Honesty — ‘It is true that integrity alone won’t make you a leader, but without it, you will never be one.
We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ailidh Smylie.
Ailidh Smylie, is Head of Strategy at Socialize, where she heads up Socialize’s 60-strong Dubai team. Ailidh’s superpower is helping household brands connect their brand content with local cultures and themes, understanding the nuance from country to country and helping mega brands enter the market right to drive business impact. She helps FMCG brands build brand affinity through social, explores social campaigns that entertain all five senses, and builds brand authenticity through partnerships with regional micro influencers.
She began her career in London mastering client services across global brands: Unilever, McDonald’s, P&G, Danone, General Mills & Yoplait.
She leads with clarity, always, and her ultimate career aim is to send the elevator back down to women in the industry, hoping to one day inspire her own young daughter to do the same.
Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?
I’m currently writing a children’s book. I’m a mum of 2, and both my son and daughter’s bookshelves are bursting with colourful pages of fantastical stories and characters. I got really tired of reading the same ones over and over, whilst others got neglected because they weren’t well written or follow a rich enough storyline.
Since I was a young child, I’ve been obsessed with storytelling, writing my own ‘books’ from around age 6 and consuming every kids novel under the sun. I then studied English Literature at University and put my passion for writing into my marketing career.
The story I’m writing now might be a little different to the pitch decks and creative briefs I’ve become accustomed to creating — but it challenges me in a new way and is unbelievably fun! I’ve always enjoyed rhyming, putting pen to paper for friends’ wedding readings, colleagues leaving speeches and more recently, creating rhymes and songs for my children. Luckily my brother is an incredible illustrator so we’re looking to collaborate.
We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?
I have two. One is a close friend that works in the We Are Social Group — Brittany Wickerson. She started in the Dubai office around 3 years ago as our Media Director and grew into We Are Social’s Global Head of Media. She influences me because her brain works differently to mine. I like my brain, but I think hers is exceptional. She approaches everything analytically and applies consistent methodologies to every situation. She’s an exceptional leader, leading her own local and global media teams by empowering them, teaching them and challenging them just enough to grow them. If you cross her, you know it, but equally — if you find a good solution she listens and takes on your approach. I value her opinion, always.
The other is somebody I was initially intimidated by. I don’t mind admitting that because I was only intimidated by her because I hadn’t yet considered myself a leader and I felt inferior. She knew straight away that I had leadership potential and told me during our first one-to-one ‘you’ll be my head of client-service one day’. I did one better and became the Managing Director with her guidance and influence. Our CEO, Akanksha Goel, has been particularly influential as she has taken time to teach me and always valued my opinion and input. I admire her tenacity and her drive — she’s given everything she has to get where she is. She’s incredibly intelligent and compassionate too, in her own way. Akanksha leads the way she does because of who she is, regardless of her gender. Her leadership approach has evolved and grown over time which has inspired me to strive to do the same. She too, learns every day and applies this to how she leads. I really admire that.
Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?
I used to try to ‘do everything’ because I thought that was my value-add. I thought that if I wasn’t the one picking up everyone’s mess and leading as many situations as possible, from start to finish, then what else was I bringing to the table — and who else would do it? I started working with a great coach in 2020 who helped me realise this and has helped me grow ‘out’ of this behaviour — but it definitely still strikes up sometimes.
I used to find it flattering that so many people needed or wanted my help. It was an ego thing — I’d like to swoop in and save the day, or be so thorough that no one could question my input or my intentions. Yet I discovered that applying this to everything I was doing was causing two bad things to consistently happen: 1) I was burning out — I was really exhausted. 2) Others weren’t learning or growing.
My realisation coincided with becoming a mom and taking a step up at work when I returned from a shortish mat-leave. I came back wanting to make my professional and my personal life work in harmony together, genuinely believing that it probably couldn’t be done, and I might not be able to stay in the marketing world.
So, I challenged myself to be strict and strike a balance. I forced myself to work 8.30am — 5pm, to be home with my daughter for bedtime. I stuck to it religiously which meant I physically couldn’t do the amount of tasks and output I had been previously. It was definitely a transition, but I became more efficient and better at applying the 10/80/10 methodology. This was another technique my coach Gary taught me — giving 10% focus and guidance at the beginning of a piece of work to set clear expectations for your team member, allowing them to do the 80% then spending the final 10% of time to work with them closely to get it over the line. The percentages can change based on the work. I’d never worked like that before and for me it was revelatory.
Now — I work smarter, not harder. I have found a balance. It’s still chaos a lot of the time but it’s a comfortable chaos that I couldn’t have created if I didn’t change my approach.
How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?
I was once asked ‘are you cut-throat enough to be a leader?’ I’ll always remember the comment because at the time, my honest answer was ‘no’.
It still would be.
You can describe me as a lot of things, but ‘cut-throat’ is not something anyone close to me, or anyone who has worked with me would choose. So for a long time I overlooked my own ability to take the reins and lead others. What a mistake that was.
