Leadership is learning
I have been privileged to work with brilliant leaders who have really inspired me. This includes my current boss, Philippe Chainieux, serial entrepreneur Brent Hoberman and Freshminds founders Charlie Osmond and Caroline Plumb. They have fuelled my passion for the start-up culture and taught me exceptional management skills.
One of the most important lessons I have learned is that leadership is two-way. You need to inspire and empower your team members. Equally importantly, you need to treat them as peers and be open to learning from them. This means listening and creating the right environment for people to thrive.
At Made.com, I manage the heads of each local market and I travel to their office in Paris and Berlin at least once a month to ensure one-on-one time. But, apart from this, I give them latitude and trust to work autonomously, and I’m there to guide and support if needed.
This focus on communication between people extends beyond leadership. The ability to build strong relationships is key in any role. It is the fuel for any business and underpins how you hire people, influence people, create strategic partners, negotiate the best prices and understand customers. It is therefore key to achieving better efficiency and smoother operations.
The ability to get on with people is the number-one quality I look for when I am hiring.
Intuition is important
We talk of big data a lot in marketing. But I believe marketing is also about intuition. Many strategic partnerships and new areas of business development at Made.com are built on this.
In our early days, my favourite quote to the team was: "Beg forgiveness, don’t ask permission." I was keen for them to just get on and do it, and making mistakes a few years ago didn’t cost much.
Today, that’s a little different, but I try to instil the same culture – I believe this approach is at the root of our continued ability to differentiate ourselves in a competitive marketplace.
Our Unboxed platform, where customers share beautiful images of their home, was established using intuition. Using near-field communication in our showrooms in the early days was a bet; committing a sizeable portion of our advertising budget, at two-and-a-half years old, to the London Underground was another.
We’ve made some less successful bets too: early adoption of virtual reality; a marketing campaign that "trended on Twitter" that I thought I would be fired for; trialling business-to-business. But we’ve learned from our mistakes.
Having only worked in start-ups, except for a stint at L’Oréal, I’m used to fast-growth environments. All the companies I have worked for – Freshminds, Mydeco.com, Founders Forum and Made.com – have gone through huge transformations. And I’ve been at the centre of driving these transformations through embracing change.
When I was hired at Mydeco.com and Made.com, I didn’t have a specific role, it just had "business development" in the title. I worked on any task that was given or needed. Today, that ability to adapt and change is equally as important, whether it’s new markets we’re entering or early adoption of advertising techniques.
Recently, I had a senior member of my team start as head of UK, we shot our first "local" TV ad for France and I held final meetings with the Victoria and Albert Museum on an exciting collaboration launching later this year. The fact that they are all "firsts" for me is energising rather than intimidating.
One of the biggest challenges we face in the future is that consumers are in control and advertising will continue to undergo huge transformations to adapt to this. How do brands fit into this world? How do we create and cut through emotion and engage with consumers in the future? The debate has already started.
There is an increase in consumers blocking or skipping ads. At the same time, brands such as ours are adapting with new techniques to make ads relevant and customised. But ad relevance will not be enough. I believe the winners will be brands that can build the best relationships with customers.
How we do that is our secret.
Annabel Kilner is commercial director at online furniture retailer Made.com, having previously worked as the brand's UK country manager.