Jane Rudling is managing director of Walnut UNLIMITED, the human understanding agency. Jane has over 25 years experience working in insight across a wide variety of sectors. Jane's background in statistical modelling and pricing research and she brings an analytical approach to her work. Fascinated by the many drivers of human behaviour she loves the many challenges of helping our clients adapt to ever changing markets.
Here, she shares her accumulated knowledge on creative leadership.
Q> What was your first experience of leadership?
Jane> In my view leadership is part of our lives; both formal and informal. We are leaders as parents, carers, members of social groups etc. My early experience of leadership included leading student societies and later a youth development group that was part of Operation Raleigh. Leading volunteers who are giving their time freely taught me a great deal about the need to motivate people. In a professional sense, I became MD in 2012. I had been a board director previously so in a sense the transition was gradual.
Q> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?
Jane> I think we all have experience of leaders we don’t want to emulate. For me, a leader should create an environment where others can thrive. That includes setting a clear direction and empowering the wider team to execute the strategy. My leadership style is collaborative. I work with some pretty smart people and making the most of their thinking always makes sense to me. That is particularly true with our newly formed Human Understanding Lab which brings together experts from across UNLIMITED to work together in a single team. It is inspiring working with behavioural scientists, neuroscientists, data scientists, tech experts, planners and researchers to find solutions which might not otherwise have been reached.
Q> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
Jane> We have human understanding at the heart of everything we do and in 2017 we merged three companies together to form Walnut UNLIMITED. Bringing everyone with us on the journey was important, and part of the challenge was that we had three very different starting points. It is amazing what we can achieve as a team when we have a common goal. We genuinely built Walnut UNLIMITED together as a team of over 100 people.
Q> 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?
Jane> For me, “leadership” itself has never been my main goal. I am more focused on making a success of the task or team I’m working with. For me, that can be as part of a team or in a leadership role.
Q> 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?
Jane> Personally, I feel we all learn every day. I think we all have the capacity for leadership in one way or another. There are many great books on leadership, inspiring speakers, great courses etc. For me, making use of all these opportunities to learn makes complete sense.
Q> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
Jane> Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made, and by definition that’s not easy. I generally work with a group of trusted colleagues to confront the problem and work up the best possible solution. The important thing is not to shy away from the issue and to be sure that careful consideration has been given to make the best possible decisions – you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror afterwards.
Q> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?
Jane> Failure is an important part of the journey. The important thing is to learn from it and move on quickly. It is important to create a culture where people learn from mistakes and hold their hands up without fear of blame. That starts with the leadership.
Q> 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?
Jane> Naturally, there is a necessary balance between transparency and confidentiality. I believe it is always best to be as open and honest as possible as it’s generally better for everyone. But it’s also important to respect confidentiality - be that commercial, personal or legal. For me open and timely communication is definitely the default unless there is good reason to be more considered.
Q> 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?
Jane> I have been lucky enough to work with some gifted leaders over the years including Linda Davies at Mars and Paul Harrison at Marketing Sciences. They had totally different styles so there was much to learn from them both. I mentor through the Market Research Society and also to some talented individuals within Walnut UNLIMITED. I think a structured approach works best; the mentee needs to be clear about what they are trying to get from the relationship.
Q> 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?
Jane> 2020 hasn’t been an easy year for anyone. As our Understanding the Nation tracker shows, the mood across the UK unsurprising fell sharply when Covid struck and, although we saw more positivity as restrictions eased, the second lockdown showed an even bigger drop in how positive the UK population felt about life in general. I guess this backdrop means that we have been able to develop an “all in it together” spirit that has helped us navigate the commercial ups and downs. Despite the challenges there have been many opportunities and we have seen huge innovations in ways of working.
Q> 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?
Jane> I think it’s clear that diverse teams make better decisions. We all have work to do in this area and it is certainly an area of focus for us.
Q> 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?
Jane> Our company culture is essential to the success of our business. The commitment and resilience shown this year by the whole team has been astounding. We have adjusted our communication style to the working from home environment, with more frequent all-company online meetings and the cascading of information through teams. Everyone has done a great job in finding new ways to keep in touch.
Q> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?
Jane> It is vital to have a good team that can be relied upon to share the load. Having such people to lend an ear and offer solutions is absolutely essential.