Freia Muehlenbein tells us how she went from leading teams of 100 to becoming a leading agency growth consultant with a passion for developing women in agencies.
Tell us a bit about your background working in agencies
I’m from Germany and originally only came to Leeds to finish the last year of my Master’s degree. I never intended to live here long-term, but met my partner during uni and found an amazing job so decided to extend my stay. This was in 2008, and I now call the UK my home.
When I finished my degree in Leeds, I spotted a job working for a small digital agency. My first thought was “what the hell is SEO” and I nearly didn’t apply. It sounded intriguing so I decided to go for it, got the role, and stayed in the digital agency world for nearly 12 years.
I was in strategic and leadership roles agency-side between 2010 – 2021. From 2017 – 2021 I was responsible for delivering the strategy and change programs for one of the most successful 150-strong UK digital marketing agencies, and Times Top 100 Company. I worked with the Board and senior leadership team to translate our vision and targets into workable initiatives and implement changes across sales, marketing, people, operations, and client services. My work directly impacted EBITDA, client retention and growth, pitch closing rates, and revenue.
Between 2010 – 2017, I grew my own digital PR and content department and service offering from 0-100 people with no previous experience. My department flourished, won awards, supported peoples’ progression, and was sustainable and profitable. We delivered global campaigns across 40 markets. During this time, I was ranked 7th in The Drum’s 30 Under 30 Women in Digital. And yes, I wish I was still under 30!!! It was far away from perfect, but the learning curve was fantastic.
Fast-forward to 2021, I handed in my notice to start my own business as an agency growth consultant. I specialise in supporting agencies with the effective delivery of their strategic goals, and ensuring that changes are delivered effectively across operations, client services, people, sales and marketing. I basically help agencies to move their strategies out of the boardroom and into the agency.
What do you think is the biggest barrier (or barriers) facing women in term of progression in the workplace?
Many agencies still recruit the same mould of people again and again, without proactively and intentionally adding a more diverse workforce. Agencies need to increase their awareness when this is happening and make a commitment to change. More and more agencies are now monitoring their male/female split in senior and leadership roles, and are actively working towards a more equal split. There’s a huge rise in agencies becoming Bcorp certified, and the process recommends monitoring and addressing the male/female split in senior roles.
In a lot of cases, there just aren’t any roles to move into. This is the case for men and women. When this is the case, you can still proactively find ways to learn new skills and prepare yourself for a promotion. I have covered this further down in this article.
I haven’t experienced this personally and I don’t have children, but I have of course heard of many saddening stories of women taking their maternity leave and losing out on progression opportunities, or returning to work and not being considered for promotions into roles that require ‘full time hours’. Although there is a lot of change happening, many agencies still don’t have solutions in place for these scenarios (e.g. job sharing, fulfilling the role part-time, tailoring roles to candidates etc). We all know that a lot more work needs to be done here.
Confidence, and our perception of what a great leader looks like, play a huge role. More on this later.
How can women looking to lead plan and prepare for promotions
Leading (people, teams, clients, departments, businesses) requires a level of proactivity. I believe that, to lead others, you must first be able to lead yourself and drive your own development. Leaders can be introverted or extroverted, quiet or loud. What most of them have in common (at least the good ones) is that they’re solution-focused. I’d encourage you to be in the driving seat and never expect a promotion to just happen to you. Here are a few things you can do to plan and prepare for promotions:
- Actively ask to shadow more experienced people, either in your own agency, or externally. Observe how they prepare and run meetings, how they have difficult conversations, how they structure their work. Be curious, ask them questions.
- Explore with your agency if you can get mentoring either internally or externally. Many employers have earmarked budgets for progression planning.
- Discuss with your agency how you can gain practical experience whilst still in your current role. For example, could you assist a more experienced colleague in running a large client? Could you pair up with a senior leader or experienced line manager and help them prepare a training session for a team?
- Explore training and learning opportunities through e.g. industry bodies, training providers, events, conferences.
- Make yourself heard. Actively go and speak to the right people about your ambitions and define clear actions you can take to fulfil them.
- Formalise a progression path. Work with your line manager on formalising a personal development plan that will help you fulfil your career ambitions. Explore what you can do yourself, and how they can support you with your next move.
- Fully understand the role you’re looking to move into. When an opportunity arises, you want to be ready and seen as the first choice for the role.
- Build your personal brand. Make yourself known as the expert in the field you want to move into. Use LinkedIn to increase your personal brand recognition for a certain topic. Volunteer to present about the topic in company meetings. Ask to do research in the field.
- Understand what is expected in a future interview.Not all roles require an interview, but it’s best to be prepared. If your desired role already exists, ask what your agency is looking for in the interview process.
