“5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became an EVP” with Fiona Bruder, of George P. Johnson (GPJ)

Never stop learning — leaders learn every single day, we all do. Remaining humble, seeking guidance when needed, and appointing or delegating others with expertise is critical to ongoing growth as an individual and a collective group. The smartest leaders hire smart people and place them in roles that will enhance the success of the team. As a […]

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Never stop learning — leaders learn every single day, we all do. Remaining humble, seeking guidance when needed, and appointing or delegating others with expertise is critical to ongoing growth as an individual and a collective group. The smartest leaders hire smart people and place them in roles that will enhance the success of the team.

As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fiona Bruder.Fiona is the Executive Vice President of Client Success George P. Johnson (GPJ). With nearly 30 years of experience, Fiona is a seasoned marketing executive and expert in experiential marketing and program development. Based in New York, she manages a team of marketing leaders in more than 34 countries and is responsible for overseeing and managing the agency’s key global accounts, including IBM, Redhat, Facebook, Macy’s and AMEX while leading GPJ’s offices in Boston, New York City, and Austin. Fiona is proud to serve as executive sponsor of the GPJ Women Employee Resource Group (ERG), one of the employee-led groups that foster a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with organizational mission, goals, and business objectives. She is also a dedicated ally to the House of GPJ, the company’s LGBTQ+ ERG. Since joining GPJ nearly 20 years ago, Fiona has created, produced, managed and optimized event portfolios for some of the world’s leading brands including, IBM, P&G, MasterCard, Conduent, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR). She is an active member of the Forbes Agency Council and outside the office, Bruder serves on the board of directors at Girl’s Inc. Westchester, a 100-year-old organization that inspires girls to value their whole selves, discover and develop their inherent strengths, and receive the support they need to navigate the challenges they face.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Having graduated from Fordham University with an MBA in Marketing, I had an idea early on of what I wanted to do in this industry. When I started out, event marketing was not its own category yet, as marketing at large certainly was not what it is today! Nevertheless, the one thing that has remained a constant imperative, despite the shifts across the industry and changes throughout society, is human engagement. In order to be successful, you must have a clear understanding of how people interact, learn and engage — when you combine all of these elements, you get the recipe for what we do here at GPJ with experiential marketing.

It’s the ongoing focus on human engagement that drives my perpetual dedication to this business, especially since experiential gives us the ability to create an environment that offers a multi-layer impact. From the bottom line of the business, to the industry at large, to society as a whole — the work we do truly matters. Quite a few of our clients at GPJ parallel our legacy and tenure in the business, and like us, such brands have the symbiotic ability to continually reinvent and remain ahead of the curve at every touchpoint. We are constantly challenged to stay at the cutting edge and have developed the ability to reinvent ourselves and our industry while creating things that have never been done before.

What is it about the position of vice president that most attracted you to it?

First and foremost, I have profound respect and loyalty for GPJ, and having been here for more than 18 years, it’s where I have laid a large part of the foundation of my career. We started as a family business and grew into an employee-owned enterprise that does groundbreaking work across the globe. We are offered unparalleled autonomy and empowerment within our careers; at GPJ, the people, our diverse backgrounds, and each unique viewpoint are encouraged and welcomed. Moreover, our global staff has exceptional cultural intelligence that allows us to both think big and execute locally relevant programs, and with this, we continue to be afforded the opportunity to create over and over again.

I’ve remained passionate about my career growth largely because of my desire to optimize my effectiveness across the board and create a platform for others to grow and advance as well. As a female leader at my company and industry, I have the opportunity to elevate other diverse voices, invest in robust company culture, and create tangible change in our industry.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

The most effective executives continuously challenge themselves while holding the responsibility of looking at the business from every angle — the marketplace, clients, strategy, culture, and so on. Leaders are charged with maintaining homeostasis across the business while making incredibly difficult decisions. It’s the art of balance. Internal success is one thing, but it’s important to note that we’re also responsible for keeping our finger on the pulse of larger trends within business operations, our industry, and society as a whole. This means constantly learning, putting yourself out there by asking questions, and remaining open to constant growth. The opportunities to learn are everywhere for me, whether that’s through trade shows, at conferences, or through travel — I take the key learnings and act on them. I also ensure I share what I’ve learned with others along the way (whenever applicable).

