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Bossing It: Empowering Others with Caroline Hagoort

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Head of studios at HALAL Studios on why leadership means humility and flexibility

Bossing It: Empowering Others with Caroline Hagoort

At 32, Caroline Hagoort has an unusually extensive career as a leader in the creative industries. Starting her own business fresh out of university at 22, she quickly rose from junior to executive producer at Booking.com, where she set up an entirely new production hub in Shanghai.

After a brief stint as head of brand and content at Dutch listings company Marktplaats, she became head of studios at the brand-new HALAL Studios: the new creative agency which is part of the world-renowned Amsterdam-based production studio.

Building things from the ground up once again, Caroline sits down to talk through what this means for her as a leader, and how she was able to get there. For Caroline, leadership means humility and flexibility: being authentic and transparent, but ultimately doing whatever your team needs, providing a platform for them to do the best work they can.


LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Caroline> I set up my own business right after I graduated from my media & entertainment degree in 2014, when I was 22. In one of my first experiences of leadership, I was responsible for leading a team of different camera operators and photographers: managing multiple teams across different countries, making sure everything went according to plan. I was super young back then, and it was one of the experiences where I thought, Yeah I really like this! I’m good at this!


LBB> How relevant are those experiences to how you work as a leader today?

Caroline> Completely relevant, as in many ways I am starting from scratch again here at HALAL. There wasn’t a team at the time: it was just me and Pascal Duval as creative director. Other than that there was nothing! No logo, no identity, basically nothing agency-wise. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and there were nine or ten people in our team status call working on various projects. That was a proud moment.


LBB> What makes being a leader there different than before?

Caroline> Coming to HALAL was a shot in the dark, but in a very different way. It felt safe because I knew HALAL, but also interesting and challenging – something I could really mould and form. Plus, it’s a very different place to work. HALAL Studios is not a traditional (old-fashioned) agency. We’re offering partnership to our clients, really working together, being transparent, and having production involved from the start – providing the full package. HALAL has a documentary department, fiction, photography, and film – commercials – so I think offering all that, aesthetically but also as a whole package, that really separates us from the rest.

HALAL feels like an extended family. There is room for people to be open, transparent. Everyone works hard to get the job done – but together. It’s just what I hope to provide as a leader in general: a great platform for people to be their best selves – professionally and also personally.


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?

Caroline> Across my career there have been many people I’ve learned from – both in terms of how I would and wouldn’t want to do things. That’s brought me to the point where I know what kind of leader I am and what I feel comfortable with. What I don’t feel comfortable with is being a micromanager: really not giving people trust, being in their space. I’ve had that experience once, and I was like, Oh yeah this is not the way to go. I want to be a leader that can empower others, make them feel comfortable, give them a platform where they can do their best work and thrive. I’m lucky to be able to do that at HALAL.


LBB> How do you do that on a day to day basis with your team?

Caroline> I have weekly one-on-one check-ins with everyone to see how they are and how they’re doing, but also ask, ‘Hey, what is it you want to do – not only now but also in the future?’ I ask questions like, ‘Okay you’re working on this project now – what is it you want to get out of it professionally? Is there anything you want to learn? How can I support that?’ It’s important to give people that feeling that they’re being heard, that they’re valued and that there is a vision and a goal – a company-wide goal but also a personal goal for them to work towards.


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

Caroline> There’s two. One was when I went to Barcelona for a shoot, for Booking.com. Everything was going super well until suddenly there was a terrorist attack on Las Ramblas. One of my creatives was actually nearby at the time, and the whole city went batshit crazy. We had a shoot day planned in the city centre, and so I needed to make a decision about what we would do. Are we gonna shoot tomorrow? Can we even do that? How do we feel? My biggest learning here was to remain calm and check in with the team and see how I can make a difference whilst supporting their needs.

