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Maurice Levy: How to be a great leader

Levy: Good leadership means personality



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LONDON, England (CNN) -- CNN Financial Editor Todd Benjamin speaks to Maurice Levy -- President of Publicis, the world's fourth largest advertising company -- about what makes a great leader.

Benjamin: What do you think makes good leadership?

Levy: Success. Good leadership means personality, something you have that people have not. Something, which makes sure that people can follow you and at the end of the day you have the success.

Benjamin: But what do you think separates a good leader from a great leader?

Levy: Probably the fact that a great leader can see behind the horizon, he can see what people cannot see and he can get the people to do it.

Benjamin: What do you think the best way to motivate people is?

Levy: Avoid the tricks and be true. No tricks. You have to create something which is true so they believe in you and they want to follow you. They want to believe in the vision, they want to share it. It's very important that people share what you want to do and I think that sharing is probably one of the most important words in the world of business.

We are in a world, which is so selfish, where everyone is individualistic, trying to think for himself. But I think if you can create a feeling of sharing -- people want to share something -- they want to share a vision or they want to share the fruit, they want to share the pain, they want to share everything, then you create something which goes far beyond a culture.

Benjamin: How do you create that atmosphere?

Levy: Again, I think it's something, which is based on some true values. Being respectful, respectful to the people, for their culture, respectful for the time. Not very often, I must recognize, I don't think about the private life. And be honest, be very honest. When you say something, you do it.

I like the idea of paradox. I like the idea that a leader is at the same time somebody who leads and somebody who follows. Somebody who leads the pack and shows the way saying here is the hill and somebody who follows so that everyone is really on the same speed, the same train and that there are no people that are behind, somebody who listens also because you have to listen to your team. You cannot be a kind of Tsar and you think you know everything and people just to follow. I think it's critically important that people feel they are valued and that it's true, it's not lip service.

Benjamin: You wrote once: "I've always believed we should leave room for people to have as much freedom as possible, not trying to control everything and putting people in boxes. We think the more freedom people have, the better they are".

Levy: Yes I think this is particular in people business. What you expect from people is that they bloom, that they give the best of themselves. They can't give the best of themselves if they are constrained into boxes into rooms into kind of procedures and an old kind of system where they have very little freedom.

Benjamin: But people would say Maurice you're in the advertising business and you want to foster creativity. What you're saying wouldn't work in other businesses.

Levy: In all businesses there is room for innovation, there is room for entrepreneurship, there is room for sharing, there is room for values, for humanistic values and once again, my paradoxical approach is that I like very much the idea that we can be the best performer and at the same time the most humanistic company. And I like the clashes of ideas of this kind where people can give the best of themselves in a very tight organization with a lot constraints of performance because we are in a world of competition and at the same time feel they are valued, that they belong to something which is greater than just a company, a corporation.

We can change the idea of corporation by the idea of family and this may be because we are coming from a family business and we understand all these values.

Benjamin: But when I asked somebody about your personality in terms of working for you, they said you're charismatic, you're driven, you're inspirational but very demanding. When you're always so demanding is this kind on your family, to use your analogy, no work-life balance? This is not very healthy.

Levy: That's my private life and it is clear that I'm very demanding but one thing I would never do is demand from my people what I cannot do myself. I'm more demanding about myself than what I'm demanding from the people working with me. You will never see my team being asked to do more than what I do. I lead by example.

Benjamin: You're clearly a very driven man. You came to Publicis in 1971. In 1972 there was a fire. The building was being destroyed in front of the eyes of the founder. You ran in, got records, got magnetic tapes and your famous line is: "The client was still billed at the end of the month" and within a few years you're running the entire French operation. Now you've acquired over a hundred companies since you became the head of Publicis. Where does this drive come from?

Levy: I want to be this to be excellent. I want Publicis to continue to live and be amongst the very best in the world and today we need to be global, we need to be holistic, we need to service our clients everywhere they are and we need to provide them with all kinds of services. So we need not only to be there, but to be there with a whole range of units, services, disciplines. And this is something, which keeps me awake ... morning and night.

Benjamin: But you're clearly a very driven individual. Where does this drive come from? What is it in your background; was it something your parents gave you, was it something that came from somewhere else?

Levy: It's difficult. I believe I have been always like this. I believe when I was a kid I wanted to be on top of the class, when I was a student also. So maybe it is in the genes. But when it comes to Publicis, I think it's simply the idea I have for Publicis. I believe that this company is the best in the world and I want it to be the best everywhere and I think we can be much better than any other company, any other of my competitors because we have something that they have not. We have this passion, we really believe in our clients, we want to bring to our client the best they can find and the best individuals in the world and that is something which is sincere, which is coming from the heart. And when you have such an idea in mind, you don't sleep and when you are thinking about your business, you don't think about your business, you think about the business of your client. And this is what makes the difference.

