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Bossing It: Empowering Brilliant People with Kerry Howell

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Head of growth at VCCP's Bernadette on breaking through stereotypes and being a self development junkie

Bossing It: Empowering Brilliant People with Kerry Howell

Kerry Howell is the head of growth for Bernadette, a new breed of product and service Innovation which bridges the gap between ‘digital strategy’ and the execution of ‘digital experiences,' and is part of the VCCP Group. Kerry is passionate about the ever-evolving landscape and infinite possibilities that working in the product and service space offers.


LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Kerry> I worked a weekend job when I was 16 and the shop was chaotic, with too much stock not being rotated. I saw the opportunity to make it better, made a plan and organised the other weekend staff to rotate the whole shop one weekend much to the gratitude of the manager at the time. I still remember being pretty happy with myself that weekend.


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?

Kerry> It’s still a work in progress, my style continues to evolve as I change and learn. I’ve worked with some great leaders and I’ve shamelessly taken the best from them. I don’t always get it right but I always aspire to be open, honest, supportive, decisive and empower the brilliant people I work with. 


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

Kerry> Losing a piece of business many years ago, through no fault of the agency, and dealing with the impact of job losses and the inability to keep promises we made to people. It was tough, certainly as a first experience but the lessons I took from it were to tackle problems head on and act fast as is possible, and always with empathy. 


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? 

Kerry> I didn’t necessarily always want a leadership role. I always knew I wanted to progress and strive for greater responsibility, that attitude ultimately landed me in a leadership position. I don’t have the standard industry background of university, I grafted my way up the ranks against people that believed there was only one mould and way in. I’m proud that I broke through those stereotypes and I believe it gives me a greater perspective in my leadership style and approach. 


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?

Kerry> I think it’s natural. I’ve had two children in the last five years and I see first hand how nature and nurture play key roles but I believe we have certain attributes that make up who we are at our core. Natural leadership seems to shine out from an early age. The best leaders have a natural ability to see the unsaid, look many steps ahead and connect the dots. I’m not sure that's something you can teach, it's just something you are. That said, I am a self development junkie, and am fascinated about learning more about why we behave the way we do. At Bernadette we are serious about nurturing talent and I believe we have some great leaders of the future in the making.


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

Kerry> Tough business decisions that impact people and their lives are never easy. I’ve got a great professional and personal network so I’m lucky to have a lot of people to lean on for advice and support when I need it. I’m also a huge advocate of coaching. Generally, talking things through helps me keep perspective and move forward. 


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?

Kerry> Yes, absolutely. We are all only human and some of the best learnings can come from failing. In a recent very busy period I took my eye off the team basics - as soon as I realised I owned it, apologised, we openly discussed a new way of working. Taking ownership and being honest will almost always start fixing any failures.  


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?

Kerry> It’s a very fine line and one of the trickiest things to navigate as a leader. My style is open and informal but it’s a continued balancing act to communicate effectively with right message and right time.


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?

Kerry> I love mentoring and have some inspirational mentors of my own. I’d recommend it to anyone, at any level as a valuable tool for development and self reflection. Not all mentor relationships are made equal though, you need to click and have something to offer each other. I was having trouble finding my feet with a new boss and the most valuable learning was to put myself in the shoes of my boss and work back from there. Also, speak up, shout up if you need to but always publicise yourself - that one has taken some time to master.


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?

Kerry> First and foremost we are all people, with lives that expand well beyond our working remit. More than ever greater consideration has had to be given for personal and work life combined.  Homeschooling and working was personally one of the most challenging things I’ve had to do. I’m not afraid to share that and a glimpse into the sometimes chaotic nature of my combined life.  I hope that by doing that, others feel they can speak freely about any challenges they have. It boils down to the basics, listening, understanding, planning ahead and offering support.


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?

Kerry> On a personal level, I’ve been aware of my own privilege and conscious in my decision making especially when it comes to our people and hiring the future of our company. The joy of launching Bernadette has given me the unique position to challenge old thinking and systemic issues and bake D&I into the business as a founding principle. 


LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? How do you manage remote working in terms of culture for your people? 

Kerry> It was test and learn, with nothing to draw from it was a case of trying lots of things and seeing what worked. For us, ramping up the number of team and company meetings, lots of virtual training, coaching, meet and greets and introducing slack for chat and community. We created two brilliant new initiatives in response to remote working; firstly the introduction of our ‘Flexible Working Pledge’ given the move to remote and then the adoption of hybrid working over the last couple of years, and secondly the Mental Health First Aider programme, allowing any members of staff to talk in confidence about any struggles they may be having. We also launched ‘The Not Alone’ video series, which was a personal account of 12 people about working remotely through the pandemic. My story was focused on the juggle of home school, working and the overall lack of freedom. Relatable to any parent going through the same thing I hope. 


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

Kerry> A strong peer network across the industry, understanding what’s going on with others at my level and sharing the good and the bad. 

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VCCP, Thu, 28 Apr 2022 11:56:21 GMT