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Bossing It: Leading from the Gut with Olivia Hirschberg



Johnny Foreigner’s managing director on lessons learnt from breakdancing, staying true to your instincts and why the Californian brown bears are always boss

Bossing It: Leading from the Gut with Olivia Hirschberg

Olivia Hirschberg gained her extensive knowledge of the advertising industry by producing for some of London’s key Production Companies and award winning Directors for the last 25 years. 

She is now MD of Johnny Foreigner, a leading agent for freelance directors, and a prominent contributor to the growth of the market for independent Directors in London. 

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Olivia> When I was 12 I took breakdancing lessons. Even though I was rubbish, I really enjoyed breakdancing. We had an exam at the end of the year and I was supposed to learn a routine which my backing dancers were supposed to copy. I freestyled it instead but the guys behind me were still able to keep up and together we created a great set which got pretty good (but not top) marks. It was a good lesson that leading from the gut can sometimes work. 

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?

Olivia> It was when I had a series of female bosses freelancing in the early years of my producing career. I realised that I responded better to those bosses who were mothers. I suppose I felt nurtured and was given the time and space to express my individuality. So I decided I was going to get the best out of my crew if I listened, took their opinions into account and most importantly respected their differences. A few times, when the heat was on, I tried out being more dictatorial but it never sat well with me and I always ended up messaging people on my way home apologising…


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

Olivia> When I was filming with a brown bear in California. No matter how great your CV is, the bear is still the boss. 


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?

Olivia> No, I had no idea. Being good at what I did took many years and then eventually I worked myself to running my own company. It kind of happened by osmosis but I think I ended up here because I was kind to people, not because I wanted to become a leader. 

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?

Olivia> When I look at my two sons, (five and eight) and how they rule the house – definitely nature, not nurture! 

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

Olivia> As long as I stay true to my instincts, there are no challenges


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?

Olivia> Yes, I have, a few times. I generally fail when I don’t think things through thoroughly enough and say “f*** it'' and just go for a decision. That never ends well. I do it less and less now but when I do, then I try and stop my tracks at that very moment. If its too late and damage is done, then an immediate owning up and apology is the best way forward. Hiding your mistakes is just bullshit and most people are understanding and happy to forgive, as long as there’s honesty. None of us are perfect and mistakes are part of our nature and can lead to growth when properly addressed. 

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?

Olivia> Totally, and this is in line with my above answer. I have an honest reputation and I think my trustworthiness is based on my transparency. Being careful and considered is equally important and not mutually exclusive with transparency. 

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?

Olivia> The early years of my producing careers were spent under Karen Cunningham and Laura Gregory. These were immensely formative years and I learned a lot from both women. They both have very different philosophies and approaches to the industry which I adapted in equal measures. So you could say I am Karen and Laura’s lovechild. 

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?

Olivia> I didn’t. I had my own personal challenges due to a serious and life threatening accident in my family. The tables were turned and my team carried me. They were awesome. One might say that’s what you get from creating a harmonious team dynamic. 


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?

Olivia> I supported the movement, for sure, and I suppose I always made efforts to include the diverse. But never at the mercy of quality and creativity. For example I always make sure that my clients pull my ethnic diverse directors into a pitch because of the merits of their reel, not because they have a trending skin colour. 

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?

Olivia> You’re only ever successful if you enjoy what you’re doing so I make sure we all take on work that we believe in. Taking it on for the money never ends well. 

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

Olivia> Hanging out in nature. That never fails. 

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Johnny Foreigner, Fri, 19 Nov 2021 12:27:08 GMT