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Imagine Yourself in the Seat

Women in Leadership Insights from Cathie Black

When I think about where I want to go with my career, like many young women, I find myself challenged to decide what path I want to choose. One of my favorite ways to help think about my career is to learn from those who have come before me; with this in mind, I attended the 2015 Merkle Women in Leadership speaker series.

The inaugural speaker was Cathie Black whose resume includes: Chairman and President of Hearst Magazines, President and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, President and Publisher of USA Today, member of the board of directors of IBM, Coca-Cola and PubMatic, and author of New York Times bestseller Basic Black — The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life). Personally, I believe it is important to seek guidance from those who have achieved life goals that you value. Cathie Black is a strong woman whose career is impressive and inspirational to me. Though she tailored her presentation towards women, I believe her experiences, insights, and advice transcend gender, industry, and age. She also had a knack for approaching subjects both from her position as a senior manager, CEO, and when she was just beginning her career. She really drove home the need to, “Imagine yourself in the seat.” From my perspective, she laid out a blueprint for successful leadership of a team and how to individually achieve success.

Highlights from Women in Leadership Speaker Series: Cathie Black

When speaking about teams, one of Black’s great insights, "A great team is the best thing you can have," strongly resonated with me. Regardless of the industry or division of a company, one will be a part of some type of team. As a team, everyone is there to deliver results. This requires task management and collaboration. I took away three pieces of advice for managing a team.

  1. Remember to ask, “What does the customer want?” The end result should align with that.
  2. You cannot lead if you only want to hear yourself speak. Everyone has a contribution to make, so be quiet and listen.”
  3. A negative atmosphere can be destructive. If there is negativity on the team ask, “How do we change negative energy into positive energy?” This could mean weeding someone out, or there may be something specific that is causing a person to be negative. As a manager, it needs to identified and addressed.

While creating a strong team is incredibly important, Black also advises that good leaders must be decisive. A leader does not want to make decisions in the spur of the moment, they should be made when one has all of the information. In my experiences so far, the need to “put out fires” causes us to try to make decisions quickly. We must try to avoid this, especially when we are viewed as a leader or decision-maker.

Note to self, do not get overwhelmed. It is okay to gather more details. Part of being decisive is to also make peace with what has already transpired. Move on, don’t dwell. Whether it is an off-hand comment or a colossal error, I tend to keep reliving it. We should learn from our experiences, but at the same time, what is done is done. An off-hand comment from a colleague or boss may just be that, a comment. It is easy to over-read into a tone or timing. As for an error, there is a reason why it is said that the best learning experiences are mistakes. Make a note of it for future reference and move on.

In addition to a strong team and decisiveness, Black feels that effective leadership requires passion. One cannot lead if one is not passionate about what one does. Not all aspects of the job will be fun; some things just need to get done. Overall, one should be doing something one likes to do. One cannot be good at what one hates. It is hard to keep a team together if it is clear to everyone that an individual does not want to be there.

However, we must balance our focus in building a great team and also address our individual selves. Black gave two examples where you need to grow as an individual if you expect to lead. The first concerned attending a meeting, even if you were not invited, "If you think you should be there, just go." In my opinion, our industry is one with a lot of meetings. We collaborate, we put out fires, and we need to maintain training and industry knowledge sharing. It is easy for a meeting coordinator to overlook extending an invitation. Do not take this personally, if you think you should be there, go. However, Black makes a valid point, as a meeting attendee we are not just visitors. Be engaged, have something to offer.

The second example focused on getting out of one’s own way, "You are never going to get it if you don’t ask." Whether it is a promotion, a meeting invitation, or a project/client you want to work on, if you want it, go for it. We seem to be afraid to ask for what we want, and we shouldn’t be. We get in our own way. Yes, it is terrifying to be rejected or receive constructive criticism. But, in a company as data driven as Merkle, the more data points one has the better the solution is going to be. Maybe it does not work out this time, it will only help with figuring out how to get what you want next time. 

Black spoke to me as a young professional that strives to be a leader. This concept of imagining yourself in the seat caused me to step back from the day-to-day and remember my long-term goals. Where do I want to be, what does the person in that seat actually have to deal with on a daily basis, what do I need to learn? By taking the time to attend the WiL speaker event I was made aware of competencies I need to nurture in order to grow. I will attend more events such as this, and will seek interviews, books, articles, that expose me to the achievements of others. We learn from our own experiences but we can also be educated by examining someone else’s situation. I encourage everyone, male or female, to view the recording WiL has of the event or better yet, buy a copy of Cathie Black’s book.