By Marie Karasseferian

(Read full article in BizWomen here)

I’ve been an agency girl for most of my career, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But with the joys of agency life come the challenges as well. For me, the greatest challenges weren’t the long hours, the challenging mandates, the fast pace, and the intense personalities, the true challenges for me began when I became a manager and became responsible for the well-being, productivity and happiness of others. It is one thing to be a good marketer, communicator, strategist, accounts person… it’s quite another thing to be a good manager. Particularly a female manager. It’s been a long journey, and I’m still learning, but I must say I am proud of the leader I have become. And I’d like to share with you the top 5 lessons I learned in how to be a good female leader in the agency world.

  1. Lead as a woman

As a young manager, the greatest mistake I ever made was to try to lead as the male version of myself. Growing up, and throughout most of my career, I only had examples of male leadership to learn from (patriarchal household, patriarchal education system, patriarchal industry, etc). As a result, my understanding of what it meant to be an assertive, confident, decisive, effective leader came from observing men and trying to mimic their style and approach. And I failed miserably. I learned the hard way that the best way to lead was to step into my whole self, fully embrace my feminine self in the workplace and lead unapologetically as a woman. Find out what that means to you, lean into your feminine power, and bring your full self to the table. For me that meant balancing out my masculine leadership attributes by leaning into the following:

  • Nurturing: nurture clients, nurture team members, nurture ideas. Invest in growth and transformation. Help elevate those around you. Listen, support and coach.
  • Drawing from Motherhood: There are many transferable lessons and skillsets in motherhood. Let it be the superpower that it is. For instance, I learned how to be firm, assertive and set boundaries, yet do it with compassion, empathy and loving kindness. 
  • Providing safety and stability: Historically, emotions have been unwelcome in the workplace, considered too feminine and even unprofessional. Without openly inviting your team to share their emotions, let it be known that you offer a safe space for self-expression.
  1. Come as you are

I admit the previous point is very much from the perspective of a cisgendered hetero female mom. But the point is to be yourself, 100%. Bring your whole self to the table, whoever that is. There was a time I used to compartmentalize the different aspects of myself, and exclude them from my professional identity (like my love of spirituality, martial arts, meditation, and even past trauma – I was afraid they’d make me seem flakey or weak and that I wouldn’t be taken seriously in the business world, a world that is far more forgiving to men than to women). But in order to be an inspiring leader, you have to love and accept yourself fully as you are, “warts” and all, and you will radiate confidence. Some tips here:

  • Don’t be afraid to share your story. The challenges you faced and how you overcame them can be valuable to others going through the same. 
  • Be True to yourself and your values: Do not conceal your identity, be open and honest about your values and don’t succumb to the pressure to conform. There is a difference between fitting in at all costs and finding your tribe. 
  1. Alchemize your failures into learnings and growth

As a manager I’ve made tons of mistakes (wrong hires, mismanaged situations, micromanaging, failure to give proper direction, and so on). Each of these mistakes has taught me valuable lessons and has contributed to making me a better and better manager. In work and in life, it is highly beneficial to learn to transform your negative experiences into positive ones, which contributes to leading a happy, fulfilled life. 

  • It starts with a growth mindset and the genuine desire to be better and do better. 
  • Own up to your mistakes, and apologize for them, genuinely.
  • Forgive yourself: face those feelings of guilt and shame head on, and show yourself the same loving kindness you would show others.
  • Learn from your failures: Turn your pain into power, by figuring out how your mistakes have given you an edge in facing similar situations in the future, how spotting weaknesses have helped you develop new strengths, how changing certain thought patterns has made you a happier, lighter person, and so on.
  • Encourage your team to do the same, and foster an environment where it feels safe for them to fail, learn and grow.
  1. They call it “making a living” for a reason

Make sure the way you’re making a living is allowing you to do the actual Living. In the fast paced, high-pressure, high-volume agency environment, it’s easy to forget the distinction between your personal life and your professional life. Very quickly, one can overtake the other. If you are to guide your team in navigating through hectic times, you yourself need to have a strong practice in leading a balanced life:

  • Set clear boundaries for yourself, and encourage your team to do the same
  • Prioritize self-care and do not compromise on the activities you’ve identified as being essential to your well-being. Encourage your team to do the same.
  • Put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others. Emotional contagion is a thing. And (something else I’ve drawn from motherhood) if you are in a state of panic, your team will feel it and also panic. If you’re out of balance, prioritize bringing yourself into balance first, before jumping in to assist any team members.
  1. Personalize the experience

What works for one person, may not work for another. Each person has different hopes, dreams, aspirations, motivations, etc. Not everyone wants to be challenged in the same way. Knowing your team well and genuinely wanting to see them grow and level-up will give them the space to put in their best work.