Trust, transparency and resilience - what it takes to be a successful leader

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At the recent Winning Together event, hosted by The BD100 and Propeller Group, we heard about the challenges leading agency chiefs have faced through a period of great uncertainty and explored what this era has taught us about successful leadership

Here are some of the key insights from our keynote session hosted by Sherilyn Shackell, founder and CEO of The Marketing Academy, in conversation with Dani Bassil, CEO of Digitas, Melissa Robertson, CEO of Dark Horses and Tamara Littleton, CEO & Founder of The Social Element.

Creating culture

Culture is the invisible superglue of a business. Sherilyn Shackell described the role of a business leader “as a custodian of a culture - but the people are what bring it to life”.

Dani Bassil highlighted the importance of working together, “we’ve all worked in teams where the management was not aligned, with no clear direction or shared vision for the business.”.

“This was my priority at Digitas. Now we have a leadership team which is super aligned. This isn’t to say we don’t have healthy debate - but we are all pulling the business in the same direction. Broken management means broken culture. With this foundation, we can build a positive, inclusive culture which keeps people motivated and allows their talent to flourish.”

Melissa Robertson picked up on this point and contrasted it with her experience of joining Dark Horses as a CEO in the midst of lockdown. “I met most of my team online. The first thing I did was an ‘all about me’ presentation to help humanise me and explain how I came to be here, and where I felt we could go together. I then had an individual conversation with everyone at the agency - and this helped me understand where people were.”

Once you have tested the temperature of a culture, you can then begin to shape it. But Melissa pointed out that the best way to make change, is to involve the team and empower staff to drive the change themselves.

“I had some ideas about where the agency could go - and wanted to ensure everyone was onboard. So we ran workshops to discuss visions for the future. We wanted to take these conversations upstream - because the further upstream you go the more impact you can have on a business. And people feel more part of the change and invested in its success.”

A powerful aspect of a positive culture is transparency. Sherilyn asked Tamara Littleton how she engenders a culture of honesty and openness at the Social Element.

“Feedback is a gift. I didn’t always realise this. People will sometimes say what they think you want to hear, as opposed to the truth. We started using DiSC training, which helped us understand the varying personality types within our team. We are now able to share who we are in a simple way, and work through our vulnerabilities to build trust. And from trust grows accountability.”

Trust and transparency

“Trust is a powerful thing,” Sherilyn noted. “But how can leaders tread the line between openness and oversharing?”.

Dani picked up on this point. “Agencies are busy places and leaders have to balance a number of pressures, most notably revenue and share price. But it is not the job of my team to worry about this. It is not their stress to bear. Leaders have to absorb these pressures and not allow anxiety to spread across the team.”

Tamara agreed. “People look to the leaders; even if you are worried about something that is totally unrelated to the business - people will pick up on the signals a leader sends out.“

The panel noted it is easier for anxiety to spread when team’s are not in the same room. So how can leaders help their teams manage stress?

“Over communication is important,” said Tamara. “Leaders should repeat key messages about wins. Highlight new tools and processes again and again and again. Without the natural osmosis of information that you get in an office, you need to deliver information at a higher frequency.”

Melissa added to this. “You need support structures that make you feel that the team has your back.This means checking in on mental health and workload. Honesty about where you are and how your agency works is super valuable to junior members.”

“These support structures need to be both formal and informal. So as well as feeling comfortable enough to discuss things with the team - they should also have formal professional services available to help when things get tough.”

Building Resilience

The importance of agencies and leadership teams having the right support structures in place for their teams was a dominant theme of the day. But it was brought home most impactfully by Michelle Morgan, Founder of Pjoys and Ambassador Mental Health First Aid England, in the final session of the day.

“We live in a time of great uncertainty. And business leaders and business developers are those who have to carry a lot of that mental load.”

“Business Development is about Winning Together. But to win with each other, we need to talk to each other. Talking, sharing and supporting is the best remedy to stress and burnout - and it is important to have an agency culture which encourages these awkward conversations.”

“And make no mistake, they are awkward. The awkwardness is your instinctive response - the fear of not knowing how others will respond. We all want to be liked. The best gift you can give someone - whether agency leader or intern - is the gift of listening.”

“Resilience comes from understanding. If you start with the wellness of your people, the wellness of your business will follow. We are all different. We need 2022 to be the year of courageous conversations.”

Trust, transparency and resilience are all important foundations to build your leadership on as you take your business forward in 2022. It can be invaluable to share experiences and insights with others, so watch out for a series of exclusive events that Propeller Group will be hosting this year to bring together business leaders for discussion.

Click here to watch the session.