Debbie Gisonni of SELF POWER NOW!: “Self-Awareness”

Self-Awareness: Society defines power by our outer appearances (career, money, title), but a person’s true power lies within. That’s where self-awareness comes in. The modern dilemma, however, is that self-awareness is a quiet, inner journey at a time when we’re mainly focused on our noisy, outer journey. It wasn’t until I started practicing meditation, staying […]

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Self-Awareness: Society defines power by our outer appearances (career, money, title), but a person’s true power lies within. That’s where self-awareness comes in. The modern dilemma, however, is that self-awareness is a quiet, inner journey at a time when we’re mainly focused on our noisy, outer journey. It wasn’t until I started practicing meditation, staying silent, and being present, that I was able to recognize and connect with my true power. The kind of power that’s always with you. When you can tap into that, you can be powerful no matter how restrictive or challenging your outer world may be.

How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.

As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Debbie Gisonni.

Debbie Gisonni has over two decades of leadership and c-suite positions across a broad range of industries in both corporate and nonprofit industries. She was one of the first and youngest female publishers in the tech market, has assumed leading roles in organizations that empower women, and has spoken for women’s groups and conferences around the world. Debbie is the author of several self-empowerment books, including Note to Self: Love, and the founder of SELF POWER NOW! Media — a collection of books, digital courses, and upcoming podcasts that empower people to rise above the daily challenges of life and work, and live with ease, happiness, and success.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

Growing up in a tough neighborhood in “Da Bronx”, NY, I learned how to assess people and situations quickly, stay safe, and stand up for myself. Even after we moved twenty miles north to the suburbs, that “don’t mess with me” attitude stayed with me my entire life, and certainly served me well as a business leader later on. Another childhood habit that served me well was my work ethic, which definitely came from my Italian immigrant parents. After school, I was expected to do my homework first, and then my chores. I was also expected to earn my own money. By the time I was ten, I was already babysitting for neighbors and tutoring their young children. I knew that if I wanted any extra luxuries — which, later on, included my college tuition — I had to earn my own money. During my full-time college schedule, I actually worked three part-time jobs, totaling about forty-five hours a week! Even though that kind of upbringing might seem harsh according to today’s standards, I’m grateful for it. It gave me a sense of responsibility early on and a belief that I had the power to do anything I wanted in life.

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

My first career right out of college led me to B2B tech sales for two main reasons — the unlimited income and the fact that I didn’t want to land in a stereotypical female admin type role. Nothing against that kind of position, but it just wasn’t what I wanted. Nor was I any good at it! Corporate sales was one of the few entry-level business jobs where I didn’t have to start in admin. Sales came very naturally to me and quickly led to management positions which then led to c-level roles.

My second career as a wellness author, speaker, and teacher wasn’t planned at all. During the height of my corporate career, I suffered a series of family tragedies, which caused me to re-evaluate my life priorities. I embarked on a personal journey, realizing that I had developed a lot of coping skills that could help others overcome challenges. So, I started writing books to help people find happiness, peace, forgiveness, and self-love, and that changed the trajectory of my life and career forever.

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

When I was promoting my book, Note to Self: Love, my husband and I were watching TV one evening and saw a commercial from a well-known skin care company. In it, they were inviting women to apply to a “40’s and Fabulous” contest. My husband, who has always been my biggest supporter, immediately said to me, “Deb, you should apply. You’re in your 40’s and exactly what they’re looking for — strong, successful, and fabulous.” So, I went for it. I wrote my essay and mailed it in. A couple of months later, a company representative called saying I was a finalist out of thousands of entries. The next step was a phone interview and a week after that, I got a call saying I was one of five women chosen.

After that, it was a whirlwind of activity. I was assigned a personal stylist, walked the red carpet at a Hollywood premier, starred in a nationwide commercial and met lots of celebrities. What I loved most about the whole campaign was that it celebrated and featured women for their strength, wisdom, and resilience, not their beauty. After the event, I got a chance to do a lot of media interviews where I talked about overcoming challenges and my books. I could’ve never planned that kind of promotion! You never know where doors might open. And, I got to play out a couple of childhood dreams — walking the red carpet in designer clothes and starring in a national TV commercial! How interesting and fun it all was!

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Empathy: Any kind of relationship, whether personal or professional, works best when people feel valued and understood, particularly if they’re going through tough times. That’s where empathy comes in. Shortly after I started as an interim director for an organization, the previous director’s husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness and only had a couple of months to live. Since she and the staff had worked together for decades, they were like family. That news and the months leading up to her husband’s death were devastating to the team. Since I had experience with loss and was trained in practices that help people through emotional trauma, I offered to hold a weekly meditation healing session for anyone who wanted to attend. This was certainly not part of what I signed up for in my contracted scope of work, but I knew it was the right thing to do.

