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Bossing It: Playing into the Power of Your Difference with Ben Harrison

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Re managing director Ben on his beginnings in theatre, getting a seat at the decision table and the importance of the culture of care

Bossing It: Playing into the Power of Your Difference with Ben Harrison

Benjamin is the managing director of Re AsiaPac, Australia's leading specialist brand and design agency. He has over 20 years of experience helping organisations leverage brand and design to better connect with culture, customers and colleagues.

As a brand and design specialist with experience in Sydney, London and New York, Benjamin has been involved in solving challenging business problems for some of the biggest and best-loved brands, including Coca-Cola, Pfizer, Woolworths, CBA, FIFA, Optus and Spotify.

Benjamin re-joined Re in Sydney as MD in 2020 after four years in the UK founding and growing Re's London studio, working for clients include FIFA, the NHS, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a raft of scale-up tech businesses.

Benjamin loves working and leading a 70-strong team working at the intersection of creativity and commerce. He has an MBA from the University of Sydney.


LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Ben> I was a theatre kid in school and university, so my first experiences of leadership was directing plays. It’s a very collaborative style of leadership and taught me a lot about trust. And the delicacy of creative egos. 


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?

Ben> I went to a very traditional all-boys school where people wore kilts and did military parades. ‘Leadership’ was hyper-hierarchical, all about attaining positions in order to exercise power. I didn’t want anything to do with it. It took me a while to learn that there are different, non-toxic leadership models. 


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

Ben> When Covid hit London in 2020, it was pretty devastating for lots of creative agencies. Leading Re London through that period was incredibly hard, but was the best lesson in radical transparency and making tough calls early. 


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?

Ben> I’ve always liked being at the centre of the action in a team or businesses. I’ve never really thought too much about ‘climbing the ladder,’ but I’ve always pushed to get myself a seat at the decision-making table. 


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?

Ben> It’s all about taking your personality and adding the skills. Everyone is a leader in some part of their life – at work, in their communities, at home. You might be a nurturing leader or a charismatic leader – you find your style, and layer on the stackable skills.


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?

Ben> Back to London in the 2020 Covid crisis, we had to make people redundant and make salary cuts. We didn’t know how bad the crisis would get. I really felt like I’d failed those young team members we had to let go. I still do. 

 

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?

Ben> I think you can be transparent and considered – they aren’t mutually exclusive. I try to be as radically open about strategy, direction, decisions, and mistakes. I’ve found people respect you more and feel safer the more you share.


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?

Ben> I’ve had several LGBTQ+ mentors in leadership through my career in various organisations, and I’ve mentored LGBTQ+ people formally and informally. I’ve learnt a lot about authenticity and playing into the power of your difference. I’ve tried to pay that forward. 


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?

Ben> I’m trying to adapt my style to the circumstances and lead in a more empathetic way. I’m typically a pretty up-beat and high-energy person. I’m trying to bring the energy that my team needs at this moment, which is finding calm. It’s a work in progress.  


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?

Ben> Re is a very progressive culture and organisation, and we’re very proud of our diversity. We are political and take a stance on issues like Marriage Equality and Invasion Day, even when that’s raised the hard conversations with staff members and clients. But we can and must always be better and do more. 

 
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?

Ben> We’re in lockdown now in Sydney and Melbourne. My focus on culture isn’t about Zoom quizzes and cocktail hour, it’s about making sure people aren’t getting lonely, that they are going for walks, having time with their kids. It’s about the basics of make sure people are as healthy and happy as people can be. It’s the culture of care. 


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

Ben> My go-to’s are Fast Company, HBR, The Economist, SXSW.com, Medium and LinkedIn. Right now, I’m listening to This Working Life on the ABC Listen app which is great, and reading The Queer Advantage: Conversations with LGBTQ+ Leaders on the power of identity by Andrew Gelwicks. Both are great.


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Re, Tue, 17 Aug 2021 09:57:35 GMT