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Bossing It: Claire Humphris on the Power of Putting Your Hand Up


Iris London’s CEO on her journey since becoming the agency’s employee number one, dealing with public failure and how her running coach helped her develop as a business leader

Bossing It: Claire Humphris on the Power of Putting Your Hand Up

Claire was Iris’ first official employee when she co-founded the agency back in 1999. In the first 13 years of Iris’ rapid growth, she worked across all of the agency’s major client accounts, including founding client Sony Ericsson. Claire has led the agency’s new business operations for the past seven years and has been instrumental in driving growth across the network, winning some of the agency’s biggest integrated pitches, including Starbucks, Pampers and PayPal.

In her new role as CEO, Claire is responsible for leading the 400-strong Iris London office, overseeing new business activity, existing clients and operations.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Claire> When I was 24 I volunteered to work on the account that no one wanted to work on. I did it in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be pleasant, in fact it would be tough, but it would be my fastest route to getting promoted to account manager. 

Little did I realise that it was this decision that led to my being included on the team to start up Iris. I put myself in the right place at the right time and created my own luck. This has been a repeat lesson for me. Every time I put my hand up to take something on (that no one else wants to do), I’m often creating the next leap forward in my career. 

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> Is this a fixed tangible thing? I think styles of leadership have changed hugely since I started out 25 years ago, and will continue to do so.  Partly this comes down to exposure: we now celebrate more diverse types of leaders, but it is also down to the evolution/trends in the zeitgeist of corporate psychology.  
For me, it comes down to treating others as you want to be treated yourself. I know what I admire in others and what I don’t. I know I’m more open to listening to people who can help me reflect on what I do and see the purpose in it. I know I’m willing to follow someone who has an exciting plan. I know I will stick out the tough times if I feel driven to achieve the goal and supported in doing so. If all those things work for me, then I figure that’s what I need to do for other people. 

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

Claire> Starting Iris. No question. There were six of us co-founders all working at one agency when the call came in that this was our chance to break away with a client. All that was needed was one of us to resign and get it up and running. I asked if it could be me. I had absolute faith that this was absolutely the right decision to take. It was like being in love! 

The very next day I resigned.  Others have said since that it was that moment – the one in which I’d jumped - that they knew the game was on. I wasn’t the original brains behind Iris nor am I the person responsible for our global growth but I was brave enough to listen to my heart and put my trust in the team.  At the time I didn’t see this as leadership but looking back I think that it is! 

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’ve never wanted a traditional leadership role…I’ve never seen myself as a CEO. I never had the confidence to even think that was in my grasp. I’m much more comfortable being part of a group of leaders.  

When our previous CEO left, our chairman put me forward to the board as the replacement
candidate. His words were persuasive and there was an underlying truth that as the number-one employee of Iris there was no one who knew the organisation better! 

It wasn’t until I stepped up to CEO this year that I’ve realised I do have more knowledge than I realised. But also some of the personal skills. I’m also an eternal optimist and very resilient…two assets that get you a long way in this role! 

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 do think there are some who are natural leaders and others who grow into it. The key to leadership is confidence. Not all of us are born with it or leave school having learnt it. I certainly didn’t. 

But we can learn to behave in ways that are different to our personality types, if we are taught that this is the behaviour that will get the result we want. And then given plenty of opportunities to try it out. The team that I set up Iris with have never been fearful of failure. That’s the best environment you can have when you are acquiring your leadership skills. 

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

Claire> The public nature of it….successes and failures are there for all to see. I’ve just had to learn to leave the self-consciousness about being judged at the door or else it would be crippling. 

Saying no. Especially when this is disappointing to others.  If you can explain why, in the context of how we’re making decisions for the greater good of the majority, then this can sometimes help people move on. 

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> All the time! I’ve got things wrong by rushing a decision and being too directive. I’m slowly learning that by not letting others arrive at their own answer (not mine) in their own time, I take something away from their ability to learn and step up. At first, I thought it was my role to tell everyone the answer. I’ve learnt it's my role to have a POV on the answer yet to be open/flexible as to how we might get there. The hard bit is then not stepping away entirely and being ready to intervene if it goes off plan. 

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?

Claire> Both. You have to be responsible with your words. A careless comment because you want to let off steam or a flippant remark, could create the impression you don’t care enough. 

Sometimes it's good to slow down. The first answer might be the instinctive one but it's not always well considered. Especially if there are consequences to your actions, you need to be sure that you have given the topic the time it deserves. 

Rushing to decide satisfies my own internal dissonance – I just want a resolution so I can move on - but new information might come to light that will completely change a perspective on the solution. 

