Bossing It in association withLBB Pro

Bossing It: Why Claire Hynes Is Getting Comfortable with Uncertainty

Advertising Agency
London, UK
The co-founder of Mr President on adapting her role with the business, her love of mentoring, and why company culture is everything
Claire Hynes is co-founder and CEO of creative agency Mr President. She founded the business in 2012 after 10 years at Dare, Campaign’s Digital Agency of the Decade, where she rose to joint managing director. 

Mr President is one of the UK’s top independent agencies, and defines itself as being for people who want to make their mark on the world. It has an award winning culture, recently recognised by Campaign and The Sunday Times as one of the UK’s best places to work, and has won multiple awards for creativity and effectiveness, including creating “the best whisky ad in the world” according to System1. Mr President's clients include Ferrero, Aviva, Verizon and Whyte & Mackay. 

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Claire> In the early years of my career I led teams, and I led clients, but I was always safely following someone else, who was leading me. 

So I don’t think I had the true experience of leadership until I started Mr President. And at that point I discovered very quickly that leadership of your own business involves a level of responsibility and jeopardy that I’d not fully appreciated in previous roles.

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?

Claire> So many people have horror stories of toxic environments and bad bosses, but I can honestly say that I learned from the absolute best. Aside from a few isolated wrong’uns in my first couple of jobs, my ten years at Dare were like witnessing a masterclass for creating a great working environment. Mark Collier and John Owen were exemplary bosses, and so much fun to work with. It was challenging, it was hilarious, I felt constantly encouraged and validated and most important of all, I could see the impact of great leadership on the wider world. 

At a basic level, it made business sense - all the best people wanted to work at Dare and our success as Campaign’s Agency of the Decade was testament to that. But more than that, it created a generation of leaders among my peer group there, who have gone on to great things, and to implement wonderful cultures wherever they ended up. I think of it like a family tree, and like an inheritance, and so I’m very conscious of what we now pass on through our culture at Mr. President.

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

Claire> Mr President was founded in 2012 and at that time, the world was obsessed with West Coast tech start ups. Our industry, while totally different to high growth tech, was still obsessed with the culture: being a “rocket ship”, maverick leaders moving fast and breaking things, hustling through the night fuelled only by pizza and Diet Coke. Basically a high octane, high stakes devotion to the business that would ultimately pay off and leave you showered in riches.

And there were (and still are) businesses around that admire that kind of culture and aspire to it in some way, work hard, play hard, go all out to win. 

I remember the early days of Mr P and thinking well that’s the model for leadership. I don’t like it, I don’t want to live like that. I’ve got a family, and I’m responsible for people. I don’t want their blood and sweat, I want their joy and passion. 

People would always ask “How big are you now, how many people now, what’s the growth curve looking like” and while it took time for the lesson to percolate, I think the lesson is that there are many models for leadership and culture, don’t aspire to one that’s out of sync with your own beliefs and values.

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?

Claire> I didn’t ever think I wanted to be a leader, and can’t remember ever having a job title or specific goal in mind. I just naturally took on responsibility, was comfortable hiring and growing a team and then gathering that team into something that had an identity, and then representing the interests of that team. And before I knew it, I was promoted to MD at Dare. I never wanted to tell people what to do, or get on a leadership ego trip, but I have always been comfortable being the one to make the decisions.

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?

Claire> I don’t think I’ve ever had any formal training, and I have no idea how much is a natural part of my personality as I’m not someone who particularly enjoys attention or standing out. But I do think we develop our character from the example that’s shown to us. We see the fallout and harm from bad leaders, and that can convince you to do it differently. And we feel the positive impact of great leaders, especially when you observe their effectiveness over time.

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

Claire> I’m always adapting my role as the business context changes and the team around me develops. Sometimes I lean very heavily into the work, but more often I consciously step back to give the leaders around me the space to fully stretch into their roles. I regularly revisit my job description and think right, if I’m handing this part of my job over to my awesome MD, or our brilliant head of account management, what does the business need most from me instead?  

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?

Claire> Honestly too many times to mention. But if you’re going to try anything worth doing, failure is an inevitable part of the package. The more you experience failure, and the more you see that it can often lead to better or more interesting things, the better you get at getting over it quickly. 

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?

Claire> I think it’s possible to be transparent and authentic, while also being careful and considered. We are as open and collegiate as possible and don’t keep secrets from the team. But we’re also calm and positive and don't give in to doom or panic when things get tough. We actively decide not to have a shit time. If it’s difficult, let’s make a plan and figure it out. Let’s make it enjoyable, it’s all part of the job. 

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?

Claire> I love mentoring. So often, I’m suggesting something to a mentee and thinking “Hmm I really should try that myself” so in lots of ways it causes you to take stock and remember what you know.

I’ve had a few really good mentors. Mark Collier, my old boss at Dare, was a key support in the early years of Mr President. And Sally Henderson is brilliant, she taught me a lot about mindset and how to approach work as work, and not get emotionally tangled up in it. I highly recommend her if you think you’ll benefit from a stern talking to! 

We have a few invaluable long term friends and former clients who are so generous with their time and advice. But I also love to challenge our thinking with new input, meeting new people with different perspectives from outside our industry.

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

Claire> The biggest mistake you can make is to hope for calm waters and to wait for “normal” times to resume. They won’t. The market context is permanently unprecedented.

So the trick is to get really comfortable with the uncertainty.

You need to develop a team that’s entrepreneurial and brave and curious and open to new ways of working and not scared of doing things differently. If you’ve got a team that trusts each other and enjoys working together, there’s nothing you can’t overcome. Even the difficult bits can be magic.  

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

Claire> We are very aware that we have all come to the business from different starting points, whether that’s being from a marginalised community, living with a disability, neurodiversity, different life stages, different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.

So we have a very detailed and thoughtful set of policies that collectively send the message that whoever you are, whatever your circumstances, we will support you. For us it is about creating a culture where people feel trusted and listened to, safe to be themselves, and able to work with us to create an environment where they’ll be able to thrive.

On top of this, we invite experts and speakers in to help us all to keep learning and understanding each other. And as a smaller business, we tend to think beyond the immediate team in order to make an impact. For us that includes ensuring representation within our work, but also within the network of partners we work with so that we’re creating opportunity for a diverse range of people wherever we can.

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?

Claire> For us, culture is everything. We’ve been listed as one of Campaign’s Best Places to Work and Sunday Times Best Places to work for two years in a row now, and this means more to me than any creative awards. Clients know that this means we have motivated, engaged, talented people who love what they do, and that this in turn will lead to a fantastic working experience for them and successful, effective work.

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

Claire> The volume of advice and information out there between LinkedIn and podcasts and articles and blogs and books can be totally overwhelming! There’s so much advice on how to think, what to believe, how to behave that we can lose sight of our own signals. I think the most useful tool is learning how to cut out the noise and really focus on your own thoughts. Figure out what you really think, listen to yourself and trust yourself. It’s worked pretty well so far.
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