CEO at Havas Media Middle East
Houda Tohme joined Havas Media Middle East in 2006. With 22 years of experience in media and marketing, she has invested dedication and passion in her field of expertise, proudly leading the Havas Media planning team throughout its impressive growth journey and working with some of the most renowned brands, including Chanel, Puig, Coty, and Kia.
Tohme moved to Dubai in 2002 to work on communications planning for several leading FMCG brands in the region, such as Coca-Cola, GSK, and Gillette, as well as luxury and fashion brands including Estee Lauder and KOJ group.
In 2019, she was named Managing Director and, later on, CEO of Havas Media after serving more than 13 years with the group. She is an integral and pivotal member of the management team and oversees the media operation across the region while reinforcing the agency’s mission to unite people and brands through meaningful connections.
How would you define leadership today?
A question that continues to be asked, and for good reason. Leadership is trust. It’s the strong and meaningful relationship that is built between a person and the people they interact with. Irrespective of seniority, title, or authority, leadership is having the trust and as a consequence the ability to engage and influence people, bringing out the best outcome in every situation.
What’s the most important decision you have taken as a leader?
To continue to prioritize our people over everything else. We’ve always had a flexible and modern approach to ways of working. Even before the pandemic, I was an advocate for minimizing the boundaries between employer and employee and creating a culture that puts people’s well-being first. We’ve had instances where we adapted processes and policies to individual needs. We’ve moved people to different markets upon their request; we’re one of the first agencies to extend paternity leave as well as maternity leave; we introduced half-day Thursdays back in 2019. As a result, our employees value working with us as people, as a family. A lot of the talent that left us came back. I believe having this modern approach not only attracts top talent but also creates a happy, motivated, and satisfied team. And in return, our team is hardworking, flexible, and gives their all.
What’s the one decision you wish you hadn’t made as a leader?
Underestimating the impact my words and actions have on people and situations. I’ve had instances where I reacted spontaneously, overlooking my position and the effect my comments can have on people. I make the effort to avoid quick reactions in sensitive or tense moments. I am, however, blessed to have a tight-knit team with members who feel comfortable enough with me to quickly address their concerns and clear up any unfavorable matters.
In your opinion, who’s the most powerful leader globally today?
H.H. Sheikh Mohammed’s leadership is admirable. The UAE is one of the most futuristic, forward-thinking, and safe places to live in the world. His commitment to always improve the country while watching out for his people through sustainability strategies, first-rate education systems, world-class healthcare, and even a people happiness initiative is at the forefront of global conversations. This was further cemented during and after the pandemic. The UAE was one of the first countries to emerge from the pandemic stronger and more resilient than ever.
Who’s your role model?
Many people inspire me: a parent who juggles everything throughout their day to raise children in the best possible way; a driven and ambitious entrepreneur; any person who strives to achieve their goals.
What’s the most important quality that every leader should possess?
First and foremost, integrity, followed very closely by empathy. Integrity is especially important in our industry. As an agency, we manage client budgets and businesses. It is imperative that, as leaders, we hold integrity in the highest regard in order to earn our clients’ trust and build a sustainable and progressive working environment and legacy for future generations.
What’s the one mistake that leaders most commonly make?
Lack of humility. Allowing ego to get in the way of decision-making, massively limiting the benefits of open communication and feedback.
What’s the most critical threat that every leader in our industry should pay attention to today?
The inability to adapt to change. While it is important for leaders in our industry to maintain a long-term vision, it is also critical to recognize and adapt to continuous disruptions and evolutions.
What’s the most important risk you took?
Declining to participate in some of the largest media pitches. The pitching process in the region needs a major review; therefore, we’re very selective about which pitches we partake in. Risks can also be personal, such as prioritizing family matters over work-related matters and vice-versa, in an effort to balance. But it worked out well; my kids thrived and are proud of me, and at the same time, I saw progress at work. I’m glad I never gave up.
What resources would you recommend to someone looking to become a better leader?
• Work on your vision.
• Be positive.
• Be approachable.
• Be a good listener.
• Maintain your integrity.
What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow as a leader?
I am curious by nature. My curiosity is driven by the need to remain relevant in an ever-changing world. I’m passionate about keeping up with the changes, understanding them, and embracing the ones that I find can help my team and me grow and evolve.
I believe that learning and evolving is an ongoing 360 process. I want to learn from everything and everyone around me, from global leaders and best practices within our industry and outside, from my peers as much as from my team.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t be afraid of vulnerability, as [American researcher] Brené Brown preaches. By embracing vulnerability as leaders and as people, you will know yourself, your strengths, and your weaknesses better, which allows you to build a team that complements you and your vision for your company.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever given?
You do not need a title to become a leader. You do not need to wait for a promotion or to be allocated a team. Leadership is not something you are handed over on a silver platter; it’s a naturally-earned responsibility that you often have, long before any title. Lead yourself, lead your life, behave as you would expect a leader to behave, and the rest will come naturally and effortlessly. I strongly believe in the philosophy of taking action over saying words.
You can see the full ranking and methodology here.