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Bossing It: Learning through a Process of Observation with Matilda Hobba


Bullfrog's managing director on pushing people upwards and forwards, openness, transparency and being a big believer in asking questions

Bossing It: Learning through a Process of Observation with Matilda Hobba

Newly appointed as managing director of Bullfrog, Matilda has spent over 20 years in some of Australia’s most iconic creative agencies, including Clemenger BBDO, GPY&R, Cummins and Partners and Taboo. Her work is highly awarded both locally and globally, and she is a respected industry mentor and leader.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Matilda> My first experience of real leadership was as general manager of an independent agency. I’d come from 15 years working in big, multinational agencies, where there were many layers, agendas and politics. It was refreshing and liberating to be among a leadership team who gave their senior people true freedom and support. 

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?

Matilda> It’s really been a process of observation. Over my career, I’ve realised my favourite and most admired leaders have had similar traits - lacking in ego, trusting, compassionate and genuine – always pushing people upwards and forwards. They’ve all had a healthy dose of perspective - their personal identities aren’t wrapped up in their professional ones. These are the people I aspire to and gravitate towards. Fortunately for me, Bullfrog is full of these people. 

Over the course of my career, I’ve also witnessed a great deal of toxic, lazy and unqualified leaders in action – and this has been very informing, too. 

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

Matilda> Covid.  When everything that had previously been working, stopped working - and so much of what I knew to be true was no longer true.  On top of that,  every single person in the business was professionally and personally vulnerable – so every day felt precarious. The stakes were high, and the options were limited. 

It was a balance of fluidity and steadfastness, hope and realism, survival and strategy. 

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?

Matilda> Of course – mainly during times when I’d become so close to a situation that I was unable to make an objective, clear decision. Inaction or lack of decisiveness can be confusing, worrying and unhelpful to those around you. I know myself well enough to know when this is happening – and I lean on those around me to strip the layers back. The real lesson here is no matter how good a leader you are, you can’t do everything yourself. Great leaders know they need honest, smart people around them at all times. 

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

Matilda> Openness and transparency is my flavour – I believe humans deserve to know what’s going on around them and most are mature enough to handle it. But there is also a need as a leader to absorb pressure, and to keep panic and stress out of the team to allow them to operate in a calm, constructive and enjoyable manner. I’m very happy to withhold scary information if I believe I can make the problem go away without anyone even knowing it was even an issue. 

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?

Matilda> To be honest, I’ve never formally had a mentor – but I have always asked people I respect for advice. I am a big believer in asking questions. And have always called people at all levels and experiences for their opinions or to bounce an idea off.

As I’ve gotten more experienced (older?!), I’ve also collected a group of very smart, excellent, and supportive women. Without sounding like a bumper sticker, we’re all very much about lifting each other up and helping each other. I’m grateful to be in such good company.

In terms of finding mentors, I think it’s best to keep it simple but organised. Reach out to the person you’re wanting to learn from - and be very clear about what you’d like from them. Offer to take them out for lunch and come prepared with a tight, pre-circulated agenda. Make the time count. 

LBB> 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?

Matilda> You need clear priorities and values. From here, your decisions become easier and you can part with things that don’t serve you.  

In terms of coping mechanisms – and whilst I’m not a big fan of sporting analogies – Nick Harvey (CEO of Plato Creative), a rugby-mad friend of mine (who also happens to be a wonderful leader) has always said you just play what’s in front of you.  Rugby fans may understand this to mean something else entirely, but it really helps me to not get ahead of things, and to take each day’s problems as they come. 

In short, stop jumping at shadows and keep going. 


LBB> 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?

Matilda> This is a complicated and deeply ingrained issue which requires both short and long term initiatives in order to make genuine, long-lasting impact. As much as we’d love it to be, it’s not an overnight solve. 

The “easier” actions we all need to take is to champion the hiring and promotion of a diverse group of people into all parts of the workforce – from juniors to leaders. And, put in place all the required programmes, funding and infrastructure to give everyone the best chance of thriving. This could be anything from flexible hours to suit parents, language support for those whom English is a second (or third) language, to constructing inclusive, accessible workspaces. 

Importantly, this also includes ensuring you’re casting your hiring net wide, rather than fishing in the same pond. There are lots of organisations who can support you to do this.

Then there is the harder, longer but critical work, which involves tackling the broken systems and biases preventing a truly diverse and inclusive network of people entering the industry in the first place; or remaining there long enough to reach senior positions. This includes analysing who is under-represented in the industry and why, as well as why (and at what points) people drop out. I’ve been doing this at quite a targeted level for a while now – but at Bullfrog, we’re keen to find ways to make these initiatives bigger and more impactful. 

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? 

Matilda> Critical. Without good company culture you may as well work by yourself at your kitchen bench.

In a creative industry like ours, the culture needs to fill you with energy, motivation and a sense of bravery. You need to feel all these things to have the guts to come up with new ideas, to put yourself out there, to make things happen that seem impossible. You can’t do that in a place that sucks the air out of your lungs.

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

Matilda> My resources have always been people. Find good ones, ask them all the questions, listen hard and stick with them.

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Bullfrog, Thu, 16 Feb 2023 10:03:32 GMT