News & Views

5 lessons in leadership | Tamara Littleton

by Angela Lurssen
9th March 2020
5 lessons in leadership | Tamara Littleton, post image

Great leadership is about letting yourself – and those around you – be the best you can be.

In this series Waypoint Partners brings you insight from those at the top of their game across the marcoms industry. We asked them to share the most important lessons in leadership they’ve learned thus far. Here’s what they had to say.

In the latest in this series, we spoke to Tamara Littleton who is the founder and CEO of global social media agency, The Social Element; and co-founder of crisis simulation and training company, Polpeo.

We know that businesses do better if they have women on their leadership teams. The United Nations reports that businesses that have women in top positions see an increase of profit between five and 20 per cent. But women are still under-represented in leadership teams.

Here are the top five lessons I’ve learned as a leader of my own business.

1) Fail fast

It’s hard to admit failure. Failing fast means having the strength to act quickly when something isn’t working.

I learned this the hard way in 2014. We set up shop in Australia, thinking that we would work with local agencies and grow into Asia. It didn’t work. Agencies didn’t want to collaborate. The market was too small. And it wasn’t the right gateway to Asia. We lost around £250k on the venture, but it would have been more if we hadn’t faced our mistake early on.

I love the approach to failure from the X Company, the company founded by Google that created self driving cars and delivery drones. It sets ‘kill criteria’ – if one of their ‘moonshot’ projects hasn’t met certain expectations by a set time, you kill the project. This takes the emotion and subjectivity out of it, and makes it easier to move on.

2) If you can’t see a role model, be a role model

When I started in business, female entrepreneurs were still few and far between. There were even fewer LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs. So I looked to women who’d broken the mould – like Oprah, Ellen, Martha Lane Fox and Katherine Brady – for inspiration. They’ve all achieved great things while being true to themselves. It’s really important to me that we can all be our authentic selves at work.

So if you can’t see someone that looks like you in business, blaze the trail yourself. 

3) Be a rule breaker

At school, I used to sneak into the computer room at break time and code games on an old computer that was supposed to be reserved by girls learning to type. I read magazines on how to code, and taught myself. 

I carried on breaking rules when I founded my own business. I set up The Social Element to be different from a traditional agency. I knew social media would mean brands would need 24/7 cover around the world, and a 9 to 5 office-bound structure wouldn’t work. Our distributed model means we have a team of 300 working all over the world for some of the biggest global brands. We have a diversity of experience, culture and expertise that only comes from a model like ours.

None of this would have been possible if I’d followed the rules.

4) Look after your culture

Company culture should be a top priority for a leader. The success of a business depends on its people. Its culture determines whether those people are bringing the best version of themselves to work every day.

In a remote-working environment, it’s especially important. We’re all about helping our clients create genuine human connections with their customers, and we keep that focus internally, too. We do regular town hall-style webinars, physical and virtual meetups, and we encourage our teams to meet for food and drinks whenever possible. I run drop-in chats so everyone in the company can ask me anything. A healthy culture is transparent and open, and promotes trust.

Your company values shape your culture. Ours are: do it well, be one team, do the right thing, keep pioneering, and make them smile. We hire against them, and reward behaviour that matches them.

5) Be agile

When I started The Social Element in 2002, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter didn’t exist. No-one could have predicted the explosion in social media use for brands. But I saw an opportunity and went for it. We’re still constantly evolving, as the market changes. We’ve come a long way since the early days of community management and moderation, now focusing on social strategy, consultancy, creative content and engagement.

The best leaders will spot new opportunities and be ready to pivot.

Great leadership for me is about letting yourself – and those around you – be the best you can be. Don’t settle for what others expect. Follow your passion – even if you have to break some rules along the way.

Like this article? Read 5 lessons in leadership from Lisa Myers, founder and CEO at Verve Search.

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