Juliet D’Ambrosio: “You don’t have to get it right the first time”

You don’t have to get it right the first time. — I think it’s important for people to keep in mind that every successful person makes mistakes. Making mistakes, acknowledging them, and embracing them as a tool to learn from will help build a foundation for what will ultimately lead to success and resilience. Don’t let mistakes […]

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You don’t have to get it right the first time. — I think it’s important for people to keep in mind that every successful person makes mistakes. Making mistakes, acknowledging them, and embracing them as a tool to learn from will help build a foundation for what will ultimately lead to success and resilience. Don’t let mistakes define you or let the fear of making them prevent you from taking risks. Like the old music adage says, “It takes years to become an overnight success.” The trick is to have a mentor you trust — or a team of them — who can help point you in the right direction and turn your mistakes in learning. Fresh eyes always help you see what you can’t quite see yourself.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Juliet D’Ambrosio, Senior Director of Strategy for Adrenaline, leads strategy for a multi-disciplinary agency that helps move financial and healthcare brands and businesses ahead. A journalist turned strategist, for nearly 20 years Juliet has worked with both B2B and consumer brands in revealing their core truths, unearthing their audiences’ needs and translating those insights into a powerful creative strategy that drives results.

Juliet has experience in food and beverage, healthcare, education, retail, design, apparel, place branding, technology, and the financial and professional services industries. She has led teams in developing strategies and campaigns for brands around the world, including Coca-Cola, VISA, Samsung, The International Olympic Committee, Volkswagen, FIFA, Paramount Pictures, and the International Hotel Group.

Juliet’s work has been recognized by awards and publications including Communication Arts, AIGA Design 50, ID, D&AD, and Graphis. She’s a regular speaker on design and strategy and holds a faculty position at Miami Ad School at Portfolio Center. Juliet lives in Atlanta with her husband and six children.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

My childhood was really interesting. I was first raised on a commune in the woods of New Hampshire until my parents got divorced. Then I moved to Atlanta, where I had a more suburban and Southern style childhood. The idea of having to bloom where planted really resonates with me as such an important lesson. I think, for all of us, we can’t really control the conditions that surround us all the time, but we can control the way that we respond to them, make the best of what we’re presented with, take what we can, and grow from there. Moving between two vastly different environments gave me a really unique perspective on resilience.

The first part of my childhood was very bohemian, no rules, no money, very little supervision, just a wild-child existence. Figuring out the way to get the nurturing and lessons I needed empowered me to develop very strong relationships and become incredibly self-sufficient, so that was one form of resilience. When we moved to Georgia — sort of the New South — there was a lot of emphasis on image, accomplishment, manners, and achievement. My lessons there were about how to thrive and still be true to myself, to be a go-getter and demand the best of myself, but not lose my values in the pursuit of perfection. In both places, I had to really find a way to prosper.

What’s interesting, though, about these seemingly diametrically opposed places is that at their heart, people aren’t really all that different after all. All the same dynamics of how you make a good friend works in one place as well as another. By being who I was in each setting, I was able to forge deep and lasting relationships — friendships I still treasure today.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

There have been so many! Two stand out. One is that I actually changed careers from music journalism to brand storytelling and ultimately to brand strategy. The switch wasn’t easy, but it was absolutely right. After several years, I just didn’t find my work writing for and editing a jazz magazine as fulfilling as I wanted, so I sought a new challenge. Making a career change from journalism into the world of brands wasn’t a setback so much as an idea that what I had been training for and building a career around wasn’t ultimately right for me. What I learned from this shift was to be humble enough to acknowledge that I needed a change and take a few steps back to get me on the right path.

The second is when, years later, my team and I were hired by the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to develop a brand for the country. Not for tourism, not for a political party or an institution, but for the whole country — a monumental task whose goal was to raise its profile on the world stage and ultimately attract foreign direct investment. Every single part of that engagement was interesting, not least of which was creating a strategic process to literally learn a whole country! Over two years, we dove deep and ultimately delivered a brand reflecting the pride and potential of the people.