- If your desired role doesn’t exist yet and you want to introduce a new specialism to the business, then making a business case is absolute key. Research how the role would make money for the agency and why it is needed to service clients effectively.
Most importantly, do not give up. It can be disheartening when the right opportunity doesn’t arise. Stay in the driving seat and be proactive. If the right opportunity doesn’t come up at your current agency, you can always move companies. Planning your career and mapping out your ambitions to become a leader should be as detached from one employer as possible. If you want to become a Director, then this may happen at your current workplace, or it may happen somewhere else. Your goal is still the same. Be kind to yourself and remind yourself that you have what it takes. You just need an opportunity to show it.
Why is confidence such a challenge for women at work?
Throughout my career both in previous roles and as an Agency Growth Consultant, I’ve had the pleasure of promoting countless of women, but not all of them were ‘confident’ in the traditional sense. We must change our perception and definition of confidence first and foremost. Confidence is often associated with masculine attributes such as being outgoing, outspoken, extrovert, independent, assertive. Some of the best leaders I’ve met (men and women) lead with feminine attributes (empathy, humility, active listening, kindness). Men and women can both lead with feminine and masculine attributes, all of which can make great leadership. Feminine attributes are more prevalent in women, and we need more role models and examples of women leading in this way. When I work with women, I tend to have to challenge a lot of unhelpful and conditioned thinking about what good leadership looks like. In my experience, women aren’t as proactive in asking for what they want as men. This is a huge generalisation but it’s just my personal experience. I believe the reason is that we don’t consider ourselves as natural leaders. You can be quietly confident and lead with empathy. You can lead with masculine and feminine attributes. You can be a man or a woman and anything in-between. There is no rulebook for ‘the perfect leader’. There’s just a lot of history that makes us think that women aren’t as suitable for this as men.
How can women and men better support and elevate their colleagues?
There are some lovely agencies out there, but there are also some super competitive ones. I think we all need to give credit where credit is due, showcase great teamwork, give shout-outs to colleagues, send positive feedback to their line managers, tell them in person that they’re doing a great job. It means the world to people and it feels good doing it. If you’re aware of a colleague who is actively looking to progress or learn, try and help them find opportunities. If you spot people working late or looking stressed, talk to them and support them. When people return from sickness absence, look after them. When women come back from maternity, and men return from paternity breaks, make them feel welcome and support them. If you’re an extrovert, actively give introverts a chance to shine and speak up. If you’re in a senior role, lift up more junior colleagues.
How does community support career progression?
I honestly don’t know what I would have done with my own little community of close friends and trusted colleagues. I’ve always been quite ambitious, but I can also get consumed with self-doubt. Having a community around you who will lift you up is such a big help. Back when I was agency-side, there wasn’t a community for women in agencies. I would have valued this a lot. Speaking to women in other agencies and exchanging ideas and advice around how to take the next step in your career is a wonderful thing to have access to. We tend to live in our own agency bubble without any context, which can be very unhelpful and limiting. Asking for advice and helping others are some of the most rewarding things we can do when it comes to career progression. You never know who you’ll meet next. I met some of my agency contacts at random events and they’re now some of my most trusted colleagues and friends, and many of them have opened doors and passed opportunities to me.
What is the biggest lesson/lessons you have learnt in your professional life?
A big eye-opener for me was having long periods of poor work-life balance. The impact can be significant and I have been super strict about looking after my well-being ever since. The experience helped me to spot signs of stress in others pretty immediately, and I try to support my clients and friends with this as much as I can. Unfortunately, overworking and poor boundary-setting are very common in agencies, particularly with women, and particularly women in leadership roles. I started growing and leading teams a few months into my agency career, with no previous experience. The more my team grew, the more work I put in to keep things running effectively. I was the first one in and last one out, worked weekends, and I can count the number of lunch breaks I had on one hand. I worked with professional and life coaches for many years to understand why I did this, and I’m happy to say that I no longer work like this, or feel like I have to work extra hard to prove some kind of point.
What do you do to support women’s growth at work and professionally – how can people get in touch?
I am predominantly an agency growth consultant. To achieve growth effectively, agencies must invest in their leaders, which is why another strand of what I do is mentoring and training agency leaders, and working with leadership teams to increase their confidence and ways of working. I work with women in agencies who have recently taken on a leadership role and want an objective view on how they approach things, how they handle challenges, how they feel about themselves and their confidence. I also work with agency leaders by helping them with their career planning, personal development planning, thinking patterns, and action-setting. A lot of my work is about current and future female leaders believing in themselves, enjoying themselves at work, and taking ownership of their future ambitions.
I love talking about these topics, so feel free to contact me at any time either on [email protected], on LinkedIn, or my website www.be-reyt.com
If you are looking for an Agency Growth Consultant or mentoring to grow your agency get in touch and we will make a connection.