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Bossing it: Tanya Vragalis on Respect and Authenticity



Tanya Vragalis, managing director fo TBWA\ Sydney talks failure as a learning process, the innate qualities a leader always needs to have and transparent, empathetic work

Bossing it: Tanya Vragalis on Respect and Authenticity

Tanya is an experienced business leader and integrated marketer with a fierce passion for building brands, the power of creativity and leading high calibre teams. She has over 18 years of experience in the advertising industry that has stretched across a diverse range of blue-chip and global clients including Amazon, Commonwealth Bank, Samsung, Telstra, Optus, Diageo, CUB to name a few.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Tanya> It started way back at school. I had this undeniable desire to have responsibilities beyond being a student, so I tried out for leadership positions within the school and just my luck, I was selected as head prefect, class leader and on the student representative council committee. I loved every minute of it.

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?

Tanya> I feel incredibly lucky to have been exposed to many diverse types of leaders during my career. Some great ones, and some not-so-great ones. There were lessons from experiencing both types that made me realise what I do and do not want to become as a future leader.

The other part to this was ensuring I stay true to myself, living my values through my leadership. Empathy, Respect, Authenticity and Being Open are just some of the things that are my non-negotiables in life, so I do my very best to emulate this through my leadership.

Finally, asking for feedback. I only know whether I am being the leader I aim to be, by asking people about the impact I am making and how I can better meet their needs. 

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

Tanya> No doubt the pandemic has taught many lessons but for me personally, it has given the biggest lesson in leadership – always be open to change, do more listening than talking, transparent open communication and show people you care. It surely sounds obvious, but these ingredients are part of what helped drive what was one of our strongest years in the most uncertain time. Huge learning curve over last two years.

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?

Tanya> From a young age, I knew what I wanted to do when ‘I grew up’ so there was always an ambition within me to achieve, but I didn’t really plan to be a leader, it sort of happened by osmosis – I love a challenge, I love driving things forward and I love being part of people succeeding. Which then leads you to leading projects, accounts, team, department and eventually an agency. 

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?

Tanya> Being a leader absolutely does need learning. However, to be influential, inspire and naturally have people follow you; that is something that can’t be taught. It is innate. It is a magical thing.

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

Tanya> As a leader, it is on us to galvanise team, drive high performance, make people feel safe, inspire and so on – but hardly anyone ever asks how you are doing. Not because they don’t care but because they look at you as the person that has it together and steering the ship so to speak, so it’s sort of expected that you’re all good. It can be lonely at times, but I am lucky to have a great network around me, within our leadership team but also friends, colleagues and family who keep me grounded, and are a sounding board when required. That helps me be a better leader and the happiest version of myself.

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?

Tanya> Oh for sure. Hasn’t everyone? Failure is the ultimate lesson and key to growth. I truly believe that and look to foster that spirit within the team. Fail, fail fast and learn. You get to know yourself better and you learn way more from it than always winning.

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?

Tanya> My approach is to simply ‘be me’. No raa-raa, no shoot from the hip, hype things unnecessarily. I want leadership that is transparent, empathetic and authentic so I aim to lead in that way. Sure, you must remain calm, confident and create boundaries, but it cannot be at the cost of losing people's trust. Understanding the benefits of honest and forthright communication is an important lesson – truth and openness spread knowledge that empowers our people and business to do better work together. 

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?

Tanya> I tried having a mentor, but it didn’t feel natural to me. It felt forced and awkward. Maybe because I didn’t have the right one. So, I quickly realised that I am actually surrounded by some amazing people that I've been lucky to meet throughout my life. They mentor me every day in ways they probably don’t even realise - they all teach me different lessons and experiences that have been an integral part of my journey. My parents have also been a huge influence professionally and personally. My dad because he is a no bullshit kind of guy, that helps me get to clarity very quickly. And my mum taught me empathy which is a hugely valuable lesson in leadership. Having a husband and kids who are your massive cheerleaders tops it off.

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?

Tanya> For me it is simple: all changes need leadership. People needed a sense of security, support, closeness, and structure during the uncertainty. We are fortunate that we have a clear agency vision and strategy so in times like these, the strength and clarity of our offering helped galvanise our Collective toward our north star. Whilst it was a challenging year on many fronts, our people have been incredible – they continued to perform at the highest standards for our clients and our business. Total legends.

Personally, in order for me to be my best self for our people, I kept up regular exercise, connected with my support network to release pressure and made the most out of the additional time (maybe too much time, ha!) I had to spend with my kids and husband. Very centring.

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?

Tanya> No challenge was going to get in the way of us continuing our commitments to DE&I. We have a committee who are super passionate about this area & ensure that we don’t take our sights off our commitment. They are inspiring.

We partnered with Diversity Council Australia to undertake a self-examination to help determine the need for change and from there we identified our key initiatives. We continued with our education program hosting learning sessions on unconscious bias, cultural training. We ran our bi-monthly Disruptor Series, where we invite diverse speakers in to share their personal stories on how they have driven cultural change irrespective of their industries. We continued to develop our RAP which has received provision endorsement. We continue to build a diverse supplier list, and we worked through changes in our recruitment process to minimise unconscious bias. Finally, our aim is to create work that represents, celebrates and supports Australia’s diverse culture, partnering with cultural advisors as a key input. 

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?

Tanya> It’s everything, especially in creative companies. A strong culture breeds brilliance in every aspect.

We did a lot in 2020 to make sure we had a rewarding and connected culture but the most important first step was setting up a COVID team who were responsible for guiding the decisions & actions in support of senior leadership throughout the pandemic. This then led to things like our COO personally delivering desks and chairs to our people to ensure they were adequately set up; adjusting our Mental Health & Wellbeing program to focus on live issues like ‘Dealing with Uncertainty’ and ‘Parenting at home’; lots of virtual fun events organised by our Social Collective; continuing our weekly whole company meeting - a forum to celebrate our work, people, wins and open comms about impact of COVID. 

Managers stayed close to their team to ensure they were doing okay throughout and above all, we liberated our people to ‘do you’ which gave them the support and flexibility to work in a way that worked for them and supported their individual situation and needs during these tough times. 

Our monthly survey enabled us to get a temperature check on how people felt & where we needed to take action. We still managed to get shortlisted for several industry awards as a company and for various campaigns, so all in all we did pretty well to come out the other side stronger.

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

Tanya> Learning from people around me, listening to their stories and watching how they handle things. Reading industry publications, listening to Podcasts like ‘Fearless with Charles Day’, reading books like ‘Drive’, attending talks to be inspired and having open empathetic conversations with clients. 

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TBWA\Sydney, Thu, 18 Nov 2021 12:35:17 GMT