Portrait of a Digital Leader

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Layla Foord on Lean, Work-Life Integration and Living the Dream

By Inci Kaylan Drerup
Principal Lead, Digital and Thought-Leadership & Social Engagement Manager Ampersand International


As part of a new series, Ampersand International is interviewing digital leaders from around the world about their digital vision and the challenges and opportunities businesses face in times of digital transformation and growth. The particular aim of this project is to put digital and business ideas, strategies and efforts into the context of a specific leader’s personal and professional history to understand where they are coming from, heading to and why? How do they imagine their ideal world to look? And how do they influence, innovate and grow businesses, customers and people around them to make sure they are capitalising on digital innovation?

“Oh, how beautiful you look”, Layla calls out the moment we walk into the door. That’s Layla Foord, Managing Director at Sanctuary Digital, and one of Australia’s most innovative digital leaders. I must have done my hair that day. What is she driven by? And how is this applied in her everyday, work day?

“I’m usually surrounded by male technology geeks, hence my excitement! Don’t get me wrong, I do love them…”, she laughs.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” Welcome to London, I think, her authentic accent helps, and back she comes with cups of tea. “Don’t the neon lights and sharp edges prove a woman’s inclusion in the interior design decisions here?”, she says jokingly.

We meet Layla in her new office, a modern co-working space for tech and creative start-ups in Melbourne’s CBD, within a stone’s throw of our office in Collins Street. We, that’s Hayley James, Managing Director of Ampersand, an international talent acquisition and leadership advisory firm, and myself, Digital Practice Leader and Manager of our Thought-Leadership agenda, always on the search for that unique digital leader.

The minute we meet her we feel what former colleagues describe her as: personable and progressive, “a little left-field” and “whip-smart”. In short: a breath of fresh air in the world of business, which, no doubt, is part of the recipe to her success. So is her “wicked” sense of humour (as the Londoner would say).

Layla makes you feel welcome. She speaks to you at eye-level, no matter how commercially or digitally minded you may or may not be. Humility and talent don’t always come in pairs; they do so in Layla. Her name rings many bells in the Australian digital community, not necessarily because she was named after the famous Eric Clapton song (as she tells us at the very end just before entering the lift), but because she’s built many successful digital businesses, products and teams across Australia and the UK.

To name a few: she has done this as General Manager for Envato, where she launched Envato Studio, a global freelance platform for creatives; at Sensis where she developed strategies and digital products and launched Whereis Navigator, one of the world’s first Mobile GPS apps; and as Nielsen’s Product Development Director in London, where Layla led an EU-funded project pushing the boundaries of auto-detection image technology.

Layla’s latest endeavour is Sanctuary Digital, a start-up business that delivers web and mobile product solutions for entrepreneurs and enterprises. Digital market places that “struggle with innovation and feel overwhelmed with the usual consultants”, are one specific group of clients, Layla is targeting. Others are start-ups or ‘enterprises that want to disrupt a part of their business’ with the development of cutting-edge digital products.

Layla’s first advice is not to “think of innovation as this one big thing”. She explains how she invites their clients to “immerse themselves in the product development process” at their office working side by side with her team. “We help them articulate their ideas, validate assumptions and rapid prototyping – cutting the project into small chunks, minimising costs and ultimately building better products and a clear roadmap for future delivery so they feel more equipped to scale their product development”.

“We show them how to apply Lean methodologies which in my experience gives the best chance of success”, continues Layla who has written a playbook for employees called ‘What is Lean?’. It’s important to “try out before you fail. Get your new product into the marketplace as soon as you can to see whether it’s going be successful.” Layla gives the analogy of a TV production company who “would never just film a whole season’s episodes of a new TV series without broadcasting a pilot first, getting feedback on the characters and the story line” before they go off and produce the whole thing.

Businesses need to do just that with their products: build, test and learn. “Always challenge your thinking, be ready to change, pivot and adapt when needed, until you find a product that passes the market-fit test”, explains Layla. She is in her element. It’s exciting and ground-breaking stuff that keeps her busy and on her toes.

This is Layla Foord, the innovator, the entrepreneur, technology and business leader. But there is much more to her, an executive who is anything but one-dimensional, quite the opposite. Layla feels strongly about many causes such as saving lost dogs, helping disadvantaged kids with literacy and confidence and being a parent as well as an executive.

Something Layla strives to create at each organisation she works for, is “work-life integration” which comes with flexible working and “trust within the work place” that the work will be done no matter where you are. Layla supports “digital enabling and facilitating flexibility” which she helped introduce during her time at Envato where it lives on. Here it’s spun even further, as Ampersand know from their internal consulting team, with the opportunity to work on any beach, hill or exotic location for a couple of months per year as long as you can be available during Melbourne working hours.

Layla’s “Sacred Wednesdays” were the only days at Envato that everyone had to be in the office. Working effectively in the 21st century should “not be about my time at the office but my input and its value (not even results)”, Layla says firmly.

To create a “version of this type of working at her new business” is not only in her own interest. A mother of a five-year old daughter, who is currently looked after by her husband, she has the natural desire to choose her work location as required to make family life possible. But it’s not all philosophical. “Do you know what I loved most about working from home?” she asks me with that alleged English seriousness in her tone voice, “it’s nice and warm! Creating a place of equality also means to include women in testing and deciding on the air temperature in the office environment!” and breaks into a huge smile briefly winking at me as I’m still wrapped up in my warm winter scarf.

“But seriously”, Layla concludes, “through ‘digital’ the perception of careers has changed. Running Sanctuary Digital, a small company with the potential of becoming a big brand in a niche space is a great chance to build a sustainable organisation and create a space for equality in every possible sense”. This is “why I love building businesses”.

What Layla is motivated by? “I’ve come a long way”, she says. “My drive used to come from wanting to get away from wherever I was at a particular time. Only now am I developing the confidence to take the journey to where I need to get to”. The jazz singer performing outside her office building causes Layla (who occasionally sings in pop bands across Melbourne) to sigh “Ah, she’s living the dream”. Was an idea for a new kind of business born that very moment?

While being one of Australia’s most gifted digital leaders, Layla remained true to herself, down to earth lacking any kind of pretence or prejudice. Her inclusive nature is Layla’s strength and great advantage also at work, not only with her existing teams but it allows her to spot the right talent and business opportunities without being distracted by presumption or prejudice. That’s the fresh breath of air people talk about these days – it matters.


Over to you… 

Are you a digital leader who inspires their peers and teams to flourish, innovate and grow? How do you do you do this and in what way does your personal make-up or your history play into this? Or – are there digital leaders that influence you with their vision helping you realise the once unimaginable? For either, I’d like to meet you (or them) to understand how leaders as professionals and people make sure business best capitalises on “digital innovation”; today and in the future.

 As a like-minded specialist in your space, I’d welcome the opportunity to discuss these questions with you as relevant to your business and to share in the insights we garner from our wide-reaching relationships and client partners both in Australia and into our offshore markets across Asia Pacific and Europe.

 For an exchange of ideas, please feel free to contact me at

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