Nikki Cunningham of Curious: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Stay true to your vision — this is the thing that the business is driving towards, so when things are rough and you are blown of course, it’s your way through. As a leader, you must always keep this front and centre so that you can lead people towards it.
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 Nikki Cunningham, Managing Director of creative branding and communications agency Curious.
Nikki has extensive experience in branding and creative solutions. Working as client partner at Curious, she oversees brand strategy, consulting and positioning, working closely with the creative team.
Before joining Curious, Nikki worked with a variety of leading global brands across a number of sectors including Diageo, Microsoft and Harley Davidson.
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?
I’ve always been keen to find my ‘thing’ and was jealous of those who knew from their school days what they wanted to be. If I was any good at science, I would have become a vet in a heartbeat, but unfortunately, I definitely wasn’t!
After a brief stint studying film and media at university, I changed courses to study English and History, and latched onto the idea of becoming a secondary school teacher. I liked to work with kids and enjoyed public speaking, so I figured this was a solid route to take. I can be quite an obsessive person, so I put my blinders on and ploughed ahead with the idea, getting a place with the Teach First grad scheme in London. After about 3 weeks I realised it was best for me (and the students of course) that I didn’t continue — teaching is such an important career and if you aren’t fully in love with Shakespeare (as was the case with me), it was never going to work out.
I then found myself without a job, in London, with no family support system…not the best! After a 3-month stint as a travel agent (I was terrible), I got a 9–5 job working as a PR and marketing assistant for a brand licensing agency. The company itself wasn’t brilliant, but they had interesting clients and a few global brands. I got involved in the consulting division of the business, researching category trends and identifying strategic opportunities for brands such as Guinness and Harley Davidson to extend into. Brand licensing is all related to a brand’s equity — where they have ‘permission’ from their audiences to live. Guinness have ventured into food categories while Harley Davidson wanted to enter the fashion and lifestyle market. This role gave me amazing experience in brand consulting, understanding what a brand actually means for people, as well as how to leverage it. This was a pivotal moment where knew I wanted to be involved in the early stages of creating a brand, rather than just brands that already exist. I started to then explore the world of brand strategy, and here I am today at Curious, a place where we get to define, create and develop truly incredible brands — so I guess you could say I finally found my ‘thing’!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I make mistakes all the time (as we all do!), so picking one moment is tricky. One thing I realised early on was how much of an insight you get into a company when they are going through a re-brand.
Branding tends to be tied into a lot of change, with either different products launching, emerging competitors entering the market, or a new CEO or team changes looking to switch the course. Sometimes it’s all 3. Change sparks a need to relook at what you say about yourselves, and that’s when branding comes in. But, as with any change, it often comes with a lot of tensions or internal conflicts to manage through. I remember one project when the CEO had recently taken on an investment deal and was really shaking things up. I had to do a brand interview with some of the senior stakeholders and, in one of the sessions, the person I was interviewing revealed how they planned to quit at the end of the week. This was a hard one to navigate for the rest of the session! An outtake from this is that I learned very quickly how important is it to form close relationships with clients so that they fully trust you. It’s a huge responsibility we take very seriously here at Curious, and sometimes we are seen as part consultant/part therapist. It’s also something I particularly love to do. Really getting to know our clients inside out helps us to do our best work for them.
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?
Yes, this is an easy one. Peter Rae, the Founder and Executive Creative Director here at Curious. I remember coming to him with certain ideas I had for the business — he always had the time to listen and talk things through, always willing to try new things and talk through future plans. I have quite a different background to Peter, and I loved how open he was to take on board my thoughts, even though I didn’t have years under my belt. I hadn’t experienced anything like that in my previous roles, and, as a young female in this industry, I feel incredibly fortunate to have avoided the barriers I know exist for so many. I believe I am where I am because of incredibly hard work and having the right attitude, but I know it’s also down to the belief and support from Peter, who has allowed me to grow and evolve with the business.
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?
The creative industry is quite jam packed with lots of talented agencies all delivering similar things. It’s quite hard truly to stand out, and this forces agencies to add things on and give themselves new layers. Luckily, from Day 1 we had something baked into our business that nobody else can claim — curiosity. It’s such a simple, yet universal truth that as people, we’re all a little bit curious. We want to find things out, we want to discover, we want to learn. That’s where new experiences lie. To have our agency called Curious, it’s pretty easy to see what our purpose is. To be curious is to explore new ideas, to let your mind wander and to play. That’s where creativity lies and that’s when we do our best work for our clients, when we can show them something unexpected, but totally right. Being able to unpick a challenge and bring it to life. Making the invisible, visible.
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?
