Best Boss Series: Nikki Gatenby, Managing Director, UK​

Nikki Gatenby is a leader, writer, speaker and consultant in her role as MD and co-owner of Propellernet, a globally operating, digital marketing agency based in Brighton, England. Her business has been named one of the top 20 Best Places to Work in the UK since 2013, and billed as one of the most progressive search agencies in Europe, in parallel with achieving strong commercial success; tripling margin, quadrupling revenue and generating ten times more profit in the last decade.

What do you think are the qualities of a successful leader?

Life is precious, a successful leader makes life better and in turn, makes the world a better place.

Business was created by humans, not the other way around, business should be there as a force for good, not something people become slaves to.

With the right leaders, we can all be successful. With the wrong leaders, the exact opposite can happen.

The ability to be people focused, lead with a purposeful vision and leave a positive legacy is paramount. This is so important in the wake of the destruction we face in the pursuit of commercial gain. Yes, business has commercial drivers, however, we need to balance the pursuit of profit with that of being people focused, through having a strong purpose beyond making money. Purpose gives your business a reason to exist. A reason for your people to believe in you.

When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this? 

There were two major milestones – one, a significant new business pitch, the other, an ongoing business transformation.

1. The Pitch

When working in a London agency over a decade ago, I lead my small team to win the largest international pitch the agency had ever taken on. We started out with the UK business and there were four of us, at the height of the relationship we had recruited 44 people across 26 European markets – in an extremely high-pressure environment, I had the highest staff retention across the business and the most impactful team. My strategy is to develop a strong culture, creating resilience to the challenges we faced whilst enabling people to feel safe enough to have space to think creatively.

2. The Business Transformation

More recently I have been on the journey of taking my digital agency, Propellernet, from a startup to a global player. The impact shows up in the numbers, over the last decade we have tripled margin, quadrupled revenue and generated ten times more profit, whilst being voted one of the best places to work in the UK for the last six years running.

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Share with me your greatest leadership success/experience. 

At the start of Propellernet, we were a small, unremarkable search agency based in Brighton. 15 of us with no real game plan, apart from holding onto enough clients to make the next payroll run and trying not to drown in the unnecessary process. Our focus on purpose was latent, not clearly defined. Building our client base was our sole priority. We pitched a lot and we won a lot but had no real strategy behind whom we wanted to work with.

Commercially we were on a knife edge when I took a close look at the numbers we were only billing 30% of our time to clients, that’s only a day and a half a week!?!

No wonder our staff retention was s high, our team were all having far too much fun to want to look elsewhere. But when we tried to recruit to grow the business, the soul-crushing “Propeller-who?” from recruitment consultants, was all too common. We had yet to make our mark on the industry. We could have disappeared and no one would have cared.

So what I’m proud of, the greatest achievement is how we grew up. How we went from unremarkable to being ‘super-engaged’, from Brighton to global, from our own particular breed of mayhem to one of the best places to work in the UK.

And on that journey we’ve been named Search Agency of the Year, European Agency of the Year, won the Grand Prix at The Drum (our industry creative awards), been awarded multiple accolades for clients as well as launching two technology products into the world to make life better in the PR industry – both of which have gone global.

We’ve made such a difference to so many people’s careers along the way. 98% of my team would recommend to others to work at the agency. In the face of disastrously low global engagement levels at work (languishing around 30%), we’ve flipped the statistics. It’s not been easy to do and there’s still more to be done, but it’s immensely rewarding for everyone involved. (I’ve been asked to talk about the Propellernet journey over the years and have now captured it in a book Superengaged, which has been a journey in itself!)

Transparency and honesty at work and in work is everything”. Marc J Halsema, Chief of Staff and General Counsel to Pennington Partners & Co, USA

Recall your biggest managerial challenge. Tell me how you handled this. What did you learn that you might do differently next time? 

As part of the strategy for international business growth, I took on setting up a French arm of a London agency, to enable us to be closer to the client’s international hub. I found it immensely challenging because it felt so isolating. As someone who enjoys the company of others, who likes to ‘bounce’ and build on creative ideas and someone who enjoys seeing others thrive in working together, taking on a more solitary role was hard.

It taught me a lot, from many angles. Particularly to have even more conviction and confidence in my own ability and strengths, so to dig from within as well as bouncing with others. But it also taught me when to ask for help, knowing when to put your hand up is as important as knowing when to look within.

