Katie Rigg-Smith On The Importance Of Learning Your Craft

Katie Rigg-Smith is CEO of Mindshare in the Australasia region. With a reputation as one of the brightest strategic minds in Australia, Katie was Chief Strategy Officer prior to being promoted to CEO in 2013. Her accolades include being listed in B&T Magazine's Top Ten Most Influential Women in 2014 and 2015. In her own words, Katie’s career is untraditionally traditional as she has spent her entire working life at the one company, climbing the ranks from intern to CEO. A new mum with an outgoing can-do personality, there’s a lot to learn from Katie’s observations and insights.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
An artist.

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
Definitely my husband, our five-month old baby girl and all my friends and family. I’d like us all to be disconnected from the world with no wifi, just trapped on an island together… And then we could play Survivor and vote each other off. It would be quite funny.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It is a beautiful, beautiful story and incredibly well told but it’s also the first book at school that I dissected and properly analyzed. I loved being able to sit around with my school friends and debate the different view points and theories. Up until then I’d just read books, but this opened me up to conversation around different perspectives.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I'm not a great sleeper at the best of times. I'm well known for only getting a few hours sleep a night. Now that I've had a baby, I'm maybe in bed by midnight and I'm up by about five, having woken up three times inbetween that.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
I’ve probably got one of the most untraditional career paths because it's so traditional. I've been with Mindshare my entire 17-year career. Having said that, I’ve had about five or six career iterations in that space of time within the business. I started out as the intern and in 2013, became CEO. I've done everything in between from buying, trading, implementation, planning, and then strategy. Prior to becoming CEO, I was Chief Strategy Officer, which I absolutely loved.

I also spent three years lecturing at the University of Technology Sydney in the Business Department which I thoroughly enjoyed.

As CEO of Mindshare, I've got New Zealand and Australia in my domain. Mindshare is part of the world's biggest communication group in WPP and we're part of the world's biggest buying consortium as well. Within that, I've got a lot of stakeholders to manage. There are lots of conversations and people to keep aware of what's going on. Within Australia, we have an amazing portfolio of clients that we work with. We're really lucky that we get to play with some of the biggest brands.

My job is to set the vision for the agency and make sure that we're adapting to meet the new demands of consumers and our clients. I believe we’re in one of the most dynamic industries. Change is so prevalent in media and marketing because technology is changing every way that consumers engage with brands. We have to keep adapting. Not only do we have to adapt the way we respond to clients, but I have to consistently adapt our business model to meet our client's needs, which is incredibly interesting.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
The biggest barrier for me in my career has been keeping people onside as I’ve moved up through the company. I work with an executive business coach and he said to me, "I've never seen someone go from intern to CEO in one company." Usually when you go to a new job, you reinvent yourself. You go into a new job at a higher position, but no one knows you as anything but the higher position. Whereas, I've spent my whole life being promoted and more often than not, being promoted over my friends, peers, people that are older than me. At every stage, I've had to learn how to get them to respect me and keep them on side, but equally do the job I've been promoted into. I'm really proud of the fact I've managed to navigate that world while keeping people with me.

One of the key ways of doing that has been to hone in on my craft at every stage. When you do that no one can question your talent. For me, whenever I've been promoted to the next role, I focus on learning my craft and being really, really good at it so that I will lead through example and people will naturally follow.

I also strive to give people a lot of respect, and I'm not competitive with them. I'm not here to keep them down. A lot of my teams are surprised at how encouraging I am in getting them out into press and pushing their careers. I genuinely want them all to succeed.

What motivates you?
The work, without a doubt. I'm motivated by great work and I want to see how we can make an impact on business.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
I wish I’d known how to balance my diary. It sounds so obvious, but I had to wait until I was Chief Strategy Officer to work with an executive coach who said, "You just open up your diary every day to everyone else. There's 10 hours a day when someone wants to see you, you let them put time in, but you never ever put your own time in the diary.” I was giving people my time, but I never put aside time for my own work. It would just bleed into the night times and the weekend.

When I finally got a hold of my calendar, it fundamentally changed everything. My work life balance dramatically improved.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Saying yes to the CEO role. Not because I think being CEO is the pinnacle by any stretch, but because it's where I had the biggest fear. I had no warning that it was happening. I didn't interview for the role. I literally got taken into a room by my chairman and my then CEO who basically said, "You're up." I think overcoming that fear and just saying yes was something I'm really proud of. Three years later, hopefully I'm doing a good enough job.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Focusing on being respected, not liked. I always wanted to be liked when I was going up through the ranks. If you're respected for your work, people will naturally like you, but if you focus on being liked, then you're not going to be an effective leader.

What is your life motto?
A personal one that my Mum always taught me growing up was, No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
It's not about getting your foot in the door, it's about getting your foot in the right door.

What's your favorite TED talk?
Sheryl Sandberg: Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders

Who do you most admire in business? Why?
I admire so many and therefore too many people to name individually. One thing they all have in common is absolute passion for what they do, an understanding of what it takes to inspire and lead people, and a tenacity to get the job done even during the toughest times. 

What do you believe is the secret to rising up to the top?
It goes back to learning your craft. When I became CEO, I was floored with how quickly the conversation went to my age and my gender, literally within five minutes of the announcement, it opened a big discussion around why there weren’t more female leaders.

Not once did anyone question my ability. It was a big relief for me, because no one said, "Well, actually, she doesn't know what she's talking about." For me, that was the greatest compliment that I had learned my craft and people knew I could do the role.

Are there work ethics and attitudes that you most admire in women?
What women are really good at, and it's really basic, is their ability to manage time really well. I notice it in more and more in my working mums, and working dads to be fair, they are so effective with their time. There are no and's, if's or but's about it. I look at the way they get through work and the way they prioritize and it's really, really exceptional. It’s something I greatly admire.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
My leadership team. I have this amazing team of people that I've created around me. It‘s pretty much equal female and male. It's not that I've gone out and said it needed to be, I just go for the best talent and it's happened that way.

We are really provocative at the leadership table and I don't want anyone to say yes to me if they don't believe it. I turn to them and we have great therapy together.

My husband also helps a lot.

What's next?
What's next is to make the agency number one. To make it the very best possible place to work.

One thing I’m really focused on is work life balance. We have created a program here called #wellbeing, which is for all of our team. One Thursday every month, they have an hour to go and do something to extend their well being. I'm very passionate about the ability for people to have clear heads in order to do better jobs.


As told to Caroline Hugall over Skype on Monday 18th April. Katie lives and works in Sydney, Australia.