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Donna Tuths of Sutherland: “Failure is your friend”

Failure is your friend. Fear of failure has two big downsides. We play it too safe and we don’t stretch ourselves and our organization. Second, it drives people to hide failures rather than share them and their learnings. Today, I tell my teams that we need to look with curiosity at failures because they are […]

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Failure is your friend. Fear of failure has two big downsides. We play it too safe and we don’t stretch ourselves and our organization. Second, it drives people to hide failures rather than share them and their learnings. Today, I tell my teams that we need to look with curiosity at failures because they are our clues into how we can improve what we are doing. For example, a recent webinar we ran did not get the attendance we had hoped. Unpacking the root causes of that helped us to over-deliver on audiences for the next episode.


As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Donna Tuths.

Donna Tuths oversees strategy and delivery of design, Labs, analytics, consulting, research and marketing in her role leading transformation and innovation at Sutherland. She has over 25 years of strategy consulting experience with a focus on marketing and digital transformation. Previously, Donna launched Cognizant Interactive as SVP and Global Head, where she expanded its offerings around Insight to Experience and its global footprint through acquisitions of multiple companies. She is also a former founder of Accenture Interactive and Head of its Global Content practice, where she drove innovation and expansion of digital, cultivated expert talent in experience transformation, and served some of the world’s largest brands. She is the former CEO of WPP Ogilvy Healthworld and President of Organic Inc., a lecturer in the Marketing — Executive Management Program at Yale, an Advisory Board member of the Yale Center for Customer Insights and a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.


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?

As a high school student, I joined Junior Achievement and ran a small company. Our company did well and I was invited to some large regional leadership meetings in New York City, which were held at Wells, Rich and Greene. There, as a 17-year-old girl, I got to see Mary Wells Lawrence, a pioneer in advertising, whose name was on the front door of the office building, take the stage to speak to us. In that moment, by her example, I knew that a woman could achieve anything she set out to do. Though I started in consulting, I turned quickly to marketing and advertising. Years later I would feel the same thrill when I attended industry events with my mentor Shelly Lazarus, CEO of Ogilvy. There she was in a sea of men, all fellow CEOs, head held high, hand thrust out to shake hands with a huge, contagious smile. It was really something to behold.

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

I was in a meeting with a male member of my team and after a while I noticed that the individual we were meeting with kept directing all technical and technological aspects of the discussion to him. I thought it was odd as I was actually the alliance and technical lead, and my male teammate was a creative lead! It reminded me that we still live in a world where people make assumptions about what men and women do.

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?

One of my first jobs was as a summer associate in the Corporate Finance department at a very formal, conservative investment bank. I had come from a medical family and did not innately understand unspoken business protocols. One day, shortly after I began my summer assignment, I was invited to a meeting and I arrived at the room early and sat in a chair at the conference table. When the room was about a quarter full, an Associate stepped in behind me and informed me that I was supposed to sit in a chair along the wall — not at the table! I was so embarrassed as I slid out of my chair, but it was an early lesson that when in unfamiliar situations, you should hang back and watch the “local or native” protocols before making a move.

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?

My experience has combined long tenure in both agency and consulting companies. I am very fortunate that one of the partners I met when I first got out of business school is still a key mentor of mine, Andy Zimmerman, who is now President of the design firm, Frog. Andy made a point earlier on to talk to me about my career and I’m very lucky that 30 years later he continues to meet with me for a meal and to share advice. Having someone you have known that long provides a very special perspective when you come to key decision points around your career, and the fact that we share interests in technology and design has made this mentorship all the more valuable.

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?

The two most important things are sleep and humor. I go to bed early and get up early. This discipline helps me to always be ready for the day — no matter what it will throw at me. I think the second thing is using a sense of humor to keep things in perspective. I tell my teams all the time — that I love to find things where I am wrong or have made a mistake — because it means I still have more to learn. You cannot be afraid to fail. This will hold you back and ensure mediocrity. On the other hand — you need to keep perspective — because if you swing for the fences you are going to miss some of the time — and you can’t let that throw you off. Just tuck it into your “learnings file” and keep swinging, perhaps with a few adjustments!

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?

There is a ton of data that tells us that diverse organizations actually perform better. I think that one of the most critical things that diversity does for a company — especially at the top — is that it tells employees and prospective employees that “anyone can succeed here.” Seeing yourself in the firm’s leadership drives employees to higher levels of performance and, ultimately, contribution. Without this visible representation among leadership, diversity programs just seem like — programs– checking the box.

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.