The big takeaway for me here was in consensus-building. The brand needed buy-in from everyone from the Prime Minister to business leaders, to different government ministries, all the way to the citizens themselves. I learned by watching how these leaders built a coalition of supporters for the brand, only approving its direction through parliamentary procedure when everyone felt good about it. That lesson applies to any enterprise — bringing different stakeholders together to create a shared sense of ownership is half the purpose of a brand strategy. It can be truly transformative.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Adrenaline has a large footprint in financial services. Having the perspective of helping companies meet the challenge following the 2008 Great Recession in which banking’s name was dragged through the mud — whether deservedly or not — we wanted to see this sector rise up in this COVID moment. As soon as the pandemic hit, we immediately heard from our clients that financial services was playing an entirely different role for people in this crisis. As the pandemic rippled across communities, banking was showing up in real ways that matter — bankers calling customers, making sure PPP loans were moving through the process, and offering forbearance and relief. It dawned on me that this is a change in how consumers see banking, and that it can be a turning point for the entire industry.

I also had a moment of personal reflection — especially in the early days of COVID — that we were all having a real sense of being unmoored, ungrounded and needing, both from a professional and a personal sense, something to believe in. Thus, the concept Believe in Banking was born. The name captures it all: We wanted real emotional resonance that speaks to consumers, but it also can be a rallying cry for the industry. It’s a way to shine a light on the stories of all the ways that banking is showing up and is a force for good. So, the idea was for us to create a movement that begins simply through telling the stories back to the industry and empowering them with information and data, so they become more resilient.

Presenting this idea to the Adrenaline leadership team was a very natural process, because we have long provided perspectives on the industry from our role as an industry partner and leader. It’s a powerful way that we can take our privileged position working with so many different players across financial services who have a long, deep, and broad view of the industry. We then provide our expertise layered on top to create a valuable channel at a critical moment. Believe in Banking was really a natural progression from what we were already doing. It’s a resilient response to make thought leadership actionable and deliver up content to our clients, to the industry, to our peers in a way that matters most to them.

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?

Whenever I feel like I can’t do something, I picture this person’s face in my mind and give myself a pep talk. A professor of mine at the University of Florida named James Haskins was one of the preeminent authors of young adult and children’s literature, especially focusing on the black experience. He had grown up with very little, but his parents instilled in him the idea that the value of education is the way you rise above. He had consistently believed in educating himself and gotten a PhD. He had a successful career on Wall Street, but also believed in himself enough to know that after the first, fifth, or fifteenth rejection from major publishers, that there was still a market for what he had to say to young readers.

He was one of the most hard-nosed professors I ever had, but I’m fortunate that he identified me in class, for whatever reason, as someone that he was going to push, believe in and open up some opportunities for, and he did that throughout my entire college career. He became my unofficial advisor and mentor and he made damn sure I never took the easy way out. Even today, when I’m stuck or drowning in not knowing how to do something, I think of him. First, he showed me the importance of mentorship and the value of asking for help and second, what an inspiration! Nobody taught him how to do what he did, yet he believed in himself enough and got the help he needed and leaned on people, but also pushed through. Always pushed through.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Nelson Mandela was probably the most resilient person on the planet. The idea of spending 27 years on Robben Island as a political prisoner and then not only forgiving your captors but having the ability to be a unifying force is an incredible story of resilience. He opened the arms of his country to create a more democratic, open, inclusive society that is still reverberating across the globe today and has become a model for change, the world over. I’m sure I’m not the only person who said Mandela, but there is a reason he’s held up as such an inspiration for so many.

How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience looks like a lot of different things — I don’t believe there’s a single definition or set of qualities for it. It really doesn’t have only one meaning. It can be the person who rises above their circumstances to achieve something that seemed impossible, like my Dr. Haskins, or it can be the person who never loses hope or faith like Nelson Mandela who even has the compassion to forgive and to unify. It can look like grit and determination or it can look like love and empathy. It’s the ability to accept failure, to own it, to no matter how painful, and to not walk away, but to keep struggling until you break through. It’s meeting the moment with just what’s required. Sometimes it’s an intuition and instinct; other times it’s a learned and hard-won intellect. It may have all these different definitions, but one thing is for sure: it’s obvious when it’s on display.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

I have been given a couple of challenges in my professional career that might be considered “impossible tasks.” The first was to create a brand architecture and strategy around the International Olympic Committee and all of its partners and holdings, numbering in the hundreds. Each one of those partners, just pick one of them — the US Olympic Committee or Volkswagen, for example — each one of them had their own identities and brand equities, often complex relationships with the IOC and agendas of their own. Pushing through and building a brand architecture that delivered clarity, that served all of those constituents and stakeholders, and that would help the IOC continue to be a meaningful force in the world, felt like an impossible task. We were even told that it wasn’t possible, but we delivered, and I’m very proud of that.

