It’s harder than you think it will be, but it’s worth it: If I knew what the organization was going to become, it would have scared me away from starting thirty years ago. But the people we’ve met, the lives we’ve changed, the family spirit fostered, and the beauty in the culture, all make the sacrifice worth it.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy Duarte, a best-selling author with thirty years of CEO-ing under her belt. She’s driven her firm, Duarte, Inc., to be the global leader behind some of the most influential messages and visuals in business and culture. Duarte, Inc., is the largest design firm in Silicon Valley, as well as one of the top woman-owned businesses in the area. Nancy has written six best-selling books, four have won awards, and her new book, DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story, is available now.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Nancy! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
In college, I earned a D in English and a C- in Speech Communications, and became so discouraged, I dropped out. I got the C- because while I was great at making visual aids, my speeches didn’t use content that applied to college students. It was like a scarlet letter to me. That failure, though, put me on a lifelong quest for empathy. How do you communicate in a way that unlocks the potential in an audience?
My husband and I moved to Silicon Valley when I was 24, and intellectually and creatively curious. I read multiple books per month and read every HBR magazine cover-to-cover for over a decade. In 1988, when the company was founded, I thought it’d be a tiny, home-based business we would run out of our dining room. Well, it’s not that! By 28, I was shaping the presentations of the most powerful brands and people in the world. Nothing made me qualified, other than my moxie and a super authoritative-looking hand-on-hip and finger wag. Of course, I’d only deploy this when powerful people were trying to say the wrong things to the wrong audiences.
What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
There’s not a one-size-fits-all job description for a CEO, so the activities I was to do in this role evaded me for years. About 15 years ago, I attended a meeting where a speaker said that a CEO should spend all their time as an inventor, ambassador, investor, teacher, and mentor. I wasn’t focused on any of those things. So, I immediately audited my calendar and changed my priorities. I naturally spend an enormous amount of time thinking about new futures, and about issues where the status quo simply is not okay. Future-forward thinking and problem solving is one of the most important things a CEO should do.
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?
An executive makes sure they pull the right levers to optimize organizational performance. Those levers are money, market, and exposure. When you make decisions to move one lever, sometimes it alters other levers. My mind works overtime in keeping the organization healthy in these areas. Below is a graphic from my new book, DataStory, where I detailed what an executive is measured by:
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I have an all-female executive team and we hold each other in very high-regard. My exec team hasn’t always been aligned, and the difference in results has been astounding. They break down limitations I had put on myself and the company, and I’m now bolder about what can be accomplished in the future. I will always hire the most qualified for any job, it just so happens that lately, they’ve all been women. Wheeeee!
What are the downsides of being an executive?
Not everyone has the shoulder strength to carry blow-back from decisions where a lot is at stake. Especially decisions that involve people. One simple strategic move can make or break where you stand in the market and how many people you employ. I hate making unpopular decisions, because you can’t make everyone happy. Sometimes what’s best for the organization doesn’t match someone’s interests. People leave, and that’s painful.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO . Can you explain what you mean?
CEOs care more about profit than people: Even though we watch the numbers, talk about the numbers, and are measured by the numbers, for most executives, the numbers are not a higher priority than the care of their employees. Many decisions are made with the employees’ best interests at heart, so negative chatter can be painful. Most of the conversations around my executive table are discussing clients and employees flourishing.
CEOs are workaholics: Yeah, I work hard and rarely have full days off without some email. But for me, my work is my hobby and I adore creating jobs for people. When I was a little girl, I found an old, abandoned desk and put it in my bedroom. I spent hours tracing pictures, filing them, posting important papers on a make-shift cork board, and raked leaves so I could spend all my loot in the office supply section of the little hardware store around the corner. Work was play for me. What drives me to sit still for six hours writing a book in the wee hours of the morning, and still work a full 8-hour day afterwards? I work hard with the hope that lives will be different for having worked with, or being trained by, my firm. So, I guess, work is also the way I give back.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women struggle to find the time to create valuable, informal networks the way men do–especially during child-bearing years. We make choices to be home during the weekdays, instead of leveraging industry dinners and attending career-defining events. Great organizations are building momentum to help women build a network and move up, like UPWARD. In my lifetime, I’ve seen the household burden begin to be shared more equally, but it wasn’t like this only a decade ago.
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 became an entrepreneur and had a new baby all within a month of each other. Apple was one of our first accounts, and top executives would come to our tiny, tacky apartment for meetings. One time I sat on the couch with an executive for about 30 minutes and unbeknownst to us both, a baby bottle had been leaking onto his pants the whole time. When he stood to leave, it soaked into his pants and dripped down his leg. I was SO embarrassed, but he was amazing. Over the years, he became my greatest advocate by cheering me on and watching us grow from that formidable scene into who we are today.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I’ve been running the company since I was young, and for most of my career I could only see what was right in front of me. Each success and failure taught me what it means to lead. Today, leading is more proactive through planning, whereas it used to be situationally reactive.
