How to get ahead in media...

Be like an intellectual gazelle - but a humble one. Kathleen Saxton offers this and other top tips on how to get to the top of your profession, and how to stay there

Saxton: ‘for goodness sake, don’t let your ego ruin the moment’
Saxton: ‘for goodness sake, don’t let your ego ruin the moment’

What do you think are the core characteristics of a good leader?

Despite digital explosions, economic meltdowns and the rise of the hybrid chief executive, the core traits of good leadership I look for when interviewing retain the same focus. The ability to create and communicate a brave, concise and translatable vision, for everyone in the company to get their hearts and minds behind, is always going to give a business that critical advantage.

You’d be surprised just how many businesses simply exist without a vision or dynamic leader, and my heart breaks for the wasted opportunity. If you then add courage, curiosity and integrity, you’ve got someone who people want to do business with and someone the team will walk over hot coals for. If you can then sprinkle in some soul, there you’ll find magic happens. These are the people who move the world on – no matter the sector.

What are the biggest mistakes media leaders make when interviewing for a job?

Media leaders often forget that, despite their glittering accomplishments, they will always be in a competitive situation when applying for or even being approached about a new role. The world moves fast and so keeping fresh mentally, technically and culturally are key to prolonging your contemporary awareness of what is needed – and thereby remaining your ability to be the chosen one.

Being aware of the political landscape of the hiring, retaining enough humility to do some research before the meeting and ensuring the CV/biography is up to date and relevant are obvious but essential. A little well-placed lobbying never hurts and, for goodness sake, don’t let your ego ruin the moment. The need to remain like an intellectual gazelle will always matter – with some authentic con­fidence and humility built in.

Have media companies’ hiring policies improved?

Hiring policies come in and out of fashion, and that is to be expected as the world moves on. From insistence on psychometrics to panel interviews, Google/Facebook eight-man scoring rounds, IQ/EQ testing and, of course, the dreaded remuneration committee, we experience it all. What doesn’t change is the cultural integration question – or, as we say at Lighthouse: "Will the body reject the organ?"

Sometimes all the technical requirements are met but the organ just won’t seem to fit and that is where headhunters, if they are genuinely engaged in the psychodynamics of a hiring, add true value.

Speed has emerged as an issue for many companies, especially within the big agency groups. Getting sign-off can take weeks and, while they are massaging the remuneration committee, the candidate is wondering if a) this is indicative of the drudgery, politics and paperwork he/she is about to have to endure, and b) another more nimble and passionate firm can come in and sweep them away. It happens often.

Internal talent teams coupled with LinkedIn are the biggest changes to the hiring process in the past five years and can save companies huge amounts of money – but there is no replacement for the psychology, experience, network and connections a good headhunter can provide.

My personal bugbear is the offering letter that the HR team automate – it contains about as much emotion and personalisation as the annual letter you get from your gynaecologist or pension provider.  Be gone with the automated letters.  Fru Hazlitt always got it right. A hand-written notelet, declaring her excitement at your impending arrival and the offer of gin and lemon drizzle cake. Perfect.

Who are the most impressive media leaders you’ve placed?

We kiss a lot of frogs to find our princes/princesses and we highly prize the people prepared to become best-in-class in their field. Recent talent would include David Wilding, Claire Valoti, Azon Howie, Anna Watkins, Mark Creighton, Anna Jones, Ian James, Hamish Nicklin, Tim Hipperson, Conor McNicholas. All show great passion, skill, focus and a strong work ethic, but all are truly decent human beings.

Why do disastrous hires happen?

Because people are too insecure to hire people better than themselves, then, to really pile on the pain, refrain from taking referencing seriously enough. We are humans and, in the UK, we find it easier to critique than praise – so any referencing always drags up something unsavoury – but, if you listen hard enough, you will hear the true reputation coming out.

Kathleen Saxton is the founder and chief executive of The Lighthouse Company