Learning to lead with Gillian Davis

Few things in life are as difficult as learning to lead for the first time. How do you inspire confidence among your team while at the same time getting them to deliver results? How do you balance what the individual wants with what the company wants? And how do you build a strong culture, a culture built on empathy and trust? 

We sat down with Gillian Davis, the Head of Studio Experience at ustwo and the co-author of The First-Time Leader, to discuss this and much more. 

Gillian’s key learning takeaways:

  • Own your story. You are your own best author so don’t be afraid to tell your story exactly the way you want it to be heard

  • Push hard to develop new skills, even if you find it uncomfortable at first. Gillian’s own experience of learning to speak in public underscores the importance of embracing your anxieties head on.

  • But don’t just jump straight into the deep end! Build a strong support network around you and reach out to a coach or mentor.

  • Make sure you understand the people you lead. Knowing what makes them tick is the key to unlocking their potential. Spend the time to figure this out before implementing your strategy; it will pay dividends in the long run.

What’s been your best learning experience so far?

Real life experiences have shaped my outlook the most. Learning in a classroom is one thing but applying that learning in a live context is something else entirely. For me, it’s always been about the latter: I learn the most through actually doing.

The best example I can give is public speaking. I’m super shy by nature so I always hated giving speeches and presentations at school.

“My teachers always thought that there was something wrong with me because I was so silent in class! But it’s an obstacle that I’ve learnt to overcome through putting myself out there.”

When my book  came out, for instance, I realised that no one was going to talk about it on my behalf as much as I would have liked. But not only that: no one, except me, could tell the story like I could – it was my story and I wanted to own it.

And how did you go about owning your story?

Giving talks as much as possible! My first speech wasn’t even related to my book; it was more a matter of going through the process and feeling comfortable. The first talk I did was actually on friendship and the power of having good relationships – this was for a women’s fitness day.

Yet the daunting thing was that I was only asked to give the talk the day before, because one of the speakers had dropped out. The girl organising it said, “You have a really interesting insight into building relationships. Can you come and give a talk?” I said yes, instinctively, and then went home and realised what I had done…” Anyway, I got up and just did it, and I’ve continued doing it since!

“Within six months of that initial talk I found myself in the House of Commons delivering a talk on how to do public speaking to a women’s debating network.”

Examples like this are why I believe so strongly in learning through doing. You learn something new every time and you don’t always know what that’s going to be.  

Do you have a support network to help you confront difficult challenges?

When I’m finding something really tough I’ll reach out to a mentor, someone who is an expert in the field. Aside from giving me a degree of reassurance that I won’t go too far astray, having a mentor, in my opinion, helps you learn so much faster. You’d be surprised how willing people are to help you out when you reach out to them with a thoughtful – and heartfelt – question. 

Perhaps you want to learn how to overcome your fears of public speaking, like me, or perhaps you want to ask for some advice on how to rejig your meetings so that you get the most out of your team. At the end of the day, it doesn’t hurt to ask for some advice.

“But it’s not just about jumping into the deep end without a lifejacket and hoping you can swim: it’s about creating a support network that lets you navigate any unchartered waters you may encounter.”

Who do you look up to in your industry?

Angela Ahrendts, the Senior Vice President of Retail at Apple and former CEO of Burberry, is someone I follow with interest. She’s been on my radar ever since she made the move to Apple. 

Her TED Talk on the Power of Human Energy, for example, captures her quietly confident approach to leadership, and, for me, she embodies the power of being an introverted leader. Unlike a lot of corporate leaders, she’s not loud and “out there,” but when she speaks she makes it count; I think she’s a really powerful woman.

Susan Cain’s Quiet  is also great on this – her book, in my opinion, is a really strong validation for being introverted. And I find that it speaks directly to me. Rather than rehashing the usual stereotypes that persist around shyness, Cain’s book explains, in detail, why certain people don’t feel comfortable speaking up in certain social situations and how these same people can harness their quiet nature to have an impact in work and life. I found Cain’s validation refreshing.

How did you get to where you are today?

The first point that I want to make is that my career has been all over the place! But I don’t see that as a weakness; I see it as strength. Mind you, if you were a recruiter, you might not feel the same way.

“Rather than going from Point A to Point B, I’ve always been drawn to chasing experiences, chasing challenges. Almost by accident, then, I’ve knitted together a journey that has taken me from place to place, with the unifying thread being a crave for challenge.”

