with greg layton

The Inner Chief is for leaders, professionals and small business owners who want to accelerate their career and growth. Our guest chiefs and gurus share powerful stories and strategies so you can have more purpose, influence and impact in your career.

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In this episode, we meet Suzie Shaw, Managing Director of We Are Social on Life and lessons in an advertising agency, why networking is working, and owning your career.

Suzie is the Managing Director of the socially-led creative agency, We Are Social. She is a strategic and creative thinker with extensive comms and marketing experience both in Australia and the UK, across a broad range of categories.

She is passionate about championing the progress of women in leadership and is the founder of SWIMM Australia (Senior Women in Media and Marketing).

Suzie was named one of The Australian’s top 50 Women in Media, was featured in AdNews’ 40 under 40 and also AdNews’ Women of Influence.

In this episode we talk about: 

  • A day in the life of an ad agency and the lessons she learnt about the industry;
  • Why networking is actually working and how it can enhance decision-making;
  • How to own your career by being brave; and
  • The good, the bad, the ugly of social media.

Connecting with Suzie Shaw

You can reach Suzie via LinkedIn or on Instagram.

Books and resources mentioned in the episode

“I don't know anyone who's really successful and high-powered and having achieved a lot in their career who hasn't worked really hard, made sacrifices and given a lot of themselves. The data tells me that there's no easy way to the top.”


On life in an advertising agency

  • We're surrounded by mostly young, interesting, creative people and what we're talking about and thinking about all day is how to drive more awareness for brand or how to make a brand more attractive to a certain audience. And that's all done through ideas. So what you're talking about most of the days is different ideas.
  • Agencies are really simple businesses; there's two metrics and that's money in and the cost of people out and that's about it.
  • It's about people decisions and so the toughest ones are getting the structure right, which at times, is evolving, and it's not obvious if and how it should evolve. And there's no playbook on it and so you've got to figure that out.
  • Have you got the right people in the right roles? Sometimes you don't, and they are the toughest decisions to make, especially when that person is not necessarily electing that change to happen.
  • I usually look and listen out for inputs and feedback from around the business. Is the business performing as it should? Is the team happy? Are our clients happy? Is our output as strong as it could be? And if the answer is no to any of those things, you do have to start looking at the only asset you've got, which is your people. And then I will usually talk to a lot of people about it to canvas opinion and make sure that my read is right.

On lessons learnt in her advertising career

  • I had a boss who relentlessly pushed me and the whole team, and I would say his expectations of us and what we would deliver were way beyond what we could deliver. I didn't necessarily enjoy all the time I worked with him, but when I look back, I learned the most from working with people like that! I was challenged and stretched the most. What would happen is, even though you would not necessarily get to where he expected you to get to, you get along way further than you otherwise would, because he put the stretch target out there. The best growth experiences aren't always the most enjoyable ones.
  • We'd had a really tough pitch and we debriefed and said that didn't go well. And I said, she was getting up in our faces and you should have given us more headroom. And she said, “When I see a void, I fill it.” And I felt agitated by it. But when I look back now, I know exactly what she meant: you can't demand headspace and then not fill it. You've got to expect the people are going to start to bear down on you when you're in situations of pressure, when the stakes are high, and the outcomes affect more than you.

On taking ownership in your career

  • A career is like a book and you need to be writing new chapters to feel fulfilled. And that new chapter could be a new position, or it could be a new project. You don't want to feel like you're writing the same passage over and over again. But if you're writing new passages or writing new chapters, you remain very motivated. I ask myself, “What was last year's chapter and what's this year’s chapter going to be?”
  • A mentor taught me one incredibly valuable lesson when I was at a career crossroads. I was frustrated because I wasn't progressing. And she said, “Well, what do you want?” And I said I don't know. And she said, “How can you possibly expect your employer to give you what you want when you don't know what that is?” I very quickly figured out what I did want and put it forward and it wasn't awarded to me. But that was okay, I felt a bit more comfortable that at least I was clear now what I wanted. And if I couldn't get it there, I would go elsewhere and get it.
  • She also asked whether I wrote down what I've learnt in my career. When you have a difficult situation, the best thing you can get out of it is some learning. So sit down and write what you've learned. And ever since then I have got a journal of tough lessons and I just keep track of them.
  • Set some short-, medium- and long-term goals and figure out how you can work towards them. I do see people who want progression, but don't seem to want to do the work to get there. Ask for feedback and direction about where you are now and how to get to there. What do you think's holding me back? People are too worried about asking because maybe it's difficult to hear, or they don't know how to address it.
  • We're living in a world that's changing at an incredibly rapid pace. If we don't keep moving with it, we will be outmaneuvered in our careers. So you've got to take it on yourself to keep learning and driving your professional development. You can't just look to the company to do that, because the company will move forward without you.

