Gay Gaddis, who founded one of America’s bigger independent ad agencies, talks losing $70 million in business and using the Myers-Briggs test to compensate for her weaknesses
The secret to becoming a lady boss may be donning a cowgirl hat.
Just ask Gay Gaddis, who founded T3 in 1989 and turned it into one of America’s largest independent advertising agencies, serving clients that include AllState, 7-Eleven and UPS. The Austin, Tx.-based Gaddis grew up working cattle and riding horses before entering the male-dominated world of shilling shiny things. And learning how to be a cowgirl paved the way for her later success, says the author of the recently released “Cowgirl Power: How to Kick Ass in Business & Life.”
The book is part biography and part career manual, with homage to forgotten cowgirl heroes peppered in. For Gaddis, women like Bonnie McCaroll, a champion rodeo rider who died aged 32 after being thrown from a horse, were the epitome of fearlessness and skill. “You don’t have to ride horses like me but these were the first international women superstars that hardly anyone knows,” the owner of a Texas Longhorn cattle ranch tells Moneyish. “Look what they did back in those days and the women that have gone before us.”
On the surface, the advice proffered in the book can seem anodyne, with a healthy helping of horse metaphors to boot. (Sample quote: “Cowgirls know that on the ranch and in board of directors meetings women can come across as being too aggressive.”) But it comes to life when taken in context with Gaddis’ career, which saw her go from working class sorority girl to one of the Lone Star State’s more prominent female entrepreneurs.
The stories of her failures are especially instructive. Take the story of Gaddis’ first job at an advertising agency, which she left after a miserable year in which her colleagues largely ignored her as each huddled in a small cubicle. “I didn’t understand why I wasn’t doing well,” says Gaddis, who remains T3’s CEO. It was only later, when she came to learn of personality type assessments that she came to realize she was an extrovert who didn’t fit in with silent creative types.
Today, T3— “The Think Tank”— uses the Myers-Briggs assessment not just for recruiting, but also for developing talent. “I started getting people around me to shore up my weaknesses,” she says. If two of her employees have a personality conflict while working in a group, trained assessors explain how their personalities rub against each other and how they can better understand each other. The flaws of such tests are well-documented, but Gaddis says she uses them as a guide rather than a rule—“it’s a zipcode and not exact”— and that it helps increase diversity of thought on teams since “it’s really easy to hire people just like you.”
Or consider that time T3 lost a $70 million account with Dell Inc., a client that made up around half of her company’s business, at the peak of the Great Recession and had to lay off staff. “It was the worst thing ever, it almost killed me,” she says. Gaddis worked to help her staff get employed elsewhere but says being transparent and downsizing quickly helped her survive. “The minute it went down, I called everybody in there and was very transparent,” she says. “We just absolutely cut” every cost.
Gaddis has worked on getting more women into the C-suite and onto board positions, and she thinks it’s only a matter of time before parity is achieved. In any case, she adds, millennial women in the workforce are now redefining their organizations to be flatter and more inclusive. “The CFO and CEO jobs were built off male roles and rules of the game. Top-down and very hierarchical,” she says. “I don’t see women liking to work like that very much and they’re going to change the way they run it. We’re not know-it-alls who need to call every shot.”
Just like a cowgirl leading a posse.
Here are five ways we can all be more like cowgirls at work:
- Be a missionary for your company. Gaddis recommends being an advocate of the way your company works, just like cowgirls live their lifestyle. “Regardless of your position of authority or lack of authority, take ownership of culture,” she writes. “Build on the good things. Protect the values.”
- Shoot the assholes. When a male employee at her company that looked on paper just couldn’t get on with everyone else, Gaddis quickly got rid of him to maintain a good pack mentality. “Negative energy drains team spirit; it is a dark rain cloud that does not go away,” she writes.
- Talk less, do more. Cowgirls don’t pontificate, they just do. “Instead of starting new projects with written proposals, elaborate project plans and detailed estimates, go prototype it,” she says. “Don’t talk about it. Just do it.”
- Go west. Gaddis recommends always looking for the “adjacent possible,” or to a new frontier where ideas are combined to create something new. “Look for new ways to combine ideas [and] teach your teams to mash up different technologies,” she says.
- Embrace risk. After all, no one said being on the frontier was easy. But “think about how much risk you are willing to take,” she writes. “Like any smart cowgirl, sometimes you start small, then increase your risk tolerance’ based on skills and knowledge.
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