When I first started out I had the benefit of working for my parents’ executive recruitment business, and this exposed me, right from the outset, to a number of challenging roles. It was very much a case of sink or swim, and I think I managed to float!

How do you know when to pursue an opportunity?

Gut feel is really important. If you think it’s the right thing to do, it probably is. The reverse holds true, too. Understanding who you are is key: What are you about? What are you good at? And where do you want to go?

“Some people can be very rigid on what that path is going to look like but I’m of the belief that you don’t know how you are going to get to there until you’ve arrived at your destination.”

Where does this self-confidence to sink or swim come from?

A good coach can make the world of difference, especially when it comes to developing resolve and a deep sense of inner confidence. I was introduced to coaching in 2011 by attending a training program; the impact this has had on my career has been unbelievable. It was a real watershed moment for me, and I can’t imagine not having one.

What are the main benefits of coaching?

Coaching gives you the belief to take on new challenges. People are hard-wired to avoid the things that they find uncomfortable or unsettling.

“Working with a coach and talking through your problems lets you take control of your decision making process. It also helps you tackle your sticking points directly and decide on the best path to take.”

Then it’s just a matter of pressing on with whatever decision you’ve made. While it doesn’t always work out, at least you know that it was your call. The true value in coaching, at least for me, is that it empowers you to listen to your gutfeel and drown out all the external noises you may be hearing.

How did you find your coach? And what makes a good coach?

I actually met my coach when I was doing my own coaching qualification! The most important aspect of any coaching relationship is building a high-level of trust; you absolutely must have a connection, otherwise you won’t be able to get to the root of the challenges you’re facing.

While a coach doesn’t necessarily have to have experience in your field, they do need to listen attentively, ask the right questions, and keep you on track. It’s not their job to make your decisions for you, or give you direct advice; rather, it’s about letting you come to your own decision.

Do you teach or present?

All the time. I teach a lot of new managers or people who want to become new managers. When I take these classes, which are usually at places like General Assembly, I apply B.R.A.V.E., the framework that underpins The First-Time Leader.  It’s an anagram for Behaviour, Relationships, Attitude, Values, and Environment.

But how did I arrive at B.R.A.V.E.? It’s very much an anagram that reflects my mind-set when I was writing The First-Time Leader, as I had just inherited a team of ten people, all of whom were a generation older than I was.

While I was clear on what I didn’t want to do (my corporate experience has exposed me to the pitfalls of bad leadership) and while I had an inkling of where I wanted to go, I nonetheless had no idea how to get there. The book, then, was a self-help guide in the purest sense.

“Spending all my time in the office trying to run it like a drill-sergeant seemed to be having counterproductive results, so I reached out to my co-author George Bradt as a sort of cry for help.”

He’d written extensively on leadership for executives, but I felt there was a need for something aimed at people getting to grips with leadership for the first time. In other words, advice for people like me!

And so the book evolved from there?

Exactly. This was actually why our publisher, Wiley, was so excited about the book. By bringing my real-time insights into the challenges of being a first-time leader into dialogue with George’s experience of working with senior executives, we were able to come up with a novel angle on leadership.

It was a very cathartic experience for me, and I still use the framework today, whether that be for work or life more generally. It gives me a lot of energy to be able to share my insights with others who may be going through a similar experience.

Can you tell us a little more about how B.R.A.V.E. can be applied in the office?

A lot of the time incoming leaders think that they’ve got to make an impact straightaway, that they’ve got to make an immediate impression. As a consequence, they don’t spend enough time understanding the environment they’re coming into. That’s why when we teach B.R.A.V.E. we actually start with environment, as our opening quotation by Stephen Covey makes clear: “Seek first to understand.”

We believe that understanding the culture you’re entering is hugely important. Often what you’ve done in another company doesn’t translate because of a difference in company cultures. It’s therefore really important to understand the team you’re inheriting – I can’t emphasise this enough.

For the first 90 days you should be doing a lot of one-on-ones and generally working hard at figuring out what makes everyone tick. Once you understand what the company is about, you can then begin to implement your strategy.

What are the main industry trends you see going forwards?

There was a huge sense of self-confidence among startups when my book came out in 2014. It now seems as though we released it too early, as the resounding message coming from start-ups then was that they were in control, that they didn’t need any training.

Now I’m starting to see the conversation open up, and these same firms are starting to take a serious look at up-skilling their employees. In part, I think this is a natural byproduct of the rapid growth that the London start-up scene has experienced over the last few years; we’ve seen it mature to a point where learning and development is now necessary.

