Mercedes Erra: “A leader will sometimes doubt, but always keeps the faith”

Mercedes Erra is the managing director of BETC, a leading Paris based advertising agency which she co-founded in 1995. She has over four decades worth of experience in the world of advertising. She tells Leaders League what leadership means to her.

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Mercedes Erra is the managing director of BETC, a leading Paris based advertising agency which she co-founded in 1995. She has over four decades worth of experience in the world of advertising. She tells Leaders League what leadership means to her.

Leaders League.Do all managers possess leadership, can it be developed?

Mercedes Erra. Leadership is a complex notion. I don’t think that all managers possess it. Some have become excellent professionals without having leadership. Leadership is, above all, a set of skills that’s to all intents and purposes innate. It’s difficult to say to someone “right, today we are going to develop your leadership.”


What are the key attributes of a leader?

He or she must be able to engage people and guide them. Leadership is different from the notion of charisma, which is more personal and has a more natural influence and is not necessarily likely to engage others. I think that we can help people develop their leadership, but not create it in those who don’t have it. You must already have it in you. Leadership is acquired by developing a specific skill. But we cannot be a leader of all skills. You need generosity, vision and an ability to find a sense of yourself. A leader will sometimes doubt, but always keeps the faith.


Jobs, Gandhi, De Gaulle…which leaders have made an impression on you and what inspiration have you taken from them?

I have a hard time deciding. You cited Charles De Gaulle in your question: with him it was more a case of charisma I reckon, although mixed with leadership of course. Leadership corresponds to a capacity for vision that is free of personal ego. Political leaders, for example, speak above all about a subject as a precursor to something else, or say something that goes over the heads of the average member of the public. A leader has a point of view and a way of seeing his fellow human beings that isn’t technical. Those who lead and inspire others work in a wide array of businesses. Leaders are not necessarily publicity seekers or well known.


How do you develop leadership skills in your company?

At BETC we have organized sessions on this very subject. These are leadership workshops made available to staff members, based around two principles, personality and relationships. You need to tend to a leader, just as you would a plant. That said, as we have seen a pre-existing aptitude born of an innate quality is necessary if one is to develop leadership. It’s easy to spot a leader. She has that ability to identify goals and to steer herself and her team towards them, with human sensitivity. Leadership can have a hard or a soft face, but the best way to develop it and to train you colleagues in its ways is to lead by example. However I find on occasion that some leaders and the world around them lack simplicity. I am convinced that all these terms – leadership, managers – will have far more humanity associated with them in the future.


In a company, must we have leaders on one side and managers on the other, and how can we organize these two types of talents?

I would hope that leaders can also manage! I find these labels too restrictive. Some are excellent at operational matters, others less so. But even in the smallest of teams there is always one who assumes the role of leader. Some people just make you want to follow them. A leader has a vision and gets up in the morning knowing how she’s going to lead her teams to a goal. She creates energy. In our agency the founders, of whom I’m one, have shown leadership: we have tried to develop an agency in line with our vision and ideas. We know where we are going and how to bring our teams along with us.    


Translated by Simon McGeady


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Read the full Special Report: Leadership

Some people change the world whilst others live the easy life, going with the grain. The most successful figures revolutionize their sector, their environment, their country. Whether it’s Xavier Niel, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, what are the secrets to leadership?
Summary Interview: Elliott Portnoy, CEO of Dentons Najat Vallaud-Belkacem: "A leader needs to forge an intimate conviction that leaves very little room for doubt" Jacques-Antoine Granjon: “A leader must surround himself with more qualified talents than himself” Claude Onesta: “My role is to create the conditions that allow the players perform to their best” Clara Gaymard: “A liberated company puts people at the heart of its ambitions” Guy Forget: "A leader must understand what makes his people tick” Anne-Sophie Pic (three Michelin stars chef): “In the kitchen everyone has their part to play” Pope Francis – An Exceptional Leader Bill George: "Just as a calm sea doesn’t make a great sailor, a period of economic stability doesn’t make great leaders"


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