Boldness: In magazine publishing for the tech industry, we used to throw huge parties during trade shows. One time, Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, walked into one of our parties. All eyes were upon him and many people vied for his attention, but he didn’t give anyone more than a couple of seconds. The VP of my company, who was standing next to me, jokingly said, “I’ll bet you 100 dollars you can’t get Bill on the dance floor.” I didn’t know Bill Gates and certainly didn’t know if he liked to dance, but I was always up for a challenge. Luckily for me, Bill started walking in my direction and when he was close enough, I greeted him and introduced myself. I remember being so nervous, I could hear my heart beating against my chest. What if Bill rejected me in front of all my colleagues and clients? But then I thought, Bill might welcome an opportunity to ditch all these people bothering him! So, instead of just asking him to dance, I offered him a solution to that problem, and he said yes! I’ll never forget the look of both surprise and admiration on my VP’s face as I walked to the dance floor with Bill Gates. The following week, that VP sent me a plaque with one 100 bill dollars glued to it. The headline said, “Debbie’s 100 Bill dollars”. It was the talk of the company for some time, and it still reminds me that, in life and work, you never know what’s possible until you’re bold enough to ask for it.

Resilience: In my first business career, I knew exactly how to create success, and I excelled at the all the skills necessary — internal and external communications, marketing, sales, branding, organization, presentation, and leadership. Then I became an author and speaker, and I thought my expertise would produce the same successful results in that market. I quickly learned otherwise. My new business arena was unpredictable and more akin to the entertainment industry. You could do all the right things, and have the best products, but never reach market success. Equally important as my business skills were uncontrollable factors such as luck, timing, fate, and connections. It seemed each time I thought I was close to getting that big break, it fell through. At first I was frustrated, but then I learned not to dwell on it. No matter what disappointment I had, I got up the next morning and started out fresh again, knowing that I was doing exactly what my heart was guiding me to do.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?

First of all, I wouldn’t make a blanket statement that society, as a whole, feels uncomfortable with strong women. I’ve known and worked with plenty of men and women who are not only comfortable around strong women, but praise and celebrate them. My husband is one of them. When I was gaining recognition and status in the tech market, and also making more money than he was, he proudly supported and encouraged me every step of the way. Now, having said that, I do agree that there are still many people, men and women alike, who feel uncomfortable around strong women. After two thousand years of a patriarchal society, what more can we expect? Women started out with no power and had to fight for the same rights granted to men from day one. Even today, two thousand years later, women are still not viewed by all as equal to men. If you come to the table believing men are superior and then encounter a powerful woman, it creates an internal conflict. An attack, so to speak, on your belief system. The underlying cause is fear. Fear of being wrong. Fear of losing power. Fear of being controlled. Fear of being emasculated. Fear of the unknown.

Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?

I was only twenty-nine years old when I was asked to take over a failing magazine as publisher. Most of the publishers in the tech industry at that time were men well into their 40’s or 50’s. It was a promotion for me from associate publisher on another magazine, although I didn’t know the team I’d be leading. The previous publisher and his boss had already left the magazine, and I figured a few more would probably follow suit either to join them or because they didn’t want to work for a young woman. I knew I was qualified and prepared to do the job, but I started hearing denigrating comments being said about me that were based solely on my appearance and age, not on my ability or track record.

When it was time for me to address the new team for the first time, I thought about those comments, and decided to address the situation head on. In front of about forty people — both men and women — I called out the elephant in the room — me! I acknowledged that some of them didn’t think I was qualified for the position and wouldn’t succeed, but that I wasn’t going to let those opinions get in my way. Then I laid out my objectives and expectations going forward and invited anyone who was not on board with me or my direction to leave asap. A few people did stir in their seats, but I didn’t expect anyone to walk out right at that moment. During the next couple of weeks, however, a few men did leave, and I was grateful for that, as they would’ve been obstacles to everyone’s success.

What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?

First of all, I don’t think a woman should have to take full responsibility to fix someone else’s problem with her. Now, having said that, I do acknowledge that if the relationship with the other person is deemed important for the success of both people, a woman can try to make the person feel more comfortable. The ways to do that come right out of a “Sales 101” class, but they do work. For example:

  1. Smile often.
  2. Find the common ground (kids, dogs, school, hobbies, home city, etc.).
  3. Talk naturally, not condescendingly.
  4. Share a meal together.
  5. Remember their birthday.
  6. Give praise when appropriate.
  7. Give credit when due.
  8. Solicit and welcome input.

