In my journey of inspiring and empowering people to see life from a different perspective, I have met and connected with many wonderful people who have done and are still doing a magnificent job in the broader community and thriving towards their life aspirations. Whatever they may be. One of those individual is Danusia Malina Derben. Being awe-strucked by Danusia’s amazing story, I reached out to one of my trusted connection who took genuine interest in introducing me to Danusia. As a thought leader, I admire Danusia’s straight-forward approach and as such she has become one of the individuals I look up to. With no further due, I am glad to have interviewed Danusia and have her take time out of her busy schedule to give us an authentic and in depth insight to her story.
Q: To those who are not aware of you, who are you? What do you do and what is your passion?
Duku your first question is brilliant. There’s so many places to go with “Who are you?”. First of all I’m a privileged white educated woman with a career that I adore and a large family that I’m lucky to raise. I’m full of gratitude for the life I’m able to live.
My career path has been counter to typical linear ones — the obvious school then university onto a career ladder then promotion. Throughout my childhood I was academically bright and also displayed much talent in classical dance culminating in a regional scholarship to the Royal Ballet. The consistent discipline and attention to technique, form and ‘perfection’ didn’t lend itself to a carefree childhood. Yet that was everything I sought out and at 16 I won another scholarship to the Italia Conti Stage School. To that point I was following a route that seemed obvious. However, curveballs of great significance can take us on unanticipated turns. In my 17th year having made a definitive choice I gave birth to my first child and proceeded to have three more sons in quick succession. By the time I was 22 I was mother of four sons.
From this point I then went to university and after my degrees became a tenured career academic in business schools. I’d found an impactful niche that captivated me — Organizational Behavior & Development. Being an academic, for me, was an opportunity to rework theories, create new thought leadership and work with incredible post graduate student minds. Research and guest stints at universities and conferences meant my hunger for expanding ideas about how people best operate in organisations was fed.
Just before I began my first academic post I gave birth to my daughter and soon after was awarded a Economic & Social Research Fellowship plus PhD scholarship. Publishing on cross cultural methodology, leadership and hedonistic consumption became a fervent passion and I was backed by eminent professors which I knew was a gift. Their tutelage gave me the chance to develop quickly and to understand how to strategically thrive. This was a crucial consideration for me as I was promoted. I began to analyse the pyramid within academia where I noticed the more senior the roles, the fewer the women. More accurately too there was a paucity of mothers in senior roles. One of my career surprises was one day when a colleague told me she’d heard a ridiculous fact about me. It was that I was mother of five children which she said must be someone’s “mistake”. Fact is because I was ambitious, promoted and by this time pretty senior the assumption was that I was childless.
While on my first ever maternity leave with my sixth child I pondered my career plans. I’d been working closely with C suite execs for some time and knew this would become my now area of consultancy. I returned from maternity leave and eventually handed in my tenure. I could have taken an extended sabbatical however as the saying goes “Give yourself a safety net and you’ll use it”. So I didn’t give myself that option.
Through my C-suite consulting I influence the way Boards strategise, redirect company vision, reignite C-suiters influence and re-align their leadership prowess. I’m a decision-making process expert. My clients include Microsoft, Mars, Sainsbury’s, ICBC Standard Bank, Ministry of Defence, Coca-Cola, Deloitte, The Home Office, as well as various up and coming start ups, particularly in the tech industry.
I knew in the early days of my company that several principles mattered to me and I felt they were key to the business flourishing. I’d call these passions of mine. 1) I believe business revolves around deep authentic connection with human beings rather than superficial ones. We do business with, and support those, in business we like. What that means is when we recognise someone with values we respect, possibly share and/or aspire to develop we want to be around them. For me it’s the same with client relationships — it has been impossible for me to do business on a transactional level simply as a job to be done. I’m interested in relational consulting in which we partner with high levels of courage, vulnerability and deep commitment to the end goals. I’m proud of the long trusted advisor relationships that have been built because of this passion. 2) over the years I’ve witnessed what I call status quo consulting. This is where consultants are hired when it seems like the ‘c suite team wants to effect change’. Scratch the surface though and it’s business theatrics. This second consulting passion is inextricably linked to ‘getting the job done’. Really done. I’m known to not be suited to assignments where there’s bullshit ‘playing at change’. One of the bravest parts of being a consultant with this principle is to sniff out where this mimicry lives and to either say no to the assignment or to take these clients to a place where they engage with and want what’s possible.
Q: How did you get started and what or who inspired and empowered you to?
