At some point in our careers, we’ve all turned to someone–perhaps a boss, mentor, or colleague–for guidance. In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8 and Women’s History Month, we asked female executives to share the best piece of leadership advice they ever received. Here’s what we learned.
Christine Bailey, CMO, Valitor
Richard Tyler, author of Jolt, has inspired me to try new ways of thinking. He advises, “Dare to begin before you’re ready.” Too often, we become paralysed trying to envision the end state before we begin a new project or endeavor. We wait for the next meeting, the next piece of information, for when someone comes back from holiday, when we’ve got more “thinking time” or “breathing space” (insert excuse). In our fast-paced world, you can’t always wait for the perfect time or perfect solution. Start road-testing ideas and approaches. Sometimes you just have to dare to jump and treat everything as an experiment. And remember, every experiment you make will deliver a data point and move you closer to a solution.
Jen Berman, CMO, Insider Inc.
“Attach yourself to the organism.” Essentially, to be an effective leader at a new organization, you need to figure out the culture first. Different environments demand different approaches. To be successful, you need to flex as a leader. I’ve been brought in many times to be a change agent, to retrofit teams, and to innovate, and it only works when you determine what makes the company tick first. Then you can work from the inside, bring key people along with you, and inspire them to find their purpose. But it all starts by embracing the existing culture.
Naama Bloom, VP of Marketing, Zulily
The best leadership advice I’ve ever received is from my kids. They didn’t actually give me this advice–I learned it through watching them take in the world. It is to approach every situation with an openness and sense of wonder so that you don’t miss the fun in your interactions with people. Part of what drives me to be a leader is the ability to hire, learn from, and collaborate with great people, which can be forgotten in the day-to-day of business.
Becky Chidester, CEO, Wunderman Health
“Claim your success and define your brand.” This is the advice that renowned advocate for women in business Charlotte Beers gave me, while I was participating in the WPP X Factor development program she runs for women. These words helped shaped my career.
All too often, women get caught in mid-level management roles. Not only do many women not ask for more senior roles for which they are qualified for, many hesitate to seize leadership roles even when they are offered. I know this from my own personal experience. The first time I was asked to run an office, I declined the opportunity, because I didn’t feel ready. Then I watched as someone who was not ready try to run the office. When that did not work out, I was asked again, and this time I said yes. Not feeling ready does not mean you are not ready.
Ruth Crowley, Vice President of Customer Experience Design, Lowe’s
The advice most often provided (usually gender-driven) was: “You can’t.” I took that as a challenge! (If you believe you can’t, you’re probably right.) It prompted a journey of learning and listening–both equally important. I am a continuing student. Nobody has all the answers; we must ask the right questions. Advice I might offer the next generation: Define your values and live by them. Act considerately. Be curious–not judgmental. Be courageous. Embrace change. Keep learning. Become your best self. Sometimes we have to take a leap of faith and grow wings as we fly. Socrates said, “Wisdom begins in wonder.”
Archie Deskus, CIO, Hewlett Packard Enterprise
The best leadership advice I received is you have to inspire your people to win, deliver exceptional results to get noticed, and promote your successes.
Pamela Erlichman, CMO, Jebbit
Be the one to say what nobody else will. You will make everyone in the room better and smarter for it. Besides, no one has ever won an award for being most polite in business.
April Henry, Co-Founder and Chief Revenue Officer, Equell
Use your scarcity to your advantage. Your uniqueness, in any regard, may make some people uncomfortable, but it means that they’re paying extra attention to you. Their attention is your opportunity. Use that energy to your advantage. Don’t waste your time worrying about what other people think. Don’t fade to the background – speak up.
Paige Farrow, Senior Director of Marketing, Char-Broil, Oklahoma Joe’s & Saber
Always strive to hire passionate people who are smarter than you and make a commitment to invest time in helping them grow. Regardless of how busy your schedule gets, give those individuals your undivided attention at least once a week to help them problem solve and figure out how to remove barriers they may be facing. It’s also important to complement their strengths with words of affirmation so they know when they are going in the right direction. And never lose sight of the fact that working in marketing should be fun so find opportunities to laugh together.
