The ICA’s new series, You Will Never, is designed to offer encouragement and inspiration in the face of criticism or adversity in or out of the workplace. In the latest article, JP Holecka, the CEO and founder of POWERSHiFTER, co-founder of e-commerce search engine luxxee, and an ICA board member, opens up about the lasting impact of being written off by his 7th grade teacher while facing the challenge of disarming his ADHD, dyslexia and depression to become a successful creative and business leader.
I’m currently the CEO of two businesses, one of which is an agency I launched 13 years ago, the other a start-up, a search engine for luxury ecommerce. Both are growing and keep me very busy. From the outside looking in, then, you could say that this 53-year-old is enjoying a successful and fulfilling career.
But cut back to 1979, and I was struggling in school with undiagnosed ADHD and dyslexia. I was in the 7th grade and finding it pretty stressful. I was put in what they called a “special class,” which was the last place you wanted to be as a young person, because you were ostracized and considered an outsider.
Then came the time for high school, going off to a new world and the next adventure. And it was here that I experienced my “you will never” moment. At the final parent/teacher interview with my 7th grade teacher, who was shipping me off to high school, I was also present. And the teacher said to my parents, who’d often been at the school defending me, helping me, just being very supportive parents, right in front of me he told them: “I really don’t see a bright future for Jean-Paul, I really don’t have much hope for him moving forward.”
It’s hard to underestimate the long-term negative impact this has had on me. I don’t think I fully understood at the time but I did feel the weight. I went onto high school and continued to be undiagnosed with both ADHD and dyslexia. Despite this, I made my way through and found art and design, something I was great at, and continued to plough into it.
But despite winning a scholarship, when I went to college I had this feeling I wasn’t good enough, that I couldn’t keep up. So, I quit design within six months. I didn’t feel I could keep the pace, and I went into film instead. I chose a path that wasn’t creative but at least I was in a creative business. Then, when I reached 28 and had a big crash with depression, I started deep cognitive therapy, which helps you find those deeply buried memories. That’s when the “you will never” moment with my 7th grade teacher surfaced. I went to my mum for confirmation, and she said “yes, that happened.”
But it was still a long journey, because I had to build on top of that realization. It was a few years later, and I’d reached the top of my game in commercials. I was a first assistant director in large-budget action-adventure type commercials for the likes of Ridley Scott’s commercial company Black Dog . I was doing really well, working on some amazing projects, but from a co-ordinating, production-led, perspective. After a year of marriage, I said to my wife, who I’d worked with for many years, “I want to change careers, I want to go back to design.” Luckily, we didn’t have a lot of expenses, and she was working really well in the film business, so we said “let’s do it.”
I called one of my closest friends and said I was thinking of going back to design school, and he said “you don’t need to go to school, just learn the business of agencies.” That was the beginning of the flip, and when I started to realize that I could really do this. He taught me the business of the agency, and within three years I’d moved to a larger agency, and in another two years became a creative director. It was the best three years of my life up until that moment, I’d go home every day and say to my wife that it was a joy that I could get paid to be creative, that I could do things that I’d always imagined. But that imposter syndrome was still there.
Then I started my own agency in 2008, and we grew over the years. But it was just a couple of years ago that I was finally able to recognize that I really am creative, that since grade seven there have been some rough patches, but what I’d achieved was a future that many would dream for. And then I finally managed to unpack the remaining impact of that 7th grade moment just a few weeks ago. I went to a workshop for three days, “Speaking with Confidence.” On day one they strip you back to “you can’t speak in front of people and you’re nervous, what’s the reason?” I realized that the 7th grade moment was still there, that most of the time I felt confident but that there was this mental block if I was meeting a CEO or someone at a high level.
On day one of the workshop, we lifted these huge, weighted chains and walked around the room to help identify the figurative chains in our life that are holding us back. Then we threw them down. It was theatrical for sure but, at the end of the class, we were given a symbolic piece of broken chain, and I decided to write something down, put my experience into words, because I’d clearly identified this moment in time – that 7th grade teacher’s supposed words of wisdom – as the chain that had restricted me. I wrote: “This chain represents that I have broken my self-doubt and sense of not being “smart enough” around those I hold in high regard, and will use my knowledge and intelligence to empower myself, and that there are no limits to what I can do.”
It took that moment in time to realize I don’t have to worry about it anymore. My advice to others facing similar barriers, or challenges around learning and mental health, is to disarm it. Flip it to understand what your powers are. For instance, there are ways in which ADHD and dyslexia help me to see things differently, in ways that others don’t, and I just had to learn to tap into that. Then, if you flip things the right way and talk about your experience with others, you’ll find a way to connect with people as opposed to feeling ostracized.
And my experience has totally affected the way I lead, and positively set our business apart from the others to the point where I’m sitting with other leaders who would like to learn from this. Those qualities that may not have been valuable to that 7th grade teacher – curiosity, empathy and transparency – are real assets in leadership. The results are there to be seen. Our client satisfaction is through the roof, we have one of the lowest attrition rates within the industry, and we have employee net promoter scores between eight and nine.
I’ve also seen, since the pandemic has surfaced, a sense of greater empathy from other agency leaders. Not because they wanted to behave in this way but because COVID landed in their lap, and there were no levers left in the tool box that were going to work. The barriers came down, people were asking for help at a scale of magnitude never seen before. This gave industry leaders an opportunity, and I’m hoping that the last vestiges of the Mad Men style, which is still very prevalent, will be shown the door.
As for me, I’m receiving requests to advise agencies on a more empathetic approach, and if I can make a dent beyond the client work, in some small way, by helping agencies be better, more empathetic places to work, that would be a positive impact that I could make over the long-term. I’m proud to be a leader, I’ve got an amazing team, I’m blessed to have skills. Those abilities don’t fit the mould of the way people in 1979 saw the potential to succeed but, finally, I’m OK with that.
You will never have a bright future…JP has disarmed his ADHD and dyslexia, embraced his ability to see things differently and uses his curiosity, empathy and transparency to run two successful businesses.
POWERSHiFTER is a member of the Institute of Communication Agencies. Report on Marketing is where leading Canadian agencies showcase their insights, cutting-edge research and client successes. The Report on Marketing provides a valuable source of thought leadership for Canadian marketers to draw inspiration from. Find more articles like this at the Report on Marketing.