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Bonnie Marcus: “Be strategic about networking”

…We need to self-reflect and identify what biased beliefs and assumptions we hold and how these beliefs affect our relationships and leadership. Without that self-knowledge, we can’t stand in our own authentic place in society or business. We need to challenge these beliefs and not continually look for validation that we’re right and others are wrong. […]

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…We need to self-reflect and identify what biased beliefs and assumptions we hold and how these beliefs affect our relationships and leadership. Without that self-knowledge, we can’t stand in our own authentic place in society or business. We need to challenge these beliefs and not continually look for validation that we’re right and others are wrong.


As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Bonnie Marcus.

Bonnie Marcus M.Ed., is an award-winning entrepreneur, Forbes contributing writer, and executive coach, who assists professional women to successfully navigate the workplace and position and promote themselves to advance their careers. With 20+ years of sales and management experience, her extensive business background includes CEO of a ServiceMaster company and VP of Sales at Medical Staffing Network and two others national companies in the healthcare and software industries. She has also held executive positions in startup companies and Fortune 500 companies.

Marcus shares her message globally through speaking engagements, live and virtual workshops, blogging, and her popular podcast, Badass Women at Any Age. A certified coach, she has been honored by Global Gurus as one of the world’s top 30 coaches in 2015–2020. She has been acknowledged as one of the top 100 keynote speakers in 2018 by Databird Research Journal.

Marcus helps women identify the ways they’re holding themselves back while giving them a strategic plan to move forward. Whether it’s networking with key leaders in your organization or navigating underlying biases, she helps you own who you are and finally earn the recognition you deserve — even when coming out of a pandemic.

In her new pivotal book for women facing a remade economy, Not Done Yet! How Women Over 50 Regain Their Confidence and Claim Workplace Power (March 6, 2021, Page Two), Marcus shows how to find your power, own your path, and tap into the deep experience that only age can bring. By digging deep into her own reinvention, making no excuses, and sharing the stories of other women over 50, Marcus provides concrete practices, tips, tactics and journaling exercises to that help women claim the late-stage career success they deserve.

Her first book, The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead, provides a roadmap for women to navigate the complexities of the workplace and position themselves for success.

Marcus received a BA from Connecticut College and a M.Ed. from New York University.

Connect with Bonnie Marcus on Twitter @selfpromote, Instagram @self_promote_, Facebook @bonnie.marcus, LinkedIn, and use #NotDoneYet, and visit BonnieMarcusLeadership.com.

Not Done Yet! How Women Over 50 Regain Their Confidence and Claim Workplace Power will be released March 6, 2021 and is available for pre-order on Amazon and wherever fine books are sold.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve had a very successful business career but I learned business on the job. I was a kindergarten teacher with two small children when I got a divorce and needed to find a job that paid the bills. I answered an ad in the local paper for a medical secretary position for a large physician practice. They interviewed me but told me I was over qualified and didn’t offer me the job. Two weeks later, however, they called me back and asked me if I would be interested in a position as administrator for a cardiac rehab center that they were opening with 30 doctors and a healthcare management company. I had zero qualifications for the job at the time but I must have impressed them because despite a lack of experience or skills, they hired me, and trained me. In a year and a half, I was running 11 cardiac rehab centers for them on the east coast. That was my surprising entry into business.

I had no ambition or strategic plan to be in the C-Suite and run a national company, but as different opportunities presented themselves, I never said no and I worked my way up by doing my best work and building strong relationships. Over time those people advocated on my behalf and opened up doors for me that led to the C-Suite.

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

I inherited the leadership team from the previous CEO, who left to pursue another opportunity. Understanding that this can be somewhat awkward and unnerving at first for an existing team, I wanted to establish my leadership and build relationships with each of them. But I could tell from the get go, that something was amiss. My instincts proved correct. After doing my due diligence about the current state of the company, I began to realize that it was, in fact, not a viable business. None of the contracts were valid. Clients had no trust in the organization and the previous CEO had inflated the revenue. It took me about six months to complete a deep dive into the business and then another couple of months to convince the Board and parent company that this business wasn’t sustainable. I put a plan in place for divestiture. I then had to let over 200 employees go. I created a new scaled down business model to take the company forward but I resigned and spent the next year doing some consulting which led to my next engagement.

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? Can you share a story about that?

