Leading through Storyhunting

Lizi Hamer, Executive Creative Director of No2ndPlace, has been named by The Drum as one of the world’s most creative women, and selected by CannesLions as one of the world’s top 15 female creative directors. Lizi is the co-Author of Creative Superpowers, co-founder of SisuGirls, and builder of the SheSays Singapore Community

Lizi is one of the esteemed alumni of Future London Academy’s Executive Programme for Design Leaders. We had the privilege of talking to Lizi about her revolutionary StoryHunting techniques, creativity, and what she has learnt about leadership in her years travelling the world, creating, living and working in Singapore.

FLA: Lizi, you’re such an energetic person and inspiring leader. You know how to make connections, and your vision is so clear. Can you tell us what formed you? How did you become the person you are today?

Lizi: I’d describe myself as an energetic optimist who wants to use communication to make the world better. When I was a child, my family was always moving around. My father was in pharmaceuticals, and I first went to school in Belgium. I have a photograph of me aged six, I’ve got my backpack on and I’m holding a stick. I told my mum I was leaving, that I was off to see the world. And I remember my mum asking me — ‘what do you want to discover?’ My answer then was people, and it still is. I love the world and the beauty of nature, of mountains, but really it’s the people I find fascinating. Curiosity about people drives so much of what I do.

FLA: Well, that makes sense, I know you describe yourself as a StoryHunter, and that StoryHunting is at the heart of so much of your work. Can you tell us more about how StoryHunting came to you as an idea?

Lizi: StoryHunting came about because I was looking for a way to explain to people the power of storytelling, particularly for voices that hadn’t necessarily been heard. And it’s exactly what it sounds like: I go and hunt for individual, specific stories in order to understand something much bigger. It’s a way of trying to describe how one individual story can actually capture so much for so many. We often talk about how we need ‘global’ ideas when we’re trying to communicate, but I like to go to the other extreme: for specificity. That way you can understand people’s individual drives. To StoryHunt for that one story that has such valuable insight.

FLA: This is brilliant. It’s probably the first thing I noticed about you when we met — how you’re curious about the small details that make great stories and great subjects. Can you tell us how this innate curiosity led you to becoming a Creative Director?

Lizi: I’ve always found brands fascinating. We all have a brand, whether we’re an individual, a company, a corporation — regardless of whether we want one. And we can choose to invest in them or not. I’ve always been fascinated by communication and it is deep and rich, then it can’t fail to draw us all in. Even when I was young, say fourteen or fifteen, I knew I wanted to be creative and a communicator. I had such a clear idea of who I was, so my path felt clear to me. I came out quite young and I think that was a big part of my journey.

I started to establish who I really was because I was a bit different. It meant I had to make decisions about how I presented myself, how I spoke, who I engaged with, who were my friends and who weren’t. These decisions help you become a bit more articulate about what you love, what you don’t, who you are, why you would act one way and not the other. The more you can explore you and what makes you, the more you can put out into the world: what you would like and where you would like to go.

FLA: I love how you describe it — how that certainty about who you are and what you stand for has always been such an integral part of your identity as a leader. Can you tell us more about your leadership journey?

Lizi: I’ve always had a strong belief that leaders don’t have to be at the top. You can actually lead inside an organisation at almost any level. It was when I was working at SapientNitro in Singapore that I really began to understand this first-hand. I noticed that everybody was doing all the right jobs but nobody was doing it together. For me, leadership is all about bringing people together, so at Sapient I invented Lizi’s Bar, which was a space where people could come together. And if you wanted a beer you had to pay for it with a story: you had to tell a story, you had to start conversations with other people.

That was a tiny action, but it started conversations in the office, it started getting people talking about what our internal culture was, and from there I started getting more of a voice inside Sapient. It became clear that being a leader wasn’t necessarily about being at the top but it was more about working out how to use my skills to make it a bit more cohesive or fun or inclusive or creative. That’s probably the first time I realised you could lead from anywhere in an organisation.

FLA: Right, so leadership is about impact and influence, rather than your position within an organisation. Can you tell us more how your approach to leadership has changed during your career?

Lizi: So I had this amazing experience of leading from inside organisations. But then when I started moving to other companies and was put in formal leadership positions it was a bit of a shock. I had three or four positions where I was trying to steer everybody in a particular direction but I just got it wrong. I didn’t have the buy-in, I didn’t have some of the fundamentals that you need to be able to take people on a journey. I was very much a ‘leader at the front’ but that wasn’t always what was needed. I had to step back and I realised that there wasn’t only one way to lead; I realised I could have a more holistic awareness of what the business needs, what I need, what the people need.

