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‘Don’t lead like a woman’: Industry leaders reveal the worst advice they’ve been given

At the 2019 Mumbrella NeXt conference, up and comers in the industry were able to anonymously ask industry leaders questions about what life is really like at the top. Here, Brittney Rigby recaps some of their key insights, including the worst advice they have been given, and how they manage to 'switch off'.

When a panel of industry leaders was asked for the worst advice they’ve ever received, Coles CMO Lisa Ronson’s answer came first: “Don’t lead like a woman”. But for Katie Rigg-Smith, CEO of Group M’s Mindshare, the worst advice-giver has sometimes been herself.

WPP’s John Steedman tapped her on the shoulder in 2013, when she was chief strategy officer, and offered her the CEO position. That weekend, her boyfriend proposed, and she spiralled into doubt.

“I’m 34, I want to have a baby, there are no other female CEOs at many media agencies to emulate. I can’t possibly do this and have a baby,” she thought.

“I texted Steady and said, ‘We just got engaged. I’m going to want to have children. Give it to someone else’. No-one knows about this yet,” she told a room of up-and-coming industry talent at Mumbrella’s NeXt conference.

“And he just wrote back, excuse the French of Steady, ‘Fuck off darl. You’re doing the job. Congratulations. We’ll worry about the babies when you have them’.

The industry leaders on stage at this week’s Mumbrella NeXt

“And so seven years on, three babies later, touch wood the agency’s in a better place than it’s ever been. I love the job. And I’m very grateful for him because my own self doubt and my own projection, that I hadn’t seen anyone else doing it around me, meant that I said no to what was the best opportunity in my life.”

The panel, also featuring Nova CEO Cathy O’Connor and founding partner of Williams International Nick Williams, answered anonymous questions submitted by conference delegates. The audience was encouraged to ask tough and unexpected questions, on topics such as turning down clients for moral reasons (Rigg-Smith said no to Ashley Madison – the online dating service marketed to people married or in relationships – because it didn’t align with Mindshare’s values), the best approach to CVs, and flexible working and mental health.

Rigg-Smith has three children – aged three, two, and four months – and said she hasn’t slept in forever, so “the big piece is just being able to switch off”.

“I have my work phone and I have my private phone and my work phone gets switched off at certain time of night because my New York team are emailing me,” she said.

“They’re not expecting me to answer an email at 11pm, it’s their working day and they’re sending it. What good can come of me reading it at that time? And what good can come of me being on my technology when I’m meant to be playing with my little ones or paying any attention to my husband and my life?”

Rigg-Smith: What would your kids say about you in a performance review?

A trick she learned five years ago, that she still practises, is to consciously stop thinking about work when she reaches a certain point of her commute each day.

“Every time you see this, I want you to mentally go, ‘I’m leaving work behind me and I’m committing to the next part of my day or my life and I’m going to commit to that’. Now, I just happened to pass [the] Anzac Bridge every day, I see a soldier, his day was always worse than mine, but I mentally do that,” she explained.

“And there’s something very freeing that gives you the ability to then go home, because, as I like to say, imagine if my children actually filled in a review for me. We all worry about what our peers think of us. But imagine if our kids, at the end of the year, had to sit down and go, ‘You’ve been available, or attentive’.”

In terms of working flexibly, Rigg-Smith emphasised the importance of not just redesigning your work day to suit you, but understanding how that impacts your team and doing your best to mitigate that.

“I will save all my emails on draft. I will not send them to you overnight. You might have been in the office until 6:30pm. Why should you then see an email at 10pm when someone else’s flexibility that’s working for them is encroaching on your life,” she said.

Ronson reinforced that people should be paid for their time

Ronson agreed, explaining that even when she’s been in organisations that “didn’t have a great understanding of the power of work/ life balance”, she’s always instigated it herself.

“And I think when you say, at two o’clock, ‘I have to go to my son’s concert’, or whatever, people go, ‘Okay, it’s not just lip service’,” Ronson said.

The CMO added that peoples’ working hours, that work/ life boundary, need to be respected by colleagues, and, on the occasions where that’s not possible, staff need to be paid for their time.

“I’ve had people that don’t work a Monday or Wednesday or Friday. People go to ring them, and I go ‘Hang on, if it was Saturday, do you ring them?’ [And they say] ‘Well, no’,” she said.

“This is their day off, and if they’re working half that day, I’ll make sure we pay them. There’s nothing worse than someone working four days a week and then they work five and get paid for four. That is the worst outcome ever. So either pay them if they are needed on that day and they’re willing to work from home on that day, or if not, don’t ring them unless you would if it was a Saturday, and people really check themselves.”

O’Connor said Nova’s staff didn’t feel “safe” to request flexible working options

O’Connor reflected honestly about Nova’s historical failures when it comes to flexible conditions. Staff were saying: “You’re saying it, but we’re not feeling it, and we don’t feel safe to do it [request flexible working arrangements]”.

“So we actually had to go back in and re-ask our staff what it meant, because it’s one thing to say, but much harder to do,” O’Connor offered.

“And you can lead by example, because we’re senior, we’re calling the shots, and we know that that can wait or no one’s going to shame us. And so it’s great to set that example, but [it’s] the disempowerment at the low levels that actually should be dealt with.”

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