If you are a strong woman in a leadership role, it might be challenging to be confident without being too pushy. My personal challenge was to find ways to be assertive without seeming overbearing or hostile. In the early days of my career, I tried to build up confidence by dominating a conversation, taking a stage and expressing my opinions without necessarily letting my colleagues express theirs. Eventually I realized that when you are trying to be assertive, you are neither passive nor aggressive, but direct, honest and respectful of other people’s opinions.
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 Kate Goldvasser.
Kate Goldvasser is the Head of Programmatic at AdQuick, a leading DOOH advertising platform that allows brands and agencies to seamlessly complete the entire process of planning, buying, executing, and measuring DOOH campaigns in minutes. As a Head of Programmatic, Kate’s mission is to drive awareness and adoption of the Programmatic DOOH media amongst brands and agencies and to continue reinforcing AdQuick’s innovative platform capabilities. Kate has been working in the Programmatic space for almost a decade and is passionate about expanding the boundaries of the DOOH space with the use of the latest programmatic technologies and data.
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”?
I had a somewhat of an unusual childhood. I was born in Russia in a small town in the Ural mountains on the natural frontier between Asia and Europe. My mom is a journalist, and my dad is a rocket engineer. My parents were adamant about giving me the best education they could afford at the time. I majored in linguistics, then moved to Paris to study international business at Sorbonne, got my masters in marketing, and subsequently studied financial markets at London School of Business and Finance. As a young girl growing up in Russia, it was impossible to even imagine the professional journey I’ve had so far. I owe it all to my parents and their relentless motivation and drive to guide me to new opportunities in life. They taught me the rigorous perseverance and gritty resilience that helped me in my career and personal life.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
I dreamt about being a journalist when I grew up, partially because of my mom, and because I enjoyed writing and expressing my opinion about everything. When I studied in France, I got interested in technology and pivoted to digital marketing. My real journey in digital marketing started at the New York Times International in Paris in 2004 when digital advertising was still at its nascence. At the time, New York Times revenue was predominantly coming from print ad sales, but the company had identified the need to develop their digital capabilities early on and started investing in digital innovation. I was thrilled to be a part of the digital team developing the New York Times website. I had an amazing opportunity to build and diversify a new digital advertising portfolio and evangelize it to New York Times customers. Even though I never became a journalist, it made me extremely proud to be contributing to the newspaper’s difficult transition from print to digital media which helped support quality journalism.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
A few years ago, I was flying to Asia from London on a business development trip. I was traveling coach and not looking forward to the long, 11-hour flight. To my great relief British Airways upgraded me to business class. I was excited to get a long night’s sleep in a comfortable bed and was hoping to beat the jetlag on arrival to Hong Kong. As I settled in my seat, the passenger in the seat next to me started engaging me in conversation. He happened to be an investor living in New York and was traveling to Asia for investment opportunities. We ended up talking all night about the media and advertising market and I pitched him the late-stage technology startup company I was working for, who at the time, was looking to raise money to boost platform development. We exchanged contact details and agreed to keep in touch after the trip. I sent him a couple of emails after I got back to London, but never heard back.
A year later, I was invited to do some investor pitches to unlock additional financing for the company. To my biggest surprise, I saw a familiar face in the room of potential investors. After the presentations were over, we talked and he mentioned that his firm recently started investing in media and ad tech businesses. As he was doing some initial research, he remembered the long conversation we had on a flight to Hong Kong and started gathering additional insights about my company. After several rounds of presentations and thorough due diligence his firm eventually ended up investing in the next round. That day I made a mental promise to myself to always stay open to new opportunities even if they seem unreal in the moment.
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?
I believe being a successful business leader is more of a mindset you need to have from the moment you wake up, to the moment you rest your head at night. But if I had to pick only three traits that were instrumental to my success, I would choose focus, perseverance and empathy.
