newly zen-inspired leader go about acquiring companies and building a rebrand? “A lot of groups are built on spreadsheets,” Johnny says, but he’s tried to inject the process with a little more empathy, especially for fellow chief execs who may have experienced some of the same pressures, especially in the last couple of years. The early stage of the pandemic, he says, was “the most stressful period of my entire life,” and one that triggered a re-evaluation of the work we do in the marketing business. “There’s a lot going on in society, and in digital, which doesn’t play very well to human beings. Our biology isn’t keeping up with the technology revolution, and there’s a lot that needs to change.”

All of that might sound high-minded. But, having launched an optional company-wide four-day work week back in 2017 and recently unveiled an agency focused solely on sustainability, Raised by Wolves, it’s clear that Johnny’s ready to take real steps to make change happen. Maybe enlightenment will follow?