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Bossing It: Why Total Transparency Is Important to Sarah Raine


Special Group Melbourne’s MD talks about the hard-won lessons of the pandemic – and motherhood

Bossing It: Why Total Transparency Is Important to Sarah Raine


Sarah Raine recently joined Special Group Melbourne as managing director in September this year, fresh from her highly successful tenure as general manager at Bullfrog. She saw the start-up creative and content agency grow from 15 to 40, expand its services and achieve triple-digit growth. She was also a client partner at CHE Proximity, where she worked on a variety of brand and retail clients such as ME Bank, AIA, Michael Hill Jewellery and Culture Amp.  

In her previous roles at New Zealand’s Publicis Mojo and FCB Auckland, Sarah has a wealth of experience in managing consumer brands such as Lion Nathan and Cerebos Greggs, as well as social change clients such as the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Social Development. Her outstanding leadership led to an IPA Gold Effectiveness Award in 2015 for the National Depression Initiative and a Yellow Pencil for UNICEF’s Food Photos Saves Lives at D&AD and a Silver Lion at the 2014 Cannes Festival of Creativity. 


LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?


Sarah> It was at high school where I had made school captain. That final year taught me a lot about responsibility and expectations. Reflecting now, I am amazed at what I had to do – study, work part-time, speak weekly in front of hundreds of students, train for two sports, organise our final awards ceremony, run a student committee - it was a lot, probably too much for a 17-year-old…


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?


Sarah> I don't know how I figured it out, but I know that I operate as a participatory leader. I try involve others and communicate openly and candidly. I find it's who I am, but also what I had mirrored from bosses whom I admired. I like the process of giving people a voice, and in turn team buy-in and comradery. I find it creates relationships by default collaboration, even creativity to solutions. I have to admit, it can make decision-making more difficult, but it's helped me build some incredible teams and achieve goals.  

I feel like visionary-styled leaders are the type that people strive to be, but for me it doesn’t align with who I am. Past leaders I have worked with who have this style can miss important details or are too focused on the future they miss out on the day to day and the present moment. 


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


Sarah> 2020 & 2021, aka Covid, was the strangest period I have ever been in. I was also pregnant, so it was the cherry on the top at a strange time. I mean, the word ‘unprecedented’ was used constantly but it really, really tested people, me included. Whether you were a leader or not, everyone’s reactions to isolation, constant lockdowns, working from home, changes in habits and the fear of the times led to massive leadership lessons. It caused me to double down in empathy and reassurance to my team, hold constant chats and check-ins and attempts to reassure those who are stressed and worried. I was also battling my own hormones and new experiences, which added to the intensity. Coming out the other side it made me appreciate what’s important in life, and how vital it is to be shoulder to shoulder with others. Hence, why I love working in the Special office, and with our fantastic team. It also proved what true client – agency partnerships look like. And that my pregnancy journey was weirdddddd! 


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?


Sarah> Growing up, I experienced leadership through my sporting captaincies and school roles, but when I started in advertising, I didn’t see myself as a leader – just a kid thirsty to learn and prove myself. I quickly found that in advertising we were mini teams, all focused on a client’s business problem and using creativity to solve it. I didn’t necessarily want to lead, but I was keen to always solve a problem, and at times I’d take the reins to help or roll up my sleeves alongside my colleagues. I think by the time I was an account director leading businesss, I realised I had leadership traits in me and was curious to see how far I could grow. 


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?


Sarah> Dare I say it, and give no real answer - I think it works both ways. There are natural leaders, and there are taught leaders. I think a lot of leadership comes from modelling and trial/error, plus lived experiences. So, in my case, a lot of my leadership skills have been learnt. 


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

Sarah> Making decisions that will let some people down is personally challenging. I constantly battle this people-pleaser aspect of my personality. Letting people down is part of the job, and I know that it’s what’s needed for the best outcome, but it still never comes easy. I trust my gut more and know that as long as I do it with the best intentions, it’ll all be all right. I have a great ability to find gratitude and to be reflective, which are awesome traits to keep things in perspective.  


