Linda Dupree of NCSolutions: “Centeredness and a sense of calm is helpful”

Centeredness and a sense of calm is helpful. — As a leader, your decision is in high demand. You’re bombarded with issues daily, and often, the person asking for your answer will view their project as the most urgent and vital to the business at that moment. You need to convey a sense of proportion, so it’s […]

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Centeredness and a sense of calm is helpful. — As a leader, your decision is in high demand. You’re bombarded with issues daily, and often, the person asking for your answer will view their project as the most urgent and vital to the business at that moment. You need to convey a sense of proportion, so it’s essential to cultivate a sense of perspective. The minute someone yells, “Fire,” that’s the moment you need to focus on your vision and your goals. You’ll become clear very quickly on the relative urgency of the issue at hand. I’ve found that perspective centers me and helps me stay calm.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Linda Dupree.

Linda Dupree is Chief Executive Officer at NCSolutions (NCS), the leading company for improving advertising effectiveness for the consumer packaged goods (CPG) ecosystem. The company’s research-based insights, collective wisdom and proven techniques help brands target the right segments based on in-store purchase behaviors, optimize campaigns while in-flight and measure the resulting incremental sales. In her role, Linda develops strategy, drives innovation and accelerates performance for this fast-growing company and its clients. She began her career as a media planner and developed a holistic perspective on advertising by working in agencies, brand advertising and in research supply. She is responsible for ground-breaking industry developments, first as an early proponent of advanced targeting and later by developing early predictive modeling and CRM applications. She has held leadership positions at Nielsen; Innerscope Research and Arbitron (both now part of Nielsen); Grey Advertising and Stroh Brewery Company.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! 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?

We’re a product to some degree of what we liked to do as kids, which is somewhat ironic because much of the time you’d think kids would have no idea — being kids, of course. But I’ve loved entertainment since I was a child. I can definitely remember paging through the TV Guide, which was a physical publication at the time, just to see what was changing.

I actually wasn’t a huge television viewer, at least in terms of my cohorts, but I loved commercials. And I remember looking at the newspaper and wondering why all the food ads ran on a Wednesday. Even in the late 90s, when my household was an early user of CompuServe, I found all the pieces — content and advertising — fascinating.

These interests dovetailed with the fact that I like to organize things. I was always the kid that said: “Hey, let’s put on a show. Let’s build a treehouse. Let’s play school.” Of course I made myself the teacher. Clearly, I was a little bossy too.

The things I did well as a kid carried over into my education and then into my professional life. I enjoy organizing things. I’m passionate about motivating others. I’m always eager to ideate. I love to collaborate. All that came to a head when I started to work in the advertising industry.

I started as a media planner and over time I worked on the agency side, then the advertiser side in the beer industry, and then on the research supplier side.

These experiences turned me into a media generalist, because I worked across different parts of the industry and also because I worked in different functional areas, including commercial, product and general management. Over time that all melded into my current role as CEO at NCS.

Especially sustaining across my career are my female collaborators. They’ve been there for me any time I needed help or an additional viewpoint. Because they’re natural collaborators, their first instinct is to support, so they add a different complexion to the work we do together. Cultivating this support system, in various permutations, has been a key driver.

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

Most of us would say the pandemic certainly has been an interesting and dramatic story because it involves so much contingency planning. Going into 2020, NCS was having a gangbuster year. It was quarter after quarter of growth. Then the world ground to a halt.

It was interesting as a team and certainly as a leader to pull together and find ways to mitigate this hugely disruptive moment. We had to find ways not only to sustain the business, but also to continue to grow it. And we had to ensure that our personnel and our clients were safe. One effort I’m particularly proud of is our year-long project to provide insights about how consumer behavior during COVID was impacting the CPG industry. These insights were especially valuable for our clients who were trying to understand in real-time the current and future impact the pandemic had on their business.

I have a more specific story to share. I’ve learned time and again not to underestimate the importance of organizational structure. Several months into my tenure at NCS, I simplified the organization to three pillars in order to drive additional communication and alignment. For instance, marketing moved under the commercial side of the operation. The restructuring included some out-of-the-box moves, such as moving the CFO to lead product enrichment and making room for his second in command — who also happened to be a woman — to lead finance.

It’s important to find ways to renew organizational structure and insert more diverse voices in different places. Organizational changes are always painful and this one was painful in its own unique way. But several months later it was clear it was a better structure for where the company needed to go.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what key lesson you learned from that?

Early in my career, I was at an off-site company meeting of about 20 to 30 people. You know how you sort of get into a groove while you’re in company meetings? Well, I clearly got too much into the groove, so I wasn’t paying attention to where I was heading at the restroom break. So there I was, sitting in a stall of what I thought was the Women’s room, when I heard a lot of really deep voices. I realized “Oh my gosh, I’m not in the Women’s room, am I?” Of course, they weren’t even strangers. These were people I knew, so it’s not like I could just slink out. I decided I’d better just stay.

