In the world of strategic communications, some individuals transcend conventional roles and bring their unique blend of experience and vision. Isabel Podda, Chief Operating Officer (COO) at international strategic communications agency Infinite Global, is one of these gems.
Branching out from her established role of client-facing adviser at Buchanan to the heart of business strategy and operations, Isabel's progression to COO was a bold move that demonstrates her strong commitment to personal growth and captures the essence of leadership. In this week’s interview, Isabel shares her insights on leadership, her views on women in senior roles, and the challenges she faced during the Covid-19 pandemic. We also discover her inspiration, passions, and hidden talent.
1. With your extensive capital markets and financial advisory experience, why did you want to pivot into a Chief Operating Officer (COO) and leadership role at Infinite Global?
After 16 years at Buchanan in as a client facing adviser, I was really looking for a new challenge. My children were getting older, and I felt I wanted to push myself a lot more. I was looking at client facing roles in other agencies but kept asking myself, why leave somewhere you love just to do the same job elsewhere? I had always had an interest in the mechanics of an agency, loved finance and the more legal aspects of businesses. When the opportunity was presented to me it just ticked all those boxes. It was the chance to really make change within a business and be part of creating something special. Infinite had such incredible potential, a phenomenal team and a fantastic client base so it seemed like a logical move.
2. Forgive our ignorance, please tell us what a COO does?
A COO is basically a bit of a jack of all trades. I once laughed with a COO of another PR agency about going from crawling under desks plugging in computers to signing deals all in the same day, and that just about sums it up. The overall objective of the role is to work alongside the CEO to deliver on the company strategy. I have oversight over finance, human resources, IT, property and legal as well as looking at potential mergers and acquisitions. It’s great as no day is ever the same, you have so many different hats to wear and you never stop learning. I absolutely love solving problems so this gives me the ability to indulge that most of the time.
3. Over your 11 years at Infinite Global, tell us how things have changed and what has been your biggest lesson?
When I joined we were a UK agency with an exceptional reputation in professional services. A couple of years later we merged with Infinite PR in the US becoming a transatlantic business. We have evolved not only sector wise but also in terms of our services including digital, design and content. It has been constant change. I suppose the biggest lesson I learnt during this time was when integrating businesses not all aspects need to be integrated – focus on what you need to do rather than trying to obtain over alignment and forcing round pegs into square holes.
4. You are part of a leadership team of an international agency. In your opinion what barriers do women face to reach senior roles?
I would love to say none but as much as the world has advanced there is still a way to go in terms of equality in the workplace and that may take some time more before there is total equality. However, as well the drive for equality I find mindset is a big barrier. If I were talking to my younger self, I would tell me to lock the imposter syndrome in box and threw away the key. It is important to be seen, to trust your own capabilities, instincts and voice and above all not to be scared to taking risks.
5. What stands out as your most memorable work moment?
This was at our first ever all company retreat. We sat down to introduce the session to the team and I looked around the room and just was blown away firstly I suppose by the size we had become but also by the sense of engagement by everyone in the room. It made me incredibly proud of where the company had got to and where it was heading next?
6. What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career so far?
Without doubt working through the early days of the pandemic, taking a team to remote working overnight, managing budgets against a nervous client base, keeping team morale strong in the face of a grim news agenda. I was lucky to be working alongside an exceptional team and we made it through a far stronger business however I hope we never have to experience that again.
7. We know you are brilliant with people. What is the most important lesson you have learned when managing people?
So many managers talk about their management style and expect their teams to adapt to them, this manager type forces their opinions and ideas on others and will never benefit from the knowledge and experience of the team around them. I firmly believe that to be a successful manager you need to treat everyone as an individual rather than taking a uniform approach. A few years back I trained as a Mental Health First Aider where a large section of the course focuses on active listening and this was a real game changer for me. I think the most important thing is to not just listen but actively listen and really try and understand the people you are managing, asking yourself and indeed the team members themselves how they react to different management styles, and working on it from there.
8. What or who inspires you, and why?
I have a friend who founded a design company some 20 years ago and I have watched him build from a 4 strong team into a £30m business. How he has inspired me has been his relentless drive to create a better business whilst ensuring his business helps support a better world achieving employee ownership. Also gaining ‘b-corp’ status and a first-rate apprenticeship scheme; these are a few of his main achievements. I can sit for hours talking to him about what’s next and in that way he pushes me to think harder about what the possibilities are for Infinite.
9. If you hadn’t ended up working in comms, what was your plan B?
Comms was actually my plan B. I had always wanted to go into law. I slightly fell into comms by accident and never looked back. In a way the transition into operations took me almost full circle and closer to my original plan A. Don’t get me wrong I don’t regret ending up in comms at all – I have loved it. However law remains a real love of mine. It may sound insane, but my retirement plan includes undertaking a law degree.
10. Do you have any hidden talents?
Am not sure this counts but I used to bake professionally in my spare time. It’s an odd one as I don’t have a sweet tooth, but I just find it really relaxing.
Thank you, Isabel!
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