Early in my career, I had two female managers, Kathy V. and Judy J., who helped me by example. They were great role models for how to be authentic, stand in your power, and get results, as a woman in a male dominated space. They were unapologetic about their boldness and confidence and had no problem whatsoever challenging the status quo. I watched the way they spoke directly to the CEO. I observed how they presented their business case to key stakeholders in meetings and how they refused to back down when confronted. They relied on numbers and data and often won the point as a result. Their refusal to bow to the convention that women need to be timid and agreeable earned them respect from the CEO and other leaders across the organization.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

It’s funny, but sometimes I do my best thinking in the shower. Somehow, metaphorically, the water washes away all the distracting thoughts which can not only stress me, but sabotage my efforts to be clear and decisive. I have some of my most creative ideas in the shower.

But also mediate daily and wouldn’t be able to get much done if I didn’t have an early morning exercise routine.

As CEO, when I was super stressed and confused, I would leave my office and take a walk outside. That physical distancing allowed me to collect my thoughts.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

One of the major downfalls of executives is a lack of diversity of thought on their leadership team. When we only hire like-minded homogeneous teams, creativity is stifled. Subsequently, we run the risk that our competitors will win more market share and our business will fail. We emerge as a weak and flawed leader who doesn’t drive innovation and increased revenue. Good leaders always look for new data and new ideas that might offer strategies that their companies can benefit from next, even if it challenges their own opinions. Our self-protection harms our leadership and the viability of our business.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

First, we need to self-reflect and identify what biased beliefs and assumptions we hold and how these beliefs affect our relationships and leadership. Without that self-knowledge, we can’t stand in our own authentic place in society or business. We need to challenge these beliefs and not continually look for validation that we’re right and others are wrong.

In my second book, Not Done Yet! How Women Over 50 Defy Ageist Assumptions and Claim Their Workplace Power, I tackle gendered ageism and how that affects professional women today. The first part of the book, highlights some commonly held beliefs that we, as women over 50, have internalized. These stereotypes hold us back. We’re too old to get promoted. We need to look young and pretty to succeed. When we believe ageist assumptions, we pull back and don’t do what’s necessary to stay marketable and keep our jobs. In writing this book, I needed to first examine my personal beliefs and biased messages I myself buy into before I could offer advice. I share my own struggle with aging and fighting these beliefs so that others can learn from my example. Honest self-reflection is critical for all of us if we are to move forward to a more inclusive and equitable society.

We need to look at where the inequity has the most impact and organize and legislate against it. We need to build consensus and influence for our ideas to counter the bias in our society. My passion is focused on bringing more balance to the unlevel playing field and inequality in the workplace. In my first book, The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead, I provide a roadmap for women to navigate the complexities of the workplace to get ahead.

Giving organizations and women the tools to build a more inclusive workplace is important. Holding companies who lack fair workplace practices accountable is also important. Leaders need to understand the business case for diversity and inclusion and why it’s critical for the future of their business to reflect the demographics of our society.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or 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?

Here’s an important distinction: to be leader you need to be more of a strategic thinker and less of a doer. Many executives are promoted based on their technical skills and achievements. They worked hard and received acknowledgement for their commitment and effort. But, we, as leaders, need to recognize that technical skills have less relevance in an executive role and relational skills take precedence. We need to leave the comfort of keeping busy and move to empowering our team to take on more responsibility. It is then that we have the opportunity to think more strategically about the business matters at hand and how we can leverage our talent, our team’s talent, and the business results to secure our market presence and continued success.

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

The myth I’d like to dispel is that a CEO holds all the power in an organization. If you look at the organizational chart, the CEO obviously has a powerful position over the business. But the most effective CEO’s aren’t autocratic. The use their power differently. They’re the ones who empower their team and build influence across the organization. They have power by holding a vision for the future and building consensus for their ideas.

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

Women face many challenges that their male counterparts don’t. One of the biggest challenges they have is managing the ‘double bind’. For women to be considered effective leaders, they need to have direct and clear communication. Yet this manner of communication, expected and acceptable for men, is often met with criticism for women, for it challenges society’s gender stereotype of how a woman should behave. Society expects women to be nurturing and compassionate. If they don’t exhibit these softer qualities, they are labeled unlikable and nasty. Likeability is necessary for advancement. The conundrum for women leaders is how can I be effective as a leader and still show my more feminine side which is required to advance my career? How do I do that and when is it appropriate without compromising my message and authority?

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

When I accepted the position as CEO, I did so with the belief in the future potential of the business. I brought my years of experience and expertise to the job and was excited about growing the business by drawing from that experience and the many business relationships I had built over time.

My actual experience on the job, however, was much different. Business development was not important. I had to draw more from my business acumen and operational skills than anticipated. I spent hours combing through the existing contracts and consulting with legal. I spent hours looking through P&L’s to assess the viability of the business. And then I had to learn a new skill. How to take a company through divestiture; how to manage a 40 million dollars write off in a public company without damaging relationships with key stakeholders.

