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Bossing It: Clare Pickens on Creating a Shared Team Identity


The managing director at HERC, an ACE agency shares her first experience of leadership, sharing both personal and professional wins and finding unexpected solutions to challenges

Bossing It: Clare Pickens on Creating a Shared Team Identity

With fifteen years of global experience in brand building, marketing and communications, Clare Picken’s joined HERC, an ACE Agency at the end of 2022, after having been the global managing director at Red&Co. At the North America-based agency, she spent time working with brands such as Unilever, Diageo and Nike.

Clare started her career in sports journalism and sports film production which led to a role at Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam, initially working with Nike and Heineken’s sponsorship platforms UEFA Champions League, Rugby World Cup and the James Bond franchise. She rose very quickly into a leadership role in W+K and was leading a highly diverse international team which often required collaboration and leadership with multiple overseas agencies within the network. She spent about ten years at W+K, including a short stint in the London office, and was responsible for both global and regional brands spanning multiple categories, including Instagram, Milka (Mondelez), Netflix and P&G.

With a passion for finding unexpected business solutions, Clare’s strengths lie in the strategic partnership of business and creativity, leading motivated and effective teams and having a good dose of fun while doing so. During a small career hiatus, Clare volunteered offshore with Sea Shepherd and completed a master's degree in International Relations before returning to the industry with renewed vigour for meaningful change at a pertinent time when brands are reassessing their role in society and progressive ambition. 

Now she shares her leadership journey with LBB.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Clare> My first truly memorable experience of leadership actually came when I was 18 years old and captained my school netball team. Every year we improved getting closer to the final and we even lost in the final a few consecutive years. However, in my last year we not only made it to the final, but we won the competition. The jubilation of this moment and reflecting on the teamwork which handed us this win, was the first moment when I realised the importance of a shared team identity. The shared values, shared goals, and shared hard work were instilled and nurtured, leading to shared success. Developing this understanding of leadership in the world of sports has a phenomenal crossover to business leadership and set me on a path to become the type of leader I am today. 

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Clare> Understanding as a leader that the success of the group is your success is the key switch from being a team member to a team leader. You are your team’s champion, their motivator, their example. I learned that my greatest strengths as a leader were setting an example of the work you expect to see, creating an open and fair environment with clear communication and guiding my team to improve while having their back in every way possible. When you see people whom you mentored along the way now working as successful leaders themselves, it feels truly wonderful to have been part of their journey. A true leader is at the service of the team’s success.

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Clare> One of my biggest lessons in leadership was quitting my job. My own travel schedule, workload and prioritisation of getting the job done had reached a point whereby I realised that I could no longer be what I wanted to be for my team but also that I needed to set an example by defining boundaries, looking after myself and being true to my own values and integrity. Walking away from my team was the hardest professional experience I have ever faced and it took a true friend and partner, my then creative director partner Daniel Schaefer to ask me; ‘what do you need’ to force me to consider myself. The care that I wanted to invest in my team was something of great personal importance and the workload just didn’t allow for this. It is the old adage, ‘Put on your own oxygen mask first’. I learned that I can not be a half-hearted champion for my team and without taking care of myself, I could not properly take care of them.

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Clare> You’re so bossy. I heard this my entire young life. Many girls and young women hear this throughout their upbringing and early career. Thankfully we now better understand that decisiveness and leadership qualities should be nurtured rather than portrayed as a derogatory assessment. However, the line is a moving target, how much is leadership and decision making before it becomes dictating a solution? This is something which a leader must constantly reassess. The first moment I realised I was truly a leader was when I reached the Group Account Director position at W+K, Amsterdam. While there had been impressive women at this level before me (though no higher), I was the only woman at that level upon my promotion. Other women in the company began to look to me as an example, their voice in the leadership team. At this point, I realised that leadership comes with a responsibility to those around you, not just a singular focus on your own success.

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Clare> I recall being constructively challenged by my team to justify a decision I had made. It was then that I realised I use a certain amount of gut instinct in my decision making. This might seem something which is therefore a natural skill, but this is honed and learned over time. You realise that you can trust your gut because you’ve done the work, you’ve had the experience, you’ve put in the time. You can absolutely find a healthy mix of natural qualities and learned techniques to develop as a leader. The greatest gift to focus on is empathy. Understand the motives and motivations of your team, your client, your partners and you can successfully lead the team, the project, the discussion.

LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Clare> On a personal level, I need to pay attention to my patience and my own social battery. I have endless patience for people who are learning and showing dedication. I will always encourage people to come to me with a question but also come to me with a suggested solution. Show you’ve looked for answers, think it through, what do you think is the best course of action? Chances are, I’ll either support or help you shape this choice.