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?


Sarah> I’m incredibly self-critical, which in some ways keeps me in check but does cause me to reflect A LOT… for instance, in how I handle conversations, situations and conflict. To be honest, it's tiring! One occasion that has stuck with me is where we’d received comments and decisions on casting that did not reflect what we deemed as acceptable, reflective of society and frankly, pushed right up against the team and our values. I regret not making more of a deal about this, and taking a stronger stance on behalf of the agency. 


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


Sarah> It’s been in the last few years where I have realised transparency is vital to being authentic, as I believe people will fill in the blanks themselves if not given the full story.

I have seen through experience that problems should be acknowledged openly, and decisions made as a team. I believe financial results and targets should be shared, goals and KPI’s are openly discussed, and regular development and feedback are part of a safe, strong company culture. I try to lead by showing and making sure I bring my full self to work - to be vulnerable, prioritise family commitments, be open and connect with empathy and understanding. 

I appreciate carefulness and consideration, and that there is a time and place for that, particularly with people’s personal information or challenges. 


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? 


Sarah> I have always had incredible mentors in my career. It’s something that I have consciously sought out since I was an intern. I was hungry to learn, but also needed ears and opinions that could help guide me. My first was Marcelle Baker at Mojo who taught me the power of problem solving, tenacity and team work. Jane Wardlaw and Brian van den Hurk at FCB taught me about honesty, calmness and pragmatism. Liz Fulcher has been an incredible voice of guidance to me in recent years, teaching me the power and strength in being a female, and a mum, in this industry and how to embrace the difference (and benefit) that this causes. 

I'm super fortunate to have a handful of mentees. I really enjoy speaking to them and listening to their lives. I approach the relationship with vulnerability, support, gentle pushing and radical candour.  [A shout-out to The Amazing Aunties that I have met]. 


LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?


Sarah> I think it's taught me the importance of boundaries and respecting mine and other people’s time. It forced me to make sure my “oranges are balanced” (12 oranges balanced between work, family, myself, friends and my partner) and that coping is getting enough sleep, spending quality time with my daughter and partner, and doing things I actually enjoy to full the ol’ cup up (swimming, reading, cooking, pilates and hunting op shops for retro crockery). 


LBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?


Sarah> I’m incredibly fortunate that I have worked in some progressive businesses with exemplary action in D&I, particularly within New Zealand. My personal journey of learning is a constant one and am excited to be on that path with our RAP team at Special. I find that by being curious and open, asking questions and attaching humility to learning helps me personally. Here at Special, we’ve acknowledged the journey that we need to go on, and are actively aware of how (and where) we’re hiring, conscious with our partners and suppliers, and encouraging knowledge sharing and industry support. Personally, I can't recommend Paul Callaghan’s ‘The Dreaming Path’ enough to help a kiwi living in Australia understand better. 


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?


Sarah> At Special, company culture is everything - you truly feel it when you step inside. We operate with our values Open, Kind and Brave which is a simple but powerful cultural philosophy. We recognise that each value is great individually, or even two together, but achieving three takes effort, but the return is, oh, so, potent. It's at the heart of everything – how we reward staff, how we choose new partners, how we talk and behave, how we make decisions. It’s this strong value system which has helped working remotely - we introduced peer nominated awards recognising those that embody our values, we introduced Culture Amp to capture and action feedback, we continue to use Select Wellness as our EAP service, we provided personal wellness funds for staff to help them individually, and of course continued with a consistent programme of fun and connection through virtual and in-person events. 


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


Sarah> I have a number of things that have helped me; my mentors, the Headway app for bite-sized audio books, a love of Tony Robbins and other positive psychologists podcasts, great role models. It's what works for me, anywhooo.  

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Special Group Melbourne, Wed, 07 Dec 2022 05:45:54 GMT