The Canadian agency’s ECD and national managing partner on keeping the bar high through trust and respect - never fear
Leia Rogers is an ECD and national managing partner at Rethink, AdAge’s Creative Agency of the Year 2021, D&AD’s #2 Independent Agency of the Year 2021, and Strategy Magazine’s Agency of the Year 2019 & 2020. She is based in Vancouver, BC. We picked her brains on leadership and learning the ropes at an agency she’s been at since she was an intern.
LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?
Leia> My path is a little unique in that I went from intern to Managing Partner in one shop. So a lot of my ‘firsts’ happened here at Rethink. It seemed as soon as I got used to one new role, I was being thrown into another one. It’s been a crash course in leadership but one that's given me a unique perspective on how the company runs and how decisions impact people at every level. We have a strong ‘promote from within’ culture and I’m proof of that. It’s been a ride.
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?
Leia> I figured out early on that I needed to just be myself and not try to mimic what I thought a typical leader was supposed to be. I’ve never been a commanding, alpha-type presence. I take a more laid-back, considered approach. I try to keep the bar high through trust and respect, never fear. When I learned to be confident in my own style of leadership, everything started to click.
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?
Leia> Not at first. I just really loved my job, and when my bosses took notice and put their trust in me, I put trust in me. I always felt empowered to lead before I was ever given a fancy title.
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?
Leia> Taught and learned, and I’d add ‘wanted’. Leadership roles aren’t for everyone, not for lack of natural ability but because some people would rather be doers, especially creatives. Not every athlete goes on to coach. But to those who want to, I’d say there’s plenty of examples of leaders, all successful, with very different personalities. There isn’t one ‘type’ that rises above the rest. The partner group at Rethink is a great example of that. Our strength as a team is in our differences.
LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
Leia> I struggle with self-doubt from time to time, but I’ve come to realise that everyone doubts themselves, everyone has their shit, and no one has it all figured out, even the ones who appear that they do. I don’t have to be the best at everything. Just confident in the things I do really well, with the ability to lean on others for what they do really well.
LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in 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?
Leia> I had a really big fail right out of the gate. I had just become a CD and I was on a call with a creative team and a difficult client. The client said something completely offensive and over the line on the call. Instead of challenging them in the moment, I let it slide, partly because I was stunned and at a loss for words, but also because I was scared of losing the client. I knew my team was disappointed by my silence, and I learned two important lessons. 1) Admit your mistakes. Be humble and apologise to your team when you let them down. 2) Don’t work with assholes. No account is worth more than the respect of your team and their happiness. Fortunately they’re no longer a client.
LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be as transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?
Leia> Being transparent is a sign of respect. At Rethink we try to be as open as possible with all of our staff about the state of the business and where we’re going. I think it empowers everyone to rally and move the business forward together.
LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned?
Leia> I was lucky enough to be mentored by Ian Grais and Chris Staples. 10 years of working with Chris and Ian was a master class in creative leadership. I’ve learned a lot from them but I think the biggest takeaways for me personally have been 1) Get off the ice and let others score the goals. You’re the coach not the player. 2) Lead by example. Be what you want to see from your team. 3) Use sports analogies and metaphors whenever possible to illustrate your point.
I’ve also received a lot of mentorship from other women in the business, both directly and indirectly. Vancouver is unique in that a high percentage of agency CDs are women. Watching other women in the market kick ass and clean up at award shows was always a big motivator for me.
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?
Leia> I try to be as human and approachable as possible. We’re all struggling, and the more you can show your own vulnerability, the more others will open up and know it's ok to not be ok. It's important to recognise that everyone’s in a really different place mentally and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. As leaders we’re inclined to ‘fix’ everything — we see a problem and our instinct is to jump to a solution. Sometimes we need to just listen.
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?
Leia> Personally, I feel a sense of relief and cautious optimism. I think for most women and people of colour, there’s been a collective ‘it’s about time.’ And as a leader, I see opportunity - the opportunity to make meaningful change in our industry, to bring diverse thought and lived experiences to make our culture richer, and to create work that reflects the communities we live in in an authentic way. I think diversity at every level and across all departments has become a must-have and not a nice-to-have and that’s really exciting.
LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of Rethink?
Leia> Culture is everything at Rethink. And I don’t just mean making it fun. Ping pong tables and beer are great but not if they’re just there to keep people at the office. You can’t manufacture great culture, but you can prioritise it and nurture it. We have a firm ‘no assholes’ policy. We hire nice, talented people, and then invest in them. Focus on people, invest in them, and give them the tools to do the best work of their careers while living balanced lives. That’s been the key to Rethink’s success.