An interview with Lippincott CEO Rick Wise by Entrepreneur’s Rose Leadem
While running a prestigious, 73-year-old company may sound like it’d come with a lot of pressure, Rick Wise has found a way to lead Lippincott while ensuring his employees have fun along the way. From a company-wide Emmy Awards spinoff party called the L’Emmy’s to a company-curated art show — Lippincott is not only creative in the work its staff does, but how they engage at the office too.
“I think a little bit of fun too like informal connections and our L’Emmys are an important part of making sure that we’re enjoying ourselves along the journey,” Wise told Entrepreneur.
Founded in 1943, Lippincott is one of the oldest companies in its space. The creative consulting agency helps major companies build brands, drive innovation and create cultures that spur growth. As a leader in the industry, it’s been the brains behind many iconic product designs such as the Campbell’s soup can, the Starbucks Siren and the Coca-Cola ribbon.
With more than 200 employees at offices in New York, Boston, San Francisco, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris, Wise manages teams from across the world. He’s been with Lippincott for 13 years now, with eight of those as the company’s CEO. However, his experience as a leader goes beyond Lippincott. With more than 25 years of experience in consulting, Wise was a partner and head of strategy practice at a private equity firm before joining Lippincott in 2004.
From decision-making to hiring to team-building — we spoke with Wise to learn more about how he successfully leads the 73-year-old company.
On the most important leadership traits:
RW: The ability to be balanced in thinking about shorter and longer term. There’s a tendency to want to focus on the day-to-day, so finding the time to step back and focus more broadly is a valuable trait.
And consistency and resiliency — we’re in a business that is very project-oriented [and] things go up and down, so living with that ambiguity and the fact that at times you’re not quite sure what the future looks like.
Then I think there’s an important dimension of knowing when to provide direction and when to step back and let people chart their own course within a looser set of guidelines and vision setting.
On leadership style:
I tend to focus on the bigger picture and the patterns. I try to be a bit of a cheerleader for everybody and almost view myself as a friendly helper at the center of the business.
We are a high-level consulting firm where we’ve got senior partners who are all very self-motivated and self-starting. So a key part for me is giving them the autonomy to do what they’re here to do and to drive the business but to keep it integrated, focused and coherent.
On habits that help him lead:
I sit down at the beginning of every day and make a list of three things — the operational things, the more tactical ‘just do its’ and people to connect with and clients to reach out to, and the more strategic things I’m trying to advance that day in my set of meetings.
And it may be a little hokey but I actually write all that down as opposed to [putting] it in an electronic planner or iPhone. When you write notes somehow they just embed with you a little bit more.
The biggest challenge for me is trying to maintain that balance between the tactical minutiae and the emails and the little phone calls, and focusing on the bigger, more strategic things.
On the toughest business decision:
Clients that we decide we don’t want to do work for for holistic and cultural reasons. Sometimes we get asked to work on brand projects for clients and it’s a fine line because everybody [has] a different definition on what’s right and where the line is. Sometimes there will be a client situation where we just say, ‘Given the country of origin or the nature of the industry, we really want to step away.’
On the most important traits in a new hire:
The thing I’m most interested in a new hire is enthusiasm and initiative. That, to me, is the biggest intangible that drives success in a business and a business career for people. And that ability to be self-starting, to ask, ‘What else could I be doing?’
On recognizing employees:
We recognize achievements in a variety of ways. The most informal is we try to provide callouts on the fly to folks that are doing a great job.
We also have a more formal mechanism — in our regular town halls, we give out Toucan Awards. The Toucan is a symbol going back in Lippincott’s history to the ’60s. We publish a magazine called Sense that we’ve published for decades, and at one point the Toucan was this icon or image in the Sense magazine. So we dusted him off and made him the centerpiece of our recognition program. We have little plush toy Toucans that we give out to people, sometimes little plastic ones or Toucans erasers — there’s always a Toucan-themed thing that we’re doing.
We have a big summer party and a big holiday party. Part of the holiday party is a separate recognition program that we call the L’Emmys where we give out awards — some of which are serious and some which are funny. We have a co-host and a whole scripted video — it’s fairly elaborate. That’s a big centerpoint of our year.
Each of our offices also have their own little things they do, like our San Francisco team always does a wine tasting trip in the fall.
A couple of months ago we had an after hours Guggenheim museum tour for anybody who wanted to go. We also support a local charity called Creative Artworks, where we will do mural painting with them and help teach classes with kids at risk.
On unique office rituals:
At our annual holiday party, we do the L’Emmy Awards Show. And then quarterly we do something called ‘L M N O P,’ which is a fun curated internal art gallery show that gets hosted in a cubicle and people submit their artwork and we have a cocktail party around it.
On managing meetings:
I try to set a clear agenda and a clear set of objectives, and then manage to that. Sometimes we succeed in that and sometimes we let things wander a bit because we’re a very creative agency focused on strategic issues.
What I typically do is lay in the critical meetings and then try to block the time around them for specific activities like financials or reaching out to clients. So I put in the major things and then fill in around them.
On office setup:
I’ve got a nice corner office and I sit right on the corner of 59th and Park in New York — just looking out over Park Avenue. I’ve got a big round table that I work at facing Park Avenue. It’s funny because 90 percent of the time I’m not even absorbing where I am or the view or anything because you’re just doing your work and talking to people — you’re not focused on the surroundings.
The table is very informal and it’s a space that’s very collaborative, so I’m often meeting with people around it as opposed to just sitting there working. It’s a space that allows for expansive thinking and collaboration.
On a strong company culture:
A really important aspect of a strong company culture is a shared sense of purpose. Having a clear sense of what you’re trying to do, the role you’re playing and in our case what you’re doing for clients — above and beyond the financial reason you’re in business.
And then a sense of commitment to the people — developing and advancing them and giving them a work environment where they can really succeed is also important. And a little bit of fun too — making sure that we’re enjoying ourselves along the journey.
On cultural mistakes:
If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that as you are shifting what you’re about and where you’re focusing, you can’t over-communicate and you can’t overestimate how much you need to communicate. It may be really clear to you but you need to say it many times before people really internalize and register it.
On his biggest cultural win:
One of our biggest cultural wins was successfully bringing onboard our organizational engagement practice, which was an acquired company for us — our first acquisition ever.
It’s not an easy thing to integrate a new company into a company that has always grown organically and not through acquisition. It also brought a unique focus on culture, so that I think was both successful, energizing and a really nice enrichment of the culture.
On his role models:
I don’t necessarily look up to any one leader. I’m always drawn to examples of leaders who have managed to run and drive forward a complex organization with lots of different people and competing personalities and interests.
I’ve just been reading the history of the Pacific in World War II and a lot of emphasis on the leaders and the challenges. Adm. Charles W. Nimitz is an interesting character and an example of somebody who did a really nice job managing a very complex organization and interservice rivalry, with ambiguous objectives and not enough resources. He was bold at the right times, but also more hands off in general and so I think that’s a great example of a leader I can relate to.
On his favorite leadership books:
One of the books that’s been valuable for me is the one I wrote, How to Grow When Markets Don’t, because it’s helped frame how I think about growth and strategy.
One that’s been inspiring recently is Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice written by one of our partners Taddy Hall with Clay Christensen, who is the father of innovation. [It’s] around competing against luck and a disciplined way to think about you grow and innovate successfully and consistently.
On where most leaders go wrong:
One place where leaders can go wrong is not recognizing when things have changed and the need to do things differently and recognizing that earlier rather than later.
Article written by Rose Leadem and originally published on August 1, 2017 on Entrepreneur.