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Leadership Lessons with... Kat Thomas, Founder & Global Executive Creative Director at One Green Bean

This month we spoke to Kat Thomas, Founder & Global Executive Creative Director at One Green Bean. Kat shares her thoughts on the flexibility of virtual leadership, adapting to changing employee demands, and the importance of diversity and inclusion in the  workplace. Kat Thomas

After two years of leading organisations remotely, what have you learned about virtual leadership?

Like most things, there are pros and cons. On the upside, I’m appreciative of the flexibility it brings, along with better autonomy, which are big contributors to people’s happiness. It also opens up the talent pool; we’ve worked with people dotted around the world, which we previously would have been less inclined to do. Plus, it’s clearly better for the planet. I’m on the fence about improved productivity – yes, you can lock yourself away and fully immerse yourself in something, but this only works if you’re 100% clear on the task. Too many times, I’ve seen the results of people who’ve just ‘gone away and got on with it’ having unfortunately misunderstood the ask. This can lead to wasted time and frustration. A big challenge personally has been the impact on my instinct. I’m wired to listen to what isn’t being said in the room as much as what is. It’s near impossible to read the room on a Zoom call. A lot can be done virtually, but I’d argue there’s still occasions where face-to-face meetings deliver far better value and outcomes.

How is remote/hybrid working affecting your company culture and what can leaders do to sustain culture for remote teams?

Creativity and culture are the two strands of our DNA and we’ve tried to be very front footed to nurture both, as our working practices evolve. To maintain our culture, we continue to put a lot of effort into championing people’s contribution. I totally get that when you’re working alone in a spare room or your kitchen, it’s easy to lose momentum or motivation. We always take the time to collectively celebrate individual achievements, show appreciation and highlight the difference people are making. We’ve experimented with more practical things too… championing the 45-minute meeting to give people time to surface for air during back-to-back Zooms, we avoid calls 1-2pm and we’re super cognisant of tone of voice in written communications. It’s a universal human quirk that our brains are wired to assume negativity, when something is in fact worded neutrally. So I make a big effort to ensure positivity is clear in written comms.

Employees demands are changing beyond salary and benefits. What changes are you seeing and how can leaders meet these evolving employee demands?

I’m all for evolving benefits, but let’s be clear here - fair pay is still THE single most important factor in both recruitment and retention. It astounds me that there are still unpaid internships in pockets of the communications and creative industries, nobody – NOBODY – should work for free. Beyond the financial, we strive to identify and deploy benefit strategies that are informed by a regular dialogue with the team – ensuring a fair and workable approach to hybrid working, commitment to training and development, a cost-of-living support programme, a robust performance recognition pathway, opportunities to partner with not-for-profit initiatives, our cycle-to-work scheme, our coaching and mental wellness support initiatives, to name just a few.

With an increasing focus on workplace mental health, how have you seen the industry supporting the wellbeing of its employees?

We’re fortunate to be part of the Havas, an organisation that has taken a progressive, inclusive, action-orientated position on mental wellness for several years, long before it became a hot topic.  We have an experienced HR team who are genuinely motivated to ensuring everyone is healthy, motivated and focused. Their guidance for us as business leaders is invaluable, especially as people navigate increasingly diverse and complex personal situations. There has been a positive shift towards active support in recent years, possibly driven by the pandemic, where research has shown that people are at an elevated risk of anxiety and depression. I’d say the businesses getting it right are the ones that recognise that whilst it might be expensive to dedicate more time, resources and money to supporting people, they know that it will more than pay off long term.

Post ‘the great resignation era’ – what challenges do you think leaders face in 2022?

I’m fairly pragmatic about the ‘great resignation’ as a reaction to the pandemic. We had an extended period where redundancies were rife, job security was in question and the natural turnover of employee movement halted completely. At the same time, we spent literally months locked in our homes, often climbing the walls. It’s only natural that people have taken the opportunity to reflect on their circumstances and careers, to weigh up what truly motivates them. For business leaders, it means staying on top of what these factors are – from pay to flexible working, culture to wider perks and benefits, to an increasing spotlight on ESG and accountability. Whilst nobody wants to say goodbye to good people, in my twenty odd years in this game, departures have only ever bought the opportunity to inject new talent, fresh ideas and drive new momentum.

What do you think are the key qualities needed from leaders in 2022?

Listening. Twice as hard as before. My vision of a great leader isn’t someone constantly delivering rousing speeches and rallying the troops. Sure, that’s an aspect of the job, but to me leadership is about spending at least as much time listening, as proffering advice and directives. Active listening is a skill in itself. I also value perseverance, integrity, pragmatism and decisiveness. A very specific quality that many leaders have probably had to reset in themselves as hybrid working becomes the new norm is the ability to trust – it’s a two-way thing too. There’s the famous Harvard study where 58% of public said they’d trust a stranger more than their own boss. In the new landscape, leaders have to trust firmly in their team, empower them and not breathe down their necks, and avoid the temptation to manifest presenteeism.

What skills sets do you think businesses within Consumer PR will be looking for now and in the coming years?

A big focus for us is ensuring we’re future proofing our people, especially younger talent coming into the industry. We’re focused on similar strategies for the business too. If you look at the media consumption shift in just the last five to ten years, we can be confident that it’ll be almost unrecognisable in fifty years from now. The boundaries of traditional ‘consumer PR’ are increasingly blurry… we already integrate social, content and influencer into our earned media strategy, to dial up the surround sound and increase impact. Clients are increasingly going to need to widen their considerations beyond column inches… especially those with Gen Z / Gen Alpha audiences who, as much as we all love a big splash in The Sun or The Mail, 100% aren’t reading it.

What do you think leaders can do to drive diversity and inclusion within the workplace?

Well firstly, ensure that D&I isn’t seen as a ‘HR issue’ and recognise that it should be a core aspect of your business strategy. And once it is, ensure there’s the same rigour around setting goals and measuring success as you would any other commercial target.  As John Doerr said in his book Measure What Matters, “Ideas are easy. Execution is everything”. Commit to it and make it meaningful. A decade or more ago, we started talking about emotional intelligence in the workplace, I think the new era is inclusive intelligence. Long overdue, too. Everyone in a leadership position has a responsibility to educate and drive change, it undoubtedly has to start from the top.

There is increasing expectation on companies and CEOS to lead on sustainability practice in line with 2030 Global Goals. What ESG strategies can leaders adopt for sustainable development and purpose?

Right now, achieving B Corp Certification continues to feel like a robust stake in the ground in the ESG space. I’m extremely proud that Havas achieved it a couple of years ago, as believe me, it wasn’t easy and took a LOT of work from the team empowered to get us there. But it was worth it – B Corp demonstrates high social and environmental performance and commitments, plus it’s completely transparent, so stands up to the toughest of scrutiny. I’d urge businesses to go for it, it might be a two-year timeline, possibly longer, but not only is it important to push ourselves to achieve better ESG targets, it’s the right thing to do for our people and our planet.

Posted on 07.11.2022

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