Bossing It: Penny Wolhuter explains why leadership isn’t always sunny and a bed of roses
Originally from South Africa, Penny Wolhuter moved to New Zealand in 2016, joining one of New Zealand’s leading independent advertising agencies, Chemistry, as Senior Account Manager, followed by promotion to as Commercial Director in 2018.
With a background in in-house marketing at Primedia Lifestyle in South Africa and customer service at global advertising agency Ogilvy, Penny’s leadership skills were quickly revealed, seeing her promoted to Managing Partner of Chemistry. in 2020.
In five years, Penny has helped Chemistry grow from a 6-person agency to 31 people. And with the support of Chemistry owners Joseph Silk, Mike Larmer, Susan Young and Pat Murphy, Penny assumed the role of Managing Partner at MetroEXP, Chemistry’s sister agency, in March 2022.
Focused on production, brand design, customer activations and events, Penny ushered MetroEXP into a new era. The shift from a primarily event management company to a production and brand activation agency has added more specialization to the expanded group and has seen MetroEXP’s customer base grow steadily over the past year.
MetroEXP counts Waste Management, Wendy’s, Ford, Pharmaco and Barkers of Geraldine among its clients. The agency works with New Zealand brands of all sizes with one goal in mind: to realize amazing brand ideas for less than you might expect.
For Penny, self-awareness, communication, empathy and influence are the foundations of good leadership.
LBB> What was your first leadership experience?
Penny> My first leadership experience was when my direct report at a global advertising agency in South Africa left. I didn’t know it at the time (we were a great team) but I guess he did me a huge favor – I was quickly moved into his role where I took two account executives under my wing – and I’ve never looked back.
LBB> How did you decide what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?
Penny> I’ve learned from many people throughout my career – both how I would and wouldn’t do things. It’s brought me to the point where I know what kind of leader I’m comfortable being, and it’s one that guides and inspires others to take on leadership roles over time. I still make mistakes and I’m the first to admit that’s one of the qualities that makes a great leader.
LBB> What experience or moment gave you your greatest leadership lesson?
Penny> There are so many, but for me, it’s the reality that leadership doesn’t always mean sunshine and rose. Ultimately, you are dealing with people who may be suffering from health and/or personal issues or who are simply not functioning at the level you expect. Either way, leadership requires tough conversations, which always teach you something new about how to lead a team.
LBB> Did you know that you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so, how did you work for it and if not, when did you start to realize you had it in you?
Penny> Absolutely not! I had no idea early in my career that I wanted to be a leader, but I “fell” into leadership roles mostly. My view is that everyone grows in their careers and in roles that “feel good”, and potential leaders are offered opportunities based on how serious they are with their peers and other leaders in the world. ‘company.
LBB> Regarding “leadership” as a skill, to what extent do you think it is a natural part of the personality, to what extent can we teach and learn?
Penny> Personality is an important part of leadership, and there is no “right” personality or leadership style. I believe that your personality forms the foundation of your specific leadership style. All that goes beyond what is learned and shaped from life experiences and experiences with past and current leaders who have inspired you.
LBB> What aspects of leadership do you personally find the most difficult? And how do you work through them?
Penny> As a leader, my job is to inspire and guide my team so they can learn and grow by discovering solutions on their own. However, because I want to stay stuck and help find a solution, I have to remember that I don’t need to be the one making a decision for a specific outcome all the time.
My personality type drives me to connect with others so they can do their best. By focusing on building strong relationships with my team from scratch, I find it easier to operate with empathy and remind them that I’m leading and learning alongside them at the same time.
LBB> Have you ever felt like you failed when you were in charge? How did you approach the problem and what did you learn from it?
Penny> I don’t like to call it “failure”; I prefer to call it “learning to be a better leader”. Like everything in life, these are the times that help you learn and grow. I’m pretty hard on myself when I feel like I haven’t met my expectations or those of others; but this self-awareness, in my opinion, is an essential trait that drives leaders to improve.
LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what is your approach there? Do you think it is important to be as transparent as possible in the service of authenticity? Or is there value in being careful and thoughtful?
Penny> My leadership style is one of transparency and open communication. Without it, we wouldn’t work as a team to achieve the strategic goals we have together. We are not hierarchical at MetroEXP or Chemistry, so while I may be the “boss”, we all roll up our sleeves and operate with unity and solidarity.
LBB> As you developed your leadership skills, did you have a mentor, if so who was/are they and what did you learn? And on the other hand, do you mentor aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?
Penny> Leaders are formed from many aspects of life – from childhood and school experiences to experiences with leaders in the workplace.
As soon as you enter the workforce in your twenties, you quickly learn what good leadership is and what it means to you personally. I’ve had some pretty interesting leadership experiences in my time, and I can honestly say the good and not so good experiences have really shaped my leadership style. You need those bad experiences to help you become the leader you want to be. From my point of view, all former leaders are my mentors, good and bad!
I like to think that I inspire leadership on a daily basis through my behavior, my actions and the way I handle situations.
LBB> How important is your corporate culture to the success of your business? And how did you manage to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?
Penny> That’s it! Our culture and values very quickly expose any flaw in behavior that goes against what our company stands for.
I have to say, if we hadn’t already established our culture, we would have been in a world of pain over the past few years. It is our culture that allowed everyone to earn 100% of their salary at the height of Covid-19 and multiple confinements. At the same time, we have seen countless companies cut wages and employees within days of the first lockdown.
On the contrary, we got the best out of our people during the lockdowns. Working remotely hasn’t stopped us from starting new business, having daily catch-ups with each other, and even games over drinks on a Friday afternoon. Culturally, we love spending time together and our office has a great vibe. I sometimes think we know as much about each other as we do about our own families. For this reason, it was extremely important for every leader in the company to connect with their teams for no reason other than to simply ask, “How are you?” “.
LBB> What are the most helpful resources you have found to help you along your leadership journey?
Penny > Leading my team with empathy and a set of values that we all live by every day. Leverage people’s unique skills and understand how to get the best out of each individual, not only within my immediate team, but also within the wider organization. Also, being open and transparent in my communication with people, so there are never any surprises, and we all work together to create our success, which in turn creates success for the wider business and, ultimately (and most importantly) our customers. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.