The group CEO at M&C Saatchi Australia on going from being the most junior person in the room to a leader who has to ensure he’s developing the ‘right muscles’ for the marathon of guiding his team
Despite being in his current leadership role at M&C Saatchi Australia for less than a year, Justin Graham has brought along a wealth of experience with him. The creative leader holds a fellowship from the University of Melbourne on ‘Ethical Leadership in Business’ and has held senior positions at BBDO New York, Droga5 and The Communications Council to name but a few. Here he explains how he’s adapted his leadership during this period of history and why his mantra is to focus on being respected over being liked.
What was your first experience of leadership?
As a kid, my younger sister took a few years to find her voice. She would point at what she wanted and I would communicate on her behalf. Maybe it started then, back in the early ‘80s! Throughout my life I have been fortunate enough to find myself in all sorts of leadership positions, whether that be on a sporting field, in the work environment or interests outside of work.
How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?
Observation, trial and error, leadership will always be a work in progress. The idea of a servant mentality isn’t really talked about in 2021, but the servant leader is always the model I have aspired to be.
What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
My first job out of University was as a graduate strategy consultant for the now defunct Arthur Andersen. The story of Andersen’s fall is well documented and popularised in the Hollywood film ‘the smartest man in the room’. A highly respected global professional services firm collapsing through a lack of Governance, specifically in the US. It was a fascinating time being the ‘most junior person in the room’ and I must say the way we were led out of that drama had a profound effect. The over-communication, transparency around our uncertain future and clarity of messaging gave me a positive lesson for how to lead in the dark times.
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?
I have always put my hand up when the opportunity has arisen, in all parts of my life. Peter Garrett, lead singer of the band Midnight Oil famously said ‘better to die on your feet than live on your knees’. That sounds a bit dramatic, but I guess I have always run towards leadership roles.
In terms of having it in you, I realised early on it is not about ‘you’ and it's more about realising the team around you. No movement, success or victory etc has happened through one person and solely what was in them.
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?
Firstly, leadership is a skill, and like any skill, it needs to be practiced and constantly worked on to evolve. In saying that, I think it exists more in some people than others, it just doesn’t look the same in those people, if that makes sense! The skill is also wanting to learn to be a better leader. As opposed to being born a leader.
We will talk later about the challenges of being a leader in this time in history and that points toward my belief that you need to adapt leadership for different situations. If the CFO got us out of the GFC, it will be the chief people officer that will get us out of this pandemic... So as a leader, you need to develop the right muscles for the marathon and the sprint.
What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
My first boss in advertising was a guy called Todd Sampson at Leo Burnett in Sydney. As he supported me into leadership roles he used to say ‘always focus on being respected over being liked’ So that's a challenge I carry with me.
I also like to make fact-based decisions as opposed to metaphorically ‘shooting from the hip.’ The challenge here is that leaders don’t always have the data so you just have to go with what you have. Over the years I have learned to work better in a world of ambiguity, just as well I guess with the whole pandemic thing…
The subjective nature of working in a creative industry has also been a brilliant learning experience for me. We all make creative leaps every day to build brands, so it would be mad not to embrace that in how I approach leadership.
Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?
Every. Single. Day.
I have always played a lot of sports, team and individual. In sport the parameters are a clear - set amount of time, set rules, clear outcome, obvious winner and loser. It's a finite way of thinking.
In life, and in work, those parameters don’t exist. Simon Sinek is talking a lot about this at the moment through his ‘Infinite Mindset’. When there are no set parameters, we should be thinking what is failure and what is winning, or in many cases, losing.
So as an agency leader, I have to deal with that pitch we lost, the idea we didn’t sell, the venture that didn’t get off the ground or the great creative team a rival agency scooped up. And I can’t let myself, or anyone in the team off the hook for that. But how I deal with it is to try and instil a culture of learning, of self-improvement and again of service to one another to be better every day.
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?