While I waited for everyone to leave so I could slip out undetected, I started to listen to their conversation. I didn’t really know what guys talk about when they’re in the Men’s room, but it turns out they talk business. And you know what? I picked up a couple things that I was able to use later in conversation. Of course, I never mentioned how I learned what I learned.

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?

We all have help every step along the way. It’s one of the reasons I love to try to pay it back.

Steve Morris, the former CEO of Arbitron, absolutely helped me along the way and ultimately moved me to an executive role. He always asked me: Do you have a business plan around this idea? Of course I didn’t, but then I would write one. He instilled in me the discipline of thinking through the problem and articulating it via a business plan. This practice yielded several profitable products over the years.

The important thing about a business plan is not only the idea, but also how to sell the idea to others. It helps you know exactly what’s going to give you a thumbs up or thumbs down. Through the process you learn how to put together a P&L, how to tell the story and how to follow up with elevator pitches after the initial pitch. All of the work that goes into actually making an idea take hold, I give credit to Steve Morris.

But I have to say that it’s my female collaborators — and they have been legion — who have sustained me. I say this because we all tire at some point — often in the midpoint of our careers when we know we need to work for ~20 more years. I use the word sustained very deliberately. Over time, I’ve found that my female collaborators are the opposite of transactional. They find ways to nourish and help me regenerate without regard to any self-interest.

Jessica Hogue, general manager of measurement and analytics at Innovid, and I have had a particularly symbiotic relationship. We’ve had various professional iterations over a decade — manager/mentor, colleague, peer — sometimes in the same workplace, other times while at different companies.

We both share a strong belief that collaboration is the key to progress. However, we’ve come to the realization that the ability to foster collaboration is an undervalued strength. This is particularly true among women leaders.

Many women I know are adept at finding ways for disparate personalities and skill sets to work together. As Jessica points out, collaboration is an innate — and potent — skill in women. We know it takes a village to get the best outcomes, so we’re always seeking ways to incorporate a variety of voices into our decision-making. Collaboration isn’t the first, second or even fifth skill that comes to mind when you define great leadership. Why not?

To be fair, I’ve had colleagues and friends who wholly/primarily identify as male who have also displayed a selflessness in their sustenance and support. But my female colleagues’ support has been particularly rich.

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?

I always feel less stressed if I’m prepared. I do not love the “wing it” approach. I remember a woman who I had great respect for and who spoke publicly very frequently. She told me it energized her to not even look at what she was going to say until an hour before her talk. She felt like it helped her give what she was going to say a fresh take.

I’m exactly the opposite of that. For me, preparation relieves stress.

Also, physical activity really helps me prepare. If I’m going to give a speech or just noodle a difficult question, I take a run. I have music in the background, but I set my focus on the problem and try to work through it by relaxing both my mind and body a little without the distractions of my standard office.

There are days — especially now during COVID times — where sometimes you just don’t feel as energetic or as inspired. On those days, I find that putting on some jewelry and just dressing the part works for me. It’s a change of pace and energizes me.

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?

Diverse backgrounds bring diverse solutions. It’s shown time and again, study after study, that diversity — varied opinions, ideas, perspectives and leadership styles — improves the decision-making process.

Another reason diversity is important is that by emphasizing DE&I — putting programs and ideas in place to diversify the workforce — it shows how much employees are valued and accepted. That’s certainly what we want. This type of culture will produce healthier people and a healthier business overall.

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.

Step one: Listen — always. It’s crucial for organizations to provide a platform that encourages listening across the organization. We established the NCS DE&I task force, which provides numerous opportunities for employees to connect, such as all-hands meetings, sharing personal stories in workshops and newsletters, to name a few. All of these activities provide a sense of how important it is for us to support each other in our wonderful diversity.

Step two: Act — even if it’s a small gesture. To do nothing is not acceptable. Everyone can use their influence, no matter what level you are or what part of your career you’re at. You can invite diverse members to form a team. You can profile someone externally that you think is deserving. You make diverse choices in who you call on for advice or who to call on in a meeting.

Listen and act even if they’re small steps.

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?

Being a CEO is much like being a theatrical director. I think of Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater, because I support that marvelous organization and its mission. The CEO’s job is to set the tone and culture. And to do that, they must have a holistic view of the company — how all of the teams, pieces and roles work together to bring the organizational vision to life.

Just like the theatrical director, the CEO is responsible for weaving all the threads together and telling the whole story of the company, present and future — not just one piece of it.

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

People have told me: “Oh my gosh your job is so glamorous!” I have to ask them, “Well, which part of it do you think is so glamorous?” Making decisions? Working hard? Maybe it’s travel?