On how networking is working

  • I've definitely purposely built my network. One of the best things I learned in my career from a really wonderful boss was the importance and the power of networking.
  • Relationships are personal; it's not like you have one kind of relationship with a business contact and another relationship with a friend. They're all personal.
  • I founded a women's network called SWIMM and it's been fantastic for me for my network for just having a peer group who you can trust to reach out to, network with and so on. I used to think that networking was about prospecting, but I now realise it's so much more than that. And you can't wait until you need something to build a relationship with someone; you've got to have built it over time.

On decision-making and being brave

  • Firstly, there are rarely wrong decisions. It's usually that there are different outcomes and one might be a better outcome than the other. At some point, you've got to make a call – usually doing something is better than doing nothing. Yes, occasionally doing nothing is good, because change will occur around you. But at least be conscious about doing nothing.
  • Be brave. I often say to my two girls, “Be strong and be brave.” Because I have learned that when you are faced with difficulty, you feel scared sometimes, and I have had to find my inner brave at times, to go ahead and make decisions about things that seem very difficult. A lot of problems that I see are because people have failed to act.

On a career being a marathon not a sprint

  • When you're young in your career, you are in a hurry and you've got it in your head, you need to be in a certain place by 30. And that person got promoted above you. And that's a big setback. But I now realise I've got to keep this going for a good 20, 30 years yet. I don't want to be in a hurry. I want to take my time to perfect the art of doing this job before I want to move on to the next one.

On juggling a career with a family

  • It's never going to feel easy, you will always feel under pressure. I have a slightly joke catchphrase, but I think it's true. “I always leave them wanting more.” So I leave the kids wanting more, but that's the great thing, they are generally very happy to see me and I'm very happy to see them.
  • We did commit from the day I went back to work to investing in help that will enable me to go out to work and be very focused on work and keep progressing in my career. It's been a sacrifice for us – we haven't had as much disposable income as you might have liked. But I'm really glad we made that choice.
  • I've trained my kids to be pretty independent. So from the age that was appropriate, they've been getting themselves off to school and rustling up a meal here and there. And I think it's really important to me to show them as a female that they can do anything and have any job you want, even a bigger job maybe than your husband.

On the good, the bad, the ugly of social media

  • Social media used to be referred to as new media, but it's not new media anymore. It is absolutely mainstream media. And it's becoming increasingly important because from a marketing perspective, it’s the best way to reach an audience because people are ad rejecting; they don't buy the messages that are put forward in advertising anymore the way that they used to, so for many brands, social media is the most effective way to reach an audience.
  • Also, it’s not just a marketing channel. For many organisations, it's a customer service channel, or it's an employee engagement channel, or it's a corporate comms and reputation management channel.
  • If you do want to employ social media for any of those things you need a strategy. And so that strategy is about understanding who you are trying to engage and what you want to achieve from it. I think individuals within organisations know that their own behaviour has been affected a lot by social media. So they understand it's important, but they don't necessarily know why they’re using it or for what, which channels to use, what content should we produce? 
  • Historically, brands were desperately trying to have one-to-one communication and social has facilitated that like no other channel. However, many organisations are just talking about customers in social rather than trying to engage in a proper conversation. 
  • Then there is a big opportunity in really building a community around your organisation. Whether you've got a brand or you're some sort of other organisation, you can attract like-minded individuals. We use the campfire analogy; your brand or your organisation can be the campfire around which people gather. And you might be stoking the conversation that happens around the fire. You don't have to do all the talking. You can generate real value by just facilitating that campfire, and bringing people together.
  • Social has facilitated conversations that have driven cultural and societal change so rapidly. The recent bushfires in Australia are a great example of seeing the experience of Australians over the last month or two coming together because we have a platform and a forum that facilitates loud and open conversation. 
  • But of course, people will say things that you don't necessarily want to hear. Leaders of platforms do need to do more to help create environments that are safe, respectful and legal. And so I think, in time, the platforms should and will do more to create safer environments.
  • One of the things that's an increased concern, particularly in Australia, but globally, is  around data misuse. And I think that's the other thing that's going to really tighten up in the next couple of years; social media’s emergence has happened fairly unfettered.

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

  • Work hard and innovate. Be prepared. Big jobs require a lot of you and don't get ground down by that. Recognise that you have the choice and if you want a big job and you want to keep going, be prepared to work hard.
  • But also innovate and chart new paths and think about different ways of solving problems. Look outside your immediate sphere for inspiration of how to do that.

Stay epic,