Great leaders are all of that. Transparent and open, while displaying genuine care and consideration for everyone around them. Whether that be agency folk, clients, partners, the media, even competitors.
That model of leadership is one I aspire to get closer to every day.
In my current role as CEO of M&C Saatchi, I have only been in the seat for less than a year. The data coming through from the team is that my focus on transparency is welcome and as such engagement scores have risen. As a leader, all I can ask for is an engaged bunch of brilliant people who feel safe in their world to offer honest feedback.
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?
I have been fortunate enough to be led by some extraordinary people, with very different styles.
I mentioned Todd Sampson before who is a hugely expansive thinker and leader, Tracy Lovatt at BBDO NY showed me how to lead and influence on a global scale I hadn’t experienced in Sydney. Troy Ruhanen at TBWA taught me the wonderful art of common sense and not being afraid of sticking your hand up. David Droga and Jonny Bauer have personified the intersection of ambition and new opportunities whilst never taking your eye off the craft of what we do.
At M&C Saatchi, Tom Macfarlane demonstrates the power of culture and commitment every day. All these people, while not formal mentors, have always been generous with their time and that's a behaviour I have prioritised to mentor those willing to commit to their own growth.
A final word on mentoring, it is absolutely the job of those wanting mentorship to drive it. Not the other way around.
The last 12 months were challenging - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?
Surfing… It's the only environment on earth that hasn’t changed! The waves are still the same, no masks, no social distancing, just mother nature getting on with it. Based on the numbers at my local break, Manly Beach, I am not the only one using surfing as a way to get through it!
In terms of this difficult time though, I take the responsibility very seriously. As a leader I have a bias towards being around people, listening, understanding, observing, which has been difficult operating through a 9 x 9 boxed video call.
So, I have had to adapt like everyone else. I also took on my current leadership position on the 1st May, 2020 so this is my new normal. Maybe that's a positive...
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?
I talk a lot about democratising our business. That manifests through capability, geography, gender, age, ethnicity. Really everything. We have a global philosophy around ‘diversity of thought’ and in an unexpected way, 2020 allowed us to put some positive air in the business when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
We have active employee-led networks that carry a strong voice in the organisation, and our cultural pulse surveys point towards both progress in this space in word and deed.
Recently we launched an initiative called ‘M&C Saatchi Open House’ A three-month program to reach out to the industry and offer expertise, community and ultimately an opportunity for interns to come into our business. The generosity from our leaders in time and engagement has been incredible to see, and as such I am pleased to see the flow of new thinkers already rocking up in new roles.
How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And did you manage to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?
I believe culture defines my behaviours, and they exist in the physical and virtual. But no question it has been hard. Strong relationships have the risk of becoming transactional internally and externally and that poses a threat to our great culture.
Practically, we have made more of the opportunities available to us. Our monthly all staff meetings became pop up concerts where prominent young Australian musicians performed for us from their bedrooms. Quite surreal, but a lot of fun.
We have made better use of our tech platforms to help people communicate, and the team has found their own ways to navigate them in a way that works for them.
There is also a sense of tribalism being formed, in a positive way. Covid-19 has forced many of us to retreat to small communities and that has been embraced in our work environment. The balance of tribalism and identifying around a higher common purpose etc is a great coping mechanism for us to actually build culture through this period.
What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?
People. Podcasts. Practice.
People - There is great leadership all around us. Actually, I found examples outside of our industry the most helpful.
Podcasts - Plenty out there. Brene Brown is always rock solid. There is a local sports podcast called The Howie Games, where Mark Howard interviews sporting men and women over a couple of hours. It's a great listen over a long run. Take 5 is a musical podcast in theory, but more an example of personal journeys (through music) Less obvious, but still very helpful.
Practice - Being open to feedback. At M&C Saatchi I have more than 500 people who will have an opinion and that's a good thing. Being open to hearing what's working and what's not is better than any Podcast or Book...