The second was in creating the brand for the Atlanta BeltLine, which has had a transformative effect on the city, the people and the policies of Atlanta. We created the brand strategy and identity for this major piece of civic infrastructure, which literally connects 22 different municipalities, neighborhoods and communities that go from among the wealthiest to the least privileged in Atlanta. To accomplish that unified vision, we did the hard work of listening and learning, attending committee meetings at night from every single neighborhood association, evert civic group, every non-profit, everyone who had an interest. We also had to bridge the public and private divide — engaging developers, bankers and financiers and organizers and planners — pulling them altogether into a brand that could be a connective force for all. The brand strategy and identity was ultimately approved by a broad coalition, led by the Mayor of Atlanta. Today, the BeltLine is a cornerstone of the city’s life, but it was truly considered an impossible dream — until it was accomplished.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

I was born with a clubfoot. It’s a common deformity, but in my case, it was severe, affecting my right leg from my knee down to my foot. I didn’t have normal mobility growing up, so I had to use a walker. I had a lot of treatments, wore orthopedic shoes with bars attached to them, and I wasn’t able to go upstairs. So, the beginning of my life I experienced as a person who was differently-abled. Then I had surgeries which corrected the foot so I’m able to walk and do whatever I need to — I never really even give it a second thought. I think that built some of those earlier bricks of belief in myself that probably everyone who has any kind of physical difference has to build. It has certainly made me embrace the idea of difference and to celebrate the beauty and potential of those who appear different in whatever way.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient?

1.) You don’t have to get it right the first time.

I think it’s important for people to keep in mind that every successful person makes mistakes. Making mistakes, acknowledging them, and embracing them as a tool to learn from will help build a foundation for what will ultimately lead to success and resilience. Don’t let mistakes define you or let the fear of making them prevent you from taking risks. Like the old music adage says, “It takes years to become an overnight success.” The trick is to have a mentor you trust — or a team of them — who can help point you in the right direction and turn your mistakes in learning. Fresh eyes always help you see what you can’t quite see yourself.

2.) Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions.

Don’t be afraid to say when you don’t know something. That saying, “Fake it ’til you make it,” gets it a bit wrong, to me. The confidence to show a belief in yourself will help to propel you to the next thing. But the faking it part isn’t quite right. Faking like you know things that you don’t actually know backfires and robs you of the opportunity to learn. Saying you don’t know something isn’t something to be ashamed of or to be avoided. When you ask questions, you learn. If you don’t know something, say, “I don’t know, please tell me” or “I don’t know the answer to this, but I will ask people who do.”

3.) Build resilience through others.

The notion of building resilience, both personally, companywide, enterprise-wide, brand-wise, etc., is to recognize that you bring personal resilience, but you also get resilience from those around you; it doesn’t all have to come from you. You’re building a team that has some of those same values that we’ve talked about before — the ability to admit mistakes, the ability to say they don’t know, the ability to have inner confidence — I think what’s really important is that we also look to others to help us build our own resilience. As a web of individually resilient people supporting each other, we form a much kind of stronger foundation where resilience flourishes.

4.) Find gifts in adversity.

When people are presented with difficult situations, how they respond often says a lot about what they’re made of. Finding unexpected gifts out of adversity allows people to build resilient lives and often come up with brilliant solutions that are deeper and richer than if they hadn’t faced hardship in the first place. That’s what we wanted to do with Believe in Banking. We were focused on bringing something of value to help in a really dire moment in our country, when people were hurting and banking was on the brink. It’s like the phoenix rising from the flames.

5.) Take inspiration from history.

As I think about this moment we’re living through, seeing the arc of civilization or progress, it helps me to look at what has come before, so I don’t feel so overwhelmed. Knowing that people rose up and were resilient at previous times in our history, like during the Great Depression or the Spanish flu, and we did ultimately come together as a global village to overcome those challenges really helps put things in perspective. There have always been tough times, and we’ve always gotten through. How we have gotten through are sometimes intuitive and sometimes non-intuitive, but we can learn from history and start from a stronger place.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders 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, especially if we tag them 🙂

Scott Galloway is someone who I have an incredible respect for. He’s a professor of marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business, a media personality, a public speaker, a deep thinker, and a total badass. His podcast Pivot with Kara Swisher is brilliant. He is someone who was a serial entrepreneur of incredibly successful businesses, and he was a serial entrepreneur of businesses that flamed out, but he kept going and kept building and learning from his mistakes and pushing. He is the perfect person to tag in this series on resilience. He really embodies it.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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