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Leading with Inspiration: Why Focusing on Narrative and Learning Opportunities Is Key to Success

London, UK
Farah Michele Salleh, MCA’s business lead for MEA, India, Pakistan & SEA, writes about the value of challenging her consultants and pushing past what feels naturally comfortable

Farah started her journey in film school with visions of becoming a cinematographer. Life, as it often does, had other ideas. She landed in an advertising agency and worked her way through the ranks, from producer to head of AV, to account management and eventually general manager. That passage has given her a holistic perspective which she now brings to her role at MCA.  

Empowering the team

I lead a very lively and diverse team of highly experienced production experts across my region, so it’s never a dull day in my virtual office. While the operational side keeps me rather busy, it’s the interaction with my team, understanding their work, unique challenges, and opportunities that I find particularly rewarding. 

One of the biggest challenges is finding the right approach and tools to help empower them individually, because everyone’s journey is different. I try to avoid a prescriptivist approach – a cookie cutter doesn’t work across my region. You need to embrace the diversity and take on a multicultural approach, because managing people, cultural nuances and delivering to clients often differs wildly from market to market. It would be easy to tell them to do things my way, but that would only limit the very brilliance we signed them on for and disregard their extensive experience and insights which we harness to become better partners to our clients. 

But to even begin empowering my team, I first had to change my own approach to leadership. As a producer, I’m used to always being in complete control. When I first started, I was a real “helicopter mum” – from A to Z, I needed to know about every detail, from what was on their agenda, to daily client communication to KPIs. But once I took my foot off that pedal, the dynamic changed, and I slowly transitioned to a trusted advisor. Removing that bottleneck stopped constricting them on my own terms and let them get on with what they do best. And that’s when the magic really started to happen. 

Giving my consultants ownership is vital all around as they are the frontline of our MCA brand, dealing with clients day on day. That resulting vested interest gives them the confidence and leeway they need to make the big decisions in the moment. 

Communication remains key and one thing I constantly harp on about is that it’s “always about the narrative”. I’ve found writing things out really clears your head space. I now use that same approach to assist my consultants, to pull the positives out of their stories, no matter how small. It puts a whole new spin on things, especially in crisis management mode. And it is something they have come to truly appreciate - it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Provided it’s always honest. 

Learning opportunities, not mistakes

We work in such a dynamic and fluid environment where one decision can have multiple implications and repercussions, but I know my team will do what is needed. Autonomy aside, it’s important they know it’s okay to make mistakes - it happens! And from my own experience, it almost always comes from pushing the envelope, professionally or personally. But mistakes are rarely that, and even if they are, they’re learning opportunities too if you can identify and acknowledge that it needs to be done differently the next time. 

Active listening and constructive feedback play a big part in that. Macro vs micro gives me an opportunity to sort the calm from the chaos, helping to give an alternate perspective for a moment of respite and clarity … but also some mega debates, which is also always healthy. 

Through all this, I also learn how to best draw on their strengths and help guide them through their uncomfortable unknown. That support and training is crucial, as it allows my team to embrace growth and further develop their expertise, providing even better service and unexpected solutions to our clients long-term. 

At MCA, we pride ourselves on being at the forefront of innovation. From digital to virtual productions, to transformative ecosystems to new tech, we are always keen & ready to seek out new strategies and solutions that we can customise for each of our clients on a Global or local level. That often means pushing beyond their comfort zone, but they step up to it, each and every time. 

Creating a sense of unity

One of the hardest personal aspects is creating and maintaining a sense of unity and camaraderie among the team. Some markets are busier than others, which means that consultants are working at different rates. For MCA, it’s important to have a consistency of service and standards across all markets, whether that touch point is in Malaysia or South Africa. That means communicating our shared values and vision, with our special MCA touch. 

To ensure no one feels isolated, we created a consultant community for anyone in the team to reach out to at a moment’s notice. From a WhatsApp chat group to a monthly huddle, we connect, reflect, discuss and share - not just about work but even what is going on with us personally. We have become a family with a safe space to share experiences and get honest feedback from – a support system that makes us all feel part of the wider MCA network in which we can draw from at any time.  

But at the end of it all, I firmly believe in acknowledging great work. It may be in front of their peers, in client meetings, an email thread, in personal appraisals – everyone needs to know how well they’re doing and what they’re getting right which in turn, inspires them and others to challenge themselves to do the same. And I’m always setting the bar higher every time, because I have no doubt it's totally achievable.  

So, while looking after a diverse team isn’t easy, it’s a privilege to learn from such fabulous individuals while facilitating their development and the incredible work they do for clients under the MCA name.

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