As a business leader, it is extremely tempting to get excited about new business prospects and get sidetracked. There are so many distractions in the constantly evolving media industry that it’s almost inevitable. Staying the course and being laser focused on your mission is my key to success. This doesn’t mean that you have to discard new opportunities, but you have to be very strategic with your time to lead your team to success. When I worked in London at an in-video advertising startup we had so many opportunities to pivot the business from a legacy product placement business to working with music labels and building a SaaS platform in Asia. The spectrum was very diverse and ostensibly tempting. Finally, we had to put aside the new shiny business ventures to focus on making the core of our business successful first, before diversifying into new opportunities and it ultimately paid off.
I’ve worked in corporate environments and at startups and can say with certainty that perseverance has helped me tremendously in pushing through obstacles to reach my goals. Stories aren’t written about those who did consistent work and really stuck with it. We all want to be brilliant and create something great. But in order to get there and allow us to achieve those goals, we need that gritty perseverance. I’ve faced this challenge at every startup I worked at, but most recently at AdQuick. When I joined the company during COVID last year as the Head of Programmatic, AdQuick just recently launched the digital-out-of-home demand side platform (DSP). Obviously launching an advertising platform during a pandemic, let alone a digital-out-of home platform, presented serious headwinds on the business side. The first few months were tough with programmatic revenue trending below expectations, and a lot of effort was being put into go-to-market, product roadmaps, prospecting, and pitching. My resilience was truly tested with each new COVID wave and each lost opportunity. Despite the difficult challenge, my persistence paid off when we ultimately achieved over 2000% programmatic revenue growth by the second half of 2021.
No matter how focused and resilient you are, you will fail as a leader if you don’t practice empathy and don’t seek to understand the other person’s perspective. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can make it easier to find a compromise between two contradicting points of view and can ultimately help with management and collaboration. Empathy might be the only thing that can help you with your most difficult customers, partners or employees. Empathy is a human endeavor and empathy in business and leadership means engaging with every human, not just the pleasant ones. One of my former bosses once told me, “You cannot choose to work only with the people you like, you have to win the most difficult ones.” Many times throughout my career I was able to find a resolution in a difficult client situation or mitigate an internal conflict between employees by responding with thoughtful intention rather than reacting in the moment, and by seeking to understand their needs and where they were coming from.
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?
Our society still adheres to an entrenched belief in male superiority. Strength and the ability to lead are intrinsic attributes predominantly applicable to men. When women are exerting strength in leadership roles, they are inadvertently considered to be a threat to our male-dominated society. They are thought to be competing with men for dominant positions and subsequently find themselves in uncomfortable circumstances. The biggest challenge that women leaders are facing today is ultimately changing that perception that a woman leader is a threat and that in order to lead she needs to possess the same qualities that men leaders have. We need to recognize and truly appreciate the unique value women leaders have to offer.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
If you feel that your leadership style makes people uneasy, try to be transparent and upfront about the situation. Don’t assume and don’t judge without seeking to understand the root cause of the situation and what makes people uneasy. Make people comfortable and ensure they understand that you are not a threat to them and are not trying to compete or undermine them in any way. Instead, communicate your intention to learn about them and collaborate with them to achieve your common goals. Make them your allies, not your competitors.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
The continuous stream of daily stories of gender inequality, sexual harassment, and other issues affecting women in the workplace have reinforced the fact that we still live in a male-dominated world. The need for change is apparent in virtually every field and industry and any country in the world. It’s encouraging to see so many stories validating women’s experiences come to light, but that’s just the first step. In order to advance cultural change, society needs to bring more women into leadership positions and support them on their journey. That means identifying young women leaders and mentoring them through the early years of their leadership development. However, this is simply not enough to fundamentally change the social paradigm. Any enduring systemic change should begin within ourselves. The only element we control is our mindset and our narrative. As we gradually work toward that cultural change, we need to focus on changing ourselves and start owning who we really are, what we have to offer, and reclaiming our own power.
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?
Unfortunately, nearly every woman in a leadership role today has one of those uncomfortable stories up her sleeve. This proves that we still have a long way to go in establishing a more egalitarian social paradigm. I certainly had my fair share of these uncomfortable experiences that made achieving success much more difficult, especially in the early days of my career. What has affected me the most are the situations where, regardless of my expertise in the subject matter, my opinions were simply not taken into consideration in a male-dominated group of decision makers without any justification. In these ridiculous circumstances I felt publicly humiliated and deeply disappointed, but those situations also taught me to stand up for myself and reclaim my power.
