Workplace Leaders
Iris Worldwide
Global Chief Operating Officer

Louis Balogun

Leadership isn't just about managing a team; it's the art of creating an inclusive environment where every individual feels seen, heard, and valued. In the pursuit of diversity and inclusion, leaders need to provide a positive example to help create a rising tide that will bring everyone along. Louis Balogun, Global Chief Operating Officer at Iris Worldwide, has put this understanding at the heart of his leadership approach.

Louis met with Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss topics ranging from the importance of self-reflection in finding a fulfilling career path to the challenges of fostering a culture of inclusion and belonging across a whole business. 

Louis' Journey

Max: Can we get started with a quick introduction to yourself and your organisation?

I’m the Global COO of Iris Worldwide. We are the participation agency, and we believe that participation is the key to unlocking influence with audiences. We have over 1000 people in 14 offices worldwide, we use the power of participation to help brands grow further, faster.   

Max: How did you get into the world of advertising and marketing?

It’s a long story, so I’ll try and keep it concise! Like many people, when I went to university, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do career-wise. So I went to study Human Geography, which focuses on the relationship between people and places. I really enjoyed it, though I wasn’t sure how I would use it once I graduated. However, I had a friend who worked in IT recruitment who encouraged me to apply for a placement. After I graduated, I worked in that sector for five years, but to be honest, I didn’t really enjoy it. So I had to do some soul-searching about what I wanted to do. Around that time, I was recruiting for creative agencies, and I found myself looking longingly in from the outside. So one day, I handed in my resignation. I knew that if I had spent five years finding jobs for others, I could find one for myself: so I made a list of 400 agencies in London and contacted every single one. That got my foot in the door, and I worked with several smaller agencies before moving to Iris nine years ago, where I worked my way up to become COO.

Max: What’s the best way to establish a sense of belonging and inclusion across an entire organisation?

It’s a big question, and there’s no silver bullet. There are a lot of little things you need to do on a consistent basis. It all starts with your leadership team: you need to set the right behaviours, create a welcoming environment, and set a positive example. It’s important to actively spot opportunities which are symbolic of the type of organisation you are trying to create. You need to follow that through in your everyday activities, your decision-making, and the way you interact with people. That includes everything from the people you bring into the organisation to the type of work you produce.

It’s also about educating people: you need to take people on a journey, but at the same time you should understand that everyone is on a different stage on their path. Equality isn’t about everybody being the same: it’s about understanding people’s circumstances and accepting them the way they are. You need to empower your workforce — DEI can’t just be a top-down process, you need to build it from the ground up. Back in 2017, we started a DEI task force to try and tap into the passion and energy our people have for these issues. We’re fortunate to have a leadership team which feels comfortable being called out: you’ll never get everything right, so you need to learn to respond well if you get something wrong. Finally, you need to get the balance right: it’s easy when DEI and business priorities align, but when they don’t, you need to make compromises to work through those challenges.

Max: People in your industry have a lot of demands on their time. How do you make sure they get involved in DEI issues?

We try to be very clear with our expectations about the type of environment we want to create. We also demonstrate the impact it can have on our staff as individuals. It’s not just about people from minority groups: DEI can improve things for everybody. Everybody has a part to play. In a business, power dynamics often mean that people from outside of minority groups are often the ones who have the ability to move the dial forward. So we need to make the time to bring everyone together and build that culture. It doesn’t happen easily — we work in a fast-moving industry with clients who demand a lot of our time — but we believe that investing in DEI allows us to participate with diverse audiences and create better work. 

Max: What’s your approach to tracking key metrics and demonstrating your progress in this area?

We track all sorts of data around our demographic composition as an organisation. We also carry out a yearly DEI survey which we can use to track our progress and identify areas we need to improve. Stats are great, but do people feel seen, understood and valued? It’s important to be transparent about things we do well and the things we need to change. The results of that survey helped to form our strategy for the following twelve months.

Max: What are the key traits and habits needed to become a successful people leader?

I’m a firm believer in modern leadership. For me, that means having a real sense of empathy and an understanding of people’s lived experience. As a leader, you also need to show vulnerability: you can’t expect people to open up to you if you don’t do the same. Finally, you need to set clear expectations. But you shouldn’t be overbearing: set a direction, and give people the space and autonomy they need to get there. 

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Nothing lasts forever. Good or bad, everything will pass. When times are tough, remember there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But just as importantly, when you are riding high, you should know you will come down again — so learn to enjoy it while it lasts.

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Max Webber
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