5 Things Mad Men Taught Us About Leadership
A Note From The Editor
Think your company has what it takes to make our Top Company Cultures list? Apply now.Apply now »
After seven seasons of shifting identities and social mores, intricate office politics and impeccable mid-century fashion, Mad Men is drawing to a close. AMC's often inscrutable and eminently memeable flagship series about the ad men and women who populated Madison Avenue in the 50s, 60s and 70s has seen its characters go through great change. As Don Draper, Peggy Olson and the rest of the team at Sterling Cooper endured their share of personal and professional upheaval, we were able to glean some tips that any leader can learn from.
Here are the five leadership lessons we took away from Mad Men:
1. Know your worth.
Peggy Olson began the series as Sterling Cooper creative director Don Draper's perceptive but naïve secretary, and is ending it as a fearless copy chief. While she had a steep learning curve when she arrived at the agency, Peggy climbed the ranks by speaking truth to power, having a keen sense of human nature (and humor), advocating and negotiating for herself by asking for office space and raises (notably shaking down her boss, Roger Sterling, for a bonus in payment for doing work that he forgot to tell her about), checking in with headhunters to get a sense of what was out there, surrounding herself with allies and dealing with the inherent sexism of her industry at the time with determination.
2. Don't be afraid to reinvent yourself.
While we don't recommend enrolling in the Don Draper school of identity theft, Don has always been driven by new beginnings, whether he needed one or not. We eventually learn how Don's tenure at Sterling Cooper came to be. In the 50s, the seemingly self-possessed creative was a struggling fur salesman who ran into Roger Sterling while he was looking to buy a gift for office manager Joan Holloway. Don slips Roger his resume and portfolio in the coat package, but it doesn't get him much traction. Later, Don "runs" into Roger again and invites him out for drinks. The following morning, Roger finds Don in the elevator at the agency, and is quite surprised to see him there -- especially since he does not remember hiring the young upstart the night before.
3. Be wary of office romance.
Good rarely came of the office romances that cropped up at Sterling Cooper. True, some affairs faded and the people involved were able to regain some mutual respect, but they were the exceptions, not the rule. Cheating with secretaries led to husbands sleeping on the couches in their offices, and the boss-secretary pairs that got married (some might say on a whim) ended in contentious divorces years later. If there is a weighted power dynamic or really if there is any chance you'll have to see them every day if it goes badly, it's probably best to acknowledge those red flags and move along.
4. Don't put all of your eggs in one basket.
No client loomed quite as large over Sterling Cooper as cigarette maker Lucky Strike. As a sizable portion of the agency's business, the party line was always to keep Lucky Strike happy, which only worked up to a point. Midway through the series, the tobacco company decides to go with another agency, leaving the Sterling Cooper team scrambling over a client that paid them well, but that they didn't really respect in the end. Some fast thinking on Don's part leads him to pen an open letter denouncing the tobacco industry in The New York Times, leading the way to more business and adding a bit of prestige to their reputation.
5. Create your own opportunities.
At the end of Mad Men's third season, the status quo was blown wide open. Under threat of being sold off to major ad firm McCann-Erickson by their English corporate overlords, Putnam, Powell and Lowe, Don and his best friend in the office, name partner Roger Sterling and head of the agency Bert Cooper agree to get their chief accountant Lane Pryce, who came over with the British invasion and hasn't been happy for quite some time with management, to fire them to get them out of their contracts -- and then help them start a whole new agency. They recruit Peggy, Joan and account executives Pete Campbell and (accidentally) Harry Crane to go into Sterling Cooper under cover of night in classic 1960s caper movie style to get the client files and art work they need to set themselves up as an advertising startup with brand new partners – Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.