As a leader, fluency in all aspects of the business is critical, but even more important is putting the right people in appropriate disciplines to elevate skills and satisfaction. Notably, only the strongest leaders will hire the smartest people in the room. Even though an executive may spend a great deal of time focusing on bottom-line results, it’s imperative not to lose sight of the creativity that is built within the DNA of the work. The most strategic aspect of being an executive is to study all angles and potential impact of stakeholders, and then be decisive. Every second of every day involves vital decision making, tough decisions most often, and then course-correcting as needed.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I enjoy the autonomy to make my own decisions and the authority to help people break through the noise. In my position, I am privileged with the ability to elevate people’s voices, concerns, and work, and certainly, the easiest part of my job is providing this type of support and encouragement! It’s always my goal to raise others up, so I will encourage individuals to step out of their comfort zones to show them their maximum potential. When leaders do this, it is essential to create a safe environment for employees to pressure test their abilities. It’s amazing what people can accomplish when given the confidence and opportunity to challenge themselves and embrace and learn from their mistakes.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

The downside is time — executives would be quite pleased if there was a way to control time throughout the business day. Prioritizing is key because the to-do list does not end — there will always be something to do because that is the nature of our roles. Leaders drive change and impact. It’s what we should expect and quite frankly, enjoy! By motivating others and creating a highly productive work environment where people feel valued and satisfied to come to work, you’ll see results come to life. Be patient though, and know that if you really want to motivate someone, you first must understand what makes them tick.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

Someone once told me before a large speaking engagement that I appear as if I’m never nervous. I think this is a common misconception about executives or business leaders. It’s my job to make our employees feel confident, and of course, there are moments when nerves set in, but an unspoken part of the job is to remain a “steady hand” under pressure. We’re in such roles to make tough decisions, to put ourselves out there, and to remain calm, cool, and collected — that’s what the job requires.

Another misconception is that when making decisions, executives don’t take all parties into account. The reality is, every decision is based on what is best for the greater good of the company, the people who make up the company, and the stakeholders. The people are at the core of every decision.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The unfortunate truth is that women typically face more scrutiny in the workforce than their male counterparts. Every frustration, challenge, or let down may transform into an opportunity to be perceived as ‘emotional.’ Contrarily, men in high-rank positions who demonstrate decisiveness are praised for their ability to lead and delegate. When men lean into their emotions, they tend to be embraced for their empathy. For example, not too long ago, a female political leader was deeply criticized for showing emotion while an iconic male political figure became even more adored when he shed a tear. Absent of any bias, working in facts alone, it’s evident that there is somewhat of a “reaction safety net” for men that isn’t quite there yet for women — though it’s being built!

Women are under unique pressure to keep their professional image top-of-mind at all times, and while we’ve come very far, we haven’t reached equality yet (we will certainly get there though!). In reality, there is no one correct way to operate in business. We’ve seen problematic behavior stemming from male-dominated industries, giving rise to movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp, and beyond, and assumptions behind leadership tactics are always changing. There is room for leaders to be vulnerable, for emotionally intelligent solutions to problems, and for plenty of women in leadership roles.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I think the best experience I have had in my career at GPJ was partnering with IBM to launch their first presence at SXSW. It was a non-traditional experience and full-on takeover. We partnered with the executive team to define a new standard for success, address how the IBM brand would show up in this type of environment, and build a concept that would engage a new audience. I remember the moment we realized there was a line around the block and we were absolutely giddy that we had just experienced a new level of success!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

No one is perfect, we all make mistakes, and as you’ll see in my favorite quote below — it’s not about the mistake or failure, it’s about how you get back up, how you rebound, and how you apply the lessons learned in the most effective way.

Years ago, while here at GPJ, we were expanding globally and we were so focused on consistency that we were pushing a local message into a foreign market. The “foreign” team clarified that our message had a very different meaning and intent when translated, and would be offensive to the audience. It was a lesson I learned early — engage the markets, understand cultural nuances, gather input, and re-calibrate as needed. When disseminating critical messages to target audiences, it’s not only about cultural intelligence and being business savvy, it’s also important to consider regional and local impact as well.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Looking back from when I started years ago, the industry was starkly different. The competitive landscape, the role of events in marketing, the actual definition of an event! Throughout this evolution, society and culture have transformed in tandem. I always had a vision for success and mentorship. I intended always to lead with confidence and humility, and to work for an employer that supported and embraced diversity and inclusivity. I’m not quite sure I knew, to the extent, how valued my voice would be, how valued every voice would be, and how engaged the world would become.