We each have to stand up as individuals for inclusivity and equality. This is a collective movement. Twenty years ago, I brought a newly hired, outwardly gay Branding Strategist to be introduced to my client, a Head of Brand at a Fortune 100 company, for whom we were undertaking a major brand initiative. His presentation to my client went brilliantly, but when we were leaving the room my client asked if I could stay behind. After the door closed he asked, “How am I going to take him out on the road to bring this program out to all the senior executives and stakeholders? He will be a distraction!” It was clear he was asking me “how do I take this outwardly gay man out to represent our new branding initiative”? I did not flinch. I looked him straight in the eye and said, “He is a brilliant planner and his work is awesome. You need to give your executives more credit. We are standing behind him as the right choice and will provide all the support needed to make this a success.” He stood there another 30 seconds, and then said OK. This particular colleague went on to be brilliant there, and everywhere else he has been the last 20 years.

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?

I believe that the CEO holds the vision and the overall conscience of the organization. My own view is that the era of the “operational CEO” is over. With all of the uncertainties of our time and especially with remote work, organizations must see a clear vision coming from their CEO and they need more than ever to understand the company’s “purpose”.

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

I think the biggest myth is that CEOs “command and control”. Not at all. CEOs depend upon the input of their senior team, and they truly want to hear your view.

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

The highest level of corporate politics can be difficult for women executives. No matter what their path is to the top, they are potentially more vulnerable to political challenges as their support network, (mentors, etc.) is generally not as deep when compared to their male counterparts.

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

The most striking is probably that there is little difference between my actual job and what I thought it would be. What I could never have anticipated was how COVID would change things. I think in many ways it has created more access to people as COVID has in some ways broken down barriers and created a more authentic environment in which to operate.

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?

One of the most important traits, I believe, is being a good listener and they need to be open — open to new ideas and suggestions, and challenges to their ideas.

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

Be authentic, be yourself, and encourage people to be the same. We all need to bring our whole selves to work in order to do the best work we can together.

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

I work hard to identify women with potential and ensure that they get the opportunities they deserve. I have tried to create greater impact by asking those women to do the same for other women. It is always about “paying it forward.” We all need to understand our responsibility and the part we play.

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

  1. There will be challenges. I grew up in a household where boys and girls were treated the same, and my mother was head of the household from the time I was 9. I went to a girls’ high school and a women’s college. I entered the working world a bit naïve about what I would encounter. In one of my first jobs I had to walk across the shop floor down a helicopter production line to get to my office every day. It was sort of like walking in front of a construction site. I will leave this challenge to your imagination!
  2. Trust yourself. Second-guessing reflects more on the second-guesser than it does on you! Confidence is the most critical capability you can cultivate within yourself. Be aware of situations and people that erode your confidence and take action to root out or counter.
  3. Failure is your friend. Fear of failure has two big downsides. We play it too safe and we don’t stretch ourselves and our organization. Second, it drives people to hide failures rather than share them and their learnings. Today, I tell my teams that we need to look with curiosity at failures because they are our clues into how we can improve what we are doing. For example, a recent webinar we ran did not get the attendance we had hoped. Unpacking the root causes of that helped us to over-deliver on audiences for the next episode.
  4. Pace yourself and be sure to recharge. Burning the candle on both ends is never good. Exhaustion does not lead to good decision-making and it makes it difficult to bring your best self to work. This has become more important during COVID. Like many people, I fell into working 12 hours a day as COVID-induced quarantine dragged on. I had to find new ways to recharge and create a better 360-degree perspective on myself, work, friends and family. We all need to pace ourselves for ourselves — but also to set the right example for our teams. The message needs to get set from the top.
  5. Be bold. For a long time, there was a strong message that women should try to “blend in”. This was the wrong message. Be confident, be bold. Be your authentic self. Ultimately, this will drive you towards higher levels of contribution and performance.

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 would love to inspire a Truth Movement. Speaking the truth, truth in advertising, truth in delivery, truth in action. It has become so hard to tell what is real and what is fake — especially through the distortion of social media.

Truth is healing. It helps to clear out the old and whatever is holding you back. I wish we had more Truth in the world. If we did, we could acknowledge the issues and create solutions together for a better future.

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

Be grateful every day, because that’s the source of true power. I wake up every day thinking about how lucky I am and have been in my life. You can never let go of that. It just puts everything else in perspective. I am often asked how I am able to be so calm in challenging situations — and it really does relate to my fundamental gratitude. I feel so fortunate that mountains look like small rolling hills to me.

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.

I would love to have a sit down with Aileen Lee, Founder of Cowboy Ventures. It is one of the first female-led venture firms — and she has been such an advocate for women in tech. Her work on All Raise shows her dedication to making a difference. She has really inspired me.

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