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From chief people officer to CEO: Oliver’s Amina Folarin talks leadership empathy

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

November 29, 2022 | 7 min read

Oliver’s chief people officer Amina Folarin will take the reins of the UK business early in 2023. She believes more agency leaders could learn from her atypical route to the top.

Oliver agency's next chief executive, Amina Folarin

Amina Folarin is stepping into the CEO role after a stint as the agency’s HR boss / Oliver

Even agency bosses get intimidated by job interviews. “I knew that there were some odds stacked against me,” says Amina Folarin. “But that motivated me more.”

Folarin, the incoming UK chief executive officer of Oliver, was given the nod to step up to the top job following a stint as its chief people officer (CPO). It’s an unusual background for an agency boss, but one she argues more agencies should consider.

“Not all HR directors could do it, but the best chief people officers definitely can and they get overlooked. Less than 10% of HR directors transition into management roles, and the ones that do, probably 90% are men and almost 100% will be white men; less than 10% of HR directors in the UK are Black,” says Folarin.

“A good HR person gets involved in so much more than people. They can get pigeonholed as doing the ‘people stuff.’ But in most organizations, they are responsible for your biggest cost – payroll. In a business like ours, our business is our people. I am biased, but for a business like ours, having a CPO in that seat is a good move.”

As an in-housing specialist, Oliver principally provides clients with access to its people – rather than tech or IP. So the agency is particularly concerned with keeping staff content. With that in mind, Folarin is determined to bring the ‘human’ part of HR into her new position. “My priorities are our people and our clients. They would be the two things that I’ll always focus on. If our people are happy, and our clients are happy, then we should be a commercially viable business.”

In particular, demonstrating deeper empathy for the concerns of employees – and not just commercial imperatives – is essential to running a modern agency business, she says.

“People are still feeling the effects of two really shit years. The full impact of what happened to people during 2020-21 is only just going to start being seen. Just as we are getting out of it there‘s been the war in Ukraine and economic turmoil. Humans are not designed to live in this state of flight or fight for so long.

“What people really need from their leaders over the next year is empathy and a connection. We’re a bigger business than when I joined, so I’ll be really thinking about how we engage and motivate our employees. A lot of them will be thinking, how the hell am I going to heat my house this Christmas? What about my Christmas shopping?”

Inclusion at the top

In addition to her time as CPO, Folarin brings a varied set of experiences to Oliver’s leadership. After starting out in retail, she spent several years leading recruitment at the Metro newspaper and later served as HR manager at ITV.

“It was a really interesting time. You had huge amounts of money spent on press and Metro.co.uk was just starting to take off. The types of people we were hiring for the website were very different from the ones on our editorial floor – you had old-school journos next to young girl whippersnappers writing online. I got to visit the printing presses, sit in the van as the guys made their deliveries and understand that whole process.”

Her interest in the “merger of creativity and technology” eventually led her to Oliver, by way of Digitas. “I liked the opportunity, and what they were trying to build – I liked that they were a bit disruptive.”

She hopes to convince others with similarly winding career paths to follow her into the agency. Key to that will be the agency’s diversity and inclusion efforts, which she’ll take into the CEO job with her. It’s set to be a particular focus, she says, when she officially begins the job in January.

“It means me creating a leadership team that is representative of the people that we’re serving. You’ve got to take into account what your organization should look like and role model that. You’ve got to accept that everyone brings a different perspective.”

Though she was the “right-hand woman” of outgoing UK boss Sharon Whale, Folarin says she wants to increase Oliver’s efforts to recruit outside traditional hiring channels.

“We’ve got to champion making sure that from a process perspective that we’re a fair and equitable employer, that we are making sure we’re not just advertising in the same places ... that we attract people to our organization that might not ordinarily have had an opportunity to get in.”

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