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Bossing It: Momentum's Matt Lewis on Making People Feel Safe as a Leader


Momentum Worldwide’s president, Canada on being unexpectedly made captain of his hockey team as a kid, the importance of creating a safe working environment, and having fun while he’s at it

Bossing It: Momentum's Matt Lewis on Making People Feel Safe as a Leader
Matt Lewis is guided by his belief that in order for a brand to stand out, it must stand for something. Throughout his career his focus has been on helping brands drive long-lasting connections by creating real-world solutions that solve problems. Internally, Matt’s focus is on attracting and retaining the best talent. He believes in building teams that care about each other, are generous with their time and who are authentically curious about the work. Matt has led the growth of Momentum Canada for the past five years, including work that led to the agency’s first Grand Prix at Cannes.  

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Matt> In an official capacity, probably as captain of the high school hockey team. I wasn’t the best player, not even close, so didn’t yet understand why the coach gave me the ‘C’. I had been on the team for one season, and we had finished in last, despite having a couple of pretty good players. By giving me the opportunity to lead the coach was sending a signal that it was going to take everyone. That year we made the playoffs, despite having the same team. The main difference was that we stopped assuming that the only way we’d win was if our best players performed; we learned that every role mattered. It became less about who was on the team and more about how we viewed our contributions that brought on success. It’s critically important to ensure people understand their role and how it contributes to whatever you’re trying to do.

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?

Matt> I always had a bit of an issue with authority, which likely stemmed from my own insecurities. In certain situations, I had a tendency to be fearful of making mistakes. Starting out in one's career is scary, so there is a natural amount of anxiety that comes with it. But what became clear to me is that certain leaders created a safe environment, while others used fear. That difference is everything for me. When I feel safe, I perform as the best version of myself, take risks and feel committed to the team. When motivated by fear I became indecisive, unhappy and resentful. I never want anyone that works with me to feel that way. I want the realest version of them, and that comes with being a leader that makes people feel safe. 

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

Matt> One that stands out is when I was offered the managing director job at GMR. I had been there for about five years, working my way up from account manager to GAD as the agency grew - a role I was in for only a year when I got the call. I remember being outside a My Morning Jacket concert (remember concerts!) when I received a call from our COO Bryan Buske. He proceeded to tell me the agency lead had left and he wanted me to consider the job. I was not ready - not until I was put in the position to succeed because he made that pivotal decision to trust in me. I always wanted to give someone I believed in that opportunity; it feels great to be tasked with a big challenge and that makes you more likely to succeed.

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?

Matt> No, I never really did. While I was often a leader among close friends or sports teams, when it came to school or work I wanted no part of it. Leading meant things like speaking publicly, making tough decisions and being judged. It felt like too big of a burden. 
I think the year I spent living in Taiwan was when I started to realise that things that felt uncomfortable were good for me. I started taking chances, connecting with different people and learning a new language. Having some success in the unknown gave me confidence. I applied this to my career, took risks early, put myself in uncomfortable situations and found opportunities to take the lead. 

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?

Matt> I think at some point it becomes natural. Like anything, it gets mapped into your brain with repetition. But leaders come in all shapes and sizes. I have two little girls. Ruby is six and she is very shy, but also extremely observant. Her teacher noted that although she doesn’t speak up much, when a new or younger student joins the class, she is the first to embrace them and will speak up for them. She would never be classified as a traditional leader, but looking out for people is leadership. My three-year-old, Mei Mei, is vocal, confident and not afraid to demand what she wants. While seemingly strong leadership characteristics, we have also seen that approach go so very wrong.

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

Matt> You always feel like you must put on a brave face and make everyone believe you are okay. That has been hard this year, really hard - lots of shitty moments. I try to be honest, communicate and be vulnerable. I also try to notice when others are putting on a brave face and ask them, ‘how are you?’

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?

Matt> Yes, definitely. The biggest mistakes I’ve made stem from when I didn’t treat others with the respect they deserved. I once had to let a person go who had become a good friend. It wasn’t so much that the decision was wrong, it was the way I did it. Given our relationship it should have been over a beer, on his terms. Relationships matter so much if you want to be a leader. Without relationships, no one will follow you. I learned from this, he knows, and we’re good friends. 

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

Matt> I am on the side of transparency and honesty. Sometimes you want to hold back; working for a big company, with big clients and with people you care about can make it feel like being careful is the right thing to do. But it’s much more important to be authentic. They hired me to bring my entire self and they allow me to lead that way. 

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor? Do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Matt> No, I never did. I almost want to lie about this because now I know its importance. However, I’ve always felt supported and have so many people I can call. My brother, my former boss, a bunch of colleagues and clients, all who provide me with valuable insights and shoot me straight. I mentor two people, formally anyway. I know its cliché, but I feel like I get as much out of these relationships as I give. Their questions and our conversations force me to draw upon what I did to be successful and remind me that we are all going through the same thing at different points in time. They feel more like friendships. 


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?

Matt> It’s hard, but leading is a privilege and not something to be taken lightly. The most difficult times produce the best leaders. I try to make people feel psychologically safe, communicate our wellness programs and promote taking time off. I need to be better at heeding my own advice and leading by example in this capacity. 

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?

Matt> Well, I think I had to start with myself. It wasn’t something I thought enough about, but the past year has been enlightening. I feel like it is such an exciting time and there is so much opportunity for our industry to take major steps in becoming more inclusive. It’s going to make the thinking so much better, more important and so much more real. I want to be at a place that is part of that, but there is much for us to do as an industry at large. 


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 this past year?

Matt> It’s everything. Not just the talent we attract, but how we work together and care for each other. Team chemistry is the number one contributing factor to great work and new business wins. 

Working remotely is getting old. Don’t get me wrong, I will forever work from home in some capacity. I find it productive and a lot of the work we’ve made has been good. But it is WAY LESS FUN, and part of what we do needs to be fun - it’s what makes working in marketing worth it. 

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

Matt> People. My support system is critical to me. I speak to former colleagues all the time. They know how I work, what keeps me up at night and how to give me real advice. I haven’t always had access to good advice, but part of what inspires me at Momentum is that our executive leadership team’s doors are completely open. I don’t feel the need to set up a formal meeting; I’ll send a text or hop on the phone and get real-time advice. Recently, I’ve started to become more involved in a local industry organisation called the ICA. They are a really awesome group that brings the agency community together, provides information, training and, most importantly, connections to people with similar problems. 

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Momentum Worldwide, Canada, Tue, 25 May 2021 15:02:58 GMT