But the corporate context is also shifting. I’m increasingly seeing first-time managers - many of whom are millennials - call into question traditional ways of operating. Young leaders want to do things differently and they’re not simply content to follow tasks and inherit procedures and protocols; ideally they want to break them. And the same applies to advice: young leaders are not simply passive advice takers; they’re active advice makers too.

How do you balance what the individual wants with what the company wants? How do you arrive at that intersection?

The V from B.R.A.V.E., which stands for Values, is really important here. A company’s values aren’t necessarily what’s written on the walls, it’s what sort of behaviour is recognised and rewarded. So you need to take stock and reflect on this.

Then you need to ask yourself what your personal values are. To what extent are they aligned? To what extent do they overlap? This should give you a pretty clear idea of the culture fit. If they’re aligned, fantastic, you’re in the dream spot. If they’re misaligned you have to ask yourself, are you willing to work outside of your value system for the opportunities that the role presents? If the answer is yes, at least you’re conscious of this fact; if the answer is no, then you’ll probably end up with a lot of conflict and confrontation. 

Is this something you work on at ustwo?

Absolutely! During the workshops that I run I have team members write down their personal ambitions for the next year, and for the following five years. We then work towards understanding how far these goals align with what the company wants.

To what extent do they mirror each other, and where are they furthest apart? What gaps are we left with, and who’s going to fill these gaps? Is it an external hire, or is it a case of spreading the workflow among the team? Once you establish this you can then be sure that you’re working towards your greater goal. Sometimes when you’re doing menial work it can feel rather far away…

On that note, what are the attributes that ustwo looks for in candidates?

We pick a lot of non-conformist candidates, people who bring something different to the table. I’m actually a great example of that. While I didn’t necessarily come to the role with the stock-standard CV, they could see my potential and the skills that I could bring. My diverse background was in fact a big advantage, as ustwo really values people who have a breadth of experience.

And this is because learning is a big part of what we do – we absolutely encourage it. We get people to write blog articles, to run internal sharing sessions, and to attend meetups and events. Whenever someone attends a conference, for example, we’re keen to hear what they got out of it. Delivering back key learnings to the team is a big part of our culture.

Aside from that, we look for people who aren’t scared to push the boundaries and people who love to collaborate. This is essential for us: you must be able to work in a team environment to thrive at ustwo.

And what’s the key to progression?

We are continually evolving what progression looks like at ustwo. We don’t believe in a rigid process because the industry is always evolving, but we do try to focus on the individual impact and ambitions over company hierarchy.

We’re always eager to get the message out there that there are many ways to progress at ustwo. What we value above all are employees who take the time to ask themselves what they want to do and where they want to go. Do you want to be the most senior designer in this team or do you want to do something else? Because if it’s something else then maybe the organisation can help you reach that goal.

What resources would you include on your learning playlist?

I have a very short attention span so videos are immediately out! They just don’t work for me. The Nobl  newsletter is excellent. I subscribe to a lot of newsletters but this is the one I swear by.

My new rule for reading is to stay away from books that simply validate what I was thinking before I started reading. If I’m nodding the whole way through then it’s not an efficient use of my time, is it? Exploring ideas that run against my intuition is what tends to guide me. Right now I’m reading Laszlo Bock’s book on Google and data. Why? Bringing a data perspective to bear on problems is something I don’t know much about.

Timothy Ferriss’ 4-Hour Work Week   is another book that I‘ve found interesting. He has an approach for people who have always wanted to own a business but are afraid to take the plunge. He suggests that you write down the worst case scenario if it fails and then what you would do if that became a reality. I found it to be a refreshing way to approach an otherwise daunting problem.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’m always asked about what makes a good leader. For me, it’s all about self-awareness. It’s not about being the loudest in the room – an extroverted leader is no better than an introverted one. Good leaders know themselves and they know their style, and they are confident in who they are.

You can be an introvert and command a room in a way that’s very personal to you. When you’re self-aware you can be very clear on what communication style works best for you. And communication is the key to good leadership.

In short

Leadership, for Gillian Davis, is a human endeavour. It’s not about barking orders at unwitting employees or simply delegating tasks in a cold, calculating way. Rather, it’s about learning how to harness your unique strengths in a way that gets the most out of the people around you. Because at the end of the day it’s people - not products or platforms - that creates genuine value.