CEO: When I got my first leadership role at 30 I hid myself away for a month. Here's why

Steve Allan, global CEO of MediaCom

For most people, scoring a promotion is an opportunity to step forward and raise your profile.

But for MediaCom Worldwide Chairman and CEO Steve Allan, bagging his first major leadership role was a chance to hide himself away — for a whole month.

Allan was just 30 at the time. But even today, as the 54-year-old sits at the helm of one of the world's largest media agencies, he insists the "unusual" move was one of the greatest of his career.

"I spent my first four weeks not being seen," Allan told CNBC Make It of his promotion in 1991 to managing director of what was then known as The Media Business Group.

Instead of flaunting his new title, he decided to meet with each of the company's staff and clients to try to understand the issues that mattered most to them. At the time, the U.K. company was around 200-people-strong and was laying the groundwork for international expansion and a public listing.

"It was unusual for an MD, but I spent two hours with every person in the company," said Allan.

"When I came away from that, I felt like I knew everyone at the company and could come up with a business plan from there."

It's a cliche, but we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.
Steve Allan
Worldwide Chairman and CEO of MediaCom

Apart from helping him understand what to prioritize in his new role, Allan said that taking that time to listen also taught him the value of learning itself.

"Up until then, when people used to talk about training I was always thinking 'we're not running a school here,'" he said. "But, actually, I learned that, apart from being fairly recognized and compensated, people really want to come away from work each day knowing that they're a little richer in knowledge."

That's a lesson Allan said he has kept close to him as he has overseen MediaCom through various iterations to its becoming the 7,000-person, 125-office company it is today.

That includes implementing feedback initiatives, including one called "If I ran the company," through which staff are invited to tell senior management what they would do to improve the business. The program has borne a range of ideas from introducing a staff bar, to launching an "ideas farm," where employees from across company can get involved with projects and client pitches outside of their usual portfolio of work.

"It's a cliche, but we have two ears and one mouth for a reason," noted Allan.

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