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Bossing It: Aleena Mazhar



Partner and MD at Toronto's Fuse Create on the journey from am-dram to turning heads with work that works

Bossing It: Aleena Mazhar

In the past eleven years, Aleena has grown up within the ever-evolving marketing and advertising industry. Her focus is to create integrated campaigns for brands that are looking to Turn Heads and get noticed. Working with top tier clients on award winning work, Aleena leads a team of creative problem solvers to build moments of connection between brands and consumers with work that works. Her passion for coaching a team, and solving complex business problems drives her continued excitement for the marketing industry.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

My first lesson was in high school. I was directing our school play and had cast a student as the lead who was extremely talented, but not all that motivated to be there. I remember having a conversation with him about his talent and realized his lack of motivation came from insecurity and little confidence in himself. I realized that I could get him to perform at his best with some words of encouragement and demonstrating that we believed in his talent. He excelled in his performance, and as I watched from backstage, I was so proud. I loved that feeling of coaching, mentoring and pushing another to succeed. That was my first taste of leadership and the feeling I strive for as I lead.

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?


Lots of practice and self-reflection! As you start your career, you tend to emulate your favourite managers and leaders with their “best of” behaviour. I actually think I learned more from bad managers than good ones because that demonstrates what you don’t want to be like as a leader. I have written out what kind of leader I want to be, what leaders I look up to, what bad leaders have taught me, and consistently reflect on whether I’m leading the way I would like. It does come back to how I want to impact those I lead, and the actions I can take to make the best environment for their success. I never forget that as a leader, your mood, behaviour, words and actions matter in every moment, and you have the ability to completely change the trajectory of someone’s day. It’s a big responsibility and I keep going back to that thought as I practice leadership.


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


I was in an organization I loved but struggled to make my role work for many reasons. I also led a team, so my frustration, or demotivation impacted them directly. I learned two big lessons from this experience as I managed through it. The first was being really clear on what wasn’t working, and what I needed to be successful. It took much reflection to understand this but getting to a point where I had clarity on what I needed helped me guide my manager and reframe my perspective. Secondly, I learned that one of the most important parts of leadership is the combination of patience, determination and grit. When you know what you want, and add that cocktail of behaviours, the right things take place in time. With this time, and very open and honest conversations with leadership, I was able to excel at the organization.


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?

I loved how leadership felt after my first taste of it, though I didn’t go into advertising with the goal of being a leader. I was fortunate to be in positions where I was managing people, and realized I was pretty good at it. As I grew in my career, I knew I wanted to play to my strengths and leading a team was one that kept coming in my reviews. It was only later in my career that I realized I gained much of my motivation and pride from the actions of the team, and I love seeing them succeed. It was that realization that kept pushing me into the role I’m in today, and now I focus my time on figuring out how to get the best from people so they can do their best work at FUSE Create. 


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?

There are those who can lean into leadership naturally based on their personality and life experience. That said, I believe leadership can be taught as it doesn’t look the same on everyone. Even natural born leaders need to do the work to refine their skills in order to lead others that are motivated in ways that aren’t natural to them as a leader. Leadership takes practice, requires focus and takes time. It also requires a lot of self-reflection on your own performance and how you can be the best for your team. Many of these self-regulating habits, triggers, and behaviours are learned ones.


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


I’m a rational thinker, who also believes in leading with heart and empathy, and sometimes those two things contradict each other when running a business. When leading a team, there are always moments where you have to put your personal feelings aside and action what’s right for the business as a whole. These conversations are often challenging as they relate to performance, or fit, or feedback, however they’re essential when trying to make a team gel and perform at the highest level. I make sure that I’m still addressing the problem with empathy, ensure I give people room to speak their mind, and that I’m understanding of their perspective. I do this while making it clear what our expectations are and where there are gaps. I try to be prepared, confident, and clear on what success looks like to create the best outcome for us all.

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?

I know I’m at my best when I’m taking care of my mind and body while ensuring I have the time I need to decompress and manage my stress. I feel like I’ve failed when I’m not managing myself in a way that allows me to show up as a good leader. I’ve gone through times where I’ve allowed the stress and pressure of the work derail my ability to lead in a clearheaded way, and this always impacts those I’m leading as my reactions impact their progress and their ability to perform. I’ve learned that managing myself is one of my biggest jobs. Understanding my triggers, and ensuring I’m working at my best is now a personal goal I come back to consistently in my professional performance.   

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?

