I learned not to step in with solutions too quickly. No-one learns anything new if you keep doing things the same way, and not allowing others to bring their solutions to the table. In this fast-paced, ever-changing climate, it’s important to always find a different, or better way.
I had the pleasure to interview Nadia Di Donato, Vice President & Creative Director of Liberty Entertainment Group. Nadia has been a part of the Liberty Entertainment Group organization since its inception in 1987. Since then, Ms. Di Donato has worked closely with its developers in creating the individually unique design approaches for each of the Liberty Group venues. Formally trained in visual communications at Ryerson Polytechnic University and as a result of the many years of involvement with the Liberty Group, Ms. Di Donato is able to create synergy between form and function. With particular attention to detail, she has established the Liberty Entertainment Group facilities as the most creatively themed venues in the city.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Nadia! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always been extremely creative. For me it wasn’t learned, it is innate. I see the world through a visual scope, so I believe I didn’t choose my career path, it chose me. I actually started my career in graphic design and worked in print for years. I worked as creative director for Azure, an interior design magazine. I was introduced to the industry on so many levels…interior designers, manufacturers, etc. I was in love with the industry.
I think the combination of my graphic design background and passion for interiors gave me a unique way of approaching spaces. I design a space as an art palette. I don’t conform to the limitations typical in construction. I’m always thinking out of the box.
The pivotal point in my career was joining my husband in the hospitality industry as creative director of the company. It was a natural transition from 2-dimensional design to 3-D design, at a time when the industry itself was experiencing revolutionary changes allowing innovation at lightning speed. Today, my responsibility spans from conceptualization to implementation. I still consider every venue a new design palette.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Over a span of nearly 30 years, I’ve been extremely fortunate to meet some of the most interesting personalities in business, sports, and entertainment. A particularly funny story that comes to mind is when ET Canada approached the Liberty Group to partner in a new pop-up installation during Toronto’s International Film Festival. As creative director, I was asked to conceptualize and construct a state-of-the-art nightclub lounge for a five-day activation. I was escorted up to an empty rooftop parking lot in the trendy Yorkville area and in just seven days my team and I transformed 8000 sq. ft. of flat concrete into a glamorous Hollywood lounge hosting celebrity interviews and film premiere parties. Lights, cameras, and lots of action! One of the LA film studio executives attending was so impressed with the concept and design that he insisted I attend the Oscars. One minute I was sitting in an empty parking lot, the next I was standing on the red carpet.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was onsite during construction of one of our first restaurants surrounded by a crew of 20. I was wearing high heels (as I often did) and as I was backing-up looking at a design detail I tripped and fell backwards in front of the entire construction team. It may not sound like a big deal but it was one of my most embarrassing moments because at the time it screamed “what a girl” in a man’s world. Well, never again! That incident prompted me to ensure I would never put myself in that position again. Needless to say from that moment forward I wore work boots to every construction site. More than that, I taught myself all the construction terminology so that I would be able to earn the respect of foremen, carpenters, painters, etc. I’ve been constructing with my team for more than 25 years now. If someone new comes on board, the initial reaction is “she’s just a girl” to “what does she know” and my crew will respond…oh you’re in for a surprise.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We started from the ground-up with one restaurant and one administrative employee in our office. We now employ more than 1,400 people in every aspect of the hospitality industry. Throughout the growth and expansion of our company, we’ve always been very hands-on working side-by-side with the individuals who have helped us create what Liberty Group is recognized as today, a leader in the industry.
What sets us apart? Liberty Group’s portfolio of venues are established in some of the most significant and historic landmark properties in Toronto and Miami. We continue to scout out areas and locations of distinction. Every new venue is a unique project with its own identity. For the past 30 years we’ve been creating experiences. We were the first to fuse aesthetics, cuisine, art and appointed service, to create an experience for all of the senses. From rustic casual, to fine dining, to nightclubbing, all the way to a wedding in a castle, we do it all. Throughout the years our portfolio continues to evolve. We’re in constant touch with industry shifts and strive to stay ahead of the curve. Our motto: Change to stay the same.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Prince Estate is a 14,000 sq. ft villa on 8 acres perched on the cliff overlooking a lake in Prince Edward County. It’s a modern industrial chic state-of-the art setting. It will offer the first of its kind all-inclusive event venue for destination weddings. Prince Edward County is one of the most sought-after destinations in the world. It ranked at the top of ‘The Best Places to Travel in 2015’ according to Travel and Leisure Magazine. It’s extremely exciting to be working on the concept, design and execution of this project alongside other exclusive properties in the county. You can take a virtual tour online at www.princeestate.ca.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Helping people to thrive and succeed shouldn’t be about your gender or the gender of the people on your team.