What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?

When we finally view men and women as equal, things will change for the better. So, anything that moves that needle along, whether legislative or societal, will help. In society, it’s important that we celebrate women in power by featuring them in the media as much as possible, and as much as their male counterparts. In business, we need to pave the way to have more women in power in top board seats, c-suite, middle management, and throughout the organization. Of course, that includes equal pay!

I also want to mention how important it is to provide good role models and education about gender equality to our children as early as possible. It starts with the parents or caregivers and extends to the school system. Children need to grow up with the belief that all genders are equal and equally powerful. This will help create a society where children turn into adults who also feel worthy, empowered, and strong themselves, no matter their gender identity.

In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?

No, I haven’t ever had to endure situations like that. Maybe it’s because I landed in companies where that wasn’t accepted. Or perhaps I’ve always put out a little bit of that Bronx “don’t mess with me” vibe. But, I will share a story about a personal policy I practiced that might have put my superiors in an uncomfortable position. Whenever a compensation package was presented to me, whether that was for a new position or an annual renewal in an existing role, I never accepted the first offer. Based on national averages, I assumed there was some man, somewhere, with equal qualifications, track record, and expertise making more than me for the same job I was doing. So, I always asked for more. Nine times out of ten, I got exactly or close to what I wanted. Of course, in order to play this game, you have to know your worth and be willing to walk or compromise.

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

Three in particular come to mind:

  1. Emphasis on youth and beauty. Call it ageism or beauty culture, men are considered wiser and more experienced as they age, while women are cast aside. This is clearly evident in TV news and entertainment shows where there are two co-hosts — one middle age man and one young woman. It’s usually never the other way around. Even TV sitcoms have traditionally paired up a beautiful looking wife with a goofy looking husband. What’s up with that?
  2. Necessity to prove value. While this exists in all industries, particularly at the highest levels, it’s more prevalent in industries or jobs that have traditionally been male dominated — tech, engineering, manufacturing, and space, to name a few. Men’s qualifications are taken at face value, but women often need to prove their worth before being taken seriously.
  3. Different standards for leadership. As leaders, men are expected to make hard, sometimes unfavorable decisions, to take charge, and to be tough. These are normal and necessary traits for good leadership. However, women leaders with those same traits can often be seen as cold or bitchy!

Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?

Fitting your personal life into your business is a very personal decision. There’s a time and place for everything, and each person needs to determine what works for them given their own personal circumstances. For example, in the first fifteen years of my career, I never brought my personal life into my business career, particularly when I was dealing with a series of deaths in my immediate family. In four consecutive years, I lost four family members, including my sister to suicide and both parents. I didn’t feel that unloading all that emotion at work was an accepted or professional thing to do. It was actually easier for me to keep my personal and business life separate. It helped me have one area of my life that I could totally control — my career — while my family was falling apart. Bringing those personal emotions into work would have been a distraction for me, my team, and my superiors.

Once I started writing self-empowerment books though, everything flipped. I went from one extreme to the other. All of a sudden, my work was my personal life. In my first book, Vita’s Will, I told the story of those family tragedies and offered ways to overcome those kinds of challenges. I exposed my innermost feelings, personal challenges, and secret desires. When my old colleagues read the book, they couldn’t believe I was going through all of that while we were working together.

What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?

There was a time where all I had was work and no life. And, I have to admit, my Type A personality loved it! I had a supportive husband who was also in tech, a few dogs instead of children, and a lot of energy that made all that work feel natural and easy. But after my family ordeal, something shifted inside of me. When you see how quickly life could end, your priorities change. At that time, given the position and responsibility I had at work, there was no way I could slightly adjust the balance equation. I had to completely step off the treadmill and regroup to figure out how to reach equilibrium. That took a lot of personal and spiritual work. I had to redefine my own version of success that didn’t hang solely on making big money with a fancy title and stock options. By the time I wrote my second book, The Goddess of Happiness, I had finally figured what was important for balance. It was paying attention to and nurturing all of me — the mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional realms. Life and work have a place in all of these areas, but so do happiness, health, pets, family, friends, relationships, peace, and love. That’s what I’ve been teaching people for years, and what I based my SELF POWER NOW! digital courses around.

I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?

I place a lot of emphasis on my personal appearance, not because of my role as a powerful woman, but rather because I feel good when I look my best. I grew up in NY where the natural look wasn’t so popular. I started wearing makeup in my teens. My mother wore red lipstick every day, even during the years she was chronically ill and disabled. If you catch me half an hour before a Zoom call, you’re likely to see me checking makeup, lighting, and camera angle!