One way I’d discount this myth is to say that even CEOs have self-doubts. You’re constantly trying to make decisions that are sound for the organization. It’s a high stakes role, because you’re responsible for the team and you’re the one making the final decisions about what risks to take.

I like to think that we all have a healthy dose of knowing we’re not always right. I know I’m certainly not. Thus, I’m totally dependent upon the members of my team, who provide great solutions, vet ideas and help me determine what won’t work.

People imbue the title with a lot of expectations. I saw this great cartoon years ago that said: how did my jokes get so much funnier now that I’m a CEO? I totally recognize that the title is what makes the difference and that’s just tricky.

It’s an honor to lead an organization, especially NCS.

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

Confidence! Unless women are convinced they know “the facts,” they’re less likely to go out upon a limb. I actually think this is a strength of women. It’s one of the reasons that I suggest Careful Listening is so important to a CEO.

Self-Assessments. As many studies have shown, women systematically provide less favorable assessments of their past performance and potential future ability. Women are more critical of themselves, and it’s an obstacle for them. They’ll say: “I don’t want to brag. It doesn’t feel authentic. It doesn’t feel real to me.” Maybe the way around this is to call out our baseline upfront. For example, we might say: “I’m going to be brutally honest of my performance. So, I’m asking you to baseline all performance assessments with the same lens.”

Presence. The leadership quality is popularly defined in terms of male biases, much of it physical, such as vocal range or size (height or weight). Points are lost if you’re too animated (and women tend to gesture more and use more facial expressions). Now that more women have reached executive levels, it’s time to re-think this out-dated definition.

If we can change the way women see themselves and how others view these “challenges,” I believe the door to the C-suite will swing wide open to more people. Enlarging the definition of what makes a great leader is a tall order, but one we, collectively, must work on.

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

  • What it takes to be successful.

You should never underestimate the power of communication skills to drive success. When I was younger, I thought the role of CEO meant dictating what needed to be done. But to be successful, collaboration is key. That means listening as much or more than articulating the direction of the company. In fact, I’ve found that I don’t always need to take the steering wheel, sometimes it’s better in other hands. Sharing information to keep everyone on the same page is critical. I’ve observed that many have important meetings, but don’t ‘share out’ — and that’s a missed opportunity to get other perspectives.

  • Beware these aspirations!

I always thought CEOs had this job because they loved to control everything. But a large part of being a good leader is knowing that you have to trust your team. If you don’t, if you let everything fall to you, you’re not going to get the results you want. To do the job well, you need to learn to let go.

Another aspiration to avoid is being too focused on yourself. Again, teamwork is paramount. It’s very rare that one person defines a company.

Finally, it’s crucial that the CEO keeps the big picture in mind. You can’t be singularly focused on just one aspect of the business. You have to pay attention to everything. The only way to reach organizational goals is to keep a holistic perspective.

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?

I’m not sure it’s about a specific set of traits. There are actions that people can take to move up the ladder.

For those who aspire to the C-suite and have potential, I often share the following advice.

  • Especially for women, it’s important to tell them again and again that they CAN do X and their team can do X.
  • I also encourage employees to verbally set goals. There’s something about saying things out loud that transmits the power to make it happen.
  • Do your current job, but also look around for what’s not getting done that would bring value.

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

Jessica Hogue and I have developed the concept of the SHEconomics, our shorthand for the special skills women bring to the business community and how we can amplify them.

I think it’s imperative that we work together to find ways to help the women on our teams capitalize on these skills.

I don’t have all the answers, but I have a few ideas:

  • ‘Give’ to those in whom you believe, that is:
  • Set them up for promotion by giving them stretch assignments
  • Help them shape their elevator pitches
  • Provide full-career support
  • Provide access to other women and diverse voices
  • Open your wallet for those pursuing roles that have a wider societal impact. For example, I was inspired to support Daniella Levine Cava, who was recently elected Miami-Dade County’s first woman Mayor.

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

I’ve learned quite a bit over my career about the skills and acumen required to make it into the C-suite. This is valuable intelligence for anyone who aspires to accelerate their career. I’m a firm believer that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. That’s why Jessica and I are working together to develop SHEconomics. Our goal is to help the next generation of women rise to even higher levels of success. To do that, we need to do more than lend them our shoulders, we also need to reshape the definition of what makes a great leader. This may seem like an audacious goal (of course, any aspiration to make the world a better place is going to be big and audacious — it has to be). But I don’t think it’s far-fetched. Jessica and I are two of many women who’ve already proven that great leaders don’t fit a common mold.

