We are as good as our last job — that’s the reality of the agency world that we live in. Our industry changes at the speed of light, so keeping on top of changing trends and understanding what’s going on in the world is such an important part of being successful. This includes continuously being a learner and taking time for yourself. Focusing on your mental and physical game is such an important part of performing at a high level. Taking time to learn and absorb new information turns you into a teacher and an expert. Taking time to physically take care of yourself helps you manage stress and mental focus. Finally, you are an example for your team — so if they see you taking time to learn, to read, to become an expert, to do yoga, ride your bike, go for a run; then they will replicate your behaviour as they can see that it works.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aleena Mazhar. For the past eleven years, Aleena Mazhar has grown up in the ever-evolving live experience business. Her focus is to create experience-led integrated campaigns for brands that are looking to get noticed. Working with top tier clients on award winning projects, Aleena leads a strong team of account, creative and production problem solvers to build moments of human connection that drive businesses forward. Her passion for coaching a team, and solving big complex creative problems drives her continued excitement for the marketing industry. Aleena has worked with clients from multiple industries including CIBC, Canadian Tire, Kruger LLB, Audi, Heart and Stroke, CBCF and Corby Spirit and Wine.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve been working in marketing since I was 18. My start began in experiential marketing, working in field as a brand ambassador for companies like Coca Cola and Rogers. I fell in love with it right away. I was blown away by the fact that I was getting paid to talk about products I loved to people at soccer games or tennis tournaments. It was a dream job at 18, and as I spent time at the agency head office meeting managers and doing trainings, I realized there was something special about the marketing industry. It started with the people I met — passionate, vibrant, excited. Then, the creativity of the work and the magic of the hustle. I knew this is what I wanted to do — very specifically work at a marketing agency. I took my shot and to the joy of my dad (who was very worried I wouldn’t get a job and travel the world as a career), started at a marketing agency right out of university.

It lived up to my expectations. It was exciting, fast paced, unpredictable and creative. It taught me how to win, how to lose, how to be a part of a team, how to build a team, how to motivate and how to have fun even in the most stressful situations. The passion of the people makes this business — smart clients, peers and staff. Needless to say, my passion hasn’t wavered and I’m still in love with the career I chose all those years ago.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I took over leadership of my company, we were in an interesting time within our growth. We were a good size, had dedicated and motivated people, and were culturally strong. However, we were struggling in defining who we wanted to be when we grew up and this showed when we were looking for areas of growth. I had lots of opinions and was handed the task of figuring this out. During a team offsite, we talked about why we work at FUSE and what we love about our job. The answer was always simple — the people. From the clients, to our peers, we truly believe that we have some of the best in the biz. What did we like about what we do? That we are the catalyst in bringing people together for a common goal — running a 10k for curing cancer, cheering on Paralympic athletes, supporting the home team at a hockey game… there was an energy to all of these moments that made them about more than marketing, and that we as employees for FUSE loved.

I took this concept and wrote this as to why we do what we do, and what that means to others. To a hockey mom in Oshawa, it means that we support something that is important to their kid. To a runner of a 10k for curing cancer, it means we are there for them in a very emotional time. For a brand, it means that we understand the humanity behind a marketing message.

As soon as we started to run our business based on what we believed in, things started shifting. Of course, our motivation was high, but more than that, we were operating from a place of truth — and everyone noticed.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was three years into my role, I got the opportunity to travel to Alberta for a month to run the business out there. It was the same project I was working on in Toronto, and due to some turnover, the team in Alberta was struggling and the client was not happy. I flew to Edmonton ready to implement all my amazing learnings from Toronto with all the confidence in the world. Turns out Alberta and Ontario are very different places! Renting a Hyundai Accent in the November winter cold is a bad idea, especially when driving on the highway and your windshield cracks on day #1. Also, a wool coat doesn’t cut it in the Edmonton cold. The client didn’t love that someone flew in from Toronto to solve all her problems. My team didn’t really care that I did great things in another province. Needless to say, it was a tough one. After spinning out my car into a snowbank outside West Edmonton Mall, I decided to laugh about my miserable first week and pull up my big girl pants and figure it out.

I focused, got to know Edmonton, got to know my client and we made it through four weeks with great success. What did I learn? To approach each situation with a clear mind and don’t expect things to go your way all the time. Instead, as Coach Taylor used to say on Friday Night Lights — “clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.” With that mindset, I took on Alberta and got a win.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are an independent agency started by entrepreneurs who took a risk to build a business. They approach each day the same way and are constantly looking for what’s new and what’s next. They’ve gathered a group of leaders who share similar values — a love for taking risks, no fear of change, a passion for learning, a hunger for growing business and a want to create a culture of giving back. This comes through loud and clear in how we approach our clients’ businesses.

We do a lot of work with our financial services client CIBC, and every year our team joins theirs in their cause initiatives. Not only do we plan and run their events, but our leaders are on bikes with them in their branding, riding for two days straight to raise money for cancer. Or running next to them during the Run for the Cure. That’s how we approach our clients’ businesses, like they are our own, and we believe that we are an extension to their team.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We always have a lot on the go, but my favourite projects are always ones where we can make an impact within communities. We just worked on a project for Movember where we built a pop-up barbershop at Formula 1 in Montreal with the goal of encouraging men to come into a safe space and talk about their mental health with their “wing-man.”