The second was also working for Booking, working on the Asian market: China, Southeast Asia. They sent me there to set up a production hub. Again, I was super young and was up against a challenge, but it was a project and I really embraced it. I was born and raised in Asia, but I’d never worked in Chinese culture, so I was really starting from scratch: building a team, working with Chinese creatives, setting everything up and managing them. It went pretty well, but I didn’t really sleep for six months… Looking back I’m pretty proud of it, but at the time it was insane!


LBB> Were there big differences between your working values and Chinese ways of working?

Caroline> Totally – culturally, they were completely different. In general, Chinese people have a different work-life balance, different values professionally and personally. For example, there are a lot of things that were normal there that I would find rude: burping, spitting, or not waiting for people to leave the metro, pushing and shoving. But also the other way round: like if you want to give feedback there you do it privately instead of in front of the group – that would make someone really uncomfortable, as Chinese people are not very direct. That was challenging, but a lot of fun. My upbringing in Asia gave me a bit of extra knowledge about this stuff, but it was still fairly new. Being the leader that I want to be means being flexible and open, giving people a platform where they feel comfortable doing their work, and checking in with them. Whatever your culture or where you’re from, having that sense of people or personality or care is super important.


LBB> What do you feel is a healthy work-life balance?

Caroline> I truly believe in work hard, play hard. I expect not only from myself but from my team as well, that if you’re here you work hard. If you need to come in late or you need to attend a personal matter - all good, as long as you get the work done and you’re working towards the same goal – and are transparent about that. I also think it’s important to take a break once in a while and reflect on what you’ve done, zone out and be refreshed when you come back.

 

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, and how much can be taught and learned?

Caroline> Anyone can learn anything. But when it comes to the natural part, it does have to be in you. Having a high emotional intelligence is essential, haha! At least if you want to be a good leader. There’s plenty that can be taught, but that has to be in your character. That should come naturally.


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

Caroline> I really like a good vibe. I try to manage that, to make people feel comfortable and happy on the workfloor. But obviously that’s not always the case – there might be a situation where someone’s underperforming or they’re not happy, where something needs to be taken care of. That can be difficult. But I’ve also seen in previous roles environments that were very negative as a whole, where everyone was very unhappy. How do you flip that around as a leader? It drains your team, but it drains me too, especially when you know you can only make things a little bit better, but there’s not much you can do at the level of a whole department.

Another bad situation is when there’s a boss that doesn’t listen to feedback. I’m still very young, 32, and I’ve been put in some positions where I’m like, Okay - I need to be a leader or a manager of some sort, but I’m not being taken seriously because of my age and maybe because I’m a woman. That’s obviously super challenging and annoying. It’s disappointing, but it does sometimes still happen. 


LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach? Do you think it’s important to be as transparent and authentic as possible? Or is there value in being more careful and considered as a leader?

Caroline> I think both – it depends on the situation. It all starts by keeping your word, making fair decisions, communicating honestly, taking responsibility, treating others with dignity and respect and giving people credit where necessary, so they feel valued. I always try to be myself, be authentic and practice what I preach. I really feel if you do that that people respect you. 

But I can’t always stick to my own methods. Everyone’s different, everyone needs different tools and ways of working, so sometimes you need to be flexible and provide what’s needed. Leadership is all about servicing, not being serviced. People too often think of this the wrong way. You need to give your team a platform to do their best work, to service them.

So yes you need to be transparent and yourself, but also give your team the right amount of information to do the best work, their way. That doesn’t mean losing or hiding your personality, but rather that it can thrive as a result of giving other people the assets they need. 


LBB> As you developed your leadership skills, did you have a mentor?

Caroline> Looking back over my career, I’ve definitely been inspired by specific people, such as Erik Verheijen, who I worked with at Booking: he’s a producer, and he taught me so much! But I’ve also learned so much from so many people – little pieces that I’ve picked up – and not only from people higher up the ladder! You learn a lot from everyone in your team: there are always people who can do things I can’t do. So anyone can be your mentor.

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Halal, Mon, 30 May 2022 12:08:47 GMT