#PassItOn: Karen Blackett on supportive networks and the power of listening

WPP's UK country manager discusses leading, listening and keeping your feet on the ground.

"My dad says you have two ears and one mouth – use them in proportion," Karen Blackett, who has used this mantra to guide her approach to leadership, says. As UK country manager at WPP, Blackett works with 17,000 staff in dozens of agencies spanning media, creative, design, branding, data and public relations across WPP’s £2bn-a-year UK operation. Yet she always makes time to listen to colleagues and industry peers, irrespective job title or status.

Blackett, who is speaking to Campaign as part of the #PassItOn series, has been a mentor at the Futures Network, which is developed for and run by winners of the Wacl Future Leaders Award to provide support and inspiration for women across the industry.

"I think that it is always important, whatever position you are in, to go back to the shop floor and you really listen," Blackett explains. She believes that listening not only makes you a better leader but it keeps you in touch with what is really happening: "Yes, it is good for the soul, but it is also vital for leadership."

Making space for diverse voices is a core focus for Blackett, who is also the UK government’s race at work champion. She has established an inclusion board at WPP to remove barriers to progression and look at how apprenticeships and reverse-mentoring programmes can encourage a more diverse and reflective workforce that in turn results in greater creativity and business growth for clients.

The magic of networking

In an industry that is not short of networking opportunities and panel discussions, Blackett is passionate about the power of building supportive networks. As she explains: "I have benefited from sponsorship and other people championing me in my own career. I believe in mentoring; I call it ‘cheerleading’."

According to Blackett, mentoring can mean different things to different people and it is also important to look outside your own company for guidance. "I’ve had mentors within other organisations; people who know me inside out. They have given me the verbal slap I have needed at times and helped me to get a growth mindset."

Having built her career at MediaCom, Blackett pays tribute to the women who have supported and inspired her over the years: "Sue Unerman, Claudine Collins and Jane Ratcliffe have all been massive cheerleaders of mine. Outside of MediaCom, Carolyn McCall, Cilla Snowball and Pippa Glucklich have been amazing traliblazers."

A coaching mentality

Blackett concedes that the concept of mentoring can be "slightly weird". When she speaks at conferences and panels, she is regularly approached by people asking her to mentor them and this can sometimes feel forced. "The power of networking is that it really brings opportunities to connect and then you can have a formal or informal conversation about networking," she says, pointing to events such as Wacl Gather and Nabs' speed-mentoring as key opportunities to grow your support network.

Sharing her own experience of Nabs' speed-mentoring session for BAME talent, Blackett says the conversations she had there reminded her "just how far we have to go as an industry; there is so much more we have to do".

Blackett used to run at a competitive level and her positive experience of having an athletics coach has made her understand the power of professional coaching: "At MediaCom, we offer life-coaching for everyone. I believe that coaching my mind is as important as running."

Starting small

But what about the industry’s talented but introverted people – do they have to push themselves into networking and mentoring to get ahead? Start small, Blackett advises – you don’t have to go to a networking event; you just need to lean in to different experiences and points of view.

"Part of the problem for many people is the formality of the word 'mentoring'," she explains. "This is the reason I use the word 'cheerleading' – the key is to look for and find people with empathy and emotional intelligence."

As she concludes: "Magic happens when you get your network together."

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