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Bossing It: Sariah Dorbin on Always Bringing the Velvet

Bossing It 75 Add to collection

Quigley Simpson's Sariah Dorbin shares her lessons in creative leadership

Bossing It: Sariah Dorbin on Always Bringing the Velvet

Sariah Dorbin is executive creative director at Quigley-Simpson. Sariah leads Quigley’s 30-person creative department. A 10-year veteran of the agency, Sariah leads all creative development and production for our clients, including JPMorgan Chase, Philips, ProMedica, Shell, and projects for the City of Los Angeles on behalf of the LAPD and LAFD. With experience spanning 20+ years at L.A.’s largest agencies such as DDB, Team One, and TBWA/Chiat/Day, Sariah has created and written campaigns for Lexus, Nissan, Energizer, Sutter Health, the United Explorer Card and many others. Her work has been recognized by The One Show, New York Festivals and Communication Arts, but, as a Los Angeles native, she considers her appointment to the position of Honorary Fire Chief a career highlight.


LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Sariah> A number of years ago, we had a lot going on, a bunch of big campaigns for new clients with lots of teams and freelancers working on them. One of the campaigns was just not right and not getting better. The ECD came into my office, handed me a pile of layouts and said “Unfuck this please.” It’s a phrase I will never forget. 

I sat with the team, their work spread out all over the floor in front of us. I started talking about what I liked about the work they’d done, and then about what was missing. I floated some ideas I had for shifting the work and then we brainstormed a bit together. Then I gave them some tactical next steps. And the next round we saw, it had come together. 

Honestly, it didn’t feel like leadership to me at the time. It felt like pitching in, like making the work better, which is what any good creative wants to do. But it was also about making the work work, and that’s a key part of how I view leadership: leading teams toward solutions. 


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?

Sariah> I came up in this industry in an era when managers were not really managers, they were creative stars. They were making great work themselves, but not developing the people under them. It was more like this: put your work up on the wall, receive judgment, and go fix it. I knew I didn't want to be that kind of boss, though I admit I am sometimes that kind of boss because it’s expedient and we’re all so busy. But when I take the time to share the reasoning behind my decisions, and to be more of a mentor and a coach, I see amazing results. It’s incredibly gratifying to help someone grow, and to see your team get stronger and better in real time. Being a true leader serves everyone. Being a boss serves no one. I think that’s why the word 'boss' isn’t used much anymore. It’s not a good look. 

But being a nurturing mentor doesn’t mean being a pushover. I have very high standards and am always going to push. A long time colleague once called me 'the velvet hammer.' That’s the kind of leader I want to be. That’s also the challenge—making sure to always bring the velvet.


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

Sariah> The day I realised that not everybody loved me. I thought I was doing a great job, because I knew where my heart was and how I felt about my team. But there was a definitive moment when I realised that I was not coming across the way I’d like to. Nothing in particular happened; I just woke up to the reality of how some people were responding to me. I took a really hard look at myself, not as I want to be but how I am, day to day, as a very busy person under a lot of stress. I tried to figure out where I needed to grow and be better. More importantly, I sat with each person on my team and asked them to name one thing they wanted me to do differently. It was deeply uncomfortable, but I knew I couldn’t get better if I didn’t know what I was doing badly. To their credit, every single person answered me honestly, and I’m so grateful. I learned that leaders need to listen. And learn. And change.


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?

Sariah> On a report card in elementary school, my teacher wrote that I would make a good executive. I had to ask my parents what that word meant. This is basically an embarrassing way of saying that I’ve always been bossy—uh, that is, trying to lead. But in my advertising career, early on, I don’t think I imagined I’d ever be in this role. Women never were—over the course of two decades, I knew a total of two women who became ECDs. Mercifully, that is no longer the case, and our business is much better for it. 

To do this job well requires a special skill set. I was promoted into the ECD role because I'm really good at thinking, and at explaining; at making shit happen (otherwise known as being proactive); at developing work, as well as the people making it. I have been in agency-wide reviews where many, many people are talking and the notes keep getting more and more abstract, but I can look at the work on the wall and have a very clear sense of what it could be and what it should be—we should do these three, with these changes. I have a particular set of skills that really work for this job, but I don’t think I fully knew that about myself until I was in this job.  


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?

Sariah> I don't know that leadership can be taught or learned universally. I do believe you can grow into it, and be coached into it if the potential is there. There is definitely a part of it that is innate. I’ve always been a creative thinker, but also very strategic and very organised. I’m pretty good at convincing people and bringing them around to my way of thinking. I’ve developed a lot of stamina in this business. And I can read a room. Like I said before, I can see through the fog and synthesise a lot of noise into a bottom line. While many of us may not have the confidence to know that we’re natural leaders from the outset of our careers, the right opportunity can help us grow into it. 


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

Sariah> The biggest tension, always, is between what you need to get out of your people versus the responsibility you feel in supporting and taking care of them. Everyone has a life, someone’s parent died, someone else has a sick kid, someone else desperately needs a vacation—so you want to tell them, and I do tell them, that the priority is to take care of yourself and your family, work comes second. But at the same time, there’s often a pit in my stomach about how the rest of us are going to manage. The good news is that life goes on, constantly, so once you’ve been through this you start to know you can handle it, and you somehow do. We’re very lucky in that we are a close-knit team, people care for each other, so we help each other and cover for each other. 

