Natasha Cholerton-Brown of Hogarth: Five Things You Need to Be a Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times
Don’t Rely on Translation: Know your content, do your own research, don’t rely on canned demos, be curious and ask questions. Ensure you look under the hood. Never stop asking questions. Every conversation should end with ‘and what else?’
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Natasha Cholerton-Brown.
Natasha Cholerton-Brown is the Chief Executive Officer of the Americas at Hogarth, a WPP company. She is an experienced global leader who has worked extensively in both corporate and start-up, hypergrowth entrepreneurial environments. In her current role, she is responsible for strategically driving growth and market penetration across the Americas, including Canada and Latin America. As a leader at Hogarth, Natasha also ensures the firm’s high standard of content experience is consistently met using creativity, production, and innovation to deliver for the world’s largest brands.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
After studying Music and Economics, I started my career as a photojournalist, traveling the world for many years working as a news photographer. I realized after a while that I wanted to lean into the business side more, so I strategically pulled myself off the road and leaned into the editing side of the business, and that was an incredible training ground. It gave me exposure to how the world of content and news media actually works.
That then led me to other organizations where I was positioned in the business side of media and found myself getting pulled into client facing commercial discussions to talk about our work. After that, there was no going back. The content world and how it ticks became my fascination. Following a stint in media sales, I realized I was heavily skewing into the land of operations. So, I took the opportunity to branch out and lean into many organizations as interim COO, helping them to grow and gain investments, etc. Roll forward a handful of years, here I am as CEO for the Americas at Hogarth. It was a very natural progression for me to move into the agency world from publishing; for me it felt like I was completing the puzzle — the puzzle of the content ecosphere.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. 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?
One mistake I can vividly recount is, as a young manager for a large global team, I responded to an email in a moment of frustration. However, I quickly realized that I had hit send a little too fast. The note was a stream of consciousness, filled with utter gibberish and typos, and it happened to be going to one of the world’s most respected journalists. The lesson for me was …”breathe and slow down.” I learned that attention to detail is key, and the fact that I am still thinking about that moment and cringing inside makes it a great example of one of the most important lessons in life. Second to that is what I did to move forward. For me, how you react in the moment of stress is what defines you. It’s what people remember. It’s not the actual issue you were aiming to solve! With a deep breath, I went and spoke to said journalist. I admitted my idiocy and ended up having a very constructive conversation about the matter at hand.
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?
This is such a tough question. I’m going to take liberty here and list a couple! Both people I’ll talk about have influenced me in totally non-business-related spheres, and for very different reasons, yet impact how I lead every day.
The first person is called Roger Bigley. He was my viola teacher during my musical studies. As a world-renowned viola player, he taught me how to really practice and learn, and how to live by the details. But then he also showed me how you must throw it down and go for it when the nerves are flying during performances. In a funny way that was the start of my understanding that you must be in the game to be comfortable being fearless.
Secondly, Ross Galitsky. Ross was one of my Ironman coaches (I’m a keen endurance athlete). He trained me to find my inner resilient mind, and taught me more about my mind and body, and how to manage them effectively together. I use the skills gained in those years of training literally every day. It gives me grit, resilience, and calmness when things get tough.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
At Hogarth, our purpose is to forge meaningful connections, uniting brands with people and people with brands in ways that resonate deeply with our clients and their audience. As the “Content Experience Company,” we are dedicated to transforming creative ideas into tangible, impactful, and unforgettable experiences.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
In the face of significant organizational turbulence, my leadership approach revolves around three essential principles: grit, grace, and gratitude. First and foremost, I recognize the prevailing challenges transparently establishing a foundation of trust within my team. I make it a point to provide a clear direction, inspiring a sense of determination and perseverance to conquer uncertainty.
Incorporating grace into my leadership style is paramount. I prioritize empathy and consistently demonstrate genuine care and respect for my team members as individuals, not just as employees. Their well-being during times of stress is my top priority. Additionally, I express my appreciation for their unwavering commitment and hard work regularly. Recognizing and thanking them for their contributions significantly boosts morale and strengthens our sense of unity. Gratitude is a powerful motivator — it is often forgotten in moments of challenge.
