Bossing It in association withLBB's Bossing It
Bossing It: Finding the Drive to Constantly Learn and Grow with Rita Harnett
Media Agency
London, UK
Global head of DTC and social commerce at Wavemaker on advocating transparency, mentoring and building confidence

As global head of DTC and social commerce, Rita works within the wider WM Commerce team, a global community of ecommerce specialists. Rita’s role is to work with clients to support with their ecommerce business strategy, looking at aspects such as identifying the best routes to market for the brand, the competitor landscape, onsite customer experience and their ecommerce maturity to then deliver optimisation strategies.

Prior to Wavemaker Rita spent 20 years in retail, most recently as head of ecommerce for a fashion company, managing the ecommerce P&L and all aspects of the ecommerce experience, including digital marketing, planning and trading, customer journey and fulfilment. She spent the bulk of her retail time at Arcadia Group initially in merchandising and then as one of the first team members of the ecommerce team developing and delivering the new website for the Homeware division.

Rita is also an active member of Women at Wavemaker and over the summer co – ran an extremely successful mentoring programme for students participating in the WPP internship programme which was extremely well received by both the mentors and the mentees. 

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Rita> My first experience of leadership was when I was very young, and it was completely by accident. I was 12 and the children’s BBC programme Blue Peter used to encourage children to run Bring and Buy sales in school for charity and so I signed up for it (it was so long ago I actually cannot even remember the charity!). 

To make the event a success I had to get a small team of helpers for the planning, marketing and for the actual event itself. I coerced my friends to help but I also reached out wider for extra help from others in the class. We put posters around the school advertising the event and put out a request through assembly for people to bring in unwanted items for us to sell. 

Leading up to the event we collected the items in the classroom and then we priced items up according to their value. 

On the day we ran the event from our classroom at lunchtime where we had a variety of stalls of products, and I supervised the event, making sure everybody had a break for lunch etc. I guess this was my first experience of retail!

It was such a huge success and as a result became a regular annual event in our school. 

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Rita> Having experienced a variety of different types of leaders, I knew I needed to be a leader who took responsibility and ownership, which is not always the case when you are in a position of leadership from my experience! I wanted to be the kind of leader who could be relied upon by those working with me and set an example to others.

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Rita> I was not strictly in a leadership role at the time, but I was given my first opportunity to plan the entire department’s range at BHS when I worked in merchandising. This required me to significantly step up and work with the buying team to influence and shape the range for the next season and then deliver the plan to the directors – with my reputation on the line as all the work was mine, and I was still quite a junior member of the team. Strictly speaking, the merchandiser should have been more involved but in the end it was a baptism of fire for me and I have not looked back since then. 

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Rita> I have always had the drive to constantly learn and grow, so I suppose that naturally means I would work towards being in more of a leadership role. I found myself in situations where I was always having to step up to take control because others didn’t and so it became more familiar to me. I think on reflection, the time I spent in retail was more of a stagnant period from a learning standpoint, but since coming to Wavemaker, that has turbo charged and we are always being challenged to stay relevant which I find so exciting!

LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Rita> I think it is actually both. I do believe that “leadership” as a skill tends to start as a natural personality trait. However, I think that some individuals who might shy away from being a leader can watch and learn ways to approach situations, enabling them to be armed with the tools to help them develop in leadership. This is why for me it is so important to set a strong and positive example for others. 

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Rita> I think that it is part of human nature to doubt yourself, so there are always times when you feel you have failed at something. One very significant example of this is when I was working for a retail brand and we were rebuilding the website. We had scheduled the go live date for the following week (after months of planning and building in the background), we discovered a huge issue with some of the product information that had come across to the new platform. Whilst this was a technical issue with the brand’s legacy ERP, I felt wholly responsible as the delivery of the rebuild was within my remit. After an initial panic, I decided the best approach was to notify the CEO with the status quo and then I proposed a plan B if we could not replatform on the given day. This was a candid and practical approach to try to mitigate wider concerns and the go live went ahead as planned after all! For me the key learning is to take a pragmatic approach where you can take situations where impending disaster is looming and then build a plan out of it! This helps to show you are managing the situation.

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be as transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Rita> Whilst I always advocate transparency, it is important to weigh up the situation. For example the CEO does not want to know the details of every issue – and actually what they really want is somebody who shows they are effectively managing the situation, and not constantly running to them when there is a problem. So in this instance I was careful and considered but transparent with what was important to be shared. Also I really needed the CEO to approve my course of action. I think whilst it is always important to be transparent, every situation should be weighed up individually to establish the best approach to take. 

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Rita> I actually have never had a mentor – but would like to have one, so let me know if you would like to take me on! I have actively been involved in mentoring for years; in retail purely by accident as I had so much experience people would gravitate towards me for support and guidance. At Wavemaker, we work with the We Speak mentoring programme, which is a social enterprise run by Laura North. My role is to find mentors within our business to help young students from under – represented backgrounds to build confidence in approaching a career in media. It is a hugely successful programme in its third year now. Alongside this I do act as a casual mentor for a couple of people in the business and it is very much an open door where they come to me to run things by me. Mostly, they use the time to talk things through and I give my perspective and try to help where possible with connections etc. Mentoring is such a powerful way to help people navigate their career path, and I do wish I had that experience in the formative years of my career. 

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?

Rita> Company culture is intrinsic to our success, and we at Wavemaker recognise that. Hybrid working has made things a bit more challenging but we are actively encouraging our teams to come into the office several times a week to build the energy and culture back into the environment – and this is especially critical for newer and more junior team members who can really benefit from hearing conversations around them and build up the culture of the business. I try to make sure we as a team coordinate our in office days to help build up the team spirit. 

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