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Bossing It: Stepping In and Speaking Up with Christy Hiler



President of Cornett on creating the change the world needs by creating the change within yourself

Bossing It: Stepping In and Speaking Up with Christy Hiler

Christy Hiler is president of Cornett, a creative agency based in Lexington, Kentucky that aims to find connections between brands and consumers.

Hiler has worked at Cornett for 18 years. She joined as an account planner and transitioned to chief strategy officer before becoming the agency’s president. And along the way, she’s been instrumental in driving its vision and growth by applying strategy to business challenges across accounts such as A&W, Valvoline, Tempur+Sealy, Buffalo Trace, Keeneland, and VisitLEX. The small, independent shop has more than doubled its headcount and revenues since she arrived, and its creative output rivals that of any large agency.

Hiler is very much at home diving deep into consumer motivations and industry insights and she knows Cornett’s clients’ businesses inside-out. She thrives on spurring the agency’s curiosity and commitment to ideas grounded in bulletproof strategy. People and relationships are at the front of her mind at all times whether that’s the Cornett team, clients, friends of the agency, her family, or the community at large.

When she has free time, Hiler volunteers at Common Good, Step by Step, and other local organizations dedicated to helping young people excel and achieve their goals. She is also one of the founding members and leaders of BLAC - a newly formed independent agency internship collective designed to bring more young Black people into advertising, preparing them to survive, thrive and lead.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Christy Hiler> Middle school, captain of the cheerleading team.

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?

Christy Hiler> Years ago, when someone who worked under me learned her mother was dying of cancer, I told her to take all the time she needed and not worry about PTO, or anything else. I didn’t ask permission to let her take more than two weeks to stay with her mom in the hospital, but it was the right thing to do. She is still with us at CORNETT eight years later. I’ve offered the same to others over the years. Being there for people is important. 

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

Christy Hiler> When I went on maternity leave, I completely unplugged. I’m usually always available, so this was a statement. An intentional one. I wanted that time to establish my family. But I also knew other women would be watching me, and I wanted them to see they can, and should, take that time. What I’ve learned every time I completely unplug is that I can unplug and things still carry on just fine without me. We can trust our teams.

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?

Christy Hiler> I’ve always been comfortable stepping in and speaking up, thinking of what more is possible for everything I’m involved in, and rallying people around those visions.

But honestly, I am uncomfortable with titles and hierarchy. It feels so strange to have people feel intimidated by me because I am the boss. In my mind, I am probably the least intimidating person. 

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?

Christy Hiler> I think a lot of it is natural, but what we learn is how impactful that responsibility is to others. Understanding we hold the careers of others in our hands, the decisions we make, and how we show up every day to every conversation impacts others. Most people get excited about taking on higher positions until they realise that it is a tremendous responsibility to people as well as the business or organisation.

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

Christy Hiler> Letting people, and sometimes business, go. It’s always hard, but it’s the right thing to do for everyone. It creates opportunity for them and the team. 

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?

Christy Hiler> Of course! Many times. The worst was when a team made a mistake, and I used a table full of people at a meeting to illustrate how the careers of people were jeopardised. What I was wanting to share is that we escaped the consequences this time that could’ve translated to the whole team from big mistakes by individuals. But shaming people is not the way to deliver that message. I think my misstep was more harmful than the original mistake. I apologised to the whole agency when I learned how that made people feel. And spent a long time earning back trust and not having people working from a place of fear.

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?

Christy Hiler> I’m an over-sharer. I want to have real and open dialogue. I don’t want people to hold back on me, so I don’t hold back. But, and this is a big but, it only works if you are genuinely and always working out of a place of consideration for others.

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?

Christy Hiler> Yes, my stepfather and boss was my mentor before I purchased the agency. He allowed me to have and use my voice, even if what I had to say differed from what he had in mind. I learned how to listen and keep dreaming big from him, and I find myself doing the same for others. Really, it is what I do best for both the people who work at CORNETT and with CORNETT as clients. Listening and digging deep together to find big opportunities is the foundation of all my relationships.

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?

Christy Hiler> I share it. I have a great leadership team. We have met every Tuesday afternoon for the last year and a half to talk about what the team, our clients and business needs to keep pursuing our individual and collective goals. And we’ve met every one of our goals because of that.

Many of our clients needed to scale back budgets, but we saw that as an opportunity to roll up our sleeves and get even more creative. Who says you can’t get buzz for a travel destination in a global pandemic? We were able to get over 700 million earned media impressions for VisitLEX with our Queens Gambit inspired 21C Museum hotel room. 

While most of our relationships grew stronger, we parted ways with a client after 18 years. Upon arrival, a new brand director asked us to participate in an RFP. We declined for a number of reasons, deciding instead to take the opportunity to pursue something bigger. While I had to make many hard decisions last year, this one was by far the hardest. But I know it was the right one. Within 2 weeks, a really big opportunity came to us. And several others have followed since. It can be scary to walk into the unknown, but I know room is being made for something great.

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?

Christy Hiler> “Create the change the world needs by creating the change within yourself.” – Layla Saad. I had spent the previous year (2019) examining my white privilege and my participation in upholding harmful systems, which made it easier to ask the entire agency to do the same the Monday after George Floyd was murdered. That week, we put together a team to outline the agency’s commitment to change.

In addition to working for change within our agency, I have been working with other agency principals to build BLAC, an independent agency internship community working to bring more Black talent into the advertising industry, ensuring they can fully express themselves, find community and thrive.

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?

Christy Hiler> Our culture is rooted in independence, recognizing the beauty in the differences of thought and talent each person brings, but we value the collection of those thoughts and talents to make something even more powerful as a team. None of that has changed. Only how and where we collect our thoughts and talents has changed. Technology + open, creative minds working toward a shared vision has made it possible for us to stay connected to each other and our goals.

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

Christy Hiler> I love to learn, so I read everything I can get my hands on and listen to lots of incredible podcasts. But the most impactful thing I do is have no-agenda coffee check-ins with different team members every week, people at every level and position. I tell everyone I want us to keep getting better and better, and I need their help to dig out the opportunities for us to improve. The greatest thing about being an independent agency is we can create the agency we want to be. We can be whatever we want. Let’s take every small step to do something really big.

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Cornett, Mon, 20 Sep 2021 07:57:00 GMT