IPA Business & Agency Leadership chair and TBWA\Melbourne CEO Kimberlee Wells discusses defining leadership, needing courage over intelligence, and why Desmond Tutu is her model leader.

TCC: When you started out in the industry, did you always know you wanted to be a leader? How/why?

KW: It depends how you define leadership. I’ve always been someone who looked for ways to challenge the status quo or champion issues on behalf of others. To that end, I guess I’ve always shown leadership but when I started out, I certainly never thought I would be a CEO of a tier one creative agency.

TCC: What was your first leadership role and when?

KW: Growing up I had a very shy older sister. She hated going to the milk bar on her own. So, I would always walk alongside her. I’d go in first and then stand back. I never bought the milk, but my being there gave her the confidence to step forward.

I tell that story because too often, leadership is aligned to rank or position. It’s not. Leadership is a choice. A choice to accept responsibility on behalf of others, to go first into places that others can’t or won’t. If you wait until your role deems you fit to lead, you could just look around and find there is noone willing to follow.

TCC: When did you know it was time to make the leap?

KW: In my case, there was no single leap moment. Sure, there have been big moments, enormous in fact – like being asked to be CEO of TBWA\Melbourne – but I have never sat down and plotted my end game. Instead, I’ve surrounded myself with wonderful people, listened to them intently and then done everything in my power to act on their behalf.

TCC: What was the biggest shift in skillset and mindset you had to undergo?

KW: As a CEO, you learn very quickly that your courage will be tested far more frequently than your intelligence. Courage to make unpopular decisions, to back judgments for which there is no precedent, to deliver really shitty news to your people, to take on complete and utter responsibility for everyone and everything. But you also learn you don’t need to go it alone.

TCC: What was the thing you were least prepared for? How did you get through it?

KW: The sometimes weird, wonderful, bleak, colourful, anxious, confident, devastating and heartwarming personal stories of our people. In the daily grind of business, where deadlines drive the clock, you can never lose sight of your people. Earlier this year, our senior leaders announced an initiative to sponsor the personal or professional ambitions of one staff member per month. The results have been staggering – particularly insofar as people feeling they can bring their whole selves to work without any fear of judgment.  

TCC: What’s been your biggest achievement?

KW: The people around me. You attract what you deserve. So, when I look around at the incredible people who helped me get here as well as those who are still riding out the rollercoaster with me, it’s a pretty humbling moment. My advice: Find your tribe. Love ‘em hard. They will be your success and your sanity.

TCC: What would you say is your own leadership style?

KW: I’d explain it as brutally soft! Some of my colleagues are a little more verbose: “no bullshitting, hard choice making, change embracing who listens, guides and brings out the best in people”.

TCC: Can you explain a little how someone’s objectives and goals change when they transition from manager to leader?

KW: When you move into leadership you are signing up to choose people over process. It’s your job to build the trust and confidence across the entire agency. To promote the growth of the entire team rather than a select few, or indeed yourself. To look in the dark corners and find opportunities rather than have them set out for you. To borrow the words of David Foster Wallace: “real leaders are people who help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear; and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own”. 

TCC: What advice would you give to help give someone greater clarity/control over their leadership journey?

KW: Advice is subjective, so I’d start with one question. Why? Why do they want to lead? Everyone wants success until they realise what it takes, so going in with a clear understanding of your motivation is paramount.

TCC: Both you and Sydney course chair Andy Pontin (Clemenger BBDO Sydney CEO) have a background in direct marketing. Is this a coincidence or is there something from this area that translates well into leadership?

KW: Our background in direct marketing has certainly meant we have a fairly unique, highly desired skillset to lead large agencies right now.  But the practice of it is not a predicator to leadership. 

TCC: Who would your leadership role model be – from any era, country or industry – and why?

KW: Desmond Tutu for his wonderfully simply statement, “Always speak the truth to power.” I hold myself to account on this – whether I’m speaking with the network or encouraging our team to speak with me. We are all flesh, blood and bone. No title should ever be so great we lose our ability to act together as honest humans.  

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