Women in Digital: Colette Ballou

We speak with Colette Ballou, founder and chairman of tech agency Ballou, about how her own early experiences of agency life have shaped her leadership style

Posted 1 March 2021 by Christine Horton

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or combination of both? 

My career path before Ballou was a steady progression but had many grim experiences. I had humiliating experiences at agencies early on, but sadly, that’s relatively typical – many of my colleagues have reported the same. On the plus side, those experiences confirmed for me who I did not want to be as a manager, and how I would treat people with whom I work. As a result, civility is key to Ballou’s culture.

What’s the best career advice you can give to others?

Most of the management styles you will encounter in your career will be dysfunctional. Use them as an aid to define who you don’t want to be as a manager.

If you had to pick one mentor who has had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

Maybe not mentors, exactly, but there are people who have taught me a great deal and to whom I am grateful. First and foremost, my father, who taught be to admit mistakes and apologise sincerely when I’ve wronged someone. He also taught me to live below my means and save, which is also how we run Ballou, so we have weathered the crisis. Finally, the wonderful Ballou financial directors and non-executive directors – when I started this business, my weak point was numbers, but they were patient and taught me a great deal. Now I run a very tight ship, with all kinds of controls and measurement in place to make sure we’re healthy and can spot trouble early on and correct it.  

From where do you draw inspiration?

From my own memories of what it is like to be a junior staffer at an agency. I am always casting back 20-25 years and thinking “How would I take that? How would that feel to me?” I remember being confused by management decisions, and sometimes the outright hypocrisy of supervisors. Most recently, I ran the draft of our new remote working policy through that filter to get it right. It really helps me make decisions and create policies that feel fair.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced to date?

The biggest challenge in the early years was just getting Ballou off the ground. I opened up each one, and served as the GM, starting with Paris (where I realised that I didn’t speak French as well as I thought I did!), then London, then Berlin. And the challenges keep coming! COVID-19 is its own challenge, but it’s a mirror of earlier recessions we faced in some respects.

What qualities do you feel make a good leader?

Most important is empathy, or at least sympathy. Then the ability to recognise and then face a crisis by taking swift and often brutal action. Some leaders are very slow to deal with the reality of a situation, they hope it will just solve itself. We faced coronavirus, for example, head on in March and made intelligent decisions rapidly.

From a work viewpoint what have the last 12 months been like for you?

Whiplash, it’s been nothing short of whiplash. It was such a massive shift, going from a growth mindset to a crisis mindset quickly – and I had to coach our GMs through it as well. The first thing I did was cut my compensation by more than 50 percent. The second thing was to walk away from the apartment in London I was just about to buy. I lowered my personal burn rate so that I had no need to take money out of the company. I believe that it’s a leader’s duty to make sacrifices before anyone else has to.

In the midst of all this, though, our management team has become closer than ever, as the importance of pastoral care for each other quickly emerged. For example, we checked to make sure that our people were getting enough support at home, that they were coping mentally, that they were taking their annual leave properly and not burning themselves out.

One of the best things about our crisis experience was the performance of the team working remotely. They transitioned beautifully, without a hitch. Everyone did what they said they were going to do and hit their deadlines – they kept the clients happy so the management team could manage the business. Every single day, my colleagues had my back.

Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know.

My father had me convinced that the queen of England lived in our local post office in Brooklyn.  Here’s a picture of it, I hope you can see why!