Gayle Fuguitt, Chief of Customer Insight and Innovation, Foursquare
The best leadership advice I ever received was to collaborate versus compete, speak up, and take a stand. Forging partnerships with the CFO, sales, and marketing executives as a General Mills leader helped build my confidence to fearlessly represent the voice of the consumer at the C-suite decision table.
Kathleen Hessert, Founder and President, Sports Media Challenge
The best leadership advice I ever received focused on communicating more effectively, and I use that advice every day all these years later. It came from my first news director when I was a 22-year-old television reporter struggling to gain credibility. There were extremely few women in the field. The day I was hired in Oct 1974, the newspaper read, “Station hires second woman!” I used every big word I knew to sound smarter and more important. [He told me], “Kathleen, half the people out there don’t understand those big words you use. When you cover a story, ask yourself: ‘What does the story mean to the audience? And why should they care?’ Connect the dots for them. Help them understand.’”
Martha Hiefield, CEO, Americas, POSSIBLE
Only the authentic you will be persuasive, be influential, and give your work life meaning.
Diane Holland, Global CFO, Wunderman Thompson
Someone once told me that once something is out there, one cannot change how others perceive it; it’s already in the past. It taught me that I can only control how I show up in the present.
I can be my best self and deliver excellent work. Why worry what others think? Many people hesitate to share their thoughts–they’re scared of looking unintelligent or not fitting in. Diversity of thought gets lost and limits your authentic self. Take opportunities that lead to things you never dreamed possible. You don’t have to have everything figured out. Learn every day. Keep an open mind. Build genuine relationships.
Charu Jain, Vice President and CIO, Information Technology Services, Alaska Air Group
Embrace failure. This leadership skill moved me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to take risks moving forward by carefully evaluating why something failed and what I can do differently moving forward. I do not focus on the failure, but that I acted on the information I had at the time and had the confidence and courage to try something innovative. Embracing failure is about moving through that moment and being mindful of how you respond during and after the event. It builds resiliency in a leader’s character.
Katie Juran, Senior Director, Diversity and Inclusion, Adobe (CMO.com is owned by Adobe)
In my 20s, I was working at a PR agency and pitching a new piece of business, along with several senior members of the firm. The client asked what I would do in a certain scenario, and I gave a couple of options–“Well, you could do this, or you could do that ...”
After the meeting, the most senior member of the pitch team told me: “Never express any doubt about the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how much experience you have, if you have total conviction they will trust you as an advisor.” He was absolutely right–it feels uncomfortable but it has a magical effect in establishing yourself as an expert.
Mira Kaddoura, Founder and Executive Creative Director, Red & Co.
Be the smartest, not the loudest, person in the room. Give people the space to fail and prove themselves. Build something people can believe in. And shut up when someone is talking.
Wendy Olson Killion, VP, Expedia Group Media Solutions
Follow the money. Choose your career to be close to the revenue streams in a business. You can have more impact and more opportunity if you are close to revenue generation.
Leeann Leahy, CEO, The VIA Agency
When a problem is blowing up and the instinct is to run for cover–do exactly the opposite. Run toward the fire. Be decisive, take responsibility, get beyond the blame game, and move forward toward the fix. The more you R.T.T.F. and teach your people to do it, the more control you have over what happens. Your employees are more honest and forthcoming, and they tackle issues quickly and more directly.
Stacy Martinet, VP, Marketing & Communications, Adobe
We live in a tumultuous time of business transformation–business models are changing, customer expectations are at an all-time high, and organizational structures and processes of the past don’t translate to the fluid nature of digital. Just when you think there’s a new normal, it's disrupted. Chaos is the new normal. But in times of chaos, there is always opportunity to chart a new path, develop product differently, and evolve one’s career. Today’s leadership requires embracing the chaos and helping teams see the opportunity it presents.
Lana McGilvray, Principal, Blast Public Relations and Marketing
The best leadership advice I received was from my husband, Pentagram Partner DJ Stout. I think of it every day as our agency focused on delivering the strongest value to our clients. “Solve the problem. Don't decorate.”
Leslie McNamara, Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Workforce Development, Citi Retail Services
Character is about integrity and trust–and a consistency between what people say they stand for and what they actually do. When this consistency is lacking or you see a mismatch in words and actions, it should give you pause about an individual. No matter how smart, successful, or influential the individual may be. It’s also a great personal check-step–looking for your own inconsistencies and exploring why they exist and what you are going to do about them.
