Girl Guides: Huge COO Shirley Au on workplace loyalty, respect and inspiration

The Drum’s Girl Guides series profiles some of the most successful women in the industry trailblazing a path for future generations to follow. In the latest instalment, Jen Faull catches up with Shirley Au, president and chief operating officer at Huge, to discuss her career and the importance of loyalty in the workplace.

In an industry with a shortage of digital talent, where a fifth of professionals working out of London are expected to job-hop this year, it is perhaps surprising to find that Shirley Au, the president and chief operating officer at Huge, has just celebrated her 10th anniversary at the digital agency.

Loyalty is her mantra and it has seen her rise through the ranks from employee number six, project managing an airline account, to steering the course for an organisation now comprised of some 850 people across six US and three international offices.

“I initially joined and thought it would be an opportunity to learn the business. I imagined myself eventually moving on to something more established once I got some experience but the reality is that Huge really quickly turned into something more than a start-up,” she says.

A decade later, Au describes an average day: “I wake up, spend time with my son, check my emails and work at home, go into the office at 11am and leave at 6pm, and then I’ll be on phone calls until about 9pm. It could go on later but I just cut myself off… I have to be strict,” she laughs, revealing her life is on the verge of becoming even busier as she prepares to welcome her second child.

Speaking to The Drum in a rare moment of free time, Au says that her fierce loyalty, and a healthy dose of frankness, has been the key to her success.

“I’m a loyal person and I’ve spent 10 years establishing credibility and trust with my CEO [Aaron Shapiro],” she explains.

Au believes that, nowadays, too many people entering the industry are too quick to trade up and will constantly job-hop for better money or a better title without stopping to gain the sufficient experience to make a difference to the organisation they’re in.

“You need to strike a balance between being really ambitious, wanting to get promoted and really getting skilled at something. I find a lot of people – and it’s maybe because our industry is moving so fast – but people will be overly ambitious at the detriment of proper growth in their field.

“Don’t think you’re too good for a job. Take your time learning and work for people you respect, who you believe in, that are smart and who inspire you. That’s the healthiest environment you can create for yourself. You’ll naturally be loyal to that environment,” she adds.

One of the key initiatives to foster this at the agency has been the creation of the Huge School. The twice-yearly paid programme offers graduates from some of the top design schools around the world the chance to gain 10 weeks of intensive, hands-on experience at the agency. At the end of the programme, those who excel are offered full-time roles.

“You really have to believe in the people you work with. You have to be loyal to them,” she says. “I’ve banked on a handful of people that I’ve hired. And it doesn’t just mean hiring, it means really being their advocate throughout their tenure at Huge.”

With the exception of developers, who “probably skew male”, Au says the agency has a good mix of male and female talent and that personally she has never encountered a ‘glass ceiling’.

“My ability to be successful at Huge has not been about my gender. I’ve been fortunate to have grown up in a place where performance has been measured on what I did and how I did it, versus whether I’m male or female.”

Au adds that her “incredibly direct” manner has also helped: “I’m very clear with my position and point of view. I don’t tend to hold back. There’s this idea that the only way to be successful if you’re a woman is to be bitchy. That’s not true. I’ve seen women take that tact and it really turns me off when I see it because it’s just so counterproductive.”

Testament to the dedication Au has shown to Huge, when asked about her proudest achievement she takes a long pause and jokingly asks: “I should probably say my son?”

“It’s probably a toss-up between my son and Huge. I know that sounds awful... I should just say my son. He’s amazing. The best kid in the world. I think he’s better than other kids.

“But I do think that what we’ve all achieved at Huge over the past decade has been incredible, and I’ve been so proud to help build it.”

This was first published in the 4 February issue of The Drum. you can buy a copy from The Drum Store here.

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