Women in Business: Claire Telling, Partner, Grace Blue

By Laura Dunn 

Studying anthropology at school was the perfect training for a career in advertising and marketing. It gave Claire Telling an appreciation for global cultures and new ways of thinking, and taught her that while research is invaluable, sometimes the best decisions are made when you follow your gut. Claire’s career began in New York in account management at DMB&B and BBDO. The dot com boom then lured her to the client side, where she worked at Shopping.com running the advertising for the US, and then setting up their European operations in London. She moved back to New York to work with British Airways on their marketing and brand strategy for North America.

Missing the creative environment of the agency world, she’s spent most of the past decade working at dynamic places like BBH, TBWA\Chiat, and 72andSunny on brands including Miller Lite, Mentos, Unilever, Pedigree, Singapore Airlines, PacSun and Sonos. As a partner at Grace Blue, she’s fortunate to hone the passion that developed at school—learning about brilliant people from all backgrounds and applying a combination of research and instinct to match them with the right company.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Growing up, my family lived all over the world in places like London, Kentucky, Belgium and Tokyo. Living your early years as an expat helps you learn very quickly how to adapt and thrive in any environment; you have to be flexible and agile to fit into a new culture while maintaining your own unique identity. It’s a big life skill I learned early on, and it has shaped how I tackle my approach to leadership today. I’ve learned the importance of being agile and allowing myself to embrace change, while maintaining a clear vision and a consistent point of view.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Grace Blue?
If you want to run a recruitment firm that specializes in communications, you have to truly love and adore the advertising and media industry to feel excited about coming in to work each day. At Grace Blue, we are passionate about working with talent who share the same love of this industry and who want to make it better for the future. In my former career, I was lucky to have worked at some of the best creative shops in the world. This experience has given me a deep understanding of what makes a good agency tick, and why some personalities are a better fit than others for a role. Seeing the highs and lows of running an agency firsthand also means I can be a more strategic business partner in solving my clients’ talent issues – and I can truly empathize with their pressure points.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Grace Blue?
One of the biggest highlights has been seeing the incredible impact our candidates have made in their new roles and watching them succeed in turning around an agency. It’s such a joy to watch someone fall in love with their new job, and to see the tangible difference they make at their company. Grace Blue’s entire focus is on the elite group of people who determine the success of an agency, and our partners expect us to bring them brilliant and original solutions to their toughest talent needs. Because of that, we have to constantly challenge ourselves to think innovatively about how we solve our clients’ problems. At times, we have taken on a search that is seemingly impossible to fill, so we have to come at it from a more creative angle. Combining a bit of ingenuity with our rigorous research process, we always end up cracking even the hardest of searches.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your particular industry?
The communications business is constantly evolving and changing at lightning speed. You must continue to have a thirst for knowledge and curiosity about this business; no matter how seasoned you are, continue learning! You also have the ability to carve your own path, so stand up for what you believe in and make sure you put your opinion on the table. Also, finding a mentor and someone you can look up to who embodies the characteristics you want to see in your future will be extremely helpful as you navigate your career.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?
Make every business decision like you are going to get fired anyway. Once you take away the fear that you might lose your job, you can focus on what is the right thing to do for the task at hand. It’s a really liberating approach that has served me well, and has allowed me to take instinctive risks that ultimately proved to be the right decision for both my clients and my company.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
There is a misconception that to achieve work/life balance you have to compartmentalize your time into “work” and “personal.” Real life doesn’t work that way, especially when you are in a business that is built on cultivating personal relationships with candidates and clients. In a service business, you can easily be on call 24 hours a day. So the best way to stay happy and healthy is to prioritize yourself as much as you prioritize others – and to set some boundaries when you need them. In addition to focusing on family and friends, I make as much time as I can to surf, golf and I just started doing triathlons. It gives me a little escape so I feel re-energized for work.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
There is a reason that the “having it all” debate is still an important topic for women. It is near impossible for someone to be the perfect boss, perfect mother, perfect friend and perfect wife all at the same time. We set the bar very high for our roles, and this means we often feel like we are letting someone down. Instead of being overly critical of ourselves, we need to spend more time recognizing that what we are doing is more than good enough.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have continuously sought mentors throughout my career, and I am a big believer in asking for guidance from those who come before you. My mentors have varied throughout my career, from my boss at British Airways to the current Chairman of Grace Blue, and they have guided me through some really hairy times. But my most important mentor throughout my life has been my dad; he was an incredible boss to his team, and he was a shining example of what sort of creative and fair leader I aim to be.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Tina Fey has broken a lot of glass ceilings in what has been a traditionally male-dominated industry. She’s done things her way, in her own style, without compromising her voice or who she is as a woman. Like many other women leaders I admire, she does not apologize for taking charge and having the conviction to follow the path that is right for her. She has also created a healthy public dialogue about the challenges of juggling family and work, in a way that many of us can relate to. Plus – I guess she’s kind of funny.

What do you want Grace Blue to accomplish in the next year?
Since setting up the New York office in 2012, our business has more than quadrupled in size. However, we’ve stuck to our values and maintained our distinct culture and quality of service. I would love to see our brand continue to grow with the same speed and thoughtfulness, particularly as we take on new searches in the technology and entertainment space. Having placed a number of women into executive roles this year, we also want to focus on creating even more exciting opportunities for female leadership. And soon we will be moving into our new headquarters, so it would be a real bonus if we can pull that off without a hitch!