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Bossing It: Nigel Downer's Three Key Elements of Leadership


Jack Morton's head of Jack Health US on the MBA program at Penn State, taking calculated risks and protecting your teams time and focus

Bossing It: Nigel Downer's Three Key Elements of Leadership

Nigel Downer is Head of Jack Health US, the dedicated healthcare practice within global brand experience agency Jack Morton. Since taking the helm in January, Nigel has continued to support the practice on its tremendous growth trajectory, focusing on increasing collaboration across the IPG Health and DXTRA Health networks. Nigel has been with Jack Morton for four years and was a critical part of the team that launched the Jack Health brand in 2021. A passionate believer in the opportunities that exist at the intersection of healthcare, technology, and brand experience; Nigel has been partnering with health and wellness clients to deliver extraordinary brand experiences to patients, HCPs, and employees at critical audience touch points for more than 15 years.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Nigel> My first experience as a leader came through sports. I was co-captain of my high school tennis team. 

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?

Nigel> Well, I was a pretty bad captain back then. Way too selfish, focused on my own goals, and on winning. I didn’t realise it until much later in life, but that experience really shaped me in terms of knowing what kind of leader I didn’t want to be in my professional life. I learned that being the best at something doesn’t make you a leader.

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

Nigel> The MBA program that I did at Penn State was crucial in my personal development. Large parts of the program focused on strategic leadership and leading with empathy – soft skills that you don’t always associate with an MBA program. I came out of that experience with some north stars and leadership principles that form the framework for my leadership style.

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?

Nigel> Yes, leadership is something that I’ve always aspired to and something I actively worked towards. That desire influenced many of my career decisions - from investing in an MBA to seeking out mentors and growth opportunities. On a few occasions, I turned down higher paying roles for ones that I gambled would be better for my career development. Taking some calculated career risks was a big part of my strategy to develop as a leader and grow into a role.

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?

Nigel> I firmly believe that you can learn to be a leader if it’s something you aspire to. I think of empathy, fluency, and a leadership framework as three key elements.

Empathy: It’s hard to teach empathy, so learn might be the wrong word here, maybe 'unlock' is a better way to describe it. I’ve observed many people struggle to display empathy at work when they are incredibly empathetic in their personal lives. I’m sure there is a HBR case somewhere on what causes that behaviour, but if we want to develop leaders we need to encourage and empower people to show up authentically in this manner.

Fluency: You need to have a fluency and skillset in your field in order to be credible.  It’s table stakes and is clearly something that can be learned.

Leadership framework: This is another element that can be learned – what are the four or five north stars that will guide you when you are making decisions? Establishing a framework helps you navigate murky waters and be more consistent with your decision making. It’s surprising how many complex decisions come down to checking it against a simple framework.

Like anything, you get better the more you do it and your framework will evolve over time.

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

Nigel> I think a lot of people underestimate the sheer volume of activities and communications that you take on as a leader. I’ve struggled with how to avoid slipping into reactive mode when everything is a priority. To combat the volume and help stay focused and proactive vs. reactive I’ve found myself saying 'no' more frequently as I’ve advanced in my career. You have to do this for yourself, and to protect your team’s time, focus, and well-being. 

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?

Nigel> Many, many times. Everyone has lost a big pitch or missed a financial target or milestone on a timeline, but the ones that stick with me the most are related to people. When a talented individual moves on from the organisation it feels like a failure to me – and it’s often a failure in communication. I’ve tried to adjust how I structure 1:1’s to be less about updates on the work and more about how the person is feeling about their role, their colleagues, their wellbeing, and their future at the company. More transparency on a regular basis helps brings potential issues to light when we can still do something about it.

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?

Nigel> It’s both. Transparency is key to a healthy working relationship. People want certainty, autonomy, meaning and progress in their work. You can’t establish those things without transparency. On the flip side, there is value in being careful and considered. Have you ever read Tim Denning’s piece Quiet People in Meetings are Incredible? That is a mini-MBA in one article right there.

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?

Nigel> I’ve had two people throughout my career that I would consider to be mentors though I never formally said the word. I think it’s a key part of career development and I do wish I had been more intentional about it. In both cases the mentors were senior leaders and my conversations with them allowed me to go behind the curtain and shift the lens from the one I looked though every day to something broader. Like the MBA program, both relationships provided me with some north stars that became part of my leadership framework. That’s what’s most interesting. Those north stars didn’t make me a better marketer or better business development person. They were nuggets / mantras that stuck with me to form my own leadership framework.

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?

Nigel> Empathy. There’s been so many things that you can’t control over the past few years, and it makes us feel helpless and uncertain. Anywhere that I can add the things that people crave – certainty, autonomy, meaning, and purpose I’m trying to do that. And fun and humour, we all need a bit more of both at work.

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?

Nigel> This is an issue that’s pronounced in healthcare marketing. I’m lucky to be part of a holding company (IPG) and agency (Jack Morton) that are both committed to making significant progress. The support and tools that are provided to me and to my team help us to have open conversations and take some meaningful actions – in particular identifying, attracting, and supporting diverse talent. Diversity and inclusion also go hand in hand with the environment and culture you create with your team, and we’ve got some great people.

LBB> 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?

Nigel> Culture is absolutely crucial to our success. We’ve built our growth efforts at Jack Health around a model that has three tenets and the first one is 'set an aspirational mindset and culture'. It’s first for a reason – if we don’t create the right mindset and culture, it’s a struggle to do the rest. Culture comes first.

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

Nigel> I think that finding a mentor is a great tool that most people don’t take advantage of. I’ve also found that there are tools, trainings, and frameworks out there that can help you level up your leadership game. Read the HBR articles, take advantage of that free company career development site or LinkedIn Learning. I think a lot of people would be surprised by how much you can raise your game when you find frameworks that work as guideposts for your decision making.

Lastly, not everyone has the luxury of taking a calculated career risk, but you should recognise those 'crack in time' moments where there is a fork in the road for you career-wise and think about where you want to be in five years, not just this year or next year.

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Jack Morton US, Tue, 30 May 2023 09:14:27 GMT