Kate Aurel-Smith says it was during her early career days at university, working with a renowned events firm that first taught her the value of team-work.
Now Associate Director at Ogilvy PR Melbourne, Kate’s role these days is less about impressing; and more about ensuring an environment where her team feel supported.
We had a refreshing convo about the challenges for leaders under immense pressures in agency environments and what we can do collectively as an industry to help our people succeed.
As an Associate Director, managing people is a large element of your role, in addition to managing P&L and managing client expectations. What’s the biggest misconception around Director level roles?
Everyone knows you need business acumen to be in a leadership position, but I think the biggest misconception is that leaders automatically know how to engage and earn the respect of the wider team (and not demand it). I think it’s fair to say it doesn’t come easily to a lot of people in leadership positions – it’s a skill that can take a long time to develop and is certainly something I continue to refine every day.
How can we do a better job at supporting people who rise up the ranks to develop these skills?
I believe really good managers have it instinctively, but that’s a small percentage.
Reflecting on my own experience, managers need to practice self awareness and ensure that reflection is something they treat just as seriously as any other part of the job. I think many managers assume they can learn it on the job – but it’s something you need to consciously, actively practice and get constant feedback on. It generates better self-awareness too.
I think as an industry, we can all do a better job in helping people to succeed by upskilling them in soft skills, just like any other job training programme. Self-reflection gives people an opportunity to improve their resilience, communication and conflict resolution skills at work. As a manager, it’s about showing, not telling.
The topic of resilience is a recurring theme with our senior female leaders in the Leading Ladies series. Is this something you’ve experienced in your career to the top?
Oh definitely. I’ve had experiences where I was undermined often by a female manager. The amazing thing was I wasn’t consciously aware of how much it was affecting me until I started talking to someone about it. And that’s when I realised it was having a profound effect on my internal self talk and my overall confidence at work.
That sounds really confronting. And equally confusing – like, shouldn’t the women above us be helping us?!
Absolutely they should. Unfortunately some women don’t place value on the sisterhood! It was exhausting to be honest. The first thing we – as women – should do when something doesn’t feel right is reach out and ask for help, but I think women feel they have to battle it out on their own and be everything to everyone. It’s ok to ask for help!!
It was a hard experience, but essentially it’s helped me develop better awareness, resilience and an intolerance to certain negative things in the workplace. I’d like to think I’m now well equipped to handle most things that get thrown my way!
So how’d you turn things around?
The first step was acknowledging and recognising the behaviour by talking about it with a trusted friend in confidence. I didn’t realise I needed to talk to someone, I thought I should just ‘toughen up’. But by talking about it, I got real perspective on the situation.
The more I learned to recognise what wasn’t right, the more I noticed the feelings I would get. I’d have that anxious feeling in my gut every time I went to work. I felt shaky and nervous about doing simple things I was completely competent at. I was completely unsupported by my manager.
I eventually realised it actually had nothing to do with my performance at all. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t recognised it earlier and that I’d been putting up with so much!
How can others help if they see something like this go down at work?
I think as an industry, we need to do a better job of demonstrating to colleagues that we ‘have their back’. Undermining statements which imply you’ve done a terrible job are accumulative and can have a big impact on confidence.
A bully at work avoids confrontation and thrives on isolation. But the more they’re faced up to, the less power they have.
A confidant advised me to confront some behaviour which was somewhat terrifying. But doing something as simple as facing them directly across the table, sitting up straight in their immediate direction, looking them straight in the eyes and calmly (on the outside!) reiterating key points that I had answers to, was damning!
If you see something in the boardroom and don’t feel confident speaking up at the time, telling the person afterwards you have their back is a great way to let them know they have an ally.
For managers reading this who want to improve, where could they start?
A really powerful tool is actually listening to the words that come out of your mouth and ensuring you’re aware of the impact they’ll have on the people around you.
If you’re having a crappy day, take ten minutes to focus on what you need to achieve and what messages you’re sending your team. Your role as a manager is to ensure a positive, supportive environment – a flippant comment can really impact people.
If something goes wrong, it’s not about pointing the finger. It’s about admitting we messed up, regrouping on lessons learnt, what we won’t do again, and what we’ll do differently next time. You should be so lucky to muck up – it’s the only way you and your team learn big lessons. Blaming someone – directly or passively – will only shatter the confidence of the people around you.
Finally, can you share some tactics you’d recommend to our readers wanting to know how to get ahead at work and get the attention of good people managers?
Managers are super impressed by proactivity. This can be anything from offering to own a component of a project outside your immediate scope to leading brainstorms to being the team’s social coordinator. It’s a good way to demonstrate what you’re capable of.
Put your hand up and ask to be involved in the wider strategy process or lead a part of a project, so you can demonstrate your thinking and learn from it at the same time.
If you want something, it’s up to you to make it happen. Everything is in your hands if you want it.
My parting words of advice? You can’t be good at everything, but you are good at so many things.
Photography by House of Sage Agency.