As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Burns. Deborah is a former media world Chief Innovation Officer and brand leader for ELLEgirl, ELLE Décor, Metropolitan Home, and ELLE Global Marketing. Now a media industry consultant, she helps brands, executives, and professional women reinvent through her expertise, coaching process, and venture, Skirting the Rules®, which she founded. Beneath her business leader’s exterior, however, always beat the heart of a writer, and several years she began the creative journey to tell her unconventional mother’s story, which led to the highly-acclaimed memoir Saturday’s Child.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It would be so much easier if I could say I had a master plan, because then it would be prescriptive. But the truth is that I went where my intuition and career led me. At the outset, with a journalism degree in hand, I wanted to be a reporter, one who did not type for anyone else — I graduated right before 1980 and most entry level positions for women still involved secretarial work. But I was part of the new generation of career women and I vowed not to follow the traditional path. That said, available newspaper or broadcast entry positions in NYC were scarce, so I began to expand my search to related fields and ended up in magazines, but on the business rather than the editorial side.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I formed my own company helping brands and women reinvent in these shifting times, I transitioned from being a corporate Chief Innovation Officer to the Chief Innovation Officer of me. So, the most interesting aspect was the complete perception shift. I had always loved being part of something larger than myself, and at first, the solitary nature of leading your own venture was disorienting and full of FOMO! Over time, I found interesting clients and became part of their paths to success. Then, when I got thunderstruck with the notion to write, life became fuller than it had ever been, packed with new people and experiences.
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’m pretty graceful — until I’m not. Commuting to and from work in the early years, I had a few really bad falls. There was the time that I slipped on ice while pregnant and split my lip wide open. Then, black ice got me again and the gash above my eyebrow required twenty stiches. And then there was the time I fell UP a staircase and broke my nose. And another when I tripped over someone’s roller-bag on a crowded subway platform and broke my knee.
When I grouped all of the incidents together, I realized that they have one thing in common: I fall forward. Not backwards, not sideways, but somehow always forward. I learned a lesson the hard way with each tip-over, and it occurs to me now that falling forward equates to something even larger, something critically important to success — I fail forward too.
For some inexplicable reason, I have never feared failure, especially at work. I take chances, I learn, I iterate, I pivot. At work, I’ve always been in forward mode. I believe that you have to fail to succeed, and that each day in every way you have to get further than the day before.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In a word, I think it’s the perspective I have that only midlife can bring. After years of leading brands and sitting around conference tables with clients all seeking new roads in disruptive, transitioning times, my natural creativity and inventiveness has been heightened to a point where I can sit, listen, and help to solve any problem of the day.
Some of my favorite clients these last few years have been in the digital arena. From a revenue perspective, those ventures are now hurting almost as much as the legacy magazine brands were. As they chase ad dollars, they feel forced to demean content — to take it to its lowest common denominator — so the greatest number of people click-thru. It’s rewarding to add perspective to that very slippery and dangerous slope. The best business leaders are often not the ones with actuarial or tech mindsets — math, engineering, and process are necessary, but those approaches usually do not bring out the best in people or uncover the new waiting in the space between things.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The memoir started as a love letter to my mother but, soon after I started writing, I realized that it was really about me for the first time. And by the time I had finished unraveling the myth of my mother, I unexpectedly discovered that the message was really for my Millennial daughter’s generation.
So, the new exciting project for me is to expand Skirting the Rules workshops with new programming for high-achieving Boomer mothers like myself and their daughters seeking more balance in their lives. We Boomers bought into the myth of “having it all.” If this next generation of young women is going to surpass their mothers — as every generation before has done — all the myths around women and work must come undone. We must talk through what success means so everyone has the freedom to choose the path for a full life that feels right to them.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive? What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
These two questions are so inter-related. When I started working, it was the era of “Walk like a man, talk like a man, and think like a man” if you want to have success as a woman in the workplace. But I was never able to check my emotion at the door, or disguise my intuitive nature, or hide that I was a mother. And I had relative success anyway by not following the rules and norms in place.
So, my advice is to be true to who you are and don’t let anyone define you. Although the era has changed, there are now new rules that are being fed to women in the workplace and socially. The new personas include side-gig hustlers, multi-hyphenate founders, or ultimate warriors battling their way through everything. But you don’t need to armor yourself with an approach that doesn’t fit who you are. If you do, your team will see through you and you probably will not be able to inspire that team to greatness.