Marcie Merriman, America’s Cultural Insights and Strategy Leader, EY
In my first job out of college I ran stores for a major toy retailer. I loved the job and thrived on the constantly changing challenges. One day my supervisor unexpectedly visited. We walked the store together, and I proudly showed him how well it was running. He said, “That’s great, but how well does the store run when you aren’t here? When the store runs as well when you’re gone, that is when you’re successful.” The lightbulb went on. Success wasn’t about me. It was about the team and empowering them to succeed with or without me.
Fiona O’Carroll, Digital/eCommerce Adviser, Kerry Group
The best leadership advice that I have ever received is that leadership is about inspiring and unleashing the talents in other people. People will do what is required on a day-to-day basis, but they choose to give their hearts and minds. Great leaders have the ability to tap into the talents and energies of people in a way that motivates them to want to go the extra mile.
Carren O’Keefe, Partner and Executive Creative Director, AnalogFolk
Decision with conviction: That’s what people need from a leader. To confidently make decisions without aimless indecisiveness. You won’t always be right. But it gives your team direction and a path to pursue. And if you’re wrong? Own it.
Rosie O’Neill, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Sugarfina
The best leadership advice I ever received came from my college counselor when I was 17: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable, because it’s when you’re uncomfortable that you’re growing.” Years later in my career, I decided to leave an amazing corporate job to become a first-time entrepreneur, with no salary and no experience in the new industry. It was hard and pushed me way beyond my comfort zone, but it also opened my eyes to my own strength and capabilities. Entrepreneurship puts you in uncomfortable situations daily, and each day I’m challenged, learning something new, and growing. Embrace discomfort, because it means you have an opportunity to transform.
Barbara Pamplin, President, Head of Strategy, Pamplin Digital
When an African-American woman leverages the same leadership techniques as her peers, she is often labeled as hostile or threatening. To help overcome these conscious and unconscious biases, leaders should regularly conduct critical self-analyses and engage in authentic dialogue, seeking to understand rather than judge. At the same time, as African-American leaders, we must combat the stress of inevitable institutional racism with self-care strategies like meditation and breath work.
Kim Perell, CEO of Amobee
Dream bigger! Thinking back to when I started my first company, I would tell myself to dream bigger. While caution can be a good thing, it can also limit you. Your potential is greater than you can ever imagine! When you dream, dream BIG!
Yumi Prentice, President, David&Goliath
You aren’t just known for the work you do, but for what you were like to do the work with. And that doesn’t just apply to client relationships, but literally every single person that you interact with. It’s not about being popular or subservient, but rather that you treat everyone–regardless of title or role–with dignity and respect, and that you ensure they feel they are heard.
Dr. Rosina L. Racioppi, President, and CEO of Women Unlimited
The best leadership advice I ever got was from a fellow department head who was practicing a kind of reverse psychology. I was a 29-year-old head of HR when he said to me: “You know everyone thinks they can do your job.” The comment made me furious and right then I decided to prove they couldn’t. I started to focus on the special talents I brought to the organization and made sure folks who mattered knew about those talents. It’s a strategy that’s served me well for almost 30 years.
Mandy Ross, Chief Information Officer, Tabcorp
The best advice I’ve received that has allowed me to “scale” and take on larger and more complex executive roles has been to surround yourself with the best people and leaders you can find, set clear direction and empower them to do to their best work. If my leaders and their teams are supported and set up for success, then we win together.
The other super power I’ve learned from my mentors is to welcome feedback and be open to bad news and news of failure. That way you hear about issues much sooner and have a chance to proactively address the root cause.
Amanda Seaford, CEO, Mirum U.S.
Dan Kaufman, Director of Advance Technology and Products (ATAP), at Google said something that I’ve found myself sharing over and over again. He said, ‘you have to eat the fear for your team.’ I think that’s great advice because it’s really the fear that stops us from making the best choices to achieve our goals. If a leader can remove fear from the equation, teams have the freedom to deliver the brave solution and not just the safe one.
