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Women in Business Q&A: Sairah Ashman, Global COO, Wolff Olins

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Wolff Olins

As Global COO of creative consultancy Wolff Olins, Sairah oversees operation and direction across its offices in London, New York and San Francisco. Her passion is working with ambitious leadings to help their businesses become great brands in world - the kind of radical and category defining brands that represent something special for the people who buy from them and the people who work for them. In her role at Wolff Olins, her focus is to develop the next generation of elite practitioners and strike a positive balance between delivering customer value, a commercial return and keeping everyone's creative juices flowing. Her clients to date include Beeline in Russia, Oi in Brazil and Sky. Prior to joining Wolff Olins over 20 years ago, Sairah worked in FMCG branding and, rather randomly, the ZZTop fan club in Texas. Outside of Wolff Olins, Sairah is proud to be working with the House of St Barnabas, helping the homeless back into work. She recently completed her Masters in Digital Sociology.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I had a nomadic, exotic and sometimes complicated upbringing. Much of it spent travelling the world, experiencing different cultures and being thrust into various challenging situations. It taught me to think on my feet, see things through other people's eyes and be open to serendipity. Since then I've learned that a combination of creativity, determination and flexibility can achieve pretty astonishing things. Alongside acting with a good heart and in good conscience. Most of all I've come to understand that it's almost impossible to personally grow or become good at anything without feeling out of your depth. So I've gotten comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. As a leader you're often tasked with making decisions in unknowable or ambiguous situations. You rarely have all the data or background you'd like or perhaps the opposite is true and you're drowning it. Either way you have to make timely useful decisions that can have far reaching consequences. Accepting this will always be the case and being comfortable in this state enables you to think more critically and creatively, which inevitably leads to better outcomes.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Wolff Olins?
I road tested a lot of places early on in my career to get a feel for what suited me best. Being in an environment where I can learn and be inspired is really important. As is the ability to do work that feels creative and can have some kind of positive impact in people's lives. It's hard to do a great job if your heart isn't really in it and my formative experiences helped clarify what was most important to me. They also gave me a versatile skill set and no qualms about getting stuck in at any level if it will make a difference. My first job was part-time while I was studying at college. I was the person you spoke to if your credit cards were lost or stolen in the middle of the night. I started out doing basic stuff and ended up a team leader in the time that I was there. It was an exercise in empathy and practicality every day. I remember spending an hour on the phone with a lady who's father died on a bus that day and had his wallet stolen while waiting for the emergency services. I also remember a guy who hid his cards in his oven while on holiday and forgot when he returned home to cook the family Sunday lunch. It taught me that all business is about human beings at the end of the day.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Wolff Olins?
The people and clients I work with have really inspired me over the years and the work we do is intellectually challenging which is enjoyable. The sheer variety, energy and creativity involved is amazing and puts a smile on my face every day. I've been really lucky to work first hand with pretty much all the key players in Wolff Olins' history over the years. Wally Olins died last year and I'm so grateful for the legacy he left behind and all the wonderful memories I have of working with him. I'd love to think some of their magic has rubbed off on me. I've also travelled the world and launched some wildly successful brands. Together with Marina Willer I bought Beeline (the cell phone brand) into the world and it became the most successful brand in Russia for five years running. We did the same with Oi in Brazil and Vip in Croatia. Some of my favourite jobs have often been very cause-driven ones like The Princess Royal Trust for Carers (caring for those who care for others) or Circle (Annie Lennox's charity helping disadvantaged women around the world). Perhaps the biggest challenge I've faced is moving from a very external facing role to a more internally focused one. Moving from leading clients to leading the business. It requires an entirely different kind of direction setting skill, mindset and discipline. To a large extent you set your own brief and momentum. Your horizon line changes enormously and you start planning in years rather than months. It can be hugely liberating and rewarding, but it doesn't suit everyone and takes some adaptation.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
It's a great industry to be in, I highly recommend it and would love to see more women making their way up. My best advice is to get in wherever you can and work on building your capability and connections from there. Be prepared to put the leg work in, find yourself a senior advocate or two and think about how each experience or assignment builds your overall career narrative and trajectory. I think advocacy, mentorship and training are critical. I see lot of women doing a great job labouring under the assumption their work will be noticed without any effort on their part. In an ideal world this would always be the case, but we don't live in an ideal world. Depending on which culture you're in, it can feel weird or completely off beam to sing your own praises, so if can he helpful if you have someone advocating for you when key assignments, positions and opportunities present themselves. I'm not suggesting people get all 'House of Cards' about things, but it can help to have someone senior in your corner. I always make time when someone asks for a coffee and if I can help someone develop or give them a leg up I always will. Most senior folks think this way, in my world at least, and just need to be asked. Training is obviously important, especially as you transition into more senior roles. I never would have become an MD without some formal business training. Not because I couldn't do it, but because I lacked some technical expertise (the ability to really work my way around a balance sheet for example) and the confidence to know I was fit for the task. On-the-job mentoring is also a huge component and where it all starts. Technical skill is all very well, but benefiting from someone else's wisdom and experiences is pure fast-tracking gold. I can name three mentors, three advocates and two specific pieces of training that have gotten me where I am today. I expect most senior folks have had the same experience.