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Bossing It: Jan Eumann on Bringing Your Full Self to the Work


Wolff Olins' executive creative director of design on nurturing early ideas, absorbing different leadership styles and leading with empathy and care

Bossing It: Jan Eumann on Bringing Your Full Self to the Work

Jan started his career at Wolff Olins as a design intern and now heads up the design community practice, pushing clients and teams to create truly transformational work. Jan’s passion lies in creating comprehensive brand design and strategic thinking across all touchpoints from physical to digital. Jan brings a wealth of experience solving a variety of business challenges across industries including work with 3M, Google, Grubhub, Deutsche Telekom, Paramount, Refinery 29, Microsoft and Zocdoc. Jan brings a global perspective and has worked across Dubai, London and now New York, where he calls the WO NY studio home.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Jan> I don’t recall stumbling into a leadership role early in my life. I wasn’t an elected student speaker, no soccer team captain. And there was no natural moment where the masses were flocking toward me. But I do remember design school, that comforting feeling of finding your people, with the same interests, same passions, same drive. 

It was a packed five years of group project after group project, and I believe that nurtured my understanding of people’s dynamics with one another and the different motivations they bring to the table. 

The people I surrounded myself with didn’t need to be led but we all had to navigate our work together and that ignited my understanding of what leadership could mean, especially in relation to creativity. How it is important to bring others along, nurture early ideas, hear the other side out and build on their motivations.

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Jan> My first ever work experience was at Wolff Olins, the place I am still at, where I was dropped into a culture with some strong and divergent leadership figures. 

The creative team specifically had four creative directors, all with their own style, aesthetic and approach. All of them were inspiring. I never felt like I could be like any of them. I was young and new and shy and didn’t even speak English (properly) in my early days over here. 

Over the years I kept absorbing different leadership styles and subconsciously tried to decipher how they work, what drove them and what effect they have on people. And above all: what kind of work they were able to get out of the team and into the world. 


LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Jan> As part of my development plan at Wolff Olins I had to work on my objectively shitty stage presence, on my ‘presentation skills’ as the HR terminology would define it.

My coach signed me up for an advanced class of ‘Leadership on-stage training’ that got me onto an off-off-off Broadway stage at 8am on a Thursday morning. In front of a rolling camera and with the rest of the workshop participants in the audience. Basically the antithesis of what I’d define as a comforting experience. 

I was asked, ‘Why do you think you are a great leader?’ and had to answer. What followed was stuttering, sweaty forehead, increased heart rate and a full day of analysis and training that magically cured me of my insecurity - or at least set the foundation for a cure.

From then on I was doing it: Over and over again. C-Suite presentations, multi-agency summits, day-to-day client presentations. It was about accepting who I am as much as overcoming my imposter syndrome. It was embracing my foreign accent, and understanding my expertise.

Then I took part in another big workshop at Wolff Olins, on modern leadership, with a central idea: vulnerability. This was probably the concept I felt most comfortable aligning myself to. 

Accepting your own imperfections, accepting that a leader does not need to know where to go but needs to be comfortable getting there anyway. Creating safe spaces for teams by embracing the fact that we can all be wrong at times. Leading with empathy and care.

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Jan> I did not. But a pivotal moment in my career was sitting across from two creative leaders in one of my reviews and being told that there was not a single reason I couldn’t be on their side of the table a few years from now. This statement had a deep and empowering impact on me.

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Jan> I was never raised to be a leader and never thought I would land here. From my point of view, today, modern leadership is different from what it used to be. It’s about conviction, sure, but also about trust, about equipping the people around you and by modelling behaviours you’d like to see implemented. That being said, a lot can probably be taught, but there’s some basic personality traits that lay a better groundwork than others. Empathy, curiosity, openness, and, of course, creativity.

LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Jan> There’s three areas that I personally find the most challenging:

1. How to deliver feedback in the right way. 

Serious feedback. Constructive feedback. Bad feedback. I usually find myself being able to adjust tone and nuance to whoever I am interacting with, but in order to deliver tough feedback effectively, you need to understand how to get someone to first internalise it and then execute against it continuously moving forward. Getting all of these elements to play together isn’t always an easy thing and something I am, hopefully, continuously improving upon.

2. How to push on if you don’t have the answer. 

Growing into my role relatively quickly also meant switching from hands-on designer with full-on time commitment, to significantly less time in an oversight role, without much transition. The biggest challenge here was that your team expects you to always find a way forward - and in a creative context that means not just understanding the point we are trying to reach but also specifically what we want it to look and feel like. 

