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Bossing It: Penny Wolhuter on Why Leadership Isn’t Always Sunshine and a Bed of Roses


Managing partner of MetroEXP/Chemistry believes that your personality forms the foundation of your specific leadership style

Bossing It: Penny Wolhuter on Why Leadership Isn’t Always Sunshine and a Bed of Roses

Originally from South Africa, Penny Wolhuter moved to New Zealand in 2016, joining one of New Zealand's leading indie ad agencies, Chemistry, as a senior account director, followed by a promotion to business director in 2018.

With experience across in-house marketing at Primedia Lifestyle in South Africa and client service at global ad agency, Ogilvy, Penny’s leadership skills shone through quickly, seeing her promoted to Managing Partner of Chemistry in 2020.

Over the course of five years, Penny has helped Chemistry grow from a 6 to 31-person agency. And with the support of Chemistry’s owners Joseph Silk, Mike Larmer, Susan Young and Pat Murphy, Penny took on the role of Managing Partner at MetroEXP, Chemistry’s sister agency, in March 2022. 

Focused on production, brand design, customer activations and events, Penny has navigated MetroEXP into a new era. Pivoting from a predominantly events management company to a brand production and activations agency has added more specialism to the wider group and has seen MetroEXPs client base grow steadily in the past year.

MetroEXP counts Waste Management, Wendy’s, Ford, Pharmaco and Barkers of Geraldine amongst its clients. The agency works with New Zealand brands of any size with one goal in mind: to make amazing brand ideas happen for less than you might expect.

For Penny, self-awareness, communication, empathy and influence are fundamentals of good leadership. 

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Penny> My first experience of leadership was when my direct report at a global ad agency in South Africa left his position. I didn’t know it at the time (we were an awesome team) but I guess he did me a huge favour - I was swiftly moved into his role where I took two Account Executives under my wing - and I’ve never looked back.


LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Penny> I have learnt from many people throughout my career - both in terms of how I would and wouldn’t do things. This has brought me to the point where I know what kind of leader I am comfortable being, and that is one that mentors and inspires others to step up to leadership roles over time. I still make mistakes and I am the first to admit that this is one of the qualities that makes a great leader.


LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Penny> There are so many, but for me, it’s the reality that leadership isn’t always sunshine and a bed of roses. At the end of the day, you’re dealing with people who may be suffering from health and/or personal issues or may simply not be performing at a level that you expect. Either way, leadership requires difficult discussions, which always teach you something new in how to lead a team.


LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Penny> Absolutely not! I had no idea at the beginning of my career that I wanted to be a leader yet I’ve 'fallen' into leadership roles for most of it. My take on this is that everyone moves through their career and into roles that “feel right”, and potential leaders are given opportunities based on the gravitas that they have with their peers and other leaders in the business.


LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Penny> Personality is a major part of leadership, and there is no “right” personality or leadership style. I believe that your personality forms the foundation of your specific leadership style. Anything over and above that is learned and moulded from life experiences and experiences with former and current leaders who have inspired you.


LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Penny> As a leader my job is to inspire and guide my team so they can learn and grow by uncovering solutions themselves. However, because I want to get stuck in and help arrive at a solution, I do have to remind myself that I don’t need to be the one driving a decision for a specific outcome all the time.

My personality type drives my need to connect with others so they can do their best work. By focusing on building strong relationships with my team from the ground up I find it easier to operate with empathy and also remind them that I am leading and learning alongside them at the same time.


LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Penny> I don’t like to call it “failure”; I prefer to call it “learning to become a better leader”. Like anything in life, it’s these moments that help you learn and grow. I’m pretty hard on myself when I feel I haven’t met my or other people’s expectations; but this self-awareness, in my opinion, is an essential trait that pushes leaders to improve.


LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Penny> My leadership style is one of transparency and open communication. Without it we wouldn’t be working as a team to achieve the strategic goals we have together. We aren’t hierarchical at MetroEXP or Chemistry, so while I might be “boss lady”, we all roll up our sleeves and operate with unity and solidarity.


LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Penny> Leaders are crafted from many aspects of life - from childhood and school experiences as well as experiences with leaders in the workplace.

As soon as you enter the workforce in your 20’s, you quickly learn what good leadership is and what it means to you personally. I’ve had some pretty interesting leadership experiences in my time, and I can honestly say that both the good and not-so-great experiences have truly shaped my leadership style. You need those bad experiences to help you grow into the leader you want to be. From my perspective, all past leaders are my mentors, good and bad! 

I’d like to think that I’m inspiring leadership daily through my behaviour, actions and how I deal with situations.

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?

Penny> It is everything! Our culture and values very quickly expose any cracks in behaviour that goes against what our business stands for.

I must say that, had we not already established our culture, we would have been in a world of pain over the last few years. It is our culture that kept everyone earning 100% of their salary during the height of Covid-19 and multiple lockdowns. At the same time, we watched countless businesses slash salaries and people within days of the first lockdown.

If anything, we got more out of our people over lockdowns. Working remotely didn’t stop us from pitching for new business, having daily catch-ups with one another and even games over a tipple on a Friday afternoon. Culturally, we love hanging out with each other, and our office has a great vibe. I sometimes think we know as much about each other as we do about our own families. For this reason, it was super important that every leader in the business checked in with their teams for no reason other than to simply ask “How are you doing?”.


LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Penny> Leading my team with empathy and a set of values that we all live by daily. Leveraging people’s unique skill sets and understanding how to get the best out of each individual, not only within my immediate team but also those people in the wider organisation. Also, being open and transparent in my communication with people, so there are never any surprises, and we’re all working together to create our success, which in turn creates success for the wider business and ultimately (and most importantly) our clients. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.

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JSK Communications, Thu, 18 Aug 2022 08:02:23 GMT