THE BLOG

Leadership and Friendship: How Best to Tread a Tricky Line

14/02/2014 12:25 GMT | Updated 16/04/2014 10:59 BST

They say it's lonely at the top, and while I wouldn't necessarily agree with this (true 'alone' time is something of a rare pleasure these days), working relationships certainly become a more complicated issue the more senior you become. Add being a female leader to the mix, and the line one has to tread between 'boss' and 'friend' to all can become more complex still.

Healthy relationships are critical to a fruitful working life. We spend more of our waking time with colleagues than we do with our family, so it follows that we have to (at least try to) get on. At a junior level, starting out on a career can be an amazing continuation of the forging of great friendships experienced at school, university or on gap year travels.

But as you progress and perhaps get promoted ahead of colleagues and friends, issues inevitably arise. It's a predicament that rears its head in all aspects of life; the actor whose friend gets the lead role; the footballer who gets passed over for captain in favour of a friend. While the friendship doesn't necessarily end, it is highly likely to change.

At work, how do you tread the line of being someone's friend - and also their boss - with sensitivity? Specifically from my perspective as CEO, how do I avoid showing any professional bias to my friends within the company?

Social media only adds to the blurring of professional boundaries in some respects. In an ideal world, I wouldn't be friends on Facebook with colleagues. Yet the London advertising and media community is a relatively small world; if an existing Facebook friend joins the Maxus fray, we have to approach that like adults and be aware of what we're publishing. So, we can apply our own 'filters' and make judgement calls about where to draw the line with work-related posts.

For me, an interesting additional element to this debate comes from my involvement with WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications London) and the work we do to encourage female empowerment and nurture females through their careers. In the past, we spoke of an 'old boy's network' that applied a gentlemen's club-style exclusivity to workplace hiring. Now, being a WACL member draws comparable 'witches' coven' connotations; how do we negate images of women conspiring against men and plotting to take over the world?

In a context where women clearly still need more encouragement to 'lean in' at work, I have to be ultra-sensitive not to alienate the rising (and established) male talent in our organisation. The female agenda is important to me: I was incredibly proud to be nominated for a First Women Award last year and will be letting my peers know that the First Women Awards in association with Lloyds Banking Group are calling for entries until Friday 4th April. In my pursuit of the sisterhood and my striving to be a supportive female boss, I am fully aware that I run the risk of being perceived as biased towards our female employees.

To combat this, I believe authenticity is key. Out of work, I am just as comfortable going shopping and for a manicure with a girlfriend as holding my own with the all-bloke pub quiz team (to avoid stereotyping, I should add that our global heads of new business and trading - both male - are regular shopping buddies of mine and that many of my female friends are petrolheads and sports fans!). I can't be two different people at work and at home; it's exhausting, it's false and it's unhelpful - there's simply no gender bias throughout my personal or professional life as a whole.

Treading the tricky line of leadership and relationships more broadly is, in my view, a question of integrity and of establishing mutual respect. Tough conversations are a reality of work, and we need to foster a culture of professionalism where we can speak openly without taking things personally. Effective leadership is about knowing when to be firm, to feel comfortable enough to tell rather than ask regardless of somebody's job title, gender, or how much you like them.

Some leaders will argue that friendship should never be part of their role, but I disagree. I love the fact that I have made great friends through work. While there are many forms of friendship, the common thread throughout is a relationship built on trust, honesty and empathy - and the company will benefit from those values too.