Karen Blackett on authentic leadership and creating opportunity

Karen Blackett

The FT has named MediaCom UK’s chairwoman, Karen Blackett, as a champion of women in business, while her peers have voted her the ad industry’s most admired leader. A keen advocate of the bottom-line benefits of board diversity, she says that her firm’s achievements in this field are ‘not by chance’ – and suggests how other employers might emulate them

How do I future-proof my business? If you put that question to Karen Blackett – chairwoman of the UK’s largest media agency, with annual billings of more than £1bn and clients including Coca-Cola, GSK and Tesco – she’ll give you the following answer: “By having a more diverse C-suite and a team that fuels creativity by coming from different backgrounds.”

Blackett, who last year came fifth on the FT and HERoes list of the top 50 female champions of women in business and was voted by her peers as the sector’s most admired leader, has long argued that diversity at the top is crucial to a healthy business.

Her own tenure at MediaCom UK is a case in point. During her five years as its CEO (she became chairwoman in 2016), the firm won more than £790m of business and was twice voted agency of the year.

Throughout that period she featured on the Powerlist, an annual ranking of the UK’s most influential black people. In 2014 she topped it – the first businesswoman to do so – and was awarded an OBE for services to the industry.

On 8 January this year the firm’s parent company, WPP, gave Blackett the ultimate vote of confidence by naming her as its first UK country manager.

Aside from “altruistic reasons”, she says that the motivation behind her campaign for employers to embrace diversity and inclusion is to show that it is a business essential.

“Research in 2013 found that women make 83 per cent of all consumer purchasing decisions in the UK,” she says. “If you think about future purchases, one in four kids at primary and secondary schools have a black and minority ethnic (Bame) background. Bame purchasing power in 2001 was about £30bn. By 2010 that had increased to £300bn.”

Indeed, a 2015 research report by McKinsey & Co found that gender-diverse firms were 15 per cent – and ethnically diverse firms 35 per cent – more likely to outperform their respective national industry medians.

In the UK, greater gender diversity at the top level corresponded to the highest performance increase in the data set: for every 10 per cent increase in gender diversity, operating profit rose by 3.5 per cent.

The report, Diversity Matters, argues that senior-level diversity will strengthen an organisation’s customer orientation and improve its decision-making “through a greater variety of problem-solving approaches”.

But, if companies are to truly reap the benefits, Blackett stresses that they must also look beyond “binary” measures, such as race and gender, and consider aspects such as social background.

“You need to look at where people have come from in order to create a truly diverse team,” she says. “A female member of your board may have the same upbringing and education as some of the men, which means that you’re still not getting much diversity of thought.”

Privilege is invisible to those who have it, so part of the test is to look at your employee survey results and really interrogate that data

Karen Blackett in discussion

‘Data is everything’

The state of play with respect to diversity at the top level of British business remains “disappointing”, according to Blackett.

The 2010 government review led by Lord Davies highlighted the lack of women on FTSE 100 boards and set a target of increasing female representation to 25 per cent within five years. While this was exceeded – by the time Davies published his summary of progress in late 2015, 26.1 per cent of FTSE 100 board members were women – the UK still lags far behind other European countries on this measure. In France, for instance, 37.1 per cent of board members were women in 2016.

“The rate of appointment has slowed dramatically in the UK,” Blackett says. “Women also tend to be non-execs, who have less effect on the day-to-day running of a company. We still have only seven female CEOs in the FTSE 100. The situation has not changed enough.”

MediaCom UK has one of the best records for diversity in the advertising industry: 17.4 per cent of its workforce is non-white, while women make up 31 per cent of its top two management tiers. “We have good metrics in terms of women at senior levels – and that’s through effort, not by chance,” Blackett says.

If you want to follow her firm’s lead, “the first thing to do is know where you are starting. Know your numbers – data is everything,” she says.

“You then have to set a target: what do you want? What is the metric that you want to move and where do you want to be? Once you’ve set this out, you can borrow expertise so that you don’t have to do all the heavy lifting yourself. There are organisations that can help you. I have used them myself here, especially when it comes to improving ethnic diversity and social mobility.”

MediaCom has worked with GoThinkBig, an online service established by Bauer Media and O2 to connect young people seeking work experience with relevant employers.

WPP also works with Rare Recruitment, which identifies talented students with disadvantaged backgrounds at schools and universities to help them compete on a level playing field with more affluent applicants.

“Privilege is invisible to those who have it, so part of the test is to look at your employee survey results – and I hope that leaders are running regular employee surveys about a range of topics – and really interrogate that data,” Blackett says. “A survey should highlight any lack of engagement among some of the minority groups who you may think are OK.”

I create opportunity because it’ll make my business more profitable. It’s as simple as that

Unearthing potential

Like many industries, advertising is facing a skills shortage. Although it’s set to contribute £12.1bn to the UK economy this year, only by finding a reliable supply of fresh talent will it continue to thrive.

“This industry is so dynamic, fantastic and exciting, but we have the potential to lose our shine if we don’t have that great thinking and creativity coming in.

“We’ve also got to think about future clients and future trade – we’re going to be doing more deals outside western Europe, especially in Africa and the Middle East,” Blackett says.