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 worshipped my other-worldly beautiful mother who breezed in-and-out of our tiny Queens, NY apartment like a VIP guest. But the two other people I am so grateful for are the spinster aunts who lived with my mother, father, and me, and who took care of my day-to-day.
Those two plump fairy godmothers balanced my mother’s ways with their own grounded-ness, and the love I longed for from my mother was received abundantly from them. Today, I realize that my success comes from being an amalgam of all three women — someone who can suit up glamorously, but who can also cook and craft and cuddle with children and make them feel cherished.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
While I was writing the book, I gave up everything else except for one thing — I created an 8-step Skirting the Rules workshop that I taught in the evenings at libraries. From my work in women’s media, I knew that women 50+ were searching for more meaning in their lives, but were often stuck at a crossroads, not knowing which way to turn or what to do.
The class was designed to serve those women through my own authentic experience which unites my business and creative sides. By bringing together storytelling and coaching with business tools morphed for women (ie: Mission Statements, Brand DNA, etc.), I watch the women enter one way and leave another, much more open to possibility. It’s so gratifying to me to be able to help in this way.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Given my background, I thought I knew everything about leadership. But five critical leadership lessons had actually been hidden from me until I wrote that book. The creative writing process surprisingly revealed new ways to discover opportunities in the white space between things; to get at and process the truth in order to move forward.
So, since life is a story, here’s a new take on five leadership lessons that should enhance any leader’s and any team’s performance:
EMBRACE THE NARRATIVE ARC
A company or a team is nothing more than people with a collective quest. The team’s “ordinary world” at work will have been disrupted by some inciting incident that establishes the quest, just as author Joseph Campbell’s codified in “The Hero’s Journey.”
The team is really in a story of its own and will experience all the ups-and-downs on the path that Campbell mapped out (and every movie, from Star Wars to the Wizard of Oz, uses as well).
The team — and its leader — must go with the flow of every story’s arc. Things will get worse, then worse again as obstacles abound. Then, suddenly, a glimmer of hope. And finally, there will be a new world full of evolution, growth, and redemption — in the work world, that translates into a successful solution.
UNDERSTAND YOUR CHARACTERS
Be aware of team member’s perspective, perceptions/misperceptions, agendas, and motives. Human nature, nurture, and needs are the drivers of everything at work and in life, and unless you understand individual and group dynamics, you cannot lead as well as you might.
So, tune-in, turn on your intuition, listen more to what is unsaid than said, and be an observer — just like a writer would.
STEP INTO THE UNKNOWN
To solve any quest, you must step into the unknown because that’s where the new waits. But the unknown is just that, and it requires discovery, experimentation, and finessing. So, just like a book is, a project is all in the editing — get the first draft of any idea down. Then get feedback, collaborate, tweak, and revise until all the parts combine into a new whole.
LOOK UNDER STONES, BUT PEBBLES AND ROCKS TOO
A storyline has to be unpredictable and counter-intuitive to be interesting, and the answer a team seeks often is as well. So, make sure team members keep things interesting by being open to plot twists; that they look for the positives, the relatable, the analogous; and that they study something completely unrelated to then apply learnings to the task they have at hand.
A story without conflict and obstacles and antagonists is a giant bore. And without those same three elements that are a part of every story, team results will be tepid and unproductive. Embrace healthy conflict and competition to yield the greatest outcomes; remember to shake hands with different personas and opinions to take the work higher.
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. 🙂
I believe that women 50+ hold the keys to a better future. They are the most critical demographic that holds 70% of the country’s wealth and makes more than 85% of all purchase decisions, yet they are overlooked in an advertising-driven culture that chases youth. If these smart, savvy women could be fully engaged and activated, there’s no telling what they can create.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Two simple words — lighten up. There were too many “over” times in my life — hang-wringing over choices, anxiety over projects, worrying over opinions, stressing over problems. It truly does all work out. Just allow room for vulnerability and humor, and try not to take everything too seriously.
Some of the biggest 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 🙂
Well, The Hollywood Reporter just recommended Saturday’s Child as one book that should be made into a movie or an original series. So, I think I would like to have a meal with Netflix’s Chief Creative Officer Ted Saranos.
Follow Deborah on Social Media at:
Instagram — @deborah_l_burns
Twitter — @deborah_l_burns
Facebook — @deborahburnsauthor