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?
Bravery and resilience are must-haves for an executive. The exec team should leave their own departmental interests at the door and put the larger corporate problem-solving on the table. Protecting your own fiefdom or blaming problems on others is a roadblock to a highly-functioning team. Also, people with victim mindsets rarely make it into the C-Suite. We’re all thrown challenges and have the power to process them from a place of resilience. Those who blame others, and aren’t honest about their weaknesses, don’t get a seat on my executive team.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
It took me a while to realize that some people are Kryptonite and others unlock my super powers. A female CEO told me last year, “you know Nancy, you’re the CEO, you can separate from employees who drain you.” That had never occurred to me. Really. I tended to hang onto people for a long time thinking that I could turn them around. I’ve found that the entire company breathes a sigh of relief when a leader removes the Kryptonite from the organization.
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?
For years I avoided groups and meetings designed specifically for women. I thought, “well, I’m in a man’s world, I am going to be in a man’s group.” But male groups don’t let women in. Ever. Then, in 2006, I went on a journey of the soul to India with a group of type-A powerhouse, executive women from Silicon Valley. I remember my husband saying “are you sure you want to go with a female group of strangers on a trip this big? You barely like to hang out with women!” It was one of the best things I’ve done in my life. India rolled out the red carpet for a life-altering trip for us. I made lifelong friendships with a sisterhood. I was hooked. When you are in a room with powerful women, it reaches a crescendo of women-advising-women at a rapid fire pace. Some may say we sound bossy, but we tell each other what we’d do in each other’s situation without mincing a single word. I can leave a two-hour gathering with these women and gain more for myself, my family, and my business, than in two hours spent any other way.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Some of the most gratifying impact comes from adding lift to the most important messages. Helping Al Gore raise awareness of the climate crisis, helping the rise of the middle class in Peru, helping craft amazing TED talks, and training non-profits in Africa and Latin America as they change societies and economies. Plus, many CEOs today have a calling to help solve social problems. They have some of the strongest influence in the world. Helping them craft those messages is an honor. Our firm also gives 1% of all profit to non-profits, like Charity: Water and others.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It’s won’t always be lonely at the top: For the first twenty years, I was trying to figure out leadership and management all on my own, while raising a family. CEO groups and dinners seemed like a luxury, but they’ve become a necessity for my growth and perspective. Most of my dearest friends run companies.
- Hire others smarter than you: Bootstrap entrepreneurs are usually generalists. I was “okay” at a lot of things and used to struggle to let bits go as I scaled. I always felt like this statement was true, but it was hard at first to hire and pay others to be smarter than me. I wish I did this much sooner than I did.
- The people that got you this far might not be the ones to take you forward: I remember how comforting it was to read the part in Howard Schultz’ book, Onward, where he said he cried as he had to let someone go who’d been foundational in the early success of Starbucks. Our firm has such a sense of belonging that it was hard to move people out who were good but didn’t have skills big enough for scale.
- It’s harder than you think it will be, but it’s worth it: If I knew what the organization was going to become, it would have scared me away from starting thirty years ago. But the people we’ve met, the lives we’ve changed, the family spirit fostered, and the beauty in the culture, all make the sacrifice worth it.
- Your kids are going to turn out beautifully: Building a business is hard. But my husband and I never compartmentalized our lives. We were the same at work, as at home, as at church, as with friends. They would watch us disagree and resolve things. As much as they’d prefer to leave the room, they would watch us work through to a place of unity. Our kids had the power of agreement modeled for them in all facets of their lives. Our kids were encouraged to wake up every day and follow what brings them peace, and what brings them passion, and they are all walking in their destiny.
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.
It’s hard to point to a movement that didn’t start with a well-crafted, impassioned plea. So, it’s been humbling to be in the business of the spoken word. Our company is called to help others communicate their best, verbally and visually. One important value we share, is to be “generous experts.” We imagine a world where millions communicate more empathetically and effectively. Just imagine how many of the world’s largest issues could be resolved through meaningful communication! To help make this a reality, we’re working hard to codify our learnings from the greatest communicators and leaders in the world, and are turning these insights into courses that anyone can take.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Value each other’s differences: I had a huge personal breakthrough in work and marriage when a leadership coach introduced us to the DiSC personality profiles. My husband and I are so different that when you overlay the shape of our graphs, it forms the letter X. I have learned to honor and admire those different than me. Granted, being different from one another isn’t permission for misalignment on vision, it’s simply about understanding that there are multiple styles in how you approach problem-solving.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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