Bossing It: Mike White
Mike White is CEO and co-founder of Lively agency. Lively has always championed Live Marketing, the sweet spot between physical and digital where engaging campaigns are created for brands. Lively develop immersive, interactive and entertaining experiences for clients including Spotify, Ericsson, Twitter, Virgin and Mazda. Mike is a hybrid and virtual strategist, speaker and influencer.
What was your first experience of leadership ?
My first experience as a leader was at my first large-scale event building stages for headline sponsor Virgin at V Festival, so I had to quickly understand the difference between directing and leading. The skill to keep to timescales without compromising health and safety, means being prepared for something to go wrong – which it usually does in a field. You have to understand that people react differently, and are relying on your to stay calm. People need to be treated as individuals but also kept safe, happy and comfortable as part of a team. That’s the moment you need to lead as well as direct – with an eye on the future in terms of hours, days and also years.
How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?
Through meeting people, and deciding whether that’s how I wanted to lead. I chose to be an open book – even after 30 years some people question this approach, but it’s kept me sane. I’m honest about my strengths and weaknesses. I can’t sit still, I love change and I have no hidden agenda.
What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
When I tried to delegate too far. I put a new team onto a huge creative project, but with 36 hours left we faced being shut down by the council. Both the client and I would have lost millions, and I was surrounded by crew, council, police and promoters of one of the biggest festivals in Europe! At that point I realised no-one was going to help me, the buck stopped with me and I had to come up with the solution – which I did with a my own money, a helicopter, a lot of Red Bull and an incredibly dedicated team willing to let me lead them. We were successful, but the main success was realising that if you’re a leader, you have to step forward: make a decision and then excite your team that it can be done.
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 was never a high achiever at school, but I always had an answer for everything. I was always happy to speak out and I always wanted to do things differently. But I also had amazing bosses who pushed me into leadership roles. I launched my own business at 18, was licensee of a pub at 21, and then ran the marketing for two pub chains at 25. It set me on track to leading my own business at 30. I guess I knew it from an early age.
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?
All of the above. You start thinking you’re a natural, but the longer you lead the more you realise you need to learn. I’ve had great mentors, coaches and expensive training courses, but I still get imposter syndrome most days.
What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
Self doubt is the biggest challenge. There is always a competitor expecting you to fail. I’ve got different tools for coping, ranging from meditation to good friends and family. I also read a lot and try to reflect on the fun experiences, and all the great people I’ve worked with, and careers I’ve helped launch. As a leader, you cannot expect praise – it’s not your job. Your job satisfaction is other people’s success and the work doing well. Of course, when someone does say thank you, you’ve died and gone to heaven!
Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?
One of the biggest challenges as a leader is having the stamina to keep going. You need to address your actions every day – look at the results, adapt, learn.
In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there?
People react well to an open approach, but it doesn’t mean 'interrupt me at any time', it means making yourself available.
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?
Careful and considered has to go before being transparent. Too much knowledge or information shared can be dangerous in a leadership role. However, it is also important to share information at the right time – and that’s why trust is important. People need to know you have their interests at heart, and you have their back.
As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned?
I have had a lot of mentors throughout my life. Most of them, probably to this day, do not know even know it - which is a weakness on my side. I have been so fortunate to have been guided throughout my life by strong leaders. What have I learned is to listen. Even when you think you know everything, listen, and recognise guidance rather than perceive criticism.
And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?
I think mentoring is becoming a word that everyone wants to own. I believe any leader should be a mentor, and I’m not sure it should be worn as a badge of honour.
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?
This year, all I have wanted to do is show people the light in the darkness. When disaster hits, look for the opportunity. This is what being a leader is about. It's not about joining in the panic, it’s about sticking your head up and rising above it and helping people out. I have coped with this by giving people work, making them feel supported and excited about what we can do. I’ve shared my own challenges to show that we’re all in the same boat.
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’ve tried to deal with this my whole life as an individual and as a leader, but now I’m calling people out more. I’ve always led a diverse and inclusive company, we educate and if necessary remove new recruits based on their attitudes towards inclusion, and we are focused on supporting projects such as Create Not Hate and Peace One Day.
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?
It is 100% important, and we keep it alive by staying connected. Sending gifts out, having virtual drinks and giving people as much time as they need for well being. We try to laugh our way through it, and the team is tight – we have each other’s backs.
What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?
Reading and talking to as many people as possible. Looking for feedback and direction every day to improve myself. After all, we are only human.