Leadership has always been in Natalie Shardan’s bones, stepping up to run projects and take on responsibility from her very first role in the industry. It’s been something that’s driven her career, taking to her to some of the biggest agencies in Dubai. She’s also kept pushing herself, educating herself on leadership and being open to learn and collaborate.
Now MD at Serviceplan Group Middle East, Natalie has faced perhaps one of her greatest challenges, helping steer the agency through the choppy waters of the global pandemic, keeping the team motivated and clients happy. Ultimately, open communication, clear expectations and fostering the agencies culture have been key.
LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?
Natalie> When I was a Senior Account Executive at my very first ad agency, I was tasked by my director to lead the annual operational plan presentation for an important client. It was a huge task for me, and I worked with the Agency senior teams in planning, as well as creative and our media Agency partners. Then I presented the plan to a group of 15 senior clients. I was terrified at the beginning, but this push from my boss back then gave me confidence, and made me realise that I have good leadership skills.
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?
Natalie> I’ve always wanted to be an empathetic leader, in an industry where consumer empathy and understanding is key, we tend to forget applying it to our own people.
LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
Natalie> It’s when I was asked to turn around a P&L and an agency in one year. I managed to get a fantastic team on board and with them this turn around happened and it exceeded all expectations.
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?
Natalie> Well I’m a Leo and Leos are born to lead! At least this is what the horoscope says...
So yes, I’ve always wanted to take on a leadership role. I made sure to listen and learn from the great leaders that I’ve worked with in the past. I’ve taken leadership courses online; I was always patient and didn’t want to jump into a role or a step if I felt it wasn’t suitable for me or if I wasn’t ready for it. I’ve set goals for myself and worked hard towards achieving them. I’ve surrounded myself with people who are smarter than me so I can constantly learn from them. I’ve learned that if you pretend to know everything you will learn nothing so I was never hesitant to say “ I don’t know or I don’t understand”, and I sought help whenever I needed it.
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?
Natalie> I believe that with enough persistence, experience and effort anyone can be a leader, but only few can become good leaders. To me, leading a successful business can be taught and learned but leading people successfully to get the best out of them and keep them motivated is something that is either in you or not.
LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
Natalie> Keeping my team motivated when there are a lot of business challenges or when I feel demotivated myself, which happens sometimes.
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?
Natalie> Of course, many times. I wouldn’t have become a leader now if I didn’t fail. I’ve learned to admit and take ownership of my failure, never be ashamed or defensive. What I’ve also learned is to make sure that I understand why I failed and ensure that I don’t repeat the same mistake again.
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?
Natalie> Leading with transparency and openness is very important, because it helps ensure that both employee expectations and employer expectations are appropriately set and fulfilled. With clear, open, and frequent communication, employees are less likely to make false assumptions about their jobs or their organizations.
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?
Natalie> It was very tough - Covid and the lockdown were new to me and everyone around me. I kept on thinking that I cannot afford to be vulnerable now, because there are people who are counting on me. I needed to stay focused and sail this ship, keep people motivated, keep a close eye on the P&L, and ensure we supported our clients as much as possible during these tough times.
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?
Natalie> Diversity and inclusion has always been an important part of Serviceplan Group’s agenda since I joined. It’s something that we are leaders are always taught to consider, so I didn’t really have to deal with it any differently. It’s part of our DNA.
LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how did you manage to keep it alive with staff working remotely at times during Covid-19?
Natalie> Culture is very important in our industry; people literally spend most of their time in the office. So if an agency has no culture it will simply lose its talent. We usually have an agency meeting every Wednesday at 4pm, and we kept this meeting virtually. We asked people to share their lockdown routine, what they cook, what they do, how they spend their time, what they’re anxious about. We had virtual quizzes, music sessions, stand up comedy sessions. It really helped tighten the relationship amongst colleagues and we received very good feedback. They all felt that they’re in it together and started opening up on a personal level. Our Head of HR also played a great role and helped people deal with their emotions and this new normal.