The Brainlabs Managing Director and former CEO of Havas Media, Matt Adams, shares his experience of being a sober business leader in a highly pressured world. Our very own founder, Ruth Cooper-Dickson chats to him about leadership, culture and sobriety.
Ruth: So I’m about two years sober now having realised, since being diagnosed with two anxiety disorders, that alcohol wasn’t really doing my mental wellbeing any favours. Where did sobriety begin for you?
Matt: When I was working in the advertising industry, everything seemed to revolve around alcohol. There was free alcohol pretty much everywhere you went! And nobody really stopped to consider if that was OK, because it was just the norm.
So, it was actually seven years ago that I first challenged myself to go 12 months without alcohol because of these very reasons. And then, in late 2018, having slipped back into the drinking culture, I realised that I just felt awful. I was overweight, tired, unhealthy, I had no energy. And I decided I needed to make a step change. So I did Dry January and then just carried on. I used it as a catalyst to get fitter and healthier.
Ruth: So the industry felt fairly pressured from an alcohol point of view, but did that affect your home life as well?
Matt: Definitely. We work such long hours in our industry, and if you add the social events on top of that, you find you’re always getting home really late. I’ve got two young children and I have a relatively long commute between London and Surrey, so being able to get home earlier is more enriching and more meaningful from a personal perspective, than, say, standing at the bar with some really, really lovely people but who ultimately are colleagues.
Ruth: With the heavy client focus in the advertising industry in mind, how did your clients react when they knew you’d gone sober?
Matt: I guess there was a gap between how I thought they might react and how they actually did react. Pernod Ricard were actually one of my big clients and I think I avoided them for about three months! They’re a really social bunch and of course operate in the alcoholic drinks sector. But I remember their CMO coming in to see me and bringing me a bottle of their Cedars non-alcoholic gin and I felt so relieved. He was the one person I was most worried about and he was really great. I think, despite my initial worries, most people were absolutely fine about it.
However, the first time I gave up, seven years ago, I remember being pulled to one side by a leader who asked me if I really thought it was a good idea to give up, how would I manage my clients, would it be appropriate, and so on. Today, however, acceptance is much more common.
Ruth: How has being more mindful of your wellbeing affected your approach to leadership?
Matt: I think as a leader you sometimes forget that you have quite a lot of positional power and that you can use that power for good. From a wellbeing point of view, I ensure that I don’t have meetings after 5 o’clock and I’m out of the office by 5.30pm which in my industry is relatively unusual. But it allows me to get home and do my commute and see my kids before they go to bed.
Also, we can’t assume that everyone working in this industry likes to spend most of their time getting drunk. I spent most of my twenties drunk as did my peers and nobody thought anything of it. But young people today really don’t want to do what you did in your twenties. They are far more mindful of their lifestyle these days than I was when I was young.
Basically, as a leader who works in an industry that is often very alcohol driven, in not partaking it’s as though I am demonstrating that my team can make their own choices in that respect too. And that you can still succeed and move into leadership while being mindful of your health and wellbeing. But equally we need to ensure that those people who do want to go out socialising with clients until the early hours feel supported in their choices as well.
Ruth: What would you say are your top tips for a manager or leader who wants to create a more mindful drinking culture?
Matt: Firstly, I’d say if you’re setting up a mindful drinking culture, and you yourself are getting hammered all the time, then that probably isn’t a good look! So leading by example is key. There are also a couple of businesses I’m aware of that have introduced things like a ‘no work-related drinking’ rule for quarter 1. They work with their employees to find different ways of engaging with clients which makes work life more inclusive. You don’t want to feel you’re missing out on impressing your client or climbing the ladder just because you don’t drink.
Ruth: And what about any tips for employees looking to affect change?
Matt: I think one key thing you can do is see if there’s an appetite. If three or four people work together to create a proposal for a more mindful drinking culture then there is more of a case to make those changes. It becomes less personal – less about you as an individual and your personal preferences, and more about the business and wider culture. I also think it’s about striking the right balance. It’s about suggesting more choice, not less. So it’s not going to go down as well if you suggest that your workplace becomes totally alcohol-free. But suggesting the need for balance and consideration is what’s ultimately going to get the culture shifting in the right direction. It should always be about choice.
Ruth and Team CHAMPS worked closely with Matt and the Havas team for many months supporting the business in the creation of a mentally wealthy culture. To find out more about CHAMPS workplace offer, contact Tara Kent, CEO at email@example.com