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I keep two thoughts in the back of my mind most days. The first is "Stand for something or you'll fall for anything". By which I mean it's important to think independently and know what you stand for, especially in tricky circumstances. I've lost count of the situations I've been in where I'm quite literally being heavied into a direction for one reason or another. I'm never stubborn for the sake of it, but if I don't think a decision makes sense or I'm not clear on why we're doing something I don't mind asking until I am, or the view changes. I guess a by product of my upbringing is that I don't believe going along with the crowd or the status quo guarantees a good outcome or even an easy life ultimately. If you know your own mind, then you know when to fight for something and when to let things go. The second is "it's a marathon, not a sprint". If you want to make a real difference in the world then you're going to need energy and commitment over the long haul. Conviction and pacing may not sound glamorous but it's a combination that can really make things happen. You have to know when to push and when to be patient in pursuit of a long term purpose. When to conserve your strength and when to really throw all your energy at something. I guess it's the classic tale of the tortoise and the hare. We live in a world that craves immediate results, but most really successful leaders and enterprises have figured out that pacing matters when it comes to long term momentum.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I'm not sure there is such a thing, so I aim for a happy blend and I think what feels right differs for each of us at different times in our lives. My husband works in the same industry and our shared background makes it easier to manage around inevitable periods of work intensity for both of us. I want to make a difference through the work I do and enjoy it, yet know that it's friends and family I'll wish I spent more time with when I look back on my life. And you're no use to anyone if you don't take care of your health and energy levels, so I'm pretty good about eating well and exercising regularly. Health, loved ones, work - in that order and more so as you get older. It's good advice, even if I don't always take it myself!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It's difficult to identify one particular issue above all others - it's so highly nuanced and multi-layered. Unconscious biases and seemingly invisible behaviours are the most difficult to break through. For example, we tend to recruit in our own image (with more senior men than women generally doing the recruiting at present), unconsciously assign characteristics along gender lines (he's assertive, she's aggressive, he's a leader, she's an manager) and social conventions can reinforce hierarchies (not everyone wants to hang out in the bar or talk about sports to get on, male or female). More women in senior positions and more styles of leadership being visibly demonstrated by both men and women makes a huge difference. They show us new ways of behaving and help establish new norms. The other big issue of course is childcare. Most fathers I know would love to spend more time with their family, so I think this is a parent issue rather than simply one affecting women. We know women usually carry more of the responsibility and with pay still not being universally equal, they often pay the price in more ways than are simply financial. Positive and practical leadership behaviour, combined with the right policies and practices can go a long way to helping more women succeed at work. And with such a competitive global economy, a shortage of key talent and the proven benefits of a diverse workforce, it's a necessity.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has been really valuable to me and especially when combined with the training and advocacy I mentioned earlier. I'm not sure mentoring alone would have gotten me quite so far. Where it's been most valuable is in helping me think through situations from a variety of perspectives and with the benefit of someone else's experience. Sometimes it's really hard to see the wood for the trees and you get trapped in your own way of thinking about things. Talking to someone who is invested in you, but not emotionally attached to a situation can be very powerful at these times. They can encourage, prod or challenge you, as well as help you see yourself in different ways. I may never have gone to Harvard Business School or embarked on my Masters without someone helping identify a gap or an itch that I had - or having the belief that I could really grow in different directions. Sometimes you just need someone to show you the way, give you a nudge or push you out the nest!

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Like most people I'm attracted to leaders who come across as very true to themselves. It's compelling to see someone very joined up in terms of what they believe, how they operate and how they talk. One of my favourite role models growing up was Anita Roddick, who founded a business called The Body Shop. I loved her single mindedness, drive and commitment to doing some good in the world. She hot housed an ethics based business from her kitchen table and turned it into a thriving international operation. She died far too early at 64 and left her entire £51m fortune to good causes. She also left behind one of my best loved quotes "if you think you're too small to make a difference, try going to bed with a mosquito". We can't all be Anita Roddick, but we can all make a difference and I see lots of amazing women leaders around me doing so every day.

What do you want Wolff Olins to accomplish in the next year?
We've launched an enormous amount of global work this year with much more to come,I'm excited for us to continue sharing it. Additionally, Wolff Olins turned 50 this year and we've been celebrating the milestone with many events across our offices, we've had two in London so far with an upcoming one in New York in the Fall.