At the same time, I have worked with extremely talented male leaders who were able to recognize my value and publicly claimed it by putting me in charge of important projects and strategic decisions. Not because I was a woman and they wanted to keep their DEI scores up, but because I had the unique expertise and critical mindset to lead and to make these important decisions.
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?
Balancing work and family life is one of the most common sources of stress for nearly everyone with a job. It becomes even more challenging when you are in a leadership role and your team ultimately becomes your second family. During my struggle to fit my personal life into my professional life, I realized that there will always be times that I will have to let work or family take priority. It is impossible to perfectly balance everything in life at all times. For example, when my partner is sick, I may have to skip a work call. Or when an important deadline must be met, I might need to miss dinner and stay working late. The most important thing is not to allow imbalance to become the norm, because this is when you start losing equilibrium and feel like you are doing subpar work or not giving enough attention to your loved ones. The balance may tip for a while, but the key is to gradually bring it as close to the center as possible.
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?
I am still trying to achieve a greater balance between my work life and personal life, but I have come a long way. The tipping point for me was meeting a partner who was comfortable with my professional focus and the time I had to dedicate to work. I didn’t feel that in order to continue to be successful professionally, I had to give up my personal life. It’s important to surround yourself with people who allow you to get to this equilibrium, and who don’t make you feel guilty that sometimes you have to work evenings or weekends. They step in when you need them to and don’t feel intimidated by your victories. Your success ultimately becomes their success.
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.)
- First and foremost, any woman leader has to recognize her own unique value. I used to wait for my bosses to acknowledge the value I was bringing to the business. Sometimes it took forever and ultimately resulted in disappointment and frustration. Over time I came to the obvious realization that no one would appreciate your contributions until you truly appreciate them yourself. If you want to lead a team, you have to establish yourself as a trusted leader and as a person of value, and take charge. The change starts within us, not anyone else. Throughout my career, an understanding and appreciation of my own value helped me tremendously in taking on leadership roles and even securing promotions.
- If you are a strong woman in a leadership role, it might be challenging to be confident without being too pushy. My personal challenge was to find ways to be assertive without seeming overbearing or hostile. In the early days of my career, I tried to build up confidence by dominating a conversation, taking a stage and expressing my opinions without necessarily letting my colleagues express theirs. Eventually I realized that when you are trying to be assertive, you are neither passive nor aggressive, but direct, honest and respectful of other people’s opinions.
- Learn to say “no” and stop trying to please everyone. Even strong women sometimes take on the role of a pleaser in an attempt to be noticed and succeed. It’s a common fallacy that we all give into. I once worked with a very demanding boss that I was constantly trying to please to win his trust and support. Ironically instead of helping and promoting me, the action made me seem unsure of myself and degraded my self-confidence. One day I changed my attitude, turned the situation around, and subsequently earned his respect.
- Learn how to handle conflicts and be empathetic. Strong women are usually excellent at mitigating conflicts, but sometimes they let their emotions or their ego take over them. In one of my recent roles, a head of another department was trying to poach a person from my team. My initial reaction was to take a stand and push back on it. Instead, I chose to have a calm and insightful conversation with both the person who was being poached and the hiring manager. To my surprise, the new role was actually a better fit for the person on my team. We are usually triggered because we feel that our expectations have not been met or we have been misunderstood. Empathy and leading by consensus can truly make a difference in management.
- Lastly, accept your unique leadership style and don’t try to imitate anyone else. In order to lead we don’t need to possess the same qualities that male leaders have. I once worked with a very talented male leader and tried to mirror his management style. While his approach seemed effective initially, over time it felt like I was constantly trying to emulate someone else while disregarding my own skills. It dawned on me that I would be much more comfortable and successful if I took my own unique talents and attributes and tried to improve them, instead of trying to live up to someone else’s standards. Women leaders don’t have men’s thought patterns, abilities or mindset. But we have a wealth of other experiences and perspectives. We just need to start truly appreciating the unique value we have to offer. As Judy Garland used to say, “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, rather than a second-rate version of someone else.”
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.