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? Can you explain what you mean?

I believe business acumen is important for leadership but people skills, the ability to communicate and build influence trumps all other necessary traits for executive success. I learned the business on the job and that was the easy part. But you can’t run a business on your own. It takes a village and you need the trust and commitment from your team to move your initiatives forward.

You need an ongoing curiosity and growth mindset to be successful; open to learning from others. You need to be a good listener who is willing to be challenged by others.

Anyone who is intelligent but close minded and lacks good communication skills should avoid aspiring to be an executive.

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

Women leaders can help their team thrive by building strong relationships with them individually. It’s important to push aside any assumptions we may have about our team members and relate to them one on one.

What are their career goals? What’s important to them and how can you help them achieve their goals? How can you help them leverage their skills and talent for the benefit of the business and for their personal success? How can you best advocate for them? When you demonstrate that you are invested in your team, they will not only thrive, but your business will as well.

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

I now draw from my corporate success and lessons learned over the course of my career to help professional women overcome their personal barriers as well as the obstacles in their workplace to emerge as leaders in business and society. I use my expertise as a coach, author and speaker to empower women to stop playing small and step into their full potential and power.

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

It’s ok to advocate for yourself.

We’re told to be humble and not brag so we stay silent, hoping others will automatically recognize our contributions. Over the course of my corporate career and now coaching professional women since 2007, I see the consequence of this. Too many talented women are being passed over because they don’t know how to build visibility and credibility for themselves. Women need to better understand their value proposition and be able to articulate that authentically and effectively so it doesn’t come across as bragging. Self-promotion has become a dirty word. We’re so sensitive about it that I’ve been asked in the past when doing workshops on this topic, to take self-promotion out of the title. We can’t stop advocating for ourselves. We just need to learn how to do it more effectively.

Pay attention to office politics.

I learned my lesson about the importance of paying attention to office politics the hard way. After an eight-year tenure at a company with a great record of performance, I was passed over for a promotion I rightfully deserved because I wasn’t paying attention. My belief that my work would speak for itself blindsided me. I failed to build a relationship with my new boss, who was a decision maker. I failed to understand how the decision was being made and didn’t have a network of champions to call on. I was blindsided by the politics. They brought in someone from outside my department and offered me a lateral move. I declined and moved on to another company.

Understand how your limiting beliefs can sabotage you.

Our negative beliefs and thoughts can be a powerful force in our life and career, especially if we give them energy and attention. It wasn’t until I started my coaching practice that I learned the importance of understanding how I was holding myself back by listening to the negative chatter in my head. Now I challenge my own voices and help other women to identify and move beyond their personal barriers to success.

Be strategic about networking.

We understand how important it is to network but we don’t know how to do it effectively. In the beginning of my career, I didn’t have the relationships across the organization that would help me perform better and gain visibility. We expend a lot of energy networking but we don’t think strategically about who we know and who we need to know to help us reach our career goal. It sometimes requires that we step out of our comfort zone to make connections with people we don’t know well. Over the course of my career, I learned the importance of having a solid network. In fact, every position and opportunity I’ve had was from someone in my network who knew my value and opened up a door.

It takes more than hard work and great performance to get ahead.

This is the myth of the meritocracy. I was successful in school because I worked hard and got good grades. I put in the effort to achieve good grades. I thought that same formula for success would apply in the workplace and it doesn’t. You need to do the hard work and get results but you also need to advocate for yourself, build relationships of trust, and pay attention to the workplace dynamics.

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.

I’m now very involved in fighting ageism and are working on a virtual Age March that will take place March 20, 2021. The mission is to celebrate and own your age wherever you are in your life. Ageism is prevalent in our society and affects people of all ages, race, and gender. I want to build awareness around this topic and the necessity for having ageism included in diversity and inclusion initiatives.

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

I love Shirley Chisholm’s quote, “”If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” As an ambitious woman in male dominated workplaces, I found this quote to be empowering. I’ve encountered gender bias most of my career. They’re weren’t chairs at the table. I didn’t have the same opportunities as my male colleagues so I knew that I needed to create them myself. This quote is a mantra for all ambitious women who need to find a path to own their ambition and talent.

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

Brene Brown. I admire her wisdom and how she powerfully and authentically communicates her message. I feel I know her personally from listening to her podcasts but would love the opportunity to chat about anything and everything related to some of the topics I’m passionate about. I’d love to know her point of view about gendered ageism and discuss my new book, Not Done Yet! with her one on one.

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