I am the daughter of entrepreneurs and grew as youngest in a family in which creating your own successful pathway was a given. My father came from Poland and built businesses in gas stations and repairs. My mother was a genius in the businesses and implemented much of the innovation that made things work. As a child I experienced the often typical feast-to-famine-back-to-feast cycle that entrepreneurs understand is the route to huge success. I saw immense success wiped out only to be recreated which has stood me in good stead as a career woman. My parents taught me that rising in life is not necessarily about the cards you’ve been handed, it’s how we play those cards in our hand.
Q: What unique and creative strategies if any did you use when you were first getting started?
The most creative strategy I used in the start-up phase was to hire earlier than I was comfortable with, including financially. I chose to build out by working with young highly strategic and commercially-focused individuals who have now become leaders in their fields. In some ways this is confirmation that surrounding ourselves with diversity is key.
Q: What mindset distinguished you from others who were doing the same thing? How did you develop it?
The following quote frames a good deal of what distinguishes me from others:
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
We are told that to ‘get on in life’ we must sell, hustle and make things happen. The essence of this is generating through efforting whether for leads, projects or promotions. My mindset is not about pushing, it is far more about receiving, which I see as consistent with feminine leadership. This translates into me working with what naturally flows rather than forcing what isn’t there yet. An example of this in my business is my decision to build the consultancy exclusively through word-of-mouth recommendation. This strategy is counter-intuitive to everything we are taught about being an entrepreneur in volatile times. It’s this context of constant rapid change that drives us towards community, collectivism and advocacy. Simply put, not hustling requires us to learn to trust ourselves and the process, as well as to place attention more on relationships than bottom line results. Ironically with this mindset my experience is, business flourishes.
What is your definition of success?
My definition of success has changed over the years. As an academic I sought status and set goals that led me to work as if my life depended on it. My ambitions have shifted from internally focused ones to the external. I’m more likely now to see success as impacting the lives of others positively. Which is why I’m launching www.unstoppablemothers.com in August 2017.
I’ve become deeply frustrated with the can women have-it-all debate and believe it is a distraction. Whilst men are concerned with their own interests, passions and careers — women become consumed with questions on whether they are doing “it” right, and whether “it” can be done at all.
This is hugely important to me because when I birthed my first son, I made a conscious decision to continue to educate myself and grow my career because it was (as I saw it) my only option. I made a choice to be committed to my talents, and this has been a guiding touchstone of my life and career — that I wouldn’t get ‘lost’ in my role as Mother. My abiding commitment is to my own potential as a human being, while naturally wanting the very best for my children — I had 2 children in my teens, 3 children in my twenties, 2 children in my thirties and 4 children in my forties. My last baby, was in fact, triplets!
My own journey coupled with consultancy in Boards and C suite teams leaves me knowing that if we are capable, as a culture, of building workplaces (and government policies and social expectations) to resource a male human who works and lives in a family, then of course we can do it for women. Being a mother and having a career are not irreconcilable pursuits.
Q: What do you think is the main reason why some people face failure when going after their vision?
Failure is inevitable along the path to any vision. Every industry leader I work with has embraced failure as a sure bet. I think those people who resist facing failure are those who don’t see the innate value in what can also be called opportunities for growth and learning. Facing failure as a positive can initially be hard but this mindset shift brings priceless information.
Life’s a series of miniature failures interspersed with some spectacular ones. Accepting this in every sphere of life makes it easier to course correct.
Professionally one of my largest learnings, as a result of failing previously, has been to get pedantic about clear terms in contracts, ownership, and intellectual property. Small and large incidents in my professional career have led me to this — it’s about getting clarity on some of the often ‘unspokens’ earlier rather than later in business. Facing uncomfortable conversations about worth, value and expectations are essential and this can feel freeing.
What is the best piece of advice you have received or came across and would like to share with everyone?
During a meeting with a veteran commissioning editor who was reviewing my work to be published I asked if she knew a woman in academia perfect for me as my mentor. I yearned to discuss career strategies with a woman academic (with children) more senior than me. I’ve always remembered the straight stare she gave me as she looked up from her notes. “My dear, that’s not the solution. You need to step right into your own Leadership shoes and be the pioneer you can be” This was the very best advice I’ve been given. Mentors and sponsors are critical there’s no doubt. Ultimately, though being a pioneer leader in your chosen sphere in whatever ways that fit your talent, equips you to grow exponentially. This advice has rung true throughout my career.
If I were giving advice to my younger self from where I am now, I would advise that ambitious driven soul to unclench. While there are countless benefits to being a type-A woman holding high standards there’s no point driving hard to burn-out point — no career, project, mission or child is worth personal annihilation.
To view Danusia’s work and get in contact with her, visit www.danusiamalinaderben.com
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