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’ve had some (and the same) line managers who have given me honest feedback when I’ve asked…and sometimes when I haven’t! I really value the truth, no matter how hard it is to hear. 

I also had a running coach outside of work. His role was focused on sports psychology to help me unpick unhelpful beliefs and habits, that were getting in the way of achieving some of our ultra running goals. The halo effect across the rest of my life has been significant! 

Prioritising what matters. 
Knowing your ‘why’ as your motivation when times are tough.
That you are always a WIP and never the finished article. 

These are all transferrable frameworks. 

LBB> It's been a really challenging period - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

Claire> The difficult and unprecedented nature of it has actually made it easier for me to not take any of the bumps in the road personally. This is all new for everyone. No one knows what they are doing! All we can do is pull together, be honest with each other and do our best. 

During these times I've been grateful that I’m the age I am and the fact that I'm a parent. It means I’m used to taking total responsibility and protecting others. I’ve lent on my ‘life experience’ a lot. 

LBB> This period has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

Claire> You use the conversation to intensify your efforts! We’ve actually made more progress in this area since Covid hit… our people want to be part of an organisation that is purpose driven. We already had that purpose ‘To excite progress for our clients, ourselves and the wider world’ but the tipping point came when we invited everyone at Iris to be active participants in making that progress happen.  

In Sept 2020, we launched our DE&I Strategy - FOR THE FREE – its focus is on changing the experience of our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic and female colleagues. 

We made a commitment to becoming a meritocracy where leaders are held accountable for the progress of people in their teams and every single person is responsible for creating an inclusive culture. We want people to feel at home at Iris and feel free to be themselves!
There are five specific areas in which we drive internal and external progress. Each has KPIs that are reported against twice a year.  Due to the changes in our recruitment process, whilst we’re still hiring on talent alone, 34% of those we have brought into the agency are Black, Asian or from other minority ethnic backgrounds – and 66% are women.

I’m most proud of (as a parent) our progressive family friendly policies. I know first hand from working whilst raising two sons, that flexibility is the key to keeping talented parents with you, whilst they go through the different stages of parenthood. We have increased maternity (to six months full pay) and paternity leave (to four weeks full pay) and vital support for IVF, adoption and miscarriage, as well as a menopause policy – ensuring we support women at all stages in their lives and keep them thriving and progressing in their career at Iris.

Feedback from our clients on how our DE&I stance impacts our behaviour AND shapes our creative work, has been overwhelmingly positive. To the extent that we are now being paid to create social purpose strategies for several of our client’s brands. At the end of 2021 we were paid to run a series of global DE&I workshops for the marketing dept globally across one of our healthcare clients. 

Thanks to the commitment to change, from both our leaders as well as people across every area of the business, we are already starting to see vital progress. I’m so proud of what we have achieved already. We’ve come from a position that was behind in many ways, to igniting a passion and pace around creating change that is now pushing the industry forward. 

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 and 2021?

Claire> Your culture is your secret sauce.  It’s the very glue that keeps you all bonded together. 

We’ve proved we can all work remotely but something is missing when we do… the spontaneity, spark and sheer magic of what happens when you put talented people in one space together. 

We worked really hard as a leadership team between July and Dec 2021 to get all our people back in the office twice a week for collaborative work (on their terms) so we managed to top back that ‘glue’. 

Now we’re back remote again, the focus needs to go on mental health. We are now more aware of what each other will be going through. We can take what we have learnt over the last two years, about the good and bad of remote working, and use it to reset positive habits. 
We have followed government advice and asked our people to work remotely since 13th Dec. Interestingly, there have been a significant number of requests to come into the office. We are keeping our office open and advising staff that if there are any negative implications to working from home, then they are welcome to come in. 
It’s about giving people options, allowing them to feel in control and most importantly, accessing ready support in person or remotely, if they need it.

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

Claire> Radio 4 Today – I listen every morning. I like to feel in touch with what’s happening in the wider world.  It helps me to keep what we do in perspective but also to give that perspective to others in my advice. I also admire the capacity of the presenters to have such in depth discussion about difficult topics. Their capacity for absorbing and interrogating information is inspiring. 

Owning the Room podcast by Viv Groskop. I used to have a ‘thing’ about presenting. Now I’ve realised that nobody finds it easy, yet there is so much you can do to help yourself. Creating a positive cycle around public speaking has been a key part of growing my confidence as a leader. I actually really enjoy it now! 

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Iris, Thu, 06 Jan 2022 15:52:00 GMT