I do believe that appearance, in terms of looking neat, attractive, and groomed, does matter in the context of first impressions, presenting in front of groups, on video, or in the media. But no matter how good you may look, what you say and how you say it will ultimately determine your success. Appearance may get you up to bat, but in order to hit a home run, you need the total package.

As for beauty being superficial, western culture certainly defines it as such, but I believe powerful women can and should redefine beauty on their own terms. I see beauty in every person because I know that at the core, we are all pure light and love. And that’s a beautiful thing!

How is this similar or different for men?

In my personal and professional life, I don’t know any men who color their hair or worry about their lighting on a Zoom call! Of course, if you’re a man working in an industry where appearance is a requirement for the job, like modeling or acting, things might be different. Overall, I think if men cared as much as women do about their appearance, they would’ve started wearing makeup long ago!

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Self-Awareness: Society defines power by our outer appearances (career, money, title), but a person’s true power lies within. That’s where self-awareness comes in. The modern dilemma, however, is that self-awareness is a quiet, inner journey at a time when we’re mainly focused on our noisy, outer journey. It wasn’t until I started practicing meditation, staying silent, and being present, that I was able to recognize and connect with my true power. The kind of power that’s always with you. When you can tap into that, you can be powerful no matter how restrictive or challenging your outer world may be.

Self-Love: Self-love is the most important lesson we’re here to learn, and definitely necessary for success in anything you do in life. It allows you to show up in the world with confidence and a belief that you have the power to accomplish anything. I always say that if you don’t love yourself, how can you fully love another in a romantic relationship, but this also applies to work relationships. How can you give your team the confidence and self-love they need to succeed if you don’t have it yourself? Self-love, like self-awareness, is an inner journey that connects you to your true power source, which is pure love and light that emanates from your heart, not your head.

Levity: Life is short. A job is just a job. All work and no play makes you a dull person. These statements make the point that if you’re not having fun — at least sometimes — why bother? We all take ourselves so seriously, particularly when we focus on what the outer world dictates is important. In the big scheme of things, our life is but one nanosecond of time and experience. Laughter, fun, and play make life and work a whole lot easier, particularly when times are tough. Being able to go through life lighthearted takes strength and power, and makes you more human and approachable.

Fans: I’m not talking about fans that cool you off, but rather fans that pump you up! No one reaches success by themselves. It’s important to work in environments where people believe in you, support you, champion you, talk you up, and open opportunities for you. I was extremely lucky in my early career to work in a mid-size company that was run by a husband and wife team. Right from the top, there was equality of the sexes, and that trickled down into the culture of the company. I felt supported as a woman and as a business person, and it was at that company that I had my biggest fanbase ever in my career, from the senior levels all the way through to my own team members. I felt like the sky was the limit and succeeded at every project I was given.

Girlfriends: Consider your girlfriends as your own personal advisory board who always have your back! They support you, no matter what, giving you confidence when you need it, and helping you course correct when you’re going down the wrong path. Some of my closest girlfriends have been in my life for decades. They come from all walks of life and careers, and can always give me a power boost. I once took a position that I thought I’d love, but actually ended up hating it, mainly because I didn’t fit into the company’s corporate culture or management style. I knew it was just a matter of time before I left, but they beat me to it. It was the first time I’ve ever been fired! As I was leaving the building, I called one of my closest girlfriends to tell her the news. Her immediate response was, “Congratulations!” It was exactly what I needed to hear!

Comfortable Shoes: This speaks to the different standards that exist for men versus women, and how we are expected to show up in the world. Not only is it important to wear comfortable shoes, but you have to be comfortable in your own shoes! So, if you’re a woman who’s comfortable in high, spiky heels, then by all means, wear them, and wear them well. But if you’re wearing those heels and cringing through the pain all day, you might want to examine why you think it’s important to endure any discomfort because of your job. After wearing pajama bottoms and slippers on all those Zoom calls during COVID, some women started saying “no more” to squeezing into someone else’s definition of “dressing for success”. I’m not saying to wear your PJ’s to work when you get back to it, but I am saying to be yourself…always. If you want to wear a pair of hot pink sneakers with that black business dress, go ahead and rock that look because when you’re comfortable in your own skin, you can’t help but radiate power and success, no matter how high or low your shoes may be!

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.

Whoopi Goldberg. I’ve always enjoyed her professional work on stage and in film, but also admired her advocacy for human rights and marginalized communities. Since she began hosting The View, I’ve learned over the years that her personal views are almost always the same as mine!

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

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