You’ve probably heard that around 12% of CEO’s show psychopathic traits vs. the 1% of the general population — which can give ‘leadership’ a pretty bad rep. You’ll have heard comments about female bosses or CEO’s that have had to ‘compete in a male world’ and act as ruthless leaders themselves to progress. I grew up thinking that to be a boss you had to be brutal — you had to fire people and keep them in line through fear, and honestly in some of my early jobs I saw this to be the case.
But, we all know now that being a leader isn’t about brutality — it’s about providing direction, making decisions and being impactful to your team around you and your business goals. I love Oprah’s take on this: ‘The World’s most prominent women leaders show the importance of honesty, courage, impact and decisive action in leadership’.
When I had this, not so revelatory revelation, I started to research the impact of female leadership and the difference in approaches to new leadership vs. legacy leadership. Research shows that females tend to lead in a more humble manner by putting their people ahead of themselves, empathising not commanding and focusing on the elevation of others. Data shows that this approach makes them seem more trustworthy, not because of their gender, but because of their inclusivity. To me, regardless of gender, that is the leadership approach we should be learning from and aiming to emulate in our own worlds.
Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?
Pretending I have all the answers.
I progressed through my career quickly, from client service to strategy and then new business growth; each step along the way I worried that my age was a giveaway to my inexperience. I didn’t have the amount of ‘experiences’ that some of my colleagues who had been in the industry for 10+ years more had. But I provided clarity to our work and I led in a way that empowered and inspired others around me — so here I am.
People won’t follow a leader who constantly makes bad decisions; yet this shouldn’t be conflated with making mistakes. I often make mistakes — as a parent, as a leader, as a partner — whatever hat I am wearing. I shout at my daughter when I should have kept my calm. I miss an important message from my husband, or I misunderstand a situation in the office and don’t hold the right person accountable. We all do.
But — people will follow you if they trust you. Trust isn’t something that 10+ years’ experience will give you. It took me a long time to realise this because as humans we attach our sense of self to an idea, cause, or group. When we feel that idea is threatened, our evolutionarily linked fight, flight, or freeze survival mechanism becomes activated. We defend against being wrong and fight to be right.
So how have I built trust even when things have gone wrong, or I haven’t instantly known the right path forward? Open communication. Honesty. Following through on things I said I would do. Being approachable. Being friendly. Showing support and helping team members find solutions. Admitting openly to my own mistakes. All of these things have helped me form a trusting relationship with my team. We foster a culture of failing fast and adopt a solutions-driven approach — but we as leaders, have to lead this and practice what we preach — or why would anyone else?
What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?
Kim Scott’s framework on radical candour really resonated with myself and the team — so much so that it’s changed the way we gather and share feedback and how I personally approach situations now.
I’ve always had extreme empathy for others. Caring deeply about the people that make up our team. Not the numbers they pull in, but about them as people.
For so long, empathy was seen as a weakness — and I think it still is by many if it becomes ‘ruinous’. Scott’s diagram points out that by caring personally and challenging directly — we can achieve a zone of ‘radical candour’ where the person knows you care as you have their best interests at heart so your feedback is met with integrity and understanding. Ruinous empathy is the opposite quadrant where you feel so concerned about others’ feelings that it cripples you from giving them necessary feedback to help guide them in their careers. I was guilty of this behaviour in my early career and it’s something I still work on and encourage widely.
We recently introduced a tool called ‘OnLoop’ that encourages you to regularly ‘capture’ your teammates, with ‘congratulatory messages’ as well as ‘improves.’ It’s taken us a while to get into the swing of things, but it is proving to be monumentally important in kickstarting conversations that weren’t happening. We’re also seeing people start to reframe the negativity they associate with ‘feedback’ into something more positive, viewing it as ‘guidance’ that they are actively seeking out amongst their peers.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?
Firstly, don’t lose your identity or try to be someone you aren’t. People admire confidence — humans are pack animals and we follow a confident leader; it makes us feel safe. So, if you lose your confidence your ability to lead will go with it.
Be confident in making mistakes, failing fast and pivoting to try new things. You aren’t always going to be right, but as long as you’re learning and not burning the house down, you’ll inspire others on your team to take necessary risks too.
Hire people who are better than you. Seriously. Feel intimidated by their capabilities. Feel challenged by their input, but don’t let your ego feel attacked. Use their superpowers to the benefit of your team and business. You won’t always know the right thing to do, so surround yourself with leaders in their own right who can help you.
Care about your people beyond the numbers they bring in. Understand unique perspectives and use them to shape your approach. Admit when you’re wrong. Apologise when you mess things up. Hold everyone around you accountable, as you would yourself. Don’t accept adequate, always aim for excellence. When something feels wrong in your gut — it definitely is. Act upon it and try not to delay.
And finally — I heard advice once that said, as a leader, you should focus on your juniors and your leaders — and let those ‘in-between’ grow themselves. I thought this was odd, so tried it out and was happily surprised with how this works out for us. If you have a strong leadership team around you — they will empower and grow your middle management into future leaders. If you take value and listen to your junior team members, you will develop a deeper, more realistic understanding of your business that you’d otherwise miss. This is crucial to not only make them feel heard, but to use their valuable insight to drive your business.
Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?
Stick with your gut. Read as much as you want, but it comes down to the fact that not everyone is born to be a leader. If you are, you’ll already know. You can polish and you can learn, and you can grow, but if you’ve gotten to a place where you are leading a team or a company — you’ve gotten there for a reason. And if you want to keep doing it, you’re getting some things right already.
My biggest revelation was accepting that I am not a legacy leader on paper. I am softer, overly empathetic and look to my community to help inform decisions. But this doesn’t make me weak. This is my superpower, and if you lean into your own power — whatever that might be — you can succeed too. Whether you beat yourself up for caring too much, or wish you could make isolated decisions more regularly, don’t try to change that trait about yourself — it’s made you who you are and gotten you this far.
Embrace your quirks. If you’re inspiring those around you and helping them to grow — you’re a leader. If you’re leading your teams to drive business results to your clients — you’re a leader. If you’re instilling faith and trust in all those around you, so much so that they’d back your decisions and challenge you when they think you’re wrong — you’re a leader. And if you’re doing all of that…you can stop reading because you’ve got this better than I do!
Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now? Please share a story or an example for each.
I’ve paired each trait below with a quote. This is how I often start brainstorming strategic briefs — as I find quotes and short snippets of prose help make things click in my own brain…maybe it will work with yours too:
- Inspirational — ‘Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does’ — William James.
- Honesty — ‘It is true that integrity alone won’t make you a leader, but without it, you will never be one.’ Zig Ziglar.
- Decisive — ‘To make a decision, all you need is authority. To make a good decision, you also need knowledge, experience and insight.’ Denise Moreland
- Compassionate — ‘Compassionate people are geniuses at the art of living, more necessary to the dignity, security, and joy of humanity than the discoverers of knowledge’. Albert Einstein.
- Empowering — ‘There are two ways of spreading light. To be the candle, or to be the mirror that reflects it.’ Edith Wharton.
I think all are key, but if I had to pick just one that I think will shape the future of leadership to no-end, it would be the last ‘to empower’. We are not great because of what we do, but we become great when we enable others to rise with us.
American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.
He also said, ‘If you’re not making mistakes then you’re not doing anything’ and ‘If you are afraid to fail you will never do the things you are capable of doing’…
Each day in my life my masterpiece turns out different. Most days it’s an explosion of colour with multiple drips and splodges where it didn’t quite dry in time, or the dog walked across it or it slipped off the easel and splattered on the floor. Some days it would be beautiful, but upon closer inspection the texture would be off and the lines would blur into one another.
Bad art analogies aside — I think making each day your masterpiece is a very inspiring thought to live by, and I wish I did it every day. The days where I make mistakes or fail, in the past, would have I have struggled with this a lot in my career, and as a human!
But — I am a do-er, and I’m proud of that. I am constantly doing something so I accept now that I will fail. With school drop offs and pitch meetings running back-to-back, muddled in with trying to exercise, see friends, see family & sleep…it doesn’t always leave a lot of time to reflect. This year I am trying to broaden my own horizons by listening to non-fiction audio books during my sacred time in the car (just after preschool drop off, as I drive to the office with a giant Starbucks in hand). The more I listen the more I reflect on my day — even if it is only for 15 minutes.
So, I’d say — most days my masterpieces are a bit wonky, but I’m happy with that. They’re mis-shapen madness — a bit like my life, and I’m also very happy with that too.
What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?
I’ve genuinely never thought about this question!
I remember my CEO Akanksha asking me one day — what motivates you — money, power or fame? That one stumped me too. It actually still does.
I think the answer to this question lies in conversations I’ve been having with my three-year old daughter. She’s started to ask me recently about my work, and about why I go to work. Upon first utterance I wasn’t sure how to respond. There’s the obvious reason that we work to maintain our lifestyle, but discussing household income with a three-year old wasn’t going to be easy (even a smart one like her!) We do talk about how you have to earn things in life which she grasps, but this also isn’t the reason why I do my role, and I don’t want her growing up thinking it’s all for money.
So, what do I do it for? Why do any of us lead? I genuinely love what I do — I love teaching others but also learning myself. So I often ask her what she learnt at pre-school and she now asks me back ‘what did you learn at work today?’ I try to always give her an example, something tangible she can understand, like ‘mummy learnt that I don’t always have the right answers’ or ‘today I learnt a new skill on my computer which was cool’!
I maybe don’t think I mind what type of ‘legacy’ I leave to my team or to those I will work with in the future — because as long as I inspire them along their own path, I think I’ve done my job. But I do want to leave a legacy to my little girl, and many other little girls who are growing up in a world that has so much opportunity but still barriers that exist. I want them to grow up thinking nothing can get in their way — and that leading others is a privilege — and leading them well is a life goal.
How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?
Working in a social media network — it won’t surprise you that you can reach me on most platforms like LinkedIn or via my email: [email protected].
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!