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‘Supportive, open and adventurous’: Weber Shandwick MD Ava Lawler on what it means to be a leader

Following her PR Leader of the Year win at 2017's CommsCon Awards, Weber Shandwick's Ava Lawler speaks to Mumbrella about resilience, finding a work/ life balance and the all-important to do list.

What has been the biggest change for you since winning PR Leader of the Year at Mumbrella’s CommsCon Awards in 2017?

Being recognised last year was a real honour. I was humbled by the experience and it has increased my aspiration to be a good leader. I feel that I am continually learning from my peers, team and clients and this motivates me to do more to support, guide and inspire as much as possible.

In your opinion, what makes a good leader?

For me, leadership is about taking people on a journey and creating an environment that makes that journey exciting, fun and worthwhile. Good leaders will work with their teams to create a vision and plan and then empower them to go forth and conquer, while always being there to support, guide and motivate as required.

In addition I think good leaders will have clarity and resilience. It is difficult to please everyone all the time so it is important to be able to listen and see through the issues to determine which ones needs to be dealt with first. And it is also vitally important that you have the stamina to deal with the forces of change and the strength to pick yourself up when things go wrong.

Lawler is the managing director of Weber Shandwick Australia

What are some of the challenges you have faced over the last year?

Last year was really challenging for me. My mother was diagnosed with cancer in April and we lost her at the end of the year. We were really close and she’d been living with us for the 18 months beforehand, so witnessing her suffering was truly awful and her loss has been devastating. These events help keep life in perspective and remind us to cherish the time with those that we love and count each day as a blessing.

What is most important when you’re a leader?

For me personally, I am keen to be a supportive, people-led leader. I strive to create an environment that is supportive, open and adventurous, where individuals and teams thrive because they are united in their vision, inspired by each other and have the courage to challenge themselves. The tricky part is getting the right balance between challenging and supporting individuals, but if you hire ambitious and talented people then this is the fun and rewarding aspect of leading a team.

How do you find the right work/life balance? Is this something you have had to work hard to achieve?

The beauty of having a full life is that we are faced with an abundance of choices. I feel very fortunate to have both a family and career that I love. This is a gift, but it comes at a cost. And that cost is compromise. Unfortunately I can’t spend as much time as I would like in a single part of my life. And so I do work hard trying to find a reasonable blend of responsibilities and opportunities.

When I first returned to work after starting a family I learnt the importance of having a clear set of priorities and boundaries. I also learnt it was important that those boundaries were respected by me before they would be respected by others. As a result, I now have some clear areas of my life in which I won’t compromise and when my family comes first, and I have a grey area that allows for flexibility on both sides. This helps me set priorities and make decisions on a daily basis and it has also helped me find areas where the two can blend and become one life. As a result my family is very comfortable hanging out in the office – in fact they love it – and there are also times when work happens in the home.

What do you love the most about your job?

Working with people and clients that inspire me.

If you could give one piece of advice to young PR professionals in the industry, what would it be? 

Be curious and challenge yourself. If you keep yourself informed, inspired and involved you will be surprised by what you can achieve. I am also a massive fan of the to-do list. Start each week with a plan of the big achievements you want to conquer that week and begin each day with a clear list of what needs to be accomplished before you go home. This way you can spend your day working to your plan and get the satisfaction of scratching the items off your to-do list as you go!

Who are some other strong role models currently in the industry?

I’ve been very fortunate to work with some impressive female leaders who firmly blend business with family. From the first time I heard Weber Shandwick’s president, Gail Heimann, speak I was impressed by her energy and intellect. She is a creative thinker who is able to link big ideas back down to measurable business impact. She is also really approachable and fun to be with. Earlier in my career I was lucky to work closely with Text100s CEO, Aedhmar Hynes. Aedhmar helped me understand the link between values and culture. She takes a values-based approach to decision making which helps foster a collaborative and open culture. Aedhmar also taught me to love technology and appreciate the profound impact it has on every aspect of our lives.

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