I also learned from my own much-needed break from the industry that I must protect my social battery. Leadership roles can often betray the nature of a true introvert and if you give everything of yourself to that role, you have nothing left for yourself.

On a broader level as the industry changes, leaders, including myself, must learn how to adapt to younger generations entering the workforce. This is not a new challenge we are facing now, this is an age-as-old-as-time type of challenge. However, this generation has grown up in a completely different world from mine. I must constantly remind myself how much I admire the boundaries they set and the openness with which they speak their mind, but secretly on occasion, I yearn for a little more resilience. Oh, and I am being forced to learn about Pokémon!

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Clare> It was so hard to watch my team being stretched too far. Watching people reach their absolute limits and yet keep trying and keep pushing, without being able to immediately shift or alleviate this was a moment where I felt a huge personal failure. It is the job of a leader to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their team and not always being able to do this was a huge blow to me.

Aside from this specific incident I often employ a technique whereby I lean in or lean out from the team based on what it needs. Does the team need guidance, expectation setting, and support? Lean in. Do they need to learn on their own in a space of safe discomfort, building bonds and experience by overcoming challenges and working it out for themselves? Then lean out. It isn’t always obvious to the team why or when you’ll be employing these different approaches, which is something you’ll need to be prepared to explain, but I have found it can create a space where people can feel both challenged and supported simultaneously.

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Clare> This absolutely has to be a sensible balance of both. There are instances where you simply can not be wholly transparent about aspects of the business or decisions you have made. However, most people can smell bullshit a mile off. Don’t ever be dishonest in an effort to deflect or evade tough questions. I believe that people will respond with a level of appreciation and thoughtfulness if you are as honest and transparent as you can be. If we need to overcome difficulties together, then invite people into the solution and they’ll be more inclined to work towards a shared goal.

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Clare> One of the people from whom I learned the most is Clay Mills. Clay was my group account director and then managing director at W+K, Amsterdam and he is now senior director of global marketing at Apple. Clay’s approach was to set the bar and then let you run with it. He gave autonomy where he felt it was earned and I learned from the example he set, rather than the direct lessons he imparted. I hope that while his legacy lives in me, I have passed that on to other leaders who I now see succeeding with their own teams. I have tried throughout my career to participate in mentorship schemes and to be a partner to those taking steps up in the industry across all disciplines to help adjust from a talented senior to a director themselves.

LBB> In continually changing market circumstances, how do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through difficult waters?

Clare> When times are tough, motivation can be hard but a shared team goal and identity matters most in those moments. It is also so important to be silly, to laugh together, to have fun, show vulnerability and celebrate the wins no matter how big or small. Wins of the week, perhaps over wine, can help shine a light on professional and personal progress even when it feels like there’s nothing to celebrate.

LBB> As a leader, what are some of the ways in which you’ve prioritised diversity and inclusion within your workforce?

Clare> I have always sought out international and diverse teams where the culture is organically mixed. This breeds the ability to empathise and it stops the assumption that yours is the only lived experience, dead in its tracks. This not only makes the team stronger but it makes the work stronger. It is important to champion voices in discussions, ask for opinions and willingly take suggestions on alternative solutions. Celebrating each other’s cultures together can also open eyes, open minds and open hearts. Especially when you work with teams outside of their immediate communities, you need to create space for sharing music, food, thoughts, festivals and rituals. It helps everyone feel more at home and makes everyone’s experience richer as a result.

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with increases in remote and hybrid working patterns?

Clare> As all leaders will know, sometimes you have to make business decisions which do not always allow you to put people first. However, where you can lead with people, then work and foster a culture of success as a diverse and collaborative team, the business will usually follow. A variety of opinions, a safe space for new ideas and a shared responsibility for success will always lead to more insightful, challenging and unique work and this will not only deliver for you but also for your client’s business. Culture also drives much needed consistency, consistency of the working standard and expectations, consistency of quality, and consistency of challenging the status quo. Building or maintaining culture is increasingly important but difficult with remote working, especially if you have young people in your team who have had little direct experience before. Flexible working policies must be employed, they benefit so many people, but it is important to also seek opportunities to come together as a team as much as possible.

LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Clare> The most useful resource I have found in my leadership journey is peership. I enjoy theory and academic learning, perhaps more than most, however, there is no substitute for speaking with people who share your challenges or have dealt with them already. Learning that to ask for help or seek other perspectives, doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but that you can do it better upon weighing up a multitude of factors is a great thing to learn in order to be a rounded and empathetic leader.

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Ace, Mon, 05 Jun 2023 09:11:00 GMT