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

  1. No decision is risk-free — One of the first things you learn as CEO is that every decision comes with an element of risk. We often hear the phrase, “no risk, no reward.” That may be true in some circumstances but the truth is more nuanced. Some decisions involve low risk but the rewards are great. Other situations require much more thought and debate, and you take the risk anyway because the outcomes are worth it. The role of the CEO is to judge exactly how much risk is right for the decision at hand. You do that by asking the right questions of the right people. How will this impact our other business lines? What customers will we gain or lose if we follow this approach? What does this mean for our employees? As CEO, you have to weigh all of the variables, gather all the advice you can and then take a risk — make a decision. But when you accept that every decision will involve a certain amount of risk, you can approach this process with a clear head every time.
  2. Aggressively guard against becoming company-insular. External perspective is incredibly valuable. — I strongly believe every company should be “outside-in.” If we don’t pay attention to the external environment, we risk losing sight of what’s important to all of the people we interact with and who are vital to our business. For example, at NCS, we had two simultaneous questions at the start of the pandemic: What can we do for our employees and their families? How does this impact our clients, partners and suppliers?
    In times of crisis, this makes complete sense. But having an external perspective isn’t a one-off activity. It has to be ingrained into our everyday work. When we fail to look at things from our clients’ point of view, we risk missing gradual changes in the marketplace. If we don’t find time to ask our partners or suppliers about their businesses, we miss larger dynamics in the ecosystem. Even executives in other industries and government leaders can point to valuable signs in the wider world that impact our business.
    That’s why all of the executives here at NCS, myself included, make sure we set aside a weekly proportion of time to gauge information from a variety of external sources and advisors.
  3. Centeredness and a sense of calm is helpful. — As a leader, your decision is in high demand. You’re bombarded with issues daily, and often, the person asking for your answer will view their project as the most urgent and vital to the business at that moment. You need to convey a sense of proportion, so it’s essential to cultivate a sense of perspective. The minute someone yells, “Fire,” that’s the moment you need to focus on your vision and your goals. You’ll become clear very quickly on the relative urgency of the issue at hand. I’ve found that perspective centers me and helps me stay calm.
  4. A solid team is a necessity. Everyone’s role is important. I’m very passionate about theater and because I support public theater and enjoy it often, I’m often struck by much it has in common with business. In a business, just like in a theater company, there are so many interdependencies among employees. On stage, actors rely on each other to say the right lines. That’s what keeps the momentum of the play going. If someone flubs a line, others have to improvise. That requires members of the acting company to be completely in sync with each other and ready to jump in and do what needs to be done to keep the play moving forward. And it’s not just the actors on the stage. The director leads with a vision and has to get everyone — from set designers to stage managers and especially the play’s leads — to buy into that vision and embody it. A business works exactly the same way. When we all bring our expertise to the table, collaborate and support each other, success is sure to follow.
  5. Sleepless nights will happen. No matter how well your business is doing, something is bound to wake you up in the middle of the night. CEOs inevitably have occasional sleepless nights. Even in good times, you’re always contemplating an issue close to the bone of your company. It’s a challenge, because as much as my brain wants to work over every angle, I also know that a good night’s sleep is essential. Over time, I’ve developed tactics to help me get back to sleep quickly. One approach is to visualize a moment I’d spent with my late, beloved Nana or my late parents. Sometimes that launches a dream that includes my family, which is my favorite outcome because it’s like a real visit. Or, if I’m especially fidgety, I get up and write down a bullet about what I’m worrying about. One of the things that’s keeping me awake is that I’ll forget a key thought or action item that’s occurred to me at 2AM. Write it and it erases the worry.

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.

This year, I’ve been passionate about launching SHEconomics. This project was born out of the long-time collaborative relationship that Jessica Hogue and I have nurtured throughout our careers. Our collaboration is so rich, we wanted to understand why it worked and what we could learn from it. We’re eager to extend this model to other women. Collaboration is a female superpower, and if we can inspire others to build the same types of collaborative relationships, it would be hugely influential in moving more women up the ranks of leadership.

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

“Influence without authority”

While not a quote per se, this has been an important lesson I’ve absorbed and imparted as an International Women’s Forum Fellow and numerous other times. Most of the time things are not in your control, so you have to find creative ways to influence what you want to happen. That means you need to find other ways to make connections and wield influence. This is especially important early in your career but is a valuable skill throughout.

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’d love to have lunch with Stacey Grier, who is the first female CMO at Clorox. Throughout the pandemic, like many others, I’ve been doing a lot of cleaning — and so I’m a heavy user of Clorox products! Our data shows cleaning products were up 36% during the first year of the pandemic, so I’m interested in hearing more detail about how she’ll handle the new normal, in which 32% of Americans (myself included), say they have no plans to go back to their pre-pandemic levels of cleaning. On a more personal note, I believe she and I would have a lot to talk about. We share similar career experiences, having both worked in agencies and on the commercial side of the business. In interviews, she’s mentioned that Clorox has a number of female executives (including Linda Rendle, who became CEO in September 2020), so I’d be very interested in hearing how they support and collaborate with each other.

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