Anyone who’s ever heard Elana Gorbatyuk speak knows how electrifyingly different her perspective is on leadership, creativity and inclusivity. She has a very forward-thinking view, especially in a field like advertising, predicated on competition. She believes that creativity thrives not under stress, but rather in a situation of freedom, confidence and community – and that this is the work model of the future. We sat down with Gorbatyuk to dig a little deeper into her idea that the ideal agency of the future should feel like home.
It instinctively feels so right when you speak of designing your agency like you would your home, but what specifically do you have in mind? Are you talking infrastructure, or actual physical space?
Elana Gorbatyuk — I think it’s intentional, and it has an organizational behavioural impact on how we staff and how we create pods, to drive increased creativity in a way that fosters a sense of belonging. There’s really interesting organizational behavioural research from Organization Science about “cultural brokerage” that demonstrates that when you take people that have multi-cultural experiences – in the sense that they’ve had many different cultural experiences – and mix them with people who have a deep, more singular cultural experience, you derive a new sort of creativity that’s highly empathetic, insightful and universal. And if you add in skill set, mixing broader thinkers with specialists, it produces teams that are able to attack problems in very new ways.
You’ve also mentioned in the past how diversity has become a dirty word to you.
EG — Yes, because people start to see it as a quota that you check off. We forget it’s real people. When we talk about talent acquisition, we often over-focus on acquiring and we don’t pay enough attention to how we receive people. How are those people going to live within our environment? How will they fit? In order to understand how people will belong, you have to accept and design for this interesting tension between fitting in and standing out. Everyone should feel that this is their home, that they don’t need to filter any part of themselves out to be here.
That’s interesting. It says a lot about your definition of home, too, because there’s a lot of unhappy homes in the world, sadly – do you think that’s why some places are so unpleasant to work in, because the leaders are reproducing their own disbalanced lives?
EG — I actually think that we shouldn’t use the word “home” for something that’s broken. My whole childhood was spent with this feeling of being orphaned. Because that’s what we were, as a Jewish family in Kiev. The word “home” wasn’t in my vocabulary, because I lived like a nomad. I was at best a visitor; at worst, displaced wherever I went. I think my definition of home means that you feel the freedom to lean back, lean in, be you and feel like this is a place where I’m welcome and I have the freedom to express not just who I am, but my thoughts about the world to the world. That’s the sense of home that I think we should be shooting for.
You’ve spoken in the past of your childhood in Kiev, where your home was under surveillance and the forest was one of the only places you could speak freely. Do you strive to create forests for all your coworkers?
EG — Maybe unintentionally I do! You bring up a really good point, because when you’re in advertising or a service-based industry, there’s often a feeling of surveillance, if you will. This is a really weird thought, but for creativity to thrive, even for us to think well, we need freedom. I don’t believe we should be watching what time people come in and what time they leave. Work models have always been time-based, but as we move forward it needs to be value-based, related to output.
What role do empathy and kindness play in leadership?
EG — I think there’s something beautiful that happens when maybe English is your second language, or you’re surrounded by many different languages, which is so often the case for an international firm like Sid Lee. It creates this need for pause. Instead of talking over people, you give the respect to listen and listen harder, and you stipulate what you mean in very simple terms. It creates this new sense of empathy for one another’s opinion. I think in general we can all use more empathy. It’s been proven that people are motivated by kindness and excitement more than rudeness and orders – behaviour that’s been part of this industry for much too long. Having said that, it’s really important that leaders lead, and that means making tough calls and courageous calls. You must lead definitively – and with empathy.
There’s this great quote from John Brownstein, who’s Chief Innovation Officer of Boston Children’s Hospital, who says, “Less than 5% of all ideas shared are actionable. Handle the other 95% gently.” What’s your secret for coaxing creativity out of people?
EG — I’d say there are a few secret weapons, but I can’t take credit for them – they’re just ones I use. Projecting a brand into the future, conceptually speaking, is a great space to create. It forces you to leave your preexisting biases at the door, because who could be wrong about the future? It makes you able to open up to really new creativity. I also love using constraints. It’s an engineering hack, really, because engineers ask, “How might we do X when Y is standing in the way?” It makes it a sort of closed loop, a biased argument. Those constraints are very useful in design thinking, but sometimes also in relationships. Like with Skyn, a condom brand we worked with, we asked, “How might we increase sensual times when people's relationship with intimacy is broken?” Those are great parameters to create within.
You have a beautiful philosophy on curiosity, where you’ve described it as one of our greatest riches in a world based on human understanding, which advertising focuses on. Can you expand on that?
EG — When you’re born in a place where asking questions is forbidden, almost illegal, and you work in this industry where you get to do that for a living, it’s an incredible blessing. It’s only when you ask questions about the world that you’re able to advance humanity forward. If we don’t get to ask why, we’re just a bunch of robots! Ultimately, if we do our jobs really well, it’s not just to sell more stuff. We’re in people’s lives every single day. There’s a responsibility that comes with that. What can you shed light on, what topics can you broach with the media that you’re working with every day? If you do nothing, shame on you.