It’s often the hardest things that stretch you the most. Looking back, it’s been the catalyst to change in the way I operate now, so I look back with appreciation.

Common opinion states that in order to be successful in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of the world’s most domineering companies seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be very successful in business and still be a nice/kind person? 

Yes. And increasingly this is the case. We live in a world where only 30%of the global working population are engaged in their jobs, meaning the other 70% are turning up probably not bringing their full selves to work, possibly just hoping not to get fired.

What a waste of our collective human intelligence is that?

Ruthless businesses and ruthless leaders are part of the problem, they don’t build engagement. They will not survive in the knowledge economy, the age of the dictator in a business telling people what to do is being eroded.

The most successful companies of the future won’t hire smart people and tell them what to do in locked down conditions, the most successful companies of the future will hire smart people, get them happy and let them do the rest.

Imagine the business results if the other 70% of our global workforce were engaged.

Happy people do better work than miserable people, it’s not rocket science but it’s rarely factored into the business plan.

“The great leaders know how to “go up on the balcony” to get some perspective on what really matters”. James H. McLaughlin, Founder and CEO, USA

What vision or goal are you working towards in your career? What accomplishment would you like to retire with? 

We have the ambition for Propellernet to be the best place to work in the world.

Our employee engagement levels are soaring at 90%+ and over the years as I’ve stood on stage and talked about how we run the agency, many people have asked for more if I could share the story further, if I could write a book. So this year I’ve done just that and ‘Super-engaged’ is due out in October. I’d love it to be a best seller to enable the ripple effect of our ‘Make Life Better’ philosophy to go beyond the walls of the agency and into the wider world. I subscribe to the notion that ‘we’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time’ so let’s wind up our engagement and enjoyment levels to the top.

Let’s talk about managing pressure – how do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go to plan? Not lashing out on those around you is a skill – what are your tips? 

I enjoy a certain level of pressure and I don’t really have a temper, I grew up around people who argued a lot and I know it doesn’t work for me. I prefer to think, rationalise, explore options and look for silver linings. The way you think profoundly affects the way that you feel and I know how to create a wealth of solutions to problems that simply wouldn’t come to the fore in anger.

In the past, I have tended to internalise pressure, rather than lashing out. But that’s dangerous in itself. Through previous overwork (90 hour weeks, no holiday, rarely a weekend off) I’ve hit burnout, one morning I work up unable to move. My body had hit the limit and was telling me in no uncertain terms to stop. Having reached that level of physical and emotional pain, I have learnt how to deal with pressure differently. So I have four tips;

1. Breathe – We can control so much with our breathing, we can reduce our fight or flight reaction to danger, we can reduce the production of adrenaline and cortisol and we can give ourselves vital thinking space.

2. Don’t judge, understand why – I’ve been in challenging situations and rather than fight fire with fire, I tend to ask myself why something is happening. You find you have more compassion that way.

3. Lead with Unconditional Positive Regard – Unconditional positive regard is the backbone to my coaching qualifications and it’s very powerful. To think that everyone around you is doing their best – they just may have more on their plate than you could ever know about, so to give them space to be safe and share. Shouting at someone rarely resolves anything.

4. Know when to say ‘no’ – Don’t take on too much, it’s hard to do but so obviously detrimental to performance. A jockey friend once said to me ‘you can’t ride two horses with one arse’, which always makes me laugh.

At times, we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself? 

I recognise it, don’t brush it under the carpet – that way danger lies. And I know it will change. Nothing ever stays the same, it’s a test to get through and will make you stronger. And hold Leonard Cohen’s thought close: ‘There a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in’. It’s a very calming thought.

And I surround myself with positive people. People who make me laugh. People who help the good endorphins to flow. They’re my soul food.

Working in an organisation where business culture isn’t people oriented, how do you create an environment where people want to work for you/in your department?

You take action. You don’t sit on the sidelines and wait for someone else to make it happen. You take the bull by the horns and do it yourself. To be a leader, you don’t wait for someone to give you a leadership title. You are a leader by your actions, not what it says on your business card.

Most large organisations today have a strict bonus and pay raise policy, which makes it difficult to reward people even when you know they truly deserve it. In the absence of monetary rewards, how else do you keep people motivated? 

You can’t bribe people to stay in a business with money. They will be loyal to the cash, not the company.

Reward goes way beyond money. It’s important, of course, we all have lives to fund. We also have brains to engage and hearts to inspire.

