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Bossing it: McCann Montreal’s Michelle Aboud on Staying Grounded as a Leader

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SVP, managing director in Montreal on leaving your ego at the door and her first leadership experience as co-captain of a basketball team

Bossing it: McCann Montreal’s Michelle Aboud on Staying Grounded as a Leader

Michelle Aboud recently joined the executive leadership team of McCann Canada as SVP, managing director in Montreal, where she leads teams overseeing clients including L’Oréal, Nespresso, Export Development Canada and the Royal Canadian Mint. During her two decades in the business, Michelle has worked across a wide range of categories helping brands succeed across Canada and win in the unique Quebec market. Prior to McCann she worked as a consultant on business strategy for SMEs and global brands across various industries, including luxury personal care and wellness start-ups in the US and Canada. Before consulting, Michelle was partner and vice-president, account services at Montreal-based Bleublancrouge, where she played a senior role with major accounts including Sephora, Cadillac Fairview, Desjardins and Cineplex. Michelle cares deeply about the people and the work they do for clients. She’s not one to preside over things. She wants to be in it, sleeves rolled-up, actively involved in impacting the strategies and the creative work.


LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Michelle> Probably in high school as co-captain of the basketball team. I was by no means the best player on the team, but I like to think I was able to rally the troops and brought energy and empathy.


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?

Michelle> By watching other leaders and paying attention to how their teams reacted or behaved. I learned quickly that you don’t get to choose if you’re a leader, the tribe does. Are they following you because they want to or have to? Big difference.


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

Michelle> There were times when I was not courageous enough to speak up in morally questionable situations. Team members looked to me to step in and I didn’t. I regret it to this day and wish I had handled those experiences differently. The biggest lesson I took away from that experience was that being in a leadership role is a privilege. The decisions you make deeply impact people’s career paths and their lives. Always, always, always step in and speak up.


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?

Michelle> I’ve always been naturally ambitious and tend to gravitate to a leadership role. I discovered early on that I could rally people behind me. I’m an empath and have learned to embrace that side with a direct and collaborative style in my leadership.


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?

Michelle> It’s both. I definitely think there’s an element that stems from your personality and how you naturally interact with others. But so much of leadership comes from experiences – if you see every failure as an opportunity to grow, then I think you’ll do well.


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

Michelle> Learning to lead people that I believe to be way smarter than me or who have a ton more experience. That’s always a bit strange especially at the beginning of the relationship. You can’t help but wonder what you bring to the table and I get a bit vulnerable in these cases.

Having an open conversation has always helped. Understanding their motivations, goals and ambitions and being a champion for them is the way to 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?

Michelle> More times than I can count, and it is a humbling experience every time. I think it’s important to own up to your mistakes – acknowledge you didn’t handle something right - and move on quickly. Dwelling or overthinking is going to suck the energy out of you, and it doesn’t help your team stay focused on the end goal.


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?

Michelle> Every situation is different. I gravitate toward being more open with my leadership style. It makes me a better leader and helps me communicate with my team about why I am making certain decisions. Emotional intelligence counts for a lot. You have to be able to dial things up or down quickly depending on who you’re interacting with and what the circumstances are.


LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so, who were/are they and what have you learned?

Michelle> I’ve had a brilliant mentor since the start of my career. I still ring him several times a year for advice. He was my superior early on in my career and a great leader. Everyone always wanted to work for him. He treated everyone with respect, was super collaborative, and made work fun. I really admired how he kept everyone focused and on track. I think clarity of vision is crucial. Teams want that north star and will follow a leader that inspires.


LBB> And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Michelle> I don’t like being called a mentor, but prefer to act as champion for others. I am so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. I think there’s a sense of duty in offering that back to others. Removing roadblocks, helping to define career paths, or simply dusting off team members who feel trapped in the trenches…. You do what you can to make sure people are feeling confident and supported, all while having fun.


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?

Michelle> I joined the executive team at McCann in the middle of the pandemic which meant I wasn’t able to meet anyone from my team in person. That was tough. I take a lot of my cues from people based on their body language. I really wanted to build a sense of “team” but had never done this through Teams alone. They were tired and doing their best to get through long pandemic days. Some had been dealing with school and day care closures, family sickness, or with the plethora of emotions that Covid brought on all of us. Connection was important from the onset. I wanted to show as much empathy as possible and help set healthy boundaries between work and personal life. I listened a lot. I saw lots of tears. More than anything I needed them to know I was there as a support. I’ve learned over the years that two questions every leader needs to ask more often is “how are you doing” and “how can I help”.

Now that we are planning for a return to office, I joke that that darn best-selling book “How to lead your team out of a global pandemic from the comfort of your living room” is still sold out on Amazon. At the end of the day, we’re going to make mistakes, but we’re going to learn together and pivot as a team. We need to recognize that everyone’s feeling lots of things (good and bad), and we all have to be extra kind and patient.


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?

Michelle> McCann has invested a lot in this space which is great. Our industry needs to continue to recognize that the system is broken, and we have to take a holistic approach to fixing it. We need to hire more diverse talent and provide proper training and support long term. Our industry needs to also continue to bring more diversity into our creative work and have better conversations with brands around representation. Long terms strategies are key so we can rise above virtue signalling.


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?

Michelle> Culture is everything! We’ve brought the staff of McCann Montreal together over Teams for a get togethers we call Montréal Relax – hour long “chill out” times where we organize breakout rooms for us to hang out, chat and get to know each other better. We’ve had great feedback so far and it’s brought the team together. There’s a lot of energy from the folks in Montreal - I think there’s pride in our hometown, and we feed off the soulfulness and diversity of our city. Plus, the Habs making the Stanley Cup finals always brings us together!


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

Michelle> Your greatest resource will always be the people you lead. Leave your ego at the door and ask for feedback regularly. Your team wants you to be a good leader and will help you do well if they feel inspired and empowered.

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McCann Canada, Wed, 07 Jul 2021 16:49:00 GMT