We also just launched a creative campaign for CIBC around Pride where we are enabling their banking centres and employees to live and breathe an inclusivity message — and giving them the tools to do so. These types of campaigns not only give back to people, but they impact a person’s day and community to really make them feel amazing.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

I’m a very hands-on leader. I don’t think of that in the same way as a micro-manager — I’m not hands on when it comes to the work. I’m more hands on when it comes to reading and understanding people. I spend a lot of time with my team, working on their development, listening to their challenges, and transparently discussing mine. I walk around the office and check in with them often, in an effort to read body language, see expressions, hear stress in their voices. This gives me the insight I need into who needs what, and how to best help them — not in their work, but in their mindset, and their motivation.

As women, we have this innate ability to feel other peoples’ feelings. We can sense struggle, joy, stress, anger. This is such a great ability and I lean right into it. Depending on what the team needs, I can be their coach, their mentor, their friend and even their confidante. We are human, we cannot shut out the curveballs that life throws our way just because we have stepped into an office. The outside world seeps into what we do — and that’s ok. I lead with that type of humanity and encourage a transparent environment where that vulnerability is accepted and supported.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Managing a large team can be so rewarding and so challenging all at the same time! My perspective of team management comes from a few key principles: trust, accountability and communication. The first thing to always remember is the importance of trust. I like to begin by trusting everyone on the team and if there is a problem, I give them the benefit of the doubt. My job as a leader is to make sure the team has the tools they need, opportunities they are looking for and have their opinions heard. They have expectations of me as a leader as much as I have for them as a team member. The beginning of the relationship with each team member should always be aligning on those mutual expectations and making sure they are aware of who is accountable for their growth and who will have their back in the tenure with us (their manager). Spelling out these accountabilities for myself, for the team member, for their manager is a key part of our relationship — we are now on the same page and our trust is strengthened. We then make sure we have consistent communication and check ins where everyone has the opportunity to listen and be heard. I try to attend a large team weekly meeting, and we schedule quarterly offsites as a team that are focused on breaking bread and building relationships.

Relationships are key to me — I like to know all my team members from short term intern to group account director. I like to know the wins, and I like to hear the challenges. I like to bring us all together to share these wins and challenges and chat through our vision for what’s next for our company. I like to hear their feedback on my leadership and how I can be better for them. This environment of cross communication makes difficult conversations easier, and eliminates the need to control or micro manage.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There have been a few people in my life that have been there for me professionally when I have needed it, but there is one person close to my heart who truly helped me get to where I am in my career.

I worked with him for five years and he went from a manager, to a peer, to a great friend. He pushed me to take risks when I didn’t want to. He taught me how to rally a big team when the going got tough. He taught me what resilience and grit can get you. He was someone who would always know the right thing to say at the moment that you needed it and was always there to lend a hand no matter what the task was. He changed how I lead and he all in all made me a better person.

When he passed away a few years ago, my heart was shattered. He was the person I turned to when I needed it and was my life jacket when I was drowning. Turns out he was the life jacket for a lot of us and he left a hole in so many hearts. His passing forced me to step up to take my life and career in my hands and take ownership of my successes and failures. Time seemed fragile, relationships deepened in importance, and doing work that matters was more valuable than ever before. I stood up for what I believed in, I drove change in our organization, and I put my head down and worked hard to make things happen. The resilience and grit he once taught me came out in spades, and somehow, I moved from heart break, into focus and not too long after, stepped into my current role. Turns out the impact people have on you doesn’t stop even when they leave this world — and for that I am the most grateful.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Goodness sounds like such a lofty goal! When I read this question it immediately made me think about what more charity work I can do to help humanity. But that’s when I realized that goodness doesn’t really have to be so very lofty. We try to bring goodness into the world every day at FUSE. I can go on and on about integrity and values, but that’s not what I mean. We truly believe in the power that human connection can have for others — from making people feel good to being with others when the going gets tough. I believe in this theory for how I lead within our industry.

Our industry is built on the brain power of smart and talented people and I try to do everything I can to help and support those people through their careers. I have been involved in university mentorship programs helping students decide if this industry is for them. I have taught college classes on experiential marketing where we show students there are jobs in marketing that aren’t “brand manager.” I’ve held seminars at our office for students to show them what an agency is actually like. I love seeing our industry grow, but the agency world is notoriously bad at taking care of their people. That’s why creating a culture that values and supports people is such a huge priority for me as I build our business, and a very important way I like to give back to our creative community.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned from My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Take chances

Life is made up of opportunities, some opportunities fall in your lap, and some are so much tougher to think about. I came to a crossroad in my career a few years into it when I had to make a decision that greatly impacted my development. My first option was to stay put in the role I was in — I was happy, it was safe, I was with friends and had a great manager. The second option was to leave for an opportunity that was going to be much harder, much more mentally and physically demanding, and far riskier. It also would propel my career from being in the background to becoming a leader in the forefront.