Lisa Sellers, VP of Marketing, 10X Genomics
As a leader, it’s natural to focus on your own organization. However, I learned the value of first focusing on the success of my peers as one collective team, my No. 1 team, over my own organization. This forces a focus on the greater organization’s success versus the success of any individual group or team. This, in turn, paves the way for my organization to achieve success because they are supported by the larger business and team.
Pallavi Singh, Head Of Marketing, MG Motor India Pvt. Ltd.
I have been fortunate enough to have worked with great leaders and mentors. While I have been handed down many kernels of amazing advice, there are five that truly stand out because they answer five important questions about being a professional.
- Be real, be authentic, and be accessible. This helps me adhere to “who I want to be.”
- Align your passion with a purpose and try to make your people that purpose. This keeps me aligned to “what I want to do.”
- Look forward to getting your hands dirty. This principle guides me with “how should I do it.”
- Do not become victim of process; keep it simple. “What I should avoid” becomes clear when I follow this.
- Thrive on change and success will follow. This allows me to see “where I want to go.”
Philippa Snare, CMO, Facebook EMEA
I was trying to effect change in a large organisation from the top down, and I was running a big transformation approach, involving many people from across the business, but feeling very frustrated with the speed and impact that I felt was not happening quick enough. I talked to a brilliant leader for whom I had huge respect. He listened, asked questions, and then said: “You need to be the change and lead by example. If you are asking people to transform business, they need to see what the new business looks like. Then you need to show them that you are already living in that world and seeing success.”
In essence, it was a Gandhi quote, “Be the change you want to see in others,” but the way we discussed it made it very specific. If you are asking people to build a new house (vision), they won’t change and move until they know that the new house is nicer than the old one. So you need to build bridges/passages so they can try it out, feel the benefits, and then they won’t turn back.
Kakul Srivastava, VP, Creative Cloud Experience & Engagement, Adobe
I have two that are related. One is from Maynard Webb, who is an investor and former COO at Ebay. I asked him, “How do you get everything done? How do you stay on top of things?” He shared that he’s had a Word doc for years in which he keeps track of his yearly goals, which then translates down to monthly and weekly goals. I really like that way of thinking because it is a systematic way of bringing that long-term thinking into daily life.
The second one is that a senior executive recently told me that when I’m advocating for something I’m really passionate about, I forget to breathe. He might have been talking about how I show up in meetings and conversations, but I also took that in a bigger way: Sometimes when you are so focused on what you’re doing, you forget to step back and take a breath. This not only gives you a perspective on larger goals but also asking yourself, “Is everyone else in the room there with you?” And if they’re not, what do you need to do to get others there?
Dara Treseder, CMO, Carbon
Have a venture-futurist mindset. Imagine a better future. Then develop and pursue a portfolio of high-growth ideas to make this future your reality. Take clear-eyed risks. Act from a position of trust in your ideas and not from a position of fear of failure.
Shannon Washburn, President, Shinola
Take the time to know those who work with you well enough to manage to their strengths, educate them to overcome their weaknesses, and make them feel that they are an integral part of the organization. Recognize their efforts and openly celebrate their accomplishments.
Sarah Welch, CMO, CarGurus.com
If you want to excel in your career, embrace working outside your comfort zone. Many women have much greater competence than confidence and are therefore less likely to take risks and stretch themselves at work or to apply for jobs or assignments that they are not perfectly qualified for. Embracing the unknown and jumping in to figure out how to do challenging new things is where you will really learn and grow.
Dawn Wentworth, Vice President, Stream
Of all the core principles that make up a great leader, I think one of the most valuable is perspective. Someone once reminded me that it’s extremely difficult to see the forest when you’re caught up among the trees. We are most guilty of finding ourselves there during chaotic and stressful situations, which is the worst place to seek a solution. As a leader, shifting your mind to think about the big picture can make all the difference during critical decision-making and problem-solving moments.
Peony Wu, Head of Marketing and Engagement, Asia Miles Ltd.
“To be open minded and always listen to what your team has to say.” I appreciate being given this advice at an early stage in my career because it reminded me to always encourage two-way dialogue with my team and allow their personalities to shine. You will find that brilliant ideas do come out of the team more often when they have the freedom to speak their mind. This will help you build a stronger foundation to go beyond your vision.