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How These Powerful Women Taught Me 5 Key Lessons in Leadership for the Times

As I reflect back on Women’s History Month that’s coming to a close, amidst this unprecedented crisis that has called upon so many to rise up as leaders and serve their local communities, I wanted to take a moment to honor some of the powerful women in my life who have taught me lessons in […]

As I reflect back on Women’s History Month that’s coming to a close, amidst this unprecedented crisis that has called upon so many to rise up as leaders and serve their local communities, I wanted to take a moment to honor some of the powerful women in my life who have taught me lessons in resilience, empathy and authentic leadership. Qualities I see amplified in many of those leading us through this global crisis today. As a tribute to authentic leaders, and in honor of those powerful women who helped form who I am, I wanted to take a moment and share 5 key lessons I’ve learned that I continue to apply today.  

  • Lead with Your Entrepreneurial Spirit

Viveca Chan (former Chairman & CEO, Grey Global Group China) was my first real boss in my first real job after university in the early ’90s. And what a role model to kick off my career with! Diminutive in stature but formidable in presence, Viveca was whip smart and a force to be reckoned with. I’m still not exactly sure why Viveca actually hired me, because I had no experience, but lots of enthusiasm about “multimedia and interactive.” She found a way to split my role between Hong Kong and Asia, account and media – then gave me nearly carte blanche to serve as the regional ambassador for “new media,” flying me around Asia to help with new business pitches, and to speak with our clients and regional offices about new ways to build brands. Viveca taught me to be entrepreneurial first, to futureproof the business, and to share what we’re learning.

  • Seek Like-Minded People and Empower Them to Make a Difference

On my first day as global account director on the Nokia business, my client Karen Diguer (former Global Director of Enterprise Marketing Services, Nokia) called me and said that there are brilliant agency people who they know and trust to do good work for them, and that she’d like them to be on my team. I enthusiastically said I’d be delighted to bring them on, and then she said they were in different countries and at different agencies and would remain in both. This was years before cross-agency collaborations were common. When I met with the folks they loved from other shops around the world, we found that we shared a conviction on the impact Nokia could make on people in business. 

Despite ongoing agency network objections and individual agencies’ resistance, we found a way to make it happen and our Team Nokia thrived. We were heralded as a model for what it was to truly deliver on Connecting People(Nokia’s brand promise). In the end, Karen taught me that to really make the difference I need to make, I don’t have to stick to the rules or to what the establishment offers. Instead, seek out the people who are similarly compelled to make that difference, wherever they are, and empower them to contribute their gifts. 

  • Put Well-Being Ahead of Office Politics 

It feels almost too significant as an add-on, but in the early days of mobile telephony and even before the iPhone – Karen also pushed hard to do a campaign that their phones “have an OFF button.” Unsurprisingly Nokia didn’t go for it, but that didn’t really matter. She taught me that caring for my well-being and the well-being of others is paramount, even at the risk of being politically unpopular.

  • Embrace Your Soft Skills

Sandra Carvalho eventually took on Karen’s role at Nokia, and later emerged as the CMO of Technicolor where she brought me in to consult. When we first met, I was immediately struck by Sandra’s warmth; one of the first things she did as our new client was not brief us on her vision on the business and expectations of us (although that came swiftly after!). Instead, she invited us to her house for a home-cooked Portuguese meal with her husband. It set a wonderful tone for the relationship, and one that Sandra continues to maintain with her teams and partners. 

Sandra also has this incredible “confident openness” about her; she was always very candid with me from everything about being the new person on the job to the realities of what her organization was actually struggling with, inviting my perspectives on the business, the organization, and the personalities. She never substituted my judgment for her own, but always respected my input so I felt valued and heard, even if she decided to take a different direction than what I’d advised. Sandra taught me that as a woman, I didn’t need to exert authority or control in conventionally masculine ways. Instead, embodying values like warmth, inclusion, family and transparency, often mislabeled as “softer skills,” can make all the difference in business.

  • No Obstacle Is so Great That You Shouldn’t Keep Going

Ramona Pierson (former CEO and Founder, Declara) is one of the most memorable and remarkable persons I’ve ever met. At the age of 22, Ramona Pierson was hit by a drunk driver while running, which left her in a coma for 18 months and blind for a decade. After exhausting hospital stays, she ended up a young woman sent to live in a senior home. There, she was surrounded by a group of “adopted grandparents” who helped her relearn everything – from breathing and seeing to walking and smiling. 

From this experience came her drive to help other people learn. After getting multiple degrees, Ramona became a serial entrepreneur. She hired me to guide marketing for her then start-up Declara, a social knowledge engine created to bridge the skills-to-labor gap, which earned her an invitation from President Obama to the first-ever White House Demo Day focused on inclusive entrepreneurship. I never saw her bitter or angry or upset when she spoke about what happened to her; instead she kept moving forward. Ramona taught me so much, but most of all she taught me that no obstacle is so great, that I can’t keep putting one foot in front of the other. Because if I don’t, I might never get to do what I am meant to be doing on this earth.

As I write this, I realize how much I am still learning, and have yet to learn, from them. Thank you so much, ladies, and my lasting gratitude to the countless powerful female leaders I’ve met along my career path for your sacrifice, courage, wisdom and strength.

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