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Interview with Selena Callas, Senior Managing Director, Teneo

Posted: Jun 2023
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Senior Managing Director Selena Callas is no stranger to change. Over her 17 years at communications, strategy and advisory powerhouse Teneo, Selena has not only acquired over 600 new UK colleagues (and 1,600 globally) but has helped many senior leaders face countless challenges which she says are now at an all-time high. Selena has fully embraced the evolution of the business and the ever-more daunting task of supporting her clients through difficult times, crediting her ability to listen, know that she doesn’t always have all the answers, and work hard as well as have fun. Selena also shares with us why standing in a (very) remote field turned out to be her most memorable work moment!

1. Can you give me a brief overview of your career to date?

    It’s unintentionally a little bit one dimensional - on paper, at least.

    I’ve always worked consultancy side, starting my career in a small corporate and financial comms agency, and joining Blue Rubicon in 2006, which later became Teneo in 2015. Never did I think I’d be in the same place for 17 years….lots has stayed the same (advising well-known businesses and brands on how to build, maintain and turnaround their reputation) but lots has changed (we now have over 600 people in the UK, and lots of colleagues who are in experts in consulting, people advisory, financial advisory, behaviour change, political risk and more – never not learning, and always being challenged to think in a different way).

    2. You have had the opportunity to work with world famous - and often challenged – brands, how has this shaped your communications?

      The principles are the same. Have a clear company purpose ie why you exist (not necessarily social purpose); a strong narrative; test it; embed it; push the business to do things differently (actions, not just comms), and take some risks; and, win the hearts and minds of all audiences, from employees, to investors, to policymakers and regulators, to end consumers (don’t see these audiences in siloes). And have fun doing it. If you’re bored, then the audiences you’re trying to reach and influence certainly will be - and no one will be buying, investing, changing their behaviour…

      In terms of ‘challenged brands’ - it’s tough to advise companies when they’re at crisis point - either of their own or others’ making - but sometimes it’s easier for leaders to coalesce over a burning platform. Convincing leaders to make bold moves in the good times, either as an opportunity or safety blanket in times of future need, is often a harder job. That’s where tried-and-tested experience and lots of research, insight and testing comes in. Companies love hearing from others, and not necessarily in their sector - and that’s what’s kept me in consultancy. Manufacturing to auto industry to tech to retail - there are always learnings from elsewhere.

      3. You work to enhance reputation and build trust in brands, what are the challenges that companies/brands face most at the moment?

        I don’t think I’ve ever been working at a time where there have been more challenges for business leaders – from the cost of living and inflation; to emerging risks like cyber (I worked on a fascinating campaign in this space last year); the rewriting of geopolitical rules; motivating and retaining employees when some of the old conventions have been eroded, especially post-COVID; hard choices around sustainability (almost all of most of my clients want to do something but several don’t know where to start, or where to focus); diversity and inclusion, and the culture wars, today and of their past.

        4. What would you say are your three key attributes that have contributed to your career success?

          • Listening - some of the best advice I’ve received was to listen to understand.Not to hear and speak.
          • Knowing that I don’t have all of the answers, and it’s ok to admit that you don’t know. Be comfortable being uncomfortable. The skill is to find people that do. That’s why I’ve enjoyed how Teneo has evolved - there’s an expert in (almost) everything.
          • Embrace change – I joined a company of 32, we’re now 1600 globally. Lots of my day job is really similar – devising and delivering long-term creative campaigning to build reputation, with some brilliant brands and organisations. But it’s obviously different too - the opportunity to work with financial advisory colleagues on a complex M&A process, and fuse our brand strategy capabilities with our management consulting colleagues’ expertise in go-to-market and pricing strategies, as just two examples. It has made the day job more interesting, and the work for clients even better.
          • Don’t take things too seriously. Work hard, but have fun!

          5. What is your most important lesson you have learned in life so far?

          Surround yourself with people that give you energy - not sap your energy. This is just as relevant with friends, family and work. People that are passionate about something – it doesn’t have to be a shared interest, but just people who have a zest for life. I had a client who was a chessmaster – I know nothing about chess, and can’t play - the closest I get is loving the Queen’s Gambit - but their passion is infectious.

          6. What is your most memorable work moment?

            It’s true that the most memorable moments are rarely sat in a meeting room, which is why I always think it’s important to get out and about, into a client’s business (in factories, farms, out on the road, on the trading floor).

            One of my most memorable is actually over a decade ago, and in a far-flung location. A field in Ghana….on a cocoa farm. With a CEO, to commit to their historic relationship in the country. It’s memorable because it combined lots of the best bits of my job….helping senior people with high stakes moments for them individually and their company; a spot of jeopardy (we’d secured the BBC to come with us, and broadcasting live on a satellite link from a remote field. Slightly harder in 2010 than today!); at the cutting edge of a genuine sustainability programme, that delivered to the heart of the company - ‘no cocoa, no chocolate’ - and was leading the industry. Many people that I worked with then are now clients in different organisations.

            7. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given along the way, and by whom?

              It was actually from a podcast and the advice was to ‘Reach for the stars, but keep your feet on the ground’. I think this speaks to how to operate in your own organisation, and also the advice that we’d give to clients to build their reputation. Talk to everyone - from the most senior (and we have the privilege of advising senior business leaders) but also build relationships and listen to everyone, whatever their role, and all audiences. You sometimes get the best insight and ideas from those you least expect.

              And, if I’m allowed another – ‘the importance of resting and resetting’. It’s much harder to disconnect these days, but is absolutely critical to achieve and sustain performance. And I love a holiday!

              8. What or who inspires you, and why?

                A very hard question – so many. I’ll pick someone who we invited to speak at Teneo’s company inspiration day last year. Lizzie Deignan, Olympian, first female winner of Paris-Roubaix, the blue riband road cycling race, coming back and winning after having a baby, and extending her contract with Trek-Segafredo whilst pregnant. She’s so grounded but also driven. And to achieve this after baby is incredible - I’ve returned to work from maternity leave three times over, but whatever hurdles that presents, it’s not putting your body back to elite sport!

                9. If you hadn’t ended up working in comms, what was your plan B?

                  In my early twenties, I applied - and failed - to join the Foreign Office. I did geography at university and loved travel and global current affairs. But the reality is that I’ve got to do a fair amount of that but in advising businesses. And, despite jokes about ‘having a degree in colouring in’, I use a fair amount of geography, especially in relation to global trade, climate, supply chain sourcing, and development.

                  10. Do you have any hidden talents?

                    Question 10 was the toughest of the lot! I had to ask a friend and colleague (or two). Votes were jumpsuit collection… and juggling.

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