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A First Year Unlike Any Other

What I’ve learned taking on a leadership role amid a pandemic: looking back on challenges faced, lessons learned and successes achieved

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credit: oatawa - stock.adobe.com
credit: oatawa - stock.adobe.com

Starting a job is exhilarating—you have fresh ideas and big plans to make a meaningful difference. But it’s not easy—there’s a lot to learn, and you often feel pressure to prove yourself quickly. Last January, I had the incredible opportunity to take on a new global leadership position at Havas as Chief Client Officer. Then in July, amid the pandemic, I was tasked to take on an additional leadership role as CEO of North America. And while I was confident in my management expertise and problem-solving skills, I had no idea how much they would be put to the test when I joined the creative agency network. One year later, I have gained new perspectives that will continue to make me a better leader. Here are five of my key learnings that all of us can keep in mind as we move on from the year unlike any other:

Listening, connecting and learning are critical—so get creative. Pandemic or not, I believe listening is one of the most important things any leader can do over the first couple of months of a new job. Connecting with colleagues is a close second. Having to get to know regional leadership teams across the country virtually, I embraced new engagement tactics through video to establish and foster connections. My goals were to make the time I had with each team member meaningful by personalizing our conversations, asking pointed questions and ensuring everyone felt heard. And while I’m counting down the days until I can see many of my colleagues in person, I have learned valuable lessons in authenticity, transparency and openness that I will take with me and use in all personal interactions moving forward.

Empathy is an essential leadership skill. I pray that coming out of the pandemic there is a silver lining: greater shared empathy. While addressing business objectives was certainly important as I settled into the role of CEO, my priority was understanding the personal and professional challenges different team members were going through. Not only did an entire creative network have a new leader, but many people were also suddenly put into difficult and unfamiliar positions in their roles as parents, family members and friends. From the beginning, it was important for me to check in frequently, be an active listener, and create a safe and flexible working environment. Conversations around growth, for example, also included words of encouragement and reminders that we’re all in this together. It has been a good reminder that empathy is key to building trust among team members.

Trust your team. Trust in the workplace boosts productivity as well as morale. Over the last year, I have empowered people of all levels to do more than they may have considered in the past. Providing clear expectations and feedback, I’ve seen ongoing collaboration and a more positive work culture despite the challenges we have all faced. I trust our team members to do what they need to deliver their best selves. We do not have punch clocks or prescriptive ways of working–everyone is encouraged to work how it best suits them.

Challenges make you stronger and think more critically. Leaders have faced more business challenges than ever before—many for the first time and some in a situation where remote working doesn’t readily allow access to a support system. From learning and implementing new technologies to navigating client concerns and addressing team morale, leaders have had to be on their A-game all the time. While few enjoy problem solving, confronting the new and unknown has certainly helped me evaluate challenges from all angles and through a new lens.

Success comes in all shapes and sizes. Despite the challenges of 2020, there were some amazing highlights. What’s so special about growth after such a tumultuous year is the path we had to take and how those successes came to be. Wins like newly hired talent and well-earned elevations; new business secured from being smart, savvy and creative; new relationships established and built; new skills learned that may not have been otherwise. We all learned a new definition of success; maybe it will even change our benchmarks for how we evaluate success in the future.

Was this the exact year I had in mind? No, but it was a pivotal year that provided me with an incredible opportunity to use this inflection point to reimagine how and why we do what we do. From building and fostering our teams and how we work together, whether in person or remotely, to looking at success in new and different ways, I’m determined to use the profound learnings of my first year at Havas to set the stage for an energizing 2021—and the years to come.

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