I’m a huge fan of transparency and of vulnerability. Your ability to be vulnerable as a leader creates a space of openness for others to be vulnerable back to you. That said, I think tone, delivery and timing are all very important so that you are also demonstrating confidence and dependability as a leader. Transparency also needs to be thoughtful because my job as a leader Is to make it easier for the team to focus on where they are most valuable, not for them to take on the stresses that come with running a business.

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?

I’ve had lots of mentors in my life, though they haven’t been formally considered as “mentors.” My current boss, and partner, is a great mentor as someone who has had a similar career path to me and is a motivating and people-first leader. He has taught me what transparency and vulnerability looks like while also demonstrating strength, confidence and reliability that we look for in our leadership. I’ve also had some amazing coaches who have worked through difficult times with me, and problem solved moments that needed it. 

I’ve certainly mentored aspiring leaders and love this aspect of leadership. My favourite mentorship relationships are those that start with a simple “can I pick your brain” and turn into a larger relationship – where we get together for a coffee, chat about business and life, and teach one another. For me, this type of casual and honest relationship takes away some of the formality and feels more like a two-way friendship that develops naturally and authentically.

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?


Oh, has it ever been a challenging year! I think of it less of a responsibility and more of a privilege. I work with such an incredible group of people and I’m so grateful that we have been able to manage through a pandemic, all thanks to a team that has displayed such resilience. As for managing through these times, I always begin with leading with humanity. The pandemic has totally smashed our personal and professional lives together such that there is no compartmentalization. We are all going through our own version of reality whether a chaotic home where the dining room table has become work, school, and play; or on our own managing a time of quiet and loneliness. Remembering that and leaning into empathy has helped me greatly. Encouraging others to share their experience and be honest about their challenges help us all lean in and support one another.


On a personal perspective, I’ve also been very transparent on what I need for my own mental health and sanity to bring my best self to work. Whether it’s a mid-day walk with my dog, or logging off right at 5pm for a spin class, or even taking a week off to disconnect; it’s important that I’m taking care of myself and demonstrating that I practice what I preach as it relates to self-care and mental wellness. 


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?


This is a topic that’s very close to my heart as a female leader who is also an immigrant and person of colour. I’m so pleased that we are finally having the right conversations and taking action to create a more diverse and inclusive industry – but there is a long way to go. I’ve joined the POCAM steering committee, an organization that exists to ensure the voices of BIPOC professionals are fully and fairly present in Canadian advertising and marketing. The work POCAM does with other organizations ensures that BIPOC voices, perspectives and expertise is represented, appreciated, and rewarded. Moving from awareness to action is critical for organizations, and we help share perspectives of voices who aren’t always represented in leadership. 


As an agency FUSE Create has signed the Call for Equity and are doing the work to raise awareness, learn, and remain accountable to diversity and equality within our organization. We’ve ensured we have leaders from BIPOC communities represented in quarterly learning sessions we do with the team, so we are immersing ourselves in other perspectives and experiences. Like all organizations, we aren’t perfect, but we are committed to doing our part in creating a more inclusive industry. 

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 2020-21?


It is possibly the most important thing in creating a thriving business. Culture is the ethos that makes people love going to work every day, makes clients love working with our teams, and creates a magnet for growth and achievement. Being remote has been challenging on culture, however it has been something we have been committed to maintaining in any way possible! From many virtual events to (safe) walks and (small) get togethers, to micro-events in backyards – we’ve tried it all. It has been important to maintain a level of face-to-face connection so as leaders we have gone on many (distanced) walks all over the city. We’ve also preached a culture of wellness, so we’ve had morning meditation sessions, virtual personal training sessions, a bike club, a run club, and even a peloton-fanatics club. We did a wellness weekly draw with gift cards for those practicing healthy habits as many times a week as possible. 


My three big lessons this past year and a bit on culture have been: 1) it can come from anywhere – some of the best ideas came and were executed by members of our team. 2) they don’t have to be big to be impactful – from virtual cooking classes to a small picnic at the park – it all adds up. 3) you need to practise those important moments of culture no matter what. It’s easy to let the work take over but connecting with the people behind the work makes it all worthwhile. 

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

Asking lots of questions to those who have done this far longer than I and picking their brain when I need a bit of advice. I highly recommend investing in a coach if you are able, it was a game changer for me. And always finding time to learn, in whatever way works for you. I personally love to read, so I’m a fan of a good leadership book (Brené Brown, Adam Grant, Simon Sinek, Malcolm Gladwell, even Obama, both Michelle and Barrack). But pick your poison – whether it’s an awesome podcast, an inspiring conference (I love Atelier Collective for the women in the audience) or a thoughtful TED talk, find ways to consistently learn and be inspired.

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FUSE Create, Fri, 16 Jul 2021 18:08:31 GMT