I think we’ve all gone through a fairly challenging few years. I found it particularly challenging as a had a couple of other unexpected happenings thrown in the mix. The pandemic was hard for everyone and would have been difficult for even the most experienced Managing Director. I was however, newly promoted into the role, into a company at a stage of growth that had never had an MD before. So without previous reins to take, and transitioning into my role through Lockdown 2, the challenge was real, and we didn’t even have Christmas to look forward to. On April 30th 2021 I then hit my biggest challenge, and that was in the form of a tree. I quite literally hit one, cycling down a hill in Wales. The crash broke my jaw, fractured my temple and led to a bleed in my brain. I went from navigating the agency through the ongoing battle with COVID one day, to not being able to say my name the next. I was off work for 4 months. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to have the most supportive team I could ask for, within everyone pulling together in my absence so I could focus on getting better. I think it’s a good sign of leadership, when even if you aren’t there, everyone knows what they’re there to do and can keep things moving forward.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Yes I did! But for the first month it was really just about getting through each day. The real challenge came when I was physically better, but the impact on my mental health was a real struggle. Lots of different emotions and challenges to deal with made things difficult. But I think when you’re faced with those sorts of challenges and deciding what the right course is, the only thing you have to fall back on is what drives you. What gets you up out of bed every day? I’m actually glad I didn’t have a clear path to where I am today, because it showed me what life is like when you don’t have something to motivate you. At the end of the day, you need to be able to look back and think what you’re doing is cool. You need that sense of fulfilment. And when I wasn’t working but was physically getting better, the gap I felt was huge because I didn’t have anything to drive me — my days just ticked by. So getting back to my passion and being creative again was my goal and motivation. That plus a big dollop of resilience!
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?
Yes I do, it’s called Grit by Angela Duckworth. It looks at what it takes to be a gritty person — someone who doesn’t give up and is driven by a core purpose. You can be a really hard worker, but if you don’t truly care about what you’re doing, you can only get so far. It really speaks to me as I believe that in order to live up to your full potential, you have to care about what you’re doing. I try to always keep this in mind when it comes to our team and how I can support them, because I want everyone to get a sense of fulfilment — that’s where the best work comes from.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Communication. Without it, people will feel uneasy, and that uneasiness can morph into panic. Being open and upfront not only gives people clarity, but it also creates trust and brings everyone together. During the entire course of the pandemic, we were incredibly open with our team about decisions we were making, explaining the reason behind it and making sure everyone felt supported. I think that really helped when everywhere else you turned there was uncertainty and confusion.
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?
I think again it comes down to communication and showing them a way forward. Regardless of roles or disciplines, everyone likes to know where they’re at and what the next step is for them individually. It’s foolish to think anyone will really take onboard what you’re saying about the business if you don’t also reflect what that means for them individually. So, explaining the trajectory of the business but then tying that back to them specifically is really important. And when it’s a small company especially, showing how they fit into the bigger picture so they can see what part they play is important.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Transparency and openness — as much as is appropriate. It’s important not to beat around the bush and getting to the crux of the conversation quickly. Setting out very clearly and without waffle what has happened, what it means, how you’re fixing it and what the lessons are. If something has gone wrong or if there’s negative news to relay, it’s not about assigning blame, it’s about how you handle the issue after it’s happened. And then making sure the learnings are taken forward. And then depending on the issue, doing follow ups individually to capture any reactions that people may not have wanted to share in a group environment.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Have clear goals in mind that aren’t time specific but results specific. That way you can still plot out a plan that you want to achieve, but by not trying to measure it on dates when everything is so moveable, but instead on key check points, you can still show progress.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Communication, collaboration and clarity.
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?
Making decisions that are premature — as we saw with businesses moving to fully flexible work environments without testing how it would evolve post-pandemic.
Communicating change in a one-way manner — not allowing for feedback or input from the team.
Not sharing rationale behind big decisions — leaving people in the dark as to why something has happened.
It’s important to remember that not everyone knows the same things that you do as a leader, and just because you live with it daily, doesn’t mean everyone else is aware. Keeping this in mind is important as your wider team will just feel the impact of decisions — they need to have some context to it in order to get buy in.
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.
- Over communicate — more so than you’d think is necessary. People need to be reassured and that comes through speaking to them more often.
- Give context — if people know what is driving a decision, they will be more receptive to it.
- Get feedback — you never know what may come from this, quite often some of the best ideas don’t come from just your brain!
- Give more time — prioritise more of your time to your team than when things are running smoothly, make sure they know you are always available, even if it’s just for small windows. Don’t shut the door.
- Stay true to your vision — this is the thing that the business is driving towards, so when things are rough and you are blown of course, it’s your way through. As a leader, you must always keep this front and centre so that you can lead people towards it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Clarity is kindness.
Because I lead with empathy, I have a tendency to over-worry about how something is landing with another person. And in the past, that has led me to waffle and overcomplicate a message they needed to hear. “Clarity is kindness” as a mantra reminds me to always stick to the most important thing to communicate, because at the end of the day that’s what needs to be said. Avoiding it does no one favours.
How can our readers further follow your work?
This is our company website. https://curiouslondon.com/
And I have a blog that I’ve shared a few stories from my recovery: https://www.abumptothehead.com/
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!