Leadership Profile: Claire Menzies

Design Insider’s Career Profile series has received a fantastic response so far, and we know that you find plenty of inspiration from the incredible designers and architects we speak to. Having listened to your feedback, we have extended our Career Profile series to incorporate leading professionals from the sector, in an exploration of their approach to leadership. We are absolutely delighted to share our first Leadership Profile with Design Insider Ambassador and Istoria Group Chairwoman and Founder, Claire Menzies

Please could you introduce yourself and your role?

My name is Claire Menzies and I am the Chairwoman of Istoria Group, a creative business collective based in Bristol and Indianapolis and comprised of three main sister companies – events and exhibitions agency Ignition; retail, branding and hospitality designers Phoenix Wharf and digital innovators Tiny Spark – as well as a small number of ‘Incubator Hub’ companies we help support and grow. My role is to support my team and oversee business strategy and performance.

How would you describe yourself as a leader?

When I moved from being Group CEO to Chairwoman, my leadership style had to change with the role, from a CEO’s driving and managing presence to a newer role with a greater emphasis on getting the best     from our Executive Board, by nurturing and having extra time and space to listen. It was rather like moving from being a parent to a grand-parent!

At the same time, I am more of a war-time leader than a peace-time leader in the sense that I particularly thrive when change, strategic thinking and innovation are needed – including crisis management, such as during the Covid period – so that my leadership encompasses two opposite ends of a spectrum – extreme nurturing and extreme decisiveness!

Exhibition Stand for Lafarge Holcim by our events & exhibitions agency Ignition

What career experiences have particularly influenced your approach to leadership?

I would definitely start with a negative experience in terms of how not to do things, which was working in of a highly-hierarchical corporate environment, involving non-stop power play. Probably being the only female in this particular environment emphasised my sense of alienation from behaviour that seemed completely unacceptable to me but apparently absolutely fine and normal to everyone else.

That particular career experience then propelled me towards a next stage of thinking – ‘Well, if that’s bad management, what does good leadership look like?’ I began to look deliberately for guiding lights – people whose style or success held lessons of positivity      rather than negativity.

The award-winning Yeo Valley Cafe in London by our retail and hospitality design agency Phoenix Wharf

Finally, there was an important experience with our first major client when we set up the business and were talking about the culture of continuous improvement that was part of our founding ethos. We asked how we could do better and, because of our     partnership and relationship approach to clients, it also felt like the right moment to ask if there was anything any of us could do, either client or agency-side, to improve project work. It was about realising that everyone has a role to play in making things better   and how important it is for that approach not to be just one-sided.

Is there an aspect to leadership which you particularly enjoy, an area which you find particularly interesting or an aspect which you feels needs increased visibility or support?

Yes – mentoring. It’s the bit I enjoy most. I definitely believe that not enough people give of their time and experience, when their advice can make all the difference to someone on the verge of making fundamental business mistakes, for example.

The Ignition team out on the water at Cowes

What challenges has the covid pandemic created for you as a business and how did you resolve them / are you resolving them?

Live exhibitions and events were heavily hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, which had a huge impact on Ignition, the largest of our constituent companies, as well as on all our creative projects across the board. We had to pivot to survive and, from the beginning of lockdown, began to create an entirely new digital offer. Our team worked round the clock to deliver new, virtual solutions for our clients and this specialism has now become part of our wider offer, giving our clients the choice of physical, virtual or hybrid approaches to their marketing and communication challenges.

Our exhibitions agency Ignition pivoted to a virtual experience offer during Covid-19

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the design industry today?

I am a long-time advocate of a more sustainable approach to design and am incredibly proud that our exhibitions and events company Ignition is currently the only agency in    its entire industry to hold The Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development. I am also a Non-Executive Board Member of International Synergies, global leaders in industrial symbiosis (an innovative means to achieve resource efficiency), so I would say that the route map to net zero is definitely the highest priority for the design industry, as well as for all other industries!

Another major issue the design industry faces, where there’s still a surprising amount of progress to be made, is the practical application of inclusive and accessible design principles. Far too often, aesthetic choices are still prioritised over functionality. Packaging is a major area where more needs to be done. The relative youth of many designers seems to blind them to problems relating to vision and hearing experienced by both visually- and hearing-impaired people, but also by an ageing population. This covers everything from tiny font sizes in retail labelling to terrible acoustics in many restaurants. Perhaps we need an Accessibility Tsar?!

Sustainability is very important for us – and for many of our clients, such as Ovo Energy

What is your personal design vision?

It’s about using design for social and sustainable good, as part of a mindset that   considers prosperity more important than profit. In many ways, I favour a return to a more localised economies with more careful, artisanal production and a dedication to producing what is truly useful and valuing that, rather than chasing endless choice. If that means we can’t have blueberries from Peru in February, for example, that’s absolutely fine by me!

Inclusivity includes readable font sizes and good acoustics too

Do you think leadership can be taught? Are there any areas of leading a business you would like to be better at personally?

Actually, I’m not sure it can be taught – or not in any meaningful way to people en masse. I believe leaders are fundamentally made by circumstance and the way they react to the lessons within their own experience. It’s less about the passivity of being taught than the active seeking out of learning and the readiness to learn those lessons. Personally, I would like to be better at everything at all times! Humility is the number one building block of leadership and the drive to be a better version of oneself is absolutely key.      

What advice would you give to someone trying to build a new team and company for the first time?

A first founding principle would be to find and follow whatever your ‘North Star’ or big vision is. You have to be heading somewhere to have any sense of direction. Secondly, be very determined. There will be a huge number of setbacks and you will experience a lot of uncertainty and fear, but strong determination will help you move forward, as long as you also stay adaptable to change. I’d also say to keep on top of your personal energy too, so you don’t burn out, because best business practice and personal wellbeing are directly linked to sustainable success. Finally, employ people who are better than you at their jobs – that’s the whole point – and remember to laugh often to keep stress at bay!

Design for social and sustainable good, such as Phoenix Wharf’s work for Bristol Loaf



About Phoebe Train

Phoebe is a Marketing and Events Executive, who joined the BCFA as an English graduate in 2021. Working closely with designers and BCFA members, Phoebe has published an array of content for Design Insider.
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