Sara Tate on how leaders can reshape businesses and teams with resilience at their heart
Sara Tate parleyed her successful turnaround of TBWA\London into a podcast, book and portfolio career focused on coaching and consulting. She tells Cherry Casey how leaders can reshape businesses and teams with resilience at their heart
When Sara Tate was appointed CEO at creative agency TBWA\London in 2017, she was tasked with turning around a company that had “been in a challenged position for quite a long time”. No small feat, but fortunately for Tate, she had spent the previous 10 years at Mother, an advertising company with a workplace culture known for being as radical as its campaigns. As far back as the 1990s, for instance, offices had no formal departments, with staff instead sitting around one huge table. Creatives even pitched their ideas to clients directly, without the mediation of account directors. “They’re one of the world’s leading creative companies, and one of the reasons they were so successful is because what you saw on the outside was what was happening on the inside,” says Tate. “So I knew how TBWA\London needed to feel internally in order for great work to come out.”
While Tate’s ambition was clear – to make TBWA\London a place where people felt confident, comfortable and creative – getting there was still a learning curve for the new Chief Executive. “To make change happen in business you need to have a vision, but you also need to make sure that all the processes and procedures line up, because often there’s little things that get in the way of change happening that you don’t even notice.” She gives the example of one woman turning down the role of business director due to an uncompetitive parental leave policy. “I was talking a lot about female leadership, working four days a week myself and espousing flexible working,” says Tate. “Little did I know that the legacy policies we had in place were not aligned with that.”
A full suite of characteristics, including sexuality, neurodiversity, disability, ethnicity and social mobility, were included in the company’s EDI overhaul, and new measures were put in place, such as introducing a menopause policy and offering leave for various forms of religious observance. Organisational change is often slowed by embedded culture and behaviour, but Tate says everyone was receptive to EDI rocketing up the agenda. “People understand that having a more diverse workforce is going to be better for everyone, and actually an enormous number of people themselves feel not as included as they could be,” she says.
She concedes, though, that other strategic changes, such as the decision to bring customer experience and data further into decision-making, “always needed to be brought in with some degree of delicacy. Humans are pattern-seeking machines, and we don’t like to have our patterns disrupted, so there needs to be continual communication to understand how it will work and how it will service our clients.”
It took around two years for the positive impact of the changes that Tate and her new leadership team introduced to show, with TBWA\London winning new headline clients such as Facebook and being named globally as one of Fast Company’s most innovative companies in 2019 (and again in 2020 and 2021). “We started to see people becoming excited to see the fruits of all their energies and efforts,” remembers Tate. “And then of course, the pandemic hit…”
While Covid-19 had people shuttered indoors, TBWA\London still managed to grow revenue, as it did in each of the four years of Tate’s tenure as CEO. In 2021 it won the ultimate accolade for a creative company – a Cannes Lions Grand Prix, in the Health and Wellness category. During this time, however, Tate and colleague Anna Vogt launched a podcast – a temporary distraction which took on a life of its own. “We needed something that wasn’t home-schooling, applying anti-bac to everything or being on Zoom calls all day,” says Tate. “We became deeply interested in this idea that what people experience in their life can inform their work, and what people experience in work comes from their life.” Their podcast, The Rebuilders, looked at how people and businesses can adapt when things go wrong, talking to everyone from ex-prisoners to dog behaviourists.
“Whether it’s a business or a marriage, most of the time you’re taking something you care for deeply, that you’ve invested in and want to try to fix in some way,” says Tate of the podcast’s celebration of bouncing back. The success of The Rebuilders led the pair to write a book of the same name, set to be published by Kogan Page in June.
Tate’s interest in mining her experience so she can help others is a common thread in her career, one she has put to use via regular mentoring. She began formally at TBWA\London, and continues via Women in Advertising and Communications Leadership; Ok Mentor, an organisation for young women looking to break into creative industries; and London & Partners, the Mayor’s “business growth” agency.
Since its launch in 2011, London & Partners has helped more than 2,000 companies either set up or expand their existing footprint in the capital, contributing an estimated 68,000 jobs and £2.2bn to the city’s economy. Tate has been a business mentor with the organisation since 2019, advising fledgling enterprises on strategy, branding, leadership and organisational culture.
“I love what London & Partners do – they attract businesses from elsewhere to London and provide them with the support they might need in order to thrive,” she says. “It sounds cliched, but I learn as much from my mentees as they do from me. Mentoring is a very condensed version of how you lead. So, for example, I observe myself and if I’m giving too much advice, I go back in with a coaching style” – a way of helping mentees come to their own conclusions.
Both The Rebuilders and Tate’s mentoring work have a particular focus on helping entrepreneurs and businesses organise around resilience – a vital pillar of successful growth. “The qualities I drew on at TBWA\London were things that I had developed in myself during the previous years. [I’d experienced] baby loss and my husband had been very unwell – and through that you learn about yourself and your wells of resilience. And in a work environment, you draw on those things, and vice versa.”
The idea that resilience is something you either have or you don’t is a myth that Tate is keen to quash. “Resilience is like a muscle you can build,” she explains. “It’s not something you’re born with. There is loads of research around that. That is a useful thing to communicate to people and then help them work through. What is it that builds their personal resilience?”
Tate’s passion for helping people and businesses look inward to spark renewed growth evolved to the extent she left TBWA\London at the end of 2021, starting a new career as a consultant on leadership and culture change. “I’d become increasingly tuned into the needs of the people within the company and I was seeing other businesses where there were clear challenges, which are only going to intensify,” she says.
“People are asking: ‘Why am I doing this? Is this rewarding enough for me?’ And if you have a group of people who aren’t really aligned with what your business is doing, you’re going to falter. For years I’ve helped brands find their purpose and consider why consumers should come to them. Now that needs to flip internally, and businesses need to think why people should give up their hours and lives for them.”
And it’s not enough to walk the walk. “Purpose-washing” can emerge when an external narrative doesn’t tally with the internal experience. “That ‘difference’ eventually became a massive schism,” Tate says. “A lot of the time leaders are really well intentioned, but they’re just not necessarily aware of the shadow they’re casting, and bringing much greater self-awareness into how other people experience them is really important.”
Just as important is rethinking the term “manager”, which has become a “dirty word”, says Tate. “What we’re seeing, particularly with the huge complexity of how businesses will now operate, is that team management is vital.” With each individual on any given team potentially working different hours, with different communication skills and different objectives, more than ever a manager’s role will be “understanding how their teams interact. We’re not all operating in a homogenised way now, so there needs to be real understanding and course-correcting in a really nuanced fashion. And it’s not something that managers are really taught.”
And that’s precisely the skills and experience gap that Tate is looking to close in her new portfolio career. “There comes a point in leadership where it’s not about doing your job brilliantly,” she says. “It’s about helping other people do their job brilliantly. And that’s where I want to focus my mind for the next 20 years.”