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Leadership Lessons from Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa

Ina inspires us during the #lockdown with cocktails and easy meals. She also knows a thing or two about leadership.

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Ina Garten, the famed Barefoot Contessa, has millions of cookbooks in print, a show on the Food Network and a devoted fan base. I had the delight of hiring her as a product spokesperson for a client project back when her first book came out. Before the TV show launched. Before her latest Modern Comfort Food was released in October 2020 in time for her turkey roulade to solve the smaller-scaled Thanksgiving quandary. And before she went viral on Instagram with the perfect quarantine cocktail.

In working on this small project with Ina Garten, I got an early peek at why she was destined for her spectacular success. Her leadership skills can be a lesson to us all. Here are just a few:

She has a deep understanding of her brand. Even with her first book, Ina was clear about her brand’s look and feel and what it delivers, down to what would be included in her books. She knew what she would wear on camera – blue chambray, no apron – and brought her own makeup for the makeup artist to use. If you’ve ever gone on TV with an unfortunate shade of lipstick, you know that Ina’s understanding of small details have contributed to her success.

She is authentic (in the best way). Authenticity is often discussed in leadership, but in reality not all leaders resonate when they are authentically themselves. Leadership authority Herminia Ibarra talks about authenticity in this TED piece. She says that authenticity can be a challenge for some leaders who are more numbers and task focused and not (yet) steeped in empathy needed to connect with employees and stakeholders. Ina’s authentic joy in her work is apparent in everything she does. And she was genuinely curious about me and my work and made me feel valued and appreciated.

She gets to the point. At the meeting to review strategy, message points and the appearance schedule, she chimed in early with “here’s how I would approach this.” Because her point of view meshed with mine, it saved a lot of back and forth that typically comes with a new collaboration.

She exudes gratitude. It’s widely accepted that gratitude is great for business and life, and Ina is grateful in spades. At every turn – when I helped carry an extra bag, reached out with an update, even invited her to join my dinner with friend (and culinary legend) Dorie Greenspan, she expressed genuine thanks.

She focuses on her vision. As you can imagine, Ina was a big hit. When I invited her to extend her involvement with my client, she politely declined, saying “I believe it’s better for me to focus on my own brand.” Wise choice: we can see the result of that focus.

The combination of being gracious, direct and focused makes Ina Garten a good leader. And as we know from her Instagram, her sense of humor adds to her cache. When her next book came out after our project together, her autograph to me said it all: “To Janine: Boy did we have fun! XXX’s, Ina”

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