Bossing It in association withLBB Pro

Bossing It: Blair Alexander on Making Decisions Without Fear

Advertising Agency
Auckland, New Zealand
FCB Media MD on always being careful and considered, acknowledging your own mistakes and never being afraid to apologise

Blair Alexander is managing director at one of New Zealand's largest media agencies, FCB Media, who are part of the FCB Global Network.   

With a Master’s degree in consumer behaviour, Blair has a passion for data insight and communications strategy, which he believes is fundamental to driving effective solutions in today's complex landscape. 

Blair's vision to deliver data driven creative media solutions has seen the agency win over 40 Gold awards including three Best in Show awards under his leadership. This year the agency won more golds than the rest of industry combined. 

During his tenure, he has delivered record revenue for the agency with new business wins including Coca-Cola, Nestle, Chorus, NZ Police, and the NZ Electoral Commission, while retaining key accounts Westpac, Audi and Volkswagen. 

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Blair> I was quite a shy kid all through school, but I was also ultra-competitive. So I’d go from this unassuming well-liked nice guy in the classroom to this aggressive extroverted loudmouth on the sports field. I loved strategising how to win. So, I began captaining some sports teams as a teenager. The more I led, the better I played, and the more confident I grew. 

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?

Blair> At the most simplistic level, I really wanted to be my authentic self and create an environment for people to be the same. I’m an empathetic person with a strong intuition. Successful leadership for me is a feeling. I know I’m doing ok when I sit back and can hear banter between teams, when people are confident to voice their opinions, when people exude passion for delivering great client work. 

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

Blair> Recently I went on some well-being leave. Having read the personal story of a national sports captain who was close to burning out, I realised I was in the same position at work. It was affecting my ability to be the leader I wanted to be. I was tired, I was lacking empathy and making decisions without my usual care and consideration. 

Realising this early, to prevent burnout I took some short time out to reflect, learn and re-charge. I initially felt like I was failing as a leader by even admitting I needed some time off. But in the end it was the best thing I did. I used the time productively, including understanding more of the science behind fatigue and burn-out, while developing new strategies for myself to stay in a place of healthy well-being. 

I decided to share my story with staff to help reduce stigma around taking well-being leave, while also empowering people to consider their own well-being. All with the view to being more effective in the workplace. 

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?

Blair> My mum once shared with me that when I was a first born, she’d had a dream with my name printed in capital letters on a corner office door. She always believed I was destined to lead people, and so I’ve always felt that too – like her dream was a sign. At times that story has kept me going through challenging times, or when I’ve felt insecure to take the next leadership challenge. I feel like it’s my path. 

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?

Blair> Leadership does come naturally to some people more than others. However, all sorts of different types of people and personalities make good leaders. 

I believe it’s important to continually reflect, learn and adapt in a way which is comfortable to you. 

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

Blair> Leadership felt relatively easy to me, or so I thought. So I’d never really reflected on my style until I moved into more senior leadership roles in my career, where some 'cracks' started to appear. I realised my default was to want to be liked by everyone. This clouded my ability to be decisive when required, avoiding tougher conversations. 

So, I realised I needed to literally be more of a boss, making decisions that sometimes didn’t make sense to people, who lacked context. I didn’t change my leadership style, it was important to remain authentically me, I just realised I had to start making more decisions without fear. 

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?

Blair> Totally. The key is to acknowledge the mistake to yourself, or to others if people have been affected, take on the learnings, and move on quickly. I’m not afraid to apologise, and it generally opens up a conversation and prevents resentment building, which is crucial for culture.  

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?

Blair> I believe in being careful and considered always. I believe in being transparent when it serves a purpose. Sometimes, it’s not in the best interest of people to know it all. I’ve seen leaders be overly transparent for the sake of it and its created uncertainty and fear. My job is to discern when its right to be transparent, but equally important, when it’s not. 

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?

Blair> I had tried and failed on the mentor stuff for years. All awesome leaders in their own right, but no one I really knew personally. So, I found it really hard to open up and take advice. For the last 3 years I’ve been mentored by my old boss of 8 years. He knows me inside and out so there is huge trust. That’s the difference. 

I don’t specifically mentor anyone myself because I play that role informally with my team. I believe everyone can be a great leader, no matter how senior or junior. So instead I run ‘fireside chats’, informal sessions where I discuss leadership topics of interest expressed by team members. I love hearing people openly share their own opinions in these sessions too – you can learn from anyone. 

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?

Blair> I really wanted to keep people energised about why we got into this special industry in the first place …. Doing amazing creative media work. So we introduced and adapted a creative framework, 456, from FCB Global. 

Giving people renewed focus on creativity helped balance the many day-to-day challenges we all faced. And it worked. At the NZ industry awards show in May we were awarded more Gold’s for our client work than the rest of the industry combined. 

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? 

Blair> Diversity and inclusion are a huge focus for FCB. Our own DE&I committee has driven a number of initiatives within our business and the community. I’m a big believer in changing the language e.g., minority to under-representation for starters so we can change mind-sets and create all new conversations around inclusion. 

As a gay male, something I’m really proud of right now is the pro-bono campaign we’ve worked on for the New Zealand AIDS Foundation called “Sweat with Pride” to get individuals, teams and workplaces exercising as a means to raise money for LGBTQIA+ communities.

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?

Blair> Its everything. Attracting and retaining great talent is the key to a successful business. Making people feel like they belong, and that we care about their whole self is something I’m passionate about. 

We’re very fortunate in New Zealand that Covid is under control and we’ve been back in the office full time since September. But that hasn’t meant we’ve taken things for granted. Quite the opposite. We’ve made a deliberate effort to invest more money and resources into new well-being initiatives and social activities while delivering record levels of training and development. 

One of the highlights was a music festival style Christmas event at my house called “Karakachella”. I live in a place called Karaka, so a play on the Famous Coachella. We even tried to get a mini-Ferris Wheel, but health and safety said no (wisely!). 

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

Blair> Leadership is everywhere, everyday… I like to stop, take notice and recognise the things that resonate with me and try them out. I don’t enjoy reading or have the time. I learn by watching, questioning, listening and doing… that’s my preference. 

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