Imran Irshad has been a key figure in Pakistan's advertising industry for over three decades and aside from a brief stint in Saudi Arabia he's stayed put in his home country most of his life. This has given him the skill to built his career from the ground up culminating when he was announced as the CEO for M&C Saatchi Islamabad in 2013. With a wealth of experience it's only natural that Imran believes the skills that make him the CEO he is all come from his resilience, perspectives and his parents.
With a long career in advertising and as the current helm of one of Pakistan's top agencies, he shares the moments that have made him excel as a creative leader.
How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?
Through my everyday interaction with people in my personal and professional life – what I learnt from my lifelong experience is that people who are remembered, who are appreciated, who are aspirational and who are looked up to – are the people who add positive value to others’ lives – and this is what I have always wanted to achieve in my life, i.e., always trying to find way to add positive value to peoples’ lives. Never wanted to be a selfish, isolated and self-obsessed leader, rather someone, who is positive and progressive inside out and who believes in enriching others’ lives
What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
My college experience, when I was made a team leader in a class project. The tricky part was that every member of the team was on a different tangent, and extremely hard to work with. This is where I realised that until they have confidence in my abilities to drive a viable solution and I lead by example – I will not be able to win-through the respect and buy-in of my team members. This is exactly what I did at that time, gathered everyone, listened to them and formulated a collaborative solution keeping everyone’s point of view and perspective in mind. Such a collaborative approach gave everyone a sense of ownership as well as a part in the solution. A good leader guide people to think of solutions, options rather than keep spending time discussing issues.
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?
There is one thing that doesn’t cost a penny and that’s thinking and dreaming. I have always dreamt big. I have always thought about reaching to the starts. I have always set challenging goals for myself. Once I used (& still do) to set a challenge for myself, I do everything in and beyond my physical & mental power to achieve that goal. I mobilise all my resources to accomplish my goals – and when I achieve that, I set myself even a higher goal. This is where, I realised that if approached rightly, I can form teams that work together and rally towards achieving that big goal.
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?
Leaders are born, not made. That said, I strongly believe in evolution and progress through learning and making an effort. My journey in life is a clear reflection of learning and growing through each step forward. Yes, people do have natural abilities to lead and lead well – but I am a believer that experiences through personal and professional life are stepping-stones to new learnings, discoveries and challenges. Keeping my own life in view, I strongly believe that leadership skills can be learned and taught.
What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
I dream big, and sometimes, I even don’t know instantly how will I achieve that dream. But, once I sit and work around all potential possibilities and opportunities areas, this is where things start to shape into milestones and objectives – and the goal becomes achievable.
Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?
Failures are a part of almost everyone’s lives. Yes, I have also failed on a few occasions, but it is highly important to get back up, learn from those failures and move forward in a better manner. When I returned to Pakistan, I launched my boutique agency that took off extremely well and built an amazing reputation. However, managing too many locations turned out to be a failure. A big lesson learnt.
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?
Transparency and openness are critical ingredients of confidence and trust in my book. I strongly believe in being transparent in everything I do and be open to every perspective and try to see things from others’ perspective, listen to everyone and take-in good suggestions. Critical, when it is relevant and potentially affecting people around me, this is where I am highly transparent and open.
When it comes to being careful, yes there are times, when one needs to keep things close to his/her heart, but without compromising on the people and what affects them.
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?
I believe in learning, and have learnt from almost every person whom I have interacted in my personal and professional life. I always take good things from people and try to implement them in the way I operate. So, you can easily say that the people, the culture, the society, the community, the street vendors and C-suites – I have learnt from everyone. Yes, there are a few people that have positively contributed to where I am today, and I consider them my mentors.
I do share my life experiences, my learnings and my journey with aspiring leaders and try to guide them through different situations. Yes, am mentoring people within my organisation.
It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?
I am a born optimist, and try to see an opportunity in every challenge. Yes, previous year has been challenging on so many fronts. Important to remember that our business is solely driven by people – and it is critical that they feel at ease, be it at the workplace or work from home. I am blessed with some brilliant team members, who are filled with positivity and hope, it didn’t take a lot of effort for me to motivate them, but the sense of self-responsibility and rising up to the challenge of working in an entirely different manner drove my team to achieve brilliant results.
This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?
Truly believe in diversity and inclusion. I, as a leader, am driven by the quality talent, positive attitude and passion to progress in people rather than race, ethnicity or religion. I personally believe that God has created us all as human-beings, and this is how we should see and treat people in real life, i.e., everyone is a human-being like I am.
How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?
A positive, vibrant, responsible and collaborative culture is everything you need to design a successful and sustainable business operation. We thrive on all these attributes within the organisation, we respect each other, every member stands for every other member during a demanding work situation, we look at the positive side of life and are an integrated team that believe in progressing together.
These values helped us to continue moving forward together and in a seamless manner. Once the lockdown started, we decided that we will still let our clients feel that we are right next to them and will work even harder to overcome this challenging situation.
What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?
The people whom I have interacted, the perspectives that enabled me to keep my horizon broader, the disagreements that made me think about viable and workable solutions, the celebrations that made every success sweeter and above all, the resilience “not losing the battle before fighting it” and never give up attitude that I got from my parents.