It’s about giving direct, honest feedback, even if it feels uncomfortable. Both you and the individual will benefit in the end.
Managing but not micromanaging. Building a strong team, giving them guidance and establishing the direction you want for the team. Have them report to you regularly, but also give them the space to operate and grow on their own.
I don’t go into work thinking I will prove myself because I am a woman. I go to work knowing I will prove myself regardless of anyone’s perception. I speak my mind in all meetings. I do not leave things unsaid simply to not disagree with the majority. I come to work with one mission — doing the best for my company. And, I think that radiates to my team doing their very best.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
My advice to other female leaders is to be focused and prepared. I think being prepared is key to successfully managing a large team. Having a clear vision and being prepared with an overall plan and direction for a project allows you to have the confidence to make decisions and to stick by those decisions. In turn, your confidence inspires your team members.
And as stressful and demanding my work is, I never neglect taking care of my wellbeing. You cannot be a good leader, if you are not healthy. I make fitness/wellness a huge part of my life for that reason.
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?
I find inspiration in a variety of people and things. But I would have to say that the person who has most greatlyinspired me has been my husband. He stands above everyone else when I reflect on the success, I have been fortunate to achieve in the hospitality and entertainment industry. Our partnership in both business and in life is the driving force behind all of my achievements. Most of us don’t wake-up one morning and suddenly become successful. It takes one pebble at a time. It takes constant hard work and perseverance through thick and thin. Throughout the years he has been my grounding force and my biggest supporter. We eat, breathe and live our business together. Yes, our personal and professional lives are extremely intertwined, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Having the privilege of creating and operating some of Toronto’s and Miami’s iconic venues over the past 30 years, we’ve had the pleasure of hosting some of the cities’ most prolific charitable events. I’m a strong believer in good karma so giving back is extremely important. Liberty Group contributes close to $1 million annually in sponsorship and donations to various charitable organizations. 2019 will see us closer to $2 million with the launch of FoodBall this fall. FoodBall will showcase renown chefs from across Canada and around the world coming together to raise funds for Sinai Health Foundation.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- I learned to keep trying and never to be afraid of failing. Putting my best effort into something and not succeeding was the most important and valuable business lesson early on. It taught me “what not to do”. I always encourage my team and my sons to reach for the unreachable. So, what if you fail? You’ll never have a chance to succeed if you don’t try. Don’t beat yourself up. Reflect, learn and move on.
- I learned not to step in with solutions too quickly. No-one learns anything new if you keep doing things the same way, and not allowing others to bring their solutions to the table. In this fast-paced, ever-changing climate, it’s important to always find a different, or better way.
- I learned to be authentic no matter what. It’s ok to be authentic, passionate, even sometimes emotional, about everything you do. Don’t be afraid to share and stand up for your vision. Even a good argument can be inspiring and part of the process.
- I learned to never blame. It’s challenging at times, but I always try to depart from the position that everyone is doing the best they can, then look for ways to support and encourage them. This is so much more rewarding and productive than finding fault or pointing fingers.
- I learned not to try and be the smartest person in the room. Leading people does not mean I know more than they do. I give my team the trust and autonomy to be creative and do excellent work. I remain hands-on in providing the direction, so that this excellent work contributes to a shared vision and purpose.
- I learned to focus on a few things. I focus on the things that really matter and where I can make a difference in my business. There may be a hundred different distractions and demands on my time and a hundred ways I could respond but it’s the few carefully chosen actions that deliver the best results.
- I learned to get out and about. I get out and into the work. It’s hard to retain that creative sense for a project when you are sitting behind a desk. I see what people are working on, rather than what people tell me they’re doing. I see their commitment, effort, and achievements first-hand, and feel proud of what gets accomplished as a team. I always feel it is more inspiring, informative, and better than any meeting!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It’s not a new movement by any means but I’ve always been a firm believer in true gender equality. I would like to inspire a societal mindset which is void of any type of gender bias towards women or men for that matter. I would like to eventually see an equal visibility, responsibility and participation of women and men in all aspects of public, professional, and private life. I believe that true change means changing structures in society which continue to maintain unequal power relationships between women and men. I was always raised to believe there is no limitation to what you can do based on gender. I’ve raised my boys to respect the same mindset and constantly (by example) try to inspire young women to achieve all they can be.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My life lesson quote “You have to change to stay the same”.
As everything changes around you, it’s important to recognize, absorb, grow, and morph at the same speed of change. Otherwise, you wake up one day and find you are no longer relevant.
Thank you for your fantastic insights!