The other area where my approach to leadership has really changed is to do with communities. I’ve always been involved in communities and I always wanted to have influence, to positively help somebody else’s world. That was what started my journey into communications, I wanted to work with young people who were living on the streets. So when I moved to Singapore I was quite hungry to find my community. I think I’ve spent most of my life looking for community. When I moved to Singapore we formed SheSays Singapore, and it was beautiful. It was an amazingly international group with some strong Asian women who taught me so much, and who made me realise there was more I needed to learn and that I needed to go and develop my understanding of leadership.

FLA: I really admire the passion you have for changing things in the world, and the time you dedicate to your projects outside of work. You mention the influence of these women — is there one thing you learnt that particularly stands out?

Lizi: I would say — understanding talent, and the kinds of people you’re bringing into organisations. One particular woman, Trish, stands out, who was floating in Singapore. She was incredibly smart and driven but she didn’t really know what her direction was. We met at a SheSays event and we hit it off, and she said: ‘I think you should hire me.’ She was so fresh and energetic and I didn’t really know what I was going to hire her to do. But in my position at Octagon I had enough autonomy, so I hired her as a Creative Intern and I said we’d figure out what that would actually involve as we went. Her success at Octagon over those couple of years was mind-blowing, and she has gone on to run her own agency. Trish personally taught me a lot of valuable things. But mainly she showed me that if you fill your company with amazing, talented people, even if you haven’t figured out what they’re going to do, then you’ll create an amazing company. It’s like Jim Collins says: ‘if you can get the right people on the bus you’ll work out where the bus is going.’

FLA: I love that expression. So, on the flipside, can you tell us about any challenges you’ve faced in your leadership journey? Maybe difficult conversations you’ve had, or a time when you’ve had to part ways with people in your team?

Lizi: It’s been a hard couple of years because there has been a fair amount of turnover and changes in operations. My aim with the team is to give as much constructive feedback as possible. The one book I always go back to is Radical Candour. That’s because I want people to progress, with or without the company. Some people I’ve had to let go because it’s the right thing for the business at the time, but sometimes it’s also the right thing for the person. So trying to give as much feedback as possible and as much support, making sure you can signpost everyone to the right opportunity. Trish is a good example, she left Octagon but there’s always a connection, and I’ll always make sure she has access to any doors I can open for her.

FLA: Totally. Leadership is about going through the great things together but also the hard things together without losing that sense of common humanity. So, you were of course a participant in our Executive Programme for Design Leaders. I’d love to know what influence the programme has had on your leadership style and the way you run your team, or your business in general.

Lizi: Honestly, it’s had a huge influence. Some of the biggest stuff I’ve taken away is this understanding that you’re in charge of the way you frame your world and the way you curate the information you’re given and can give. It’s made me understand how important it is to take a step back and realise I can’t just keep running at a hundred miles an hour. I actually need to find time to look at things that aren’t working. It’s not just working in the business but on the business. And on myself.

FLA: I love it. Physically as well as mentally it’s so important to step back. And that maybe doesn’t come as naturally to creative people because we’re so close to the work; we don’t always see the bigger picture — the business side of things.

Lizi: I mean, we discussed it a lot on the course. That creatives need to learn how to sit at the boardroom table. The best part of the course has actually been bridging the business world and the creative world. And some of that is as much around language as it is knowledge. Creatives will say we don’t want to get involved in the numbers, and the business people will say we don’t want to bother the creatives with the nitty-gritty details. But successful business has creative leadership at the heart of it. I think learning how to talk about it, learning that my opinion is valid and knowing that I can help drive the business are just some of the takeaways. And I’m really making it work for me, I’ve started using resources that are more visual — which appeal to the way creative brains work. So when I’m thinking about pricing or giving feedback using these visual models has actually been really helpful.

The other thing that’s happened is we’ve started doing these ‘Mmm, BA’ sessions. So people dial in and its cameras off and we discuss things I learned on the MBA course, I share my interpretation of the course as a way of crystallising what I learned. It’s a way of starting a conversation and testing memory. We had this amazing session on helping people build careers and how you map their progress. I’ve started implementing those strategies and it’s really working.

FLA: Amazing. Really the best way to learn is by sharing and teaching others. So, next question, I’d love to know what excites you about the next five years. What does the future look like?

Lizi: The future is bright. I’m really energised by some of the work my teams are doing. Some of it is in the Crypto World, some of it is doing good for the planet. There are spaces that are so vibrant at the moment – I’m speaking at South by Southwest in a couple of weeks and hope to learn a lot more there.

FLA: That’s amazing. It’s seriously inspiring for others to see the incredible things you’re doing, especially for women. To see your impact – but also somebody who is very human, very empathetic, and warm and inspiring to be around. So, thank you for being you. 💛

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