“One of the things I’m proudest to have done in my career was to set up the apprenticeship programme here. It’s something that’s important to me because I want this agency and our industry in the UK to be a beacon of talent on the world stage.”

She established the scheme for 18- to 24-year-olds in 2012, in collaboration with the National Apprenticeship Service (now the Institute for Apprenticeships) and Tim Campbell (best known as the winner of the first series of BBC TV’s The Apprentice).

The first government-approved programme of its type for any British media agency, it leads to a national vocational qualification. To date, MediaCom has found full-time roles for 90 per cent of its apprentices.

“Ensuring that we have a talent pipeline and that we are fostering creativity means that we need to look further than universities, because not everybody wants to do a degree and not everybody can afford it,” Blackett says.

“If I think about my own circumstances as a university student, I had a grant. If I had my time again and didn’t have that grant, I’m not sure that I could have afforded to go.”

Her work as a non-executive director for Creative England, meanwhile, has provided further incentive to nurture talent. The philosophy of this not-for-profit organisation is that talent is everywhere but opportunity is not.

“I firmly believe that too,” she says. “I create opportunity because it’ll make my business more profitable. It’s as simple as that.”

Reality check

“Authenticity” is a word that you’ll often hear when others talk about Blackett’s leadership style. (“I don’t know how to be anything else – it wouldn’t feel comfortable,” she laughs.)

It’s another trait that she sees as essential to unlocking performance. She cites a 2014 Deloitte study revealing that 61 per cent of employees cover up their true identities at work in some way. According to the research report, 66 per cent of women, 79 per cent of black people and 83 per cent of LGBT+ employees do this.

“I talk a lot about being able to bring your whole self to work,” Blackett says. “It’s really important to create a culture where people feel they can do that, but this is difficult unless you understand your organisation’s make-up.”

Blackett says that a combination of self-belief and her team’s “Avengers Assemble set of skills” informs her approach. She explains: “I’ve absolutely noticed situations when I’ve been in a minority, but that has meant I’m standing out from the crowd and I’m different and memorable. I’ve always been comfortable with that.

“Of course, I have had moments where I’ve lacked confidence, but I’ve been blessed with having people in my life who have had similar experiences.

“The leaders that are inspirational to me are who they are. They aren’t pretending to have all the answers. They show vulnerability as well as courage and they rely on their teams.

“I talk a lot about Avengers Assemble – loads of people with different superhero skills coming together. It takes authentic leadership to do that. But it’s not the case that the more senior you are, the more authentic you can be. It’s something that’s already inside you.”

When it comes to encouraging employees to bring their whole selves to the workplace, Blackett emphasises the importance of language.

“Sometimes, when you talk about diversity and inclusion (D&I) in meetings, you encounter some people who feel that it doesn’t apply to them. They roll their eyes and think ‘this isn’t for me’. The people who show up to all the D&I events are the ones who are already converted or part of the minority you’re trying to help.”

Empathy can play a key role here in “reframing the conversation”, she adds. “This is simply about understanding somebody else’s point of view and then knowing how to lead them as a result. It’s just a more inclusive way – because who doesn’t want to be a more empathetic leader, one who people want to follow and clients want to work with?”

Karen Blackett

Karen Blackett on the cover of Director magazine

Back to the floor

Alongside the apprenticeship scheme, Blackett enlists the help of Shine 4 Women, an organisation that coaches high-potential women and helps them to set career goals.

“The women who attend the programme come back here and know what they want. Sometimes they’re not in the right role to achieve that, but they’re able to articulate it,” she says.

Another of Blackett’s initiatives at MediaCom UK is a scheme that uses an online platform called Open Blend to help all employees – not only women – create key performance indicators for life that they can achieve in tandem with their work objectives.

“I ban the agency from using the term ‘work-life balance’ because this makes it sound as though there’s a continual struggle between the two. Work is life and life is work – you have to learn how to blend them,” she says.

“Open Blend allows a dialogue between managers and their team members so that they get to know each other. You’re able to be more flexible with how somebody works when you realise what’s important to them. You get loyalty and productivity back in spades.”

What of Blackett’s own professional development? “There is nothing better than going back to the shop floor. I sit down with my apprentices every few months and hear about the highs and lows of their departments. During National Apprenticeship Week I swapped jobs with one of them and saw things that I would never otherwise have seen.

“But also having such a wide range of clients means that I can take the best bits of all of them and learn from these,” she says. “I’m very privileged to be able to do that too.”

Karen Blackett’s Inspirations

“My father had many sayings, one of which was: ‘You’re black and you’re a woman, so you have to try twice as hard as everyone else.’ Dad also taught me to celebrate difference – you have to be who you are, as that’s how to be happy.”

“I respect any entrepreneur. The bravery and self-belief it requires to do it yourself are qualities that I really admire.”

“The best piece of business advice I’ve ever received is: be hard on issues, not people.”

“The management book that has had the most impact on me is The Trusted Advisor, by Robert Galford, Charles Green and David Maister.”

Click here for more on the FT and HERoes top 50 ranking of female business role models

Click here for more on Karen Blackett and MediaCom UK

About author

Hannah Gresty

Hannah Gresty

Until she left the magazine in August 2019, Hannah Gresty was the assistant editor of Director. She previously worked on a local news website and at a fashion PR company before joining the Director team as editorial assistant in 2016.

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