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Bossing It: The Value of Being Authentic with Zihla Salinas


Conspiracy Theory's CEO on learning from her Mother, riding the tides of business and letting her true self shine

Bossing It: The Value of Being Authentic with Zihla Salinas

Zihla Salinas has spent her career running formidable agencies and holding companies. She co-founded Conspiracy Theory, a solutions-oriented specialist agency network, in 2021. Previously, she served as US CEO and Global CMO of ENGINE, a full-service media and marketing services company. In this role, she oversaw the organisation’s global brand identity as well as the integrated media, strategy and creative capabilities in the US Prior to ENGINE, she was the CEO of Trailer Park and opened Doner’s LA office as EVP, managing director. She also was SVP of strategy and development at MDC Partners.

LBB> What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a leader?

Zihla> My biggest lesson in leadership started with my mother. When I was a child, she founded a systems information management company and was a role model, so I watched her closely.

She used to tell me all the time that it doesn’t matter how smart you are; if no one understands your vision or direction, it’s useless.

She told me a story about a big meeting she was conducting where she was telling her team, “This is what we’re going to do,” and wrote down the five-point plan on the board to show how they were going to achieve it. And then a manager stood up and asked if she could stop her for a minute. She turned around to the room and said, “Raise your hand if you understood what she just said.” Not a single person did. This is a story I have always remembered but it never really connected until I started to manage teams.

Half the battle with leadership is good communication and understanding how to relate to other people, so they can follow what you’re telling them. Never talk above people, ask for feedback whenever you can, and make sure you are as communicative about why you are doing something as you are about how you will get something done.

LBB> When it comes to leadership as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, and how much can be taught and learned?

Zihla> I think there’s a component of leadership that is born in you. I see it a lot of times in young people—you can pick out those who will gravitate toward a leadership role and really get a thrill from it. It’s naturally part of their personality. However, I think there are tangible things you can do to work on your skills. I’ve seen people who are not naturally born leaders who invest time and effort into learning certain skills such as communication, public speaking, and delegating. It’s amazing how much it can transform their ability to work with other people and lead teams.  

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what's your approach there? You think it's important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Is there a value in being careful and considered?

Zihla> My answer is yes and yes! There is a huge value in being transparent and authentic and being careful and considered. I think the best leaders are super charismatic. And I think for you to be charismatic and somebody other people want to follow, you must be open, honest, and genuine—especially nowadays as people want and crave authenticity. I always let my true self shine.

I remember when I took my first leadership job in my early 20s, and I got a big promotion to VP. The company provided a coach who told me I needed to temper who I was, that I “needed to be more professional” because I was young. I think that was the worst advice I’ve ever gotten from a coach, because as soon as you start to temper yourself, people perceive you differently.

However, there’s also value in being careful and considered because as a leader, your job is to steer the ship and sometimes your team needs to see that there’s a steady hand in a leadership role. If you’re too open and honest and let everything fly out the door—not think things through from a careful and considered perspective—people can perceive that as unsteadiness.

LBB> It's been a really challenging year. And that's an understatement. How do you cope with responsibility of leading a team to such difficult waters? And I'd love you to be able to talk a little bit about conspiracy theory. 

Zihla> Yes, it has been a really, really challenging year. But I’d turn that a little bit on its head and say with great challenge comes great opportunity—if you know where to look for it. I think it’s been a year full of opportunities: an opportunity for us to reimagine the way we work, an opportunity to bring forth the principles of work-life balance, and an opportunity to talk about mental health in a meaningful way.

For Conspiracy Theory, it’s been an opportunity to really think about the tides of business and how they have been evolving and changing, and really looking at the marketplace with fresh eyes and a clear perspective. In the past year, we’ve brought on exceptional new partners, deepened relationships with clients, and had others tell us they really appreciated our steady hand with their business throughout these turbulent times. We found huge opportunities finding talent. We’ve added some incredible people to our team over the past year—some of the best in the business. They live in other places, in different states, and if it weren’t for the pandemic, we wouldn’t have seen these opportunities. We never would have been open to bringing these people on had it not been for this past “challenging year.”

My job is to focus on how we turn challenge into opportunity, and we found a lot of that over the past year.

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Conspiracy Theory , Fri, 11 Feb 2022 17:20:25 GMT