So how do you do that? You listen to people, you work out what’s wrong and what’s good, work out how to solve the former and do more of the latter, taking everyone along on the journey. Being listened to is so important, as is having a voice.

If leaders don’t listen to those around them they will be surrounded by people with nothing to say. Reward people with your time and attention and embrace their opinions. It goes way deeper than a paycheck.

Some managers believe in a strict hierarchy and the “do what I say approach”, sighting cultural norm as an excuse. What are your thoughts on this? 

I’d like to ask them why.

Why are they employing people and telling them what to do? Why is their way, the right way?

Why is the cultural norm used as an excuse? What are they afraid of?

How about doing the opposite – hire smart people and get out of their way, encourage and empower them to bring new ideas in.

I encourage everyone to have a side hustle (paid or unpaid, entirely up to them) and I ask every person when they pass their probation what their life dreams are – some of our teams’ dreams have made it onto our business plan. Imagine the sense of loyalty that engenders in the workforce – who are working on what they love and loving what they do, (not because we told them to, because we asked).

How do you decide to be available to your team and to support them? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you that does not interrupt your workflow? 

We work in communications, so we need to be good at communicating, but that doesn’t mean being available 24/7.

Our flexible working pattern means we have core hours of 10am – 4pm that we all flex around depending on work and life priorities.

I’m available to my team through physical presence in the office 3-4 days a week and virtual presence online (slack/email) and phone. My diary is an open book and people can see where I’ve got time available to catch up (it also means they know when I’m working on something). Face to face is best, but we don’t always have the luxury of being in the same place at the same time to make that happen.

My energy levels for focused work are better in the morning, so I tend to do most of my thinking and ‘flow’ work from 7am – noon. Then it’s a shift in energy and getting out and about, connecting, catching up and being available. We’re all different, we aim to do what works best for each other.

How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team? 

Transparency is so important for building trust. We share everything. From our mission, vision and values (obviously), right through to how we make decisions (hiring, commercial) and our P&L. We share the tough stuff as well as the good news. It acts as a catalyst for invaluable feedback and a springboard for developing a sense of personal responsibility. Some people are shocked at the level of sharing and I’ve been asked before ‘Where’s the catch?’ There isn’t one, you can’t hide a catch in transparency.

How do you best harmonise your work and personal life – for a healthy balance? What are your biggest challenges around this? 

That’s a constant challenge for me. I love what I do so much that it’s hard for me to turn my head off work and into life. I don’t actually believe the two can be distinctly separated and balanced 100% right the whole time. I’m more in tune with a work/life continuum – flexing and bending my hours around what is most important that day, that week. It’s taken me years to manage it to a healthy level, it’s not always perfect, but it works for me and my family.

How do you respond to employees/colleagues who are diagnosed with mental disorders, e.g. depression or anxiety? 

This is becoming more prolific as we are becoming more comfortable with talking about mental health and wellness in the same way as physical health and wellness and I wholeheartedly welcome it.

However, much as people are happy to talk about it, that puts an incredible amount of pressure on the person they are sharing it with, to know what to do. It can be overwhelming if you are worried about a person’s mental health but unlike a broken leg, there isn’t a logical and straightforward way to help. We’ve recently signed up to become qualified in Mental Health First Aid across Propellernet, it’s a whole field of support, much like Physical First Aid, that can help both the person with mental health issues and the person they are sharing it with.

The thing is to know that you don’t have to have all the answers.

Like any challenge, the first thing is to listen. Let them know it’s ok to not be ok. And openly discuss what may help.

Sometimes an employee is not working out despite your best efforts and you know that this relationship is not serving them or the business. At which point do you decide to part company and how do you go about it? 

Talk to them. If someone doesn’t know what’s wrong, they can’t correct it.

It’s no use being rubbish at difficult conversations and hoping the problem will go away. Hope is not a strategy.

Talk to them, treat them like an adult. Back to Unconditional Positive Regard – people will always surprise you.

And help them if they want to leave. A positive alumnus is a powerful thing. The best people never really leave you anyway.

The Best Boss Coaching Project brought to you by Talent Investors is here to promote excellence in the workplace. Throughout 2018 we are speaking to people from across the world, and across different industries, regardless of the companies’ size or their job title. Over the course of 52 weeks, you will be introduced to 52 bosses, from 52 backgrounds, answering 20+ questions. All designed to motivate you to lead, and grow effectively. We are here to provide wisdom from, and recognition for those every day other people’s lives better.