Bossing It: Katy Thorbahn on the Importance of Observing and Doing
Katy Thorbahn, partner and managing director at Shiny, is a dynamic and inspiring leader who has spent over 30 years serving as a trusted advisor for some of the world's most respected brands. Her big agency experience at reputable firms like Razorfish paired with co-founding strategic creative agency, Shiny, allows her to forecast on-trend branding and execute best-in-class directions for her teams and clients. Katy's strategic thinking and game-changing results have garnered her recognition as a Woman of Distinction in the Philadelphia Business Journal, Best Executive in the Services Business for the Stevie Awards, and several honours with the Addys and Dead Work Awards. Over the course of her career, she has created award-winning campaigns recognized for their effectiveness. She has led work for brands like JPMorgan Chase, Lutron Electronics, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and Rite-Aid, to name a few. Katy continues to drive transformative growth in the industry through her passion for empowering women.
LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?
Katy> I had been in some leadership roles in high school like the class council and such, but the first time I ever considered my name and 'leader' in the same sentence came at the beginning of my first year at college. My school pioneered a programme to teach women leadership skills which consisted of academic classes augmented by seminars and other learning opportunities over the four years of college. It was invitation-only to apply, and I was flabbergasted when I received one of those invitations. It was a tremendous programme that introduced me to the idea of leadership, and especially the specific challenges of being a woman leader. I’m grateful to whoever nominated me, though it was kept confidential so I don’t know who to thank!
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?
Katy> Like many things in life, I figured this out primarily by observing and experiencing different types of leadership styles firsthand. I have been fortunate to work for and with many talented leaders and in some ways, just as fortunate to work with some poor leaders. Seeing what I didn’t want to be was in many ways more instructive than just seeing positive examples.
LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
Katy> Wow…a single moment or experience is hard to identify. I can’t remember any one of those single, thunderclap kind of moments. But I do remember lessons learned from talented leaders like Brad Aronson, founder at i-FRONTIER, who is probably the most authentic, focused, and caring person I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Or from Clark Kokich, who, while CEO at Razorfish had a rule that issues discussed at the leadership team level were hashed out as a team, no backchannel messages or jockeying. You said it in the room, or you didn’t say it at all. Sydney Hunsdale who was global chief operating officer at Razorfish showed me how to show up as a woman in a room and level in an industry primarily dominated by men, and not only how to hold your own, but thrive. (She also introduced me to an excellent Indian restaurant in London which was a great lesson of another kind.)
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?
Katy> Not really. I knew I wanted to work in advertising and once I landed that first job, I just dedicated myself to doing the best work I could, without a lot of thought about what would come next. What happened to me is that others saw my potential long before I did and began talking to me about it and giving me opportunities to spread my wings that I probably would not have done on my own. It wasn’t until I was given the opportunity to run the client services department at i-FRONTIER (which became part of Razorfish) that it really hit me that maybe I could be a business leader.
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?
Katy> When I was a student at the University of Richmond (in Richmond, Virginia) the University announced the creation of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. At the moment, I thought…that’s crazy! You can’t learn leadership, you either have it or you don’t. I no longer believe that’s true. Like most skills, some people have a more innate ability to lead, but that doesn't preclude other people from improving their skills and being just as effective. It just takes more focus and effort.
LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
Katy> There is a lot about leadership that I find challenging. The biggest is like many people (women in particular) I suffer from imposter syndrome. How that has played out for me in terms of leadership is that I would downplay my role as a leader, almost being apologetic about it. I remember one of my CEOs telling me that given my role and responsibilities people would always be paying close attention to what I do and say and looking to model their behaviour based on what they think I value. I was kind of blown away by that; it just felt so unreal that anyone would care what I thought or valued to that extent. Thankfully, being aware of my proclivity towards that way of thinking has really helped me put those ideas to the side so I can more fully show up as I and the team deserve.
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?
Katy> I have failed many times. One of the worst was when I was leading client service at an agency and through an error by our HR director, an employee got their hands on a list of every client service employee’s salary then circulated it throughout the agency. I was livid because I felt like it was such an affront to their colleagues’ privacy. We held an agency meeting, and I was so angry I didn't handle it effectively or, frankly, very professionally. It was really, really damaging to my relationship with my team members and others in the agency. I learned a couple of important lessons from that: one is that everyone’s ethical compass is not the same and I can’t assume that everyone will operate under the same rules of engagement. The second is that you get one shot at communicating during a crisis, and you need to be super thoughtful about how you use that opportunity. It was a painful way to learn, but the takeaways have definitely helped me over the years.
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?
Katy> The great thing about being authentic is that you can be both transparent and measured. I absolutely value transparency and think it’s critical for team members to understand what you’re doing and why. That doesn’t mean that it’s helpful or prudent to share every bit of information with everyone, which is where the idea of being measured comes into play. And of course it’s reasonable to tell people that you can’t share every single detail in certain situations. My experience has been that most people understand that and appreciate the candor of saying it out loud.
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?
Katy> I have not had one, long-lasting mentor but I definitely have had relationships with other people throughout my career that I treat like mentors. At my first job, those relationships were focused around helping me find my confidence and removing mental limitations to what I could contribute. In later years, it was more about people from whom I could model leadership and management approaches and how to grow into roles with both bigger scopes and complexity. These folks have come from different walks of life in the agency world – client services, creative, finance – which has been really helpful for me by getting a range of perspectives and thoughts.
I have mentored a few people over the years and my longest-lasting relationship is with a woman named Dana Weber. Dana and I first met when she was early in her career and looking to get into the agency world more fully than she was. She’s a dynamo, and in addition to mentoring her I had the pleasure of hiring her…twice. What is more exciting to me is that she has held a number of significant leadership roles at agencies and is now someone I turn to for advice as often as she asks for my input. It’s incredibly gratifying to see her growth, and fun for me to watch her rise in the business. She recently accepted the position of global director, client services at TPT Digital and I can’t wait to see all she’ll accomplish in that organisation.
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?
Katy> That is for sure an understatement. But I’d say I don’t feel burdened by leadership responsibility. I am very grateful to be an owner and in a leadership role and this may sound corny, but I really do consider it a privilege to lead a team, during troubled times or not. I’m also blessed with two talented partners, John Avondolio and Shannon Stevens, so I wasn’t trying to figure it all out on my own. I was always confident we’d figure out how to navigate the waters and in fact, we were able to grow our business and team during the pandemic and keep our team highly engaged throughout.
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?
Katy> It’s a reckoning long in coming, and well due. We took a few steps in the past year. First, my partners and I realised we had never formally articulated our perspective on diversity in the workplace, so we added a new value about celebrating diversity. We thought it was important to put our values into words and our words into action. We also committed to expanding our hiring practices to include HBCUs, diverse alumni groups at other universities, and engaged a few local professional organizations that are focused on driving career opportunities for the Black community. We are located in Wilmington, Delaware which is a racially diverse city, but it’s still been slow going to diversify our team. It’s going to take a lot of continued focus and effort. We are committed to continuing to bring this priority to the forefront of our talent acquisition and it being reflected in the work we create.
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 and 2021?
Katy> I fervently believe that our culture is what enabled us to not just survive the challenges the pandemic brought, but prosper. What we found was that our core values, especially those around problem-solving, working as a team, and taking ownership, were really embraced by our team members and gave us all a foundation to work from that helped us with what was a tough, tough time, especially at first.
LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?
Katy> I learn the best by observing and doing. So I’d say the “resources” that have been most helpful are the incredibly talented people I’ve had the chance to work with over periods of time.