Another challenge I find personally difficult is disappointment in someone’s performance. Leaders are only as good as their team, truly. So when someone doesn’t deliver at the level you expect, you’re on the hook to fix the situation. And there’s often emotion attached in terms of feeling let down, or not feeling heard. My approach to this has been to start with empathy and find out what’s going on. Are they having a personal challenge? Are they struggling with the assignment? More times than not, having the hard conversation will yield understanding and a path 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?

Sariah> There have been times when I realise that I’m not actually leading; I may be issuing edicts but that’s not leadership if your team is not alongside you. I'm still learning this lesson of how to inspire people and then give them space to do their best. Part of that comes from really knowing your team and what each person’s strengths are and then playing to those strengths. And part of it is being very clear with expectations and providing the coaching people need to grow. You can’t just snap your fingers and tell them to do better. 


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?

Sariah> My answer is yes and yes—it's both. I do believe it's best to be transparent so people can feel like they're part of something and understand what they're working toward. You don’t want your team to feel like they're just adrift on a ship and they don't know what the person behind the wheel is thinking. Ideally, I would always like to be as transparent as possible, but there are times when it's not going to be the best path because you need to stay positive, and you need to help people feel supported and safe.    


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?

Sariah> Honestly, no. Mainly because I was a freelance writer for much of my career and was not on a leadership track. But I did (and still do) observe the people around me and learn from them. I watched a former ECD as he established a great rapport with his team. I watch other executives in the agency. One of my colleagues is extremely calm and patient and methodical. He doesn’t interrupt people. I’m trying to learn that from him. I’m not sure any of them would consider themselves my mentors, but I learn a lot from observing them. And from observing many leaders over the years who did a lot of things I don’t want to do. It’s been a bit of a magpie approach. 

I go about it differently with my team. I’m much more overt about making that part of what I do. Mentoring is one of my favourite parts of my job. I like working with people and helping them grow. Many people in this industry are highly skilled technically but may not be able to speak effectively to present or sell their ideas. Others can be really talented creatively but lack the critical thinking skills they need to kill it strategically. So, I started coaching soft skills. I created a curriculum for presentation skills and a critical thinking workshop based on games, and started offering seminars and one-on-one coaching sessions.  

I’ve had the pleasure of helping aspiring leaders become actual leaders over the course of my tenure with the agency. It’s entirely to their credit for being open to hearing where they needed to improve, and doing the hard work to make those improvements. I reap the benefits every day of the leaders those people have become. It’s worth every minute of your time and care to help your people reach their potential. 


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?

Sariah> The interesting thing about the pandemic and working from home is that it has been much harder in some ways but made things easier in others. I had people who were spending two hours commuting to work and now they get that time back. For me, having extra time in the morning to exercise has changed my life and my health. The challenge is just staying connected because we’re a big team and there’s no unplanned contact anymore. You can’t just walk by someone’s desk and learn what is going on in their work or their life.  

I know it’s ultimately on me to keep us connected, but I have to say it’s really been a group effort. I try to post interesting things for us to look at or read, and now others are doing that more than I am. I’ve arranged virtual lunches for us to chat about what we’re streaming or trips we’re planning—but others on the team schedule these as they feel the need. There’s a guy on our team who loves polls and puts them in our Teams channel, which is great because we get to learn about one another’s weird junk-food obsessions and secret talents and favourite Olympic sports from The Office—it’s such a fantastic, silly break from file paths and schedule attachments.

But fun aside, the most important thing to me was making sure people were safe and healthy. That’s really where my head was for most of last year before vaccinations were available.


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?

Sariah> We have always been a very diverse and inclusive agency and I’m proud of that. It extends across every department and all the way up to our executive leadership. It’s just how we’ve been built from the beginning. But we can always do better in other ways. As a leader, as someone who does the hiring, I am a gatekeeper in this industry. It’s a great responsibility, and a great opportunity, to make sure that I'm holding that gate wide open for people who truly reflect the diversity of the real world.  


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?

Sariah> Our department culture is very much like a family, we have each other’s backs. We want to be in touch. We want to support each other. I encourage reaching out, especially to new people who are starting a job in this environment. I can only imagine how weird that must be. I also encourage people to check in with each other frequently and step up when someone else is struggling. I just try to be that glue to make sure people are still connecting even though we’re not in the same place. 


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

Sariah> I read a lot. I read books on soft skills to help my coaching efforts. And I read books on Millennials because they make up a lot of my team and I want to know what motivates and drives them. I really liked Bruce Tulgan’s books Not Everyone Gets a Trophy and Bridging the Soft Skills Gap. I also find Fishbowl and Twitter helpful; it’s a good place to get a sense of what people are complaining about in their horrible bosses—and then try really hard to not do that.  


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Quigley-Simpson, Wed, 22 Sep 2021 08:01:57 GMT