That decision to ignore the nay-sayers and leave changed the trajectory of my career. Since then, I’ve paid attention to opportunities and been purposeful with the ones I’ve chosen. I’ve stayed confident and bet on myself in an effort to take the most advantage of what life has thrown at me. I try to relay this type of coaching to my team — if they are looking to leave to start their own business and bet on themselves, I’m not going to put them down the way I was, I’m going to support their dreams.

2. Keep working on yourself

We are as good as our last job — that’s the reality of the agency world that we live in. Our industry changes at the speed of light, so keeping on top of changing trends and understanding what’s going on in the world is such an important part of being successful. This includes continuously being a learner and taking time for yourself. Focusing on your mental and physical game is such an important part of performing at a high level. Taking time to learn and absorb new information turns you into a teacher and an expert. Taking time to physically take care of yourself helps you manage stress and mental focus. Finally, you are an example for your team — so if they see you taking time to learn, to read, to become an expert, to do yoga, ride your bike, go for a run; then they will replicate your behaviour as they can see that it works.

3. Remain people first

People are my world. I work in consumer behaviour and human connections. I speak to clients and partners on a daily basis. I lead a large team and mentor many others. People are complicated, they are dynamic, they are opinionated. People can lift you up, people can tear you down. My job is to understand and predict people and behaviour. My passion is to create relationships with people and implement a “help me help you” environment. I have gotten to where I am today because of people that have believed in me, and partners that trust me. So, for me, just as important as the big creative presentation, is the time I spend with people in my organization over coffee strategizing how we will be the best we can possibly be. The power of people coming together is what creates monumental change and being people first has helped me both to create change and manage through times of changes. Our world is so interconnected, so relationships should always be a priority in how we build our lives.

4. When the going gets tough, put your head down and focus

Life, it’s a funny thing. Ups and downs are something we all go through. What matters is how you deal with times of adversity. Much like many people in my position, there are times in your career when the going really gets tough. For me it was a combination of business development issues, a lack of direction in my growth, and work I had to do for money but couldn’t get passionate about. Bad combination, because it made me a miserable person. And when the going gets tough, people react differently. I was told by a mentor to put my head down and focus on getting the most out of my day. It was an interesting strategy because it was so simple, but it worked. When that ugly feeling of frustration would show up, I’d blast my music and hammer through my to do list so at a minimum I felt productive. I thought through the long-term vision and communicated it to my leadership and peers. I kept my eye on the big picture and didn’t get lost in the short-term politics. It’s tough, but you have to do what you can to get your head in order. For me it was music, focus, and yoga. For you it will probably be something else — but you need to manage through the tough times in the best way for you to find yourself back in the good times.

5. With the right mindset, and a solid plan, you can achieve what you want to achieve.

Our ECD Steve Miller uses the word “Possibilitarian” to describe a certain type of person. This person believes in what can be — they are passionate, positive, proactive, forward thinking and work in a collaborative way to make things happen. I love this word because it encompasses the power of mindset. With a Possibilitarian mindset, one is unafraid to put in work to achieve an end goal no matter how daunting the goal can be. I’m a firm believer that the right mindset is 75% of the battle to get you closer to your goals. The other 25% is a plan that is rational and realistic. When the two come together there should be no doubts in your ability to reach any goal you put your mind to.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I were going to start a movement it would be based around working on mental and emotional health for youth. Kids of today have access to the worlds’ information like never before, and much of this information is curated to make life look a specific way. The way we curate and serve up information really represents a false sense of reality. Being a marketer, I also feel the weight of that decision, because in many cases, it’s up to us to represent diversity and “realness” in our work. Based on that, my mission would be to work with youth and teenagers on their confidence, mental health, and ability to see themselves in the best light possible. Growing up is difficult, and with youth suicides on the rise (by 56% between 2007 to 2016 according to Time Magazine) it’s important for us to get young people to believe in their future because they are our world’s future!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My life lesson quote is by author and life coach Robin Sharma — “change is hard at first, messy in the middle, gorgeous in the end”. This quote has helped me move from a fear of change to an excitement of the opportunity that change can bring. For someone like me who loves feeling a sense of control, change used to be an anxiety ridden experience. When that anxiety comes to fruition, I remind myself of how gorgeous life can be after dealing with the messiness of change, and that makes me look forward to what is to come.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I have two! My first is Michelle Obama — and I really shouldn’t have to explain why! After reading Becoming and going into a rabbit hole of podcasts featuring Michelle Obama I fell in love with her overall journey and how meaningful some of her lessons were. Specifically, how she puts herself in the shoes of others and the empathy she brings into her work with kids around the world. I also look up to her resilience as a wife and partner of President Obama during a very important time in their family life.

My second is Ryan Reynolds! Celebrity crushes aside (I mean come on…) his work with Aviation American Gin is just amazing. I want to pick his brain on his involvement and how to build a celebrity brand in such an authentic and stand out way.

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