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Bossing It: Taking Time to Align with Martyn Clarkson

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Jack Morton's EVP, global head of strategy on really liking people, the importance of consistency and why culture is everything

Bossing It: Taking Time to Align with Martyn Clarkson

Martyn Clarkson recently joined Jack Morton as the agency’s first-ever EVP, global head of strategy. Based in New York, he is responsible for driving the agency’s strategic vision as well as evaluating its products and processes across the network. He also works closely with the agency’s team of strategists and creative leadership to infuse insight, innovation, and ideas into extraordinary work for clients. Originally from New Zealand, Clarkson’s career has taken him all over the world from APAC to EMEA and the US. In addition to his expertise in brand development, integrated/omnichannel marketing, experiential, and change management, Clarkson has a strong background in the study of human behaviour – in particular, exploring the science of individual and group decision making and the complexity of hard-to-reach audiences. 


LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Martyn> I guess everyone’s first experiences of leaders and being led are those of your family and your teachers. I was lucky to be raised and taught by some comically, almost dangerously encouraging people. The earliest memories I have of taking on leadership were in sports teams - learning how to lead peers as well as less experienced teammates. 


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?

Martyn> I think I learnt pretty quickly that good leadership isn’t really about being one kind of leader. It only takes two people to show the shortcomings of one approach. I’ve found that pragmatic leadership is more about learning a half dozen different ways to lead and constantly practising when, for whom and how much of an approach is required. It doesn’t sell books to say it’s complicated and sometimes a lot of work, but I’ve found that work does create the right environments for most people to do their best.  

 

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

Martyn> I think I’ve learnt over time that nothing is instant. It takes time for people to align around the same knowledge, and even more time to have similar thoughts and feelings about what you’re doing as a team. The other thing I’ve learnt is that not great leadership often feels uneven from moment to moment, and good leadership feels more like a consistent environment – a million little things over time. 


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?

Martyn> I really like people. I always have. And I’ve always been curious about the way people interact and behave. I didn’t always know that I wanted to lead people, but I quickly found that I love doing what I can to help people do their best and achieve. I’ve spent most of my career trying to do more of that. 


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?

Martyn> I think it needs work, continuous development and education. I think there can be parts of people that make them inherently conscientious or empathetic. But the best leaders are adaptable, empathetic, positive and have patience. I’ve never met anyone who has all of those tenets and doesn’t have to work on most of them in some form.

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

Martyn> I still think that consistency is the bedrock of relationships, and it can’t be understated how important it is in leadership. I believe it builds trust and at the end of the day trust is the thing that gets you out the door of the aeroplane. I have always found that consistency is a challenge if your role is wide-ranging and changing from day to day.

 

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?

Martyn> I don’t think it’d be an exaggeration to say I probably feel that way every day to some extent. I’m honest about the fact that there’s always something I could have done better. But I’m also realistic about what that means in the big picture. There have definitely been a few instances when I couldn’t do anything to change an outcome, and in those situations, playing the long game sometimes got me further faster than if I tried (and failed) to notch the win.  


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?

Martyn> I think most people realise there’s a difference between information and knowledge. Part of leadership is presenting information so that your people develop the relevant knowledge they need to succeed. For that to work, there has to be trust and so I would say that honesty and encouraging everyone to feel they can be themselves is the approach that has served me best. 


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?

Martyn> There are a lot of people who have mentored me, and a lot more who have kindly taken the time to teach me. I’ve also been lucky to have a succession of largely kind and empowering leaders who have taken an interest in me and shown me support along the way. 

My first manager was a reformed journalist and he taught me a lot about respect for people, regardless of their views – and especially, of their backgrounds. He always used to smile wryly while reciting the adage, “you can say anything about a person in print as long as you spell their names correctly.” I took that metaphorically to mean that every little thing might not matter to someone, but you should take the time to find out what does. 

I do try to offer support to people as they grow their careers. I don’t know if any of them think of the relationship as mentor and mentee, but I’d take their call and listen anytime.  I try to make sure I’m available for an array of people with different goals and backgrounds. I've found over the years the more diverse people you can connect with in this way the better they help you too to broaden perspectives and see different perspectives. 

 

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?

Martyn> I think perspective is important. I tend to approach tasks with real enthusiasm, but I try to temper that with a constant tone that the things that matter most are the purpose and the people we do it all for. I think the leadership qualities I mentioned earlier: adaptability, empathy, positivity, and patience are really important when times are challenging. Every member of my team will have experienced the pandemic and its challenges differently so I try and adapt to different ways of working and communicating, to be empathetic to different experiences and what they’re going through, to remain positive and big picture when things are on fire, and to be patient enough to recognize the space people need to work through ideas and challenges.

 

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?

Martyn> I think a lot of what I’ve already spoken about. Using many different approaches to leadership, creating the environment for all types of people to succeed, treating everyone with respect. 

Diversity exists in a myriad of ways – it's about how each one of us experiences the world. I do believe that when our teams reflect the communities in which we live and work, we best represent the diversity of thought and expression we must have in the creative services. 

In order for agencies to be more representative of our communities and be DEI+B positive, we have to actively embrace those initiatives at all levels. Change is rarely easy, but it is what makes us human. And we all deal with it differently. For people to adopt this mindset and change long-held practices and behaviours – especially for those who may be resistant to change – DEI+B has to be a strategic business priority that comes from the top and is driven by leadership. That means actively participating in and promoting DEI+B initiatives, as well as ensuring that your teams have the bandwidth to participate and engage as well. 

And support your HR partner, they have some of the most challenging and critical jobs in business right now. 


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?

Martyn> Culture is everything. I’m lucky to have recently joined a fantastic group of leaders at Jack Morton who have created and maintained an environment of extraordinary achievement. What we do doesn’t happen without the right environment made and grown by everyone. I see the teams I work with focusing on positively supporting each other and it’s inspiring when I find a moment to reflect on it. 


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

Martyn> It’s always people with time over books and authors. When I have had the time and space to get an amazing story out of someone, I find those tales stick with me and surface in the moments I need them most. Leadership is a journey, and sometimes you’re in the wrong place or with the wrong people, but if you keep moving forward you’ll get to go great places with great people. 

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Jack Morton, Thu, 24 Feb 2022 09:55:37 GMT