The value of personal connections, relationships, and most of all, communicating effectively while ensuring all parties feel supported and heard — especially at GPJ, is absolutely unprecedented.

I knew when I joined GPJ I was working somewhere special, but to also have benefits like Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for women and for LGBTQ, ownership of the company through our ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), and endless ability to create as a global team — this has been an absolute joy to witness unfold and to be a part of.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

There are definitely key attributes that are innate within leaders, such as a desire to lead and empower; a persistent thirst to learn and grow; an ability to communicate, inspire, be decisive, and own accountability; and a passion for excellence that cannot be compromised. When an individual has these qualities, it’s likely he or she will enter a leadership role at some point in their career. On the contrary, for people who avoid teamwork, speak and rarely listen, and strive for success on an individual scale without integrating the greater group into the mission — a permanent leadership role may be difficult. Though, it’s never too late to change!

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Every role and company is different and every person is unique, so there is not a one-size-fits-all answer, rather, there are several pieces of advice I’d love to share:

Always act in the way you’d like to be perceived — if you see yourself as a leader, act as a leader. Be respectful, listen, learn, mentor, and communicate with as little doubt as possible, and assume your role as leader.

Find your passion — work life balance is always going to be a challenge, especially for women. To help mitigate the struggles we face here, try to find a job and position that you are truly passionate about. If you do this, you’ll go to work everyday feeling satisfied and fulfilled, and ideally will be able to create a solution that amplifies the balance in your personal and professional life.

Never stop learning — leaders learn every single day, we all do. Remaining humble, seeking guidance when needed, and appointing or delegating others with expertise is critical to ongoing growth as an individual and a collective group. The smartest leaders hire smart people and place them in roles that will enhance the success of the team.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

That would be, Maureen McGuire, the former Vice President of Integrated Marketing Communications at IBM. She was my client early on in my career and she held such a great balance of being an engaging and empathetic leader while assuming her leadership role in an authoritative and direct way. She commanded a room, leaving every meeting or seminar with each person feeling like they had a personal discussion with her, and she challenged her team and agency to push outside of their comfort zones. I have often thought of her approach to leadership and how to apply those lessons to my work.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Not only have I personally focused on this, I am fortunate enough to work for an employer that embraces philanthropy and offers a wide range of programs for which our parent company, Project Worldwide will even match contributions and efforts for, around a multitude of causes. Supplemental to our philanthropy, we have also launched Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) as a part of our ongoing diversity and inclusion mission. ERGs are formed by employees based on topics and issues they feel are most pertinent. Once formed, employees request an executive sponsor to support the group through various initiatives — I am the executive sponsor for GPJ Women and the LGBTQIA group.

In addition, outside of the office, I have had the pleasure of serving on several school boards including the PTA (Pleasantville), Pleasantville Community Scholarship Fund, and Pleasantville Fund for Learning. I also serve on the board of directors at Girl’s Inc. Westchester, a 100-year-old organization that inspires girls to value their whole selves, discover and develop their inherent strengths, and receive the support they need to navigate the challenges they face. Most recently, I held storytelling training with a group of Girl’s Inc. members and helped them develop their narrative and presentation skills for the annual gala.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Don’t apologize for being direct
  2. You are paid to give your opinion…so give it
  3. Assume your seat at the table with the knowledge that you will not always be invited
  4. Change and comfort can not coexist — embrace it early
  5. You won’t get what you do not ask for (this is actually advice from my father, given to me early on…I didn’t actually apply it until later!)

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

It would be a global empowerment movement — inspiring girls across the world to be strong, courageous and bold and to relentlessly gain the most valuable asset: knowledge. We need to commit as leaders to embrace and empower our young women and create equal opportunities for them in our organizations.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Vince Lombardi said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.” I love Vince Lombardi, not just because I am a Fordham alum, but because he has always summed things up in a simple and honest way (“In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail”). For me, Lombardi’s message is all about resilience. You can not learn unless you are willing to fail. This is something I always embraced and also have encouraged with my team.

Note from editor: We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

First lady or not, I would still love to have lunch with Michelle Obama. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing and hearing her speak and have also read her book — this woman is truly focused on positive change. She used the cards she was dealt to make the most of every opportunity — leveraging her and her husbands platform to drive change for education, healthier children, and female empowerment.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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