Benjamin: But has your family suffered as a result of your drive?

Levy: Certainly, yes.

Benjamin: Do you have any regrets about that?

Levy: Ah that is a little bit personal. Obviously I cannot say I'm happy that I have not seen one of my kids. I have seen very well growing two of my kids. The third one was born the year I started Publicis and I started already working from seven to ten, eleven, so it was not very easy.

Benjamin: What do you think you want your legacy to be?

Levy: I'm not thinking this way. And I'm not thinking about what I have done. I'm much more thinking what I have to do. I'm not thinking about what I have to give as a legacy to the people, the next generation because this means I'm thinking about myself. So I'm thinking much more about what Publicis should be and my role, I have my personal legacy for my family. If I can give them just a few things, which I have received from my family in terms of behavior, honesty, values, this is perfect and this is what makes a man different from the others. And regarding Publicis, what I'm thinking is that we have such a huge potential to be much better than we are, even if today a lot of people believe we are better than the competition. I believe the room for improvement is huge and we have not even see where the ceiling is.

Benjamin: Do you want to be the world's biggest advertising company?

Levy: No, no. I have not a problem of size, I have not a problem of critical mass, I'm not thinking in terms of size. Size can come. There's a saying, which is ... no one stays small because of his goodwill. It's not by his goodwill that he stays small, it's because he cannot grow. So if we grow it will be because we are very good, because we are the best. It's not because we want to be the biggest. I don't want to be the biggest, it's not my objective. If I am the biggest, this is fine, but this is not really even in my mind.

Benjamin: But you've been really ambitious, you've gone on a huge spree, over a hundred companies since 1996. You didn't want to get bigger, that wasn't your idea?

Levy: No, no. I needed to get them. I needed to buy all these units in order to stay alive because we are in a world of globalization. To service my clients in Chile, in Australia, in China, in Russia, everywhere. And that was the reason for all these acquisitions. And then we needed to have the critical mass because we were in a market where bargain is important and the economy of scale is important.

The most important ambition in the world is not to be the biggest. You don't need just a big checkbook to be the best. To have the best people, to attract the best client, to sell them the best work; this is a real ambition. This is a much bigger ambition than just a question of numbers. But the numbers in our business and the way we see it and the way I see that is just a result. It's what is left after.

Benjamin: You're talking to a potential employee. Can you tell if they have potential, if they're going to be a good employee by just taking to them?

Levy: I think I know.

Benjamin: How?

Levy: Feeling, conversation, what he tells me, what he or she tells me. Somebody will come, show off himself or herself, who seems to know everything, they would definitely be a bad employee, because they haven't got a clue ... he will not try to listen to the others, he will not be or she will not be a team player and above all, he will not be doubtful about the solution and in our business there is not certainty, it's not a scientific would. We need to be sure of what we are doing. How to get sure of what we are doing? It's through a series of doubts. You need to be doubtful about your solution, you need to question yourself, you need to put yourself into question every morning. Is it the right solution for my client? Can he really put his money behind this? If it was my money, should I put it behind? So we need to put all these questions and not have a kind of merchant system, whereby the only thing, which counts is to sell. I'm not selling, never. I'm not trying to sell. I'm selling all the time without selling.

Benjamin: The founder of Publicis who has passed away was your mentor. Do you think you could have been the leader you are today had you not known this man?

Levy: Nobody knows. He was my mentor. I love him. We had a very strange relationship because there was a great affection on both sides and at the same time I have been probably the man who was the most difficult for him because the number of times I have said: 'no I will not do that', 'no I don't believe in that solution' are countless. And I think it's probably the fact that he was surrounded by a lot of yes men and there were only a few ones who were resisting his will and I was one of them, that he has built the kind of particular interest.

Benjamin: But you started off in computers then went into advertising. What was it about advertising that attracted you?

Levy: In fact I started in computers in an advertising agency and the reason for that is a little bit silly. When I was looking for my first job, I was interviewed by this huge corporation and you have these gray walls and these slumped corridors, these huge computers and things. And when I was interviewed at this ad agency, I was under this sky dome, a lot of light, the men and the girls were young, the girls were wearing mini-skirts, it was a different world. The men were wearing long hair as I did at that time. So I felt that this universe is much more my home than this other one. And soon after I joined this agency, I spent only two or three hours a day with computers and most of the time I was with creative people and account people working with clients and pretty quickly after I knew everything about the business.

Benjamin: Why do you think Publicis has gone from strength to strength? Is it you, is it your employees, is it a combination of both?

Levy: It's strength-based at the beginning. We had a very solid base, which has been the legacy of the founder. We have superb work with talented people who really want to make it happen and small leadership.

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