At times where I, as CD, did not have the answers to hand, I felt very frustrated with myself. But having done this now for a few years, I’m able to find tools to help teams along the way, push the work and unlock opportunities, even if the final output is yet to be defined.

3. How to overcome culture issues. 

‘Culture’ is a big word with many interpretations. But what I mean by this is how to motivate teams at dire times: times when projects aren’t exciting, times when our work environment might not be exactly what we, as creatives, want. 

And how to use ‘culture’ to create social context between team members that are brought on, especially if it’s a lot of them. How do we make newbies part of our culture versus how much are we building a new culture together, while understanding our true DNA as a studio.


LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed while in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Jan> To build on the previous point: I lost a whole design team within the span of a year once - that was pretty devastating. We had a few major people leave the company and transitioned into a different studio environment which set off a wave of a pretty close-knit crew leaving. These two factors combined made it hard to keep the ship afloat at a time when I was still a relatively fresh leader.


LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Jan> From where I stand, all dimensions above are relevant. As much as possible I try to encourage an open and transparent culture, specifically as it relates to the work we do and for whom we do it. Helping the people understand client motivations and dynamics is important, plus education around our processes and budgets is helpful for them, too.

On the other hand, I try to stay away from oversharing when it comes to financial challenges on a project or to a level of politics that is not helping but hindering a safe creative environment for my team.

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Jan> I did not learn from one person but took bits and pieces from every leader I worked with in order to determine who I should be and how I want to lead. If I succeeded in that is for others to determine.

As it relates to mentorship, we do have a very clear training structure in place at Wolff Olins, which means that most folks that are a bit more senior, start to actively mentor the younger ones. I am myself working closely with a bunch of our rising stars, creatives on the ACD level that are all at different places within their journey towards becoming independent CDs. We usually try to set goals each quarter, but also work hard to get these folks into the right types of client relationships and teams to set them up for success.

LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

Jan> For us, it’s been amazing actually. Yes, we, as a global community, have dealt with a difficult few years with the pandemic, wars, and civil movements - and we have very openly spoken about our fears and concerns. But for us as a creative team we are in the space of building a new chapter of the company and I try my best to transfer that positivity and excitement to the team. 

We are spending a lot of time and thought on how we approach people’s growth and happiness, and none of it is easy, but I do believe that people recognise if a workplace is trying. We are all here to do a job but we are also all people who are invited to bring our full selves to work, the good and the difficult things. 

The reason why our people go on the journey with us is three-fold: we want them to enjoy their time together at Wolff Olins; work on projects they care about; and have them see a career path moving into the future. We are not always perfect, and it’s not always easy, but we are committed.


LBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

Jan> The first step was to recognise that we could be doing more, as a company, ourselves. Secondly, we tried to understand why this is the case and relatively quickly found that the issue of underrepresentation is industry-wide, and that we need to invite more people into design schools, into the programs to actually enter the workforce. 

Wolff Olins is part of DID (Diversity in Design) which is aiming to address the above. We also spent about a year working with a middle school in the Bronx to develop a curriculum for brand design and just ran our first class prototype with a lot of success. The goal here is to expose more people to the industry to consider it as a realistic career path. Our goal is to iterate on the program and then make it available open source, so other agencies can partner with other schools over the years to scale the impact.

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?

Jan> Like most businesses we are still trying to figure out the right model of hybrid working. We need to accept that it’s nothing that can be ‘solved’ easily. It will most likely end up being an iteration forever. Currently we are in a hybrid work environment and would love to see our folks close by in the studio roughly three times a week. The goal is not to chain anyone to their desks but to find moments of togetherness, brainstorms, team meetings, and meals. And deliberately create studio days or summits where we bring everyone together. 

It’s great to see how even part time in-person work can improve work relationships, creativity and culture at large.

LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Jan> I am usually looking to my peers within the company and beyond Wolff Olins as resources. We have a tight-knit group of creatives here who can openly discuss challenges and very much trust each other. 

Apart from that, it’s really just doing it, accepting that you’ll never be done learning and that things never will be perfect. What’s important is that the rough direction is as consistent as possible to bring the people you love working with along with you.

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Wolff Olins UK, Mon, 09 Jan 2023 10:27:24 GMT