In my daily approach, I constantly ask myself these crucial questions: What communication is necessary? Am I being transparent? Does everyone have the context knowledge required to make informed decisions for their respective areas of responsibility? Applying and embracing grit, grace, and gratitude across these pillars serves as a guiding beacon during stressful times, ultimately leading to our success.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
In short, no. I’m pretty competitive by nature and love a good goal or challenge. I see everything as a puzzle and for me the way to break down the adversity to not get overwhelmed is to simply tap into the mindset of “just managing the next mile.“ This comes directly from my sport and musical training. The ability to turn down the noise of what’s ahead, what’s a distraction, and to focus is an incredibly useful skill. It brings focus, calm, and ensures progress. I am also a huge optimist, so that energy to persist is just how I am wired.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
Ever since I was given a copy of ‘Shackleton’s Way’ in a leadership session over 10 years ago, I have kept it close. It is an absolutely outstanding book about leadership and the human spirit in the face of adversity. The book details the almost two-year struggle for survival by the 28-man crew of the ship, Endurance, in 1915. All 28 men lived after the ship was stuck in the ice of the Antarctic. It’s a true story of astounding resilience and survival in one of the bleakest places on earth. Truly inspirational.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
In challenging times, the “role” of a leader, versus the attributes and behaviors of a leader, is very clearly defined in my opinion. It is key that senior leaders in any organization must model and inspire optimism, develop a very clear and shared purpose, communicate it repeatedly in varying forms, and build unity and commitment. Without these elements, the impact becomes anxiety, confusion and disengagement, which can be incredibly damaging.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Building a sense of team and togetherness is key. I think about the best sports teams, they are a cohesive group taking on the mission head on together. One weak link means that others fail. Equally, if you don’t win the game but you had some amazing moments, the coach will celebrate those moments.
It’s the same in business. Even in the most challenging circumstance, you still have to invest time in people and make their efforts known. For me, it’s a simple mantra of ‘don’t forget to celebrate.’ Celebrate the small and big wins. Celebrate the most junior individual who went above and beyond. Take the time to notice and acknowledge. It goes a long way.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
For me, it is by far the most important thing to communicate difficult news verbally. The spoken word is incredibly powerful, and we have so many more tools to convey a message when using the spoken word compared to when we use text. We can use tone, intonation, volume and many other accents and dynamics. This is founded in my musical studies that trains you to interpret the written note in a multitude of ways. For me, text has too many variables that are not in my control that are influenced by the reader’s mood and environment.
We can also use our body, our faces, our wardrobe choice, the location, and type of vocal communication (video, in person, audio only, etc.), and so much more to add weight and gravitas to our message. With difficult or negative news, if communicated in the right way it can lead to gaining trust and confidence, and in turn become an opportunity. After all, over time, people remember how you dealt with an issue, not what the issue actually was.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Business would be boring if everything was predictable! Generally speaking, leaders don’t lead because they want to know the next chapter.
They are builders and risk takers by design. So, although we do not have all the answers, and the influences on the market are limitless, that is part of the fun. The art of planning for the future comes down to making informed assumptions.
Assumptions based on many things including data, trends/seasonality, revenue patterns over time, anticipated market macroeconomic impacts/headwinds etc., should all be blended to create the most likely scenario(s) for growth. That said, all good leaders understand that agility in the face of adversity and unanticipated change should be dealt with in a decisive and transparent way.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
It’s not the issue itself, but how you deal with it, that people remember.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
1. Panicked and rushed decision-making. Leadership needs to be the calm voice of reason. They need to be able to make reasonable assumptions, identify the causes, and keep laser-focused on ‘what’s next’ and the pathway forward.
2. Poor communication (that gets leaked). This can be hugely damaging. Be clear about which cohorts of your company you are talking to and adapt your messaging. So, be meticulous in your messaging. It’s OK to say, ‘more to come,’ or ‘will share more as we move forward’ and importantly, ‘you’ll next hear an update from me in X days’ (even if there is nothing new). Give people a cadence to rely on.
3. Not focusing on the good people you have in your organization. In challenging times, companies often must use levers like layoffs and re-orgs to support new strategies. This is an incredibly stressful time, not only for those impacted but also for those that remain. Often, organizations do not ensure enough communication following changes to build assurances, alignment with their teams. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain open and frequent communication both during and after such challenging decisions.
4. When you stop thinking about what your competitors might be doing to disrupt your business. It’s incredibly important to be honest and proactive about problem solving. You must be honest with yourself and the leadership team and create an environment where you look up and really see what is happening. Look outside, be proactive, don’t hide. Disrupt yourself!
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
A few years ago, I gave a speech called Lessons from the War Zone, inspired by my time as a photographer working in some hostile environments. The sections of the speech I think relate to this very question, and are relevant to career growth in general and how I lead…
> Keep Your Head Up: Meaning, always keep an awareness of all that is going on around you even when you want to hide.
> Know Your Surroundings: Don’t just waltz into an area (or a room full of clients or team members) and try to wing it. Prepare, prepare again, and be prepared to watch and listen.
> Don’t Rely on Translation: Know your content, do your own research, don’t rely on canned demos, be curious and ask questions. Ensure you look under the hood. Never stop asking questions. Every conversation should end with ‘and what else?’
> Think On Your Feet: Be agile and ready to change course/plan at any time and do it decisively.
And finally, not one of the lessons from the war zone but one I live and breathe every day — is really to highlight again — that people remember how you deal with an issue, not what the actual problem is.
For me, that encapsulates everything I use as a CEO every day, even in less turbulent times!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
’Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference’ -Winston Churchill
How can our readers further follow your work?
Keep an eye on all the WPP and Hogarth social media feeds. Our clients are some of the world’s biggest brands and every day we showcase our best work.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Natasha Cholerton-Brown of Hogarth: Five Things You Need to Be a Highly Effective Leader During… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.