July 22, 2013
I'm starting a series called Tips for Success, and this first episode features a candid conversation with Monique Nelson, CEO of UniWorld Group, a multicultural advertising and marketing agency based in Brooklyn, NY. It was started in the late '60s, making it the oldest such agency in the US, and Monique became CEO last year.
In the interview Monique talks about
- Making mistakes - lots of them - to learn and get ahead
- The advantages of being on more of a 'jungle jim' career track than the traditional ladder
- Speaking up for yourself at the office
- The importance of mentorship and sponsorship
- The part race plays in her everyday life and work
- Keeping an eye on Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, and being a pregnant CEO herself
I hope you enjoy our discussion. I loved it. 18 minutes. Please comment and/or share using the buttons at the bottom of this post. You can read a full transcript of the podcast below.
Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.
This week, the start of an occasional series I’m calling Tips for Success. We all define success differently but I think most of us would agree we don’t hear enough from regular women who’ve done well professionally one way or another. Now I’m in the position of working for myself I’m even more eager to hear advice and best practices from smart, thoughtful women who’ve made strides in the workplace.
I can’t imagine running a company, but I am fascinated to hear from women who do – particularly when they’re as relatable as my guest today. The vast majority of CEOs are white men. Monique Nelson is neither. She’s the CEO of multicultural advertising agency UniWorld Group, based in Brooklyn, New York. She’s in her late thirties, she was born and brought up in Brooklyn, a much loved only child. She says her mother could tell right from when she was little that she’d be running something one day. Some of her confidence comes from her parents, I’m sure, but attending the High School for the Performing Arts may have helped as well…for those of you of a certain age, yes, that’s the high school were Fame was set.
What I enjoyed so much about talking to Monique is that she’s really candid – I don’t have a lot of experience hanging out with heads of companies but I doubt that many CEOs would give the advice Monique does – make mistakes.
MN: “I make ‘em all the time – every day, I try to limit them as much as I can. But I find I learn much more from my mistakes than I do from my successes, and there’s nothing like doing something and fixing it as you go on - and the type of work we do, it’s not scientific, it’s a lot of creativity. It’s a lot of trial and error. I don’t think you can be afraid to make a mistake in my line of business in particular. And as a leader I think it’s really important because if you get too caught up in perfection, I think you miss excellence.”
AM-T: “And that’s interesting because, I mean I like that because I think people, and certainly women, don’t hear that enough about that, we’re too busy trying to be perfect.”
MN: “Yeah, perfection is a really great aspiration, and I’m not gonna tell you I don’t spend every day trying to be perfect, but that’s a hard, hard thing to do, and ultimately if you know you’re gonna strive for perfection, that next level ain’t bad.”
Also she says, don’t get despondent when things just don’t seem to be going your way. I think a lot of women, myself included, are inclined to take setbacks to heart…
“Keep going, there’s always something else. You never know what’s around that corner. The old adage of when a door closes a window opens, I find that in an odd way people blocking their blessings you don’t necessarily know it’s not for you. I know that feeling of want. I was watching something on TV, this young lady didn’t get into the school of her dreams, Stanford, Harvard, one of them, and I felt so bad for her because she couldn’t even see past, that, she was probably going to get into somewhere else that was going to be amazing for her…and she was so devastated she couldn’t even get her mind round, OK, it’s not for me, I’m going to make the best of [it]. I felt like saying listen, that’s not the end of the road. I couldn’t have charted this path for myself, even if I tried. I mean there are nights where I definitely go, how did I get here? But I got here because, one step in front of the other, I knew what I wanted but I didn’t necessarily know where it was coming from. And I just kept working hard, making my wishes known and getting better. Ultimately I arrived at an opportunity that I could capitalize on. And it clearly was for me.”
Note what she says about making her wishes known – this is one of the most important aspects of getting what you want career-wise, according to Monique. You can’t expect people to read your mind. Also, though, Monique knew what she wanted – she knew she wanted to get to the top, to be in charge. She says sometimes she’s asked an employee what they want and they’ve gone blank – but if you can’t articulate it to yourself she says you can’t expect your boss to know what to do with you.
Monique got to be where she is today after many years at Motorola, the mobile phone company. But she didn’t spend all that time climbing a career ladder – at one point she moved onto a rather un-traditional ledge. She made a sideways move to become a senior colleague’s executive assistant.
“We talked through kind of what I saw myself being in the future and I wanted to be a leader, a boss in layman’s terms, and he said, well, if that’s really what you want to do, I would offer you an opportunity to work with me as an executive assistant and you could shadow me. We could work together. And I took it. A lot of people thought I was crazy to take it, ultimately they thought it was a step back. I thought it was an opportunity to see up close things I wouldn’t have seen any other way. And he really granted me access to a world that even today I take with me just about everywhere, just having understanding what that C-suite talks about, what they discuss, what’s important to a company, and certainly a company as large as Motorola, was really quite an eye opening experience.”
AM-T: “I’m just going play devil’s advocate here because we do live in a very fast-paced culture here in the US, particularly in New York where we’re speaking…you’re going have people, people who may think of dong some kind of lateral move, you’re going to be judged - with you, people thought you were crazy…that pressure can be kind of tough for some people to withstand, they start to doubt themselves, ‘Have I done the right thing?’”
MN: “Wow - yes, of course, I think you have to be sure of yourself. I didn’t know what I was doing when I look the job. I would be crazy if I said to you, yes, I’d be a CEO within ten years, of taking that job. No. It was my gut, it was talking to people that I really trusted. And honestly the guy that offered me the job, I held him to everything he offered. It was carte blanche, it was having access, it was being unfettered, it was being able to get everything out of it that I absolutely could and he kept his promise and so did I. So I went in with some very clear goals as to what I wanted to achieve in the time that I was with him and when you make that choice you must be really clear. I wouldn’t take it under advisement to do that frivolously. I think you have to be really thoughtful about what that means to you and what that means to your long term goals.”
AM-T: And I think you also said he held your feet to the fire, right?
MN: “Absolutely. He was very demanding, he was not an easy guy to work for. And he made sure that when I asked for something, boy did I get it. He was demanding and I was just as challenging. It ended up being a wonderful partnership, but yeah, it goes both ways.”
AM-T: “And he was already in the position of being your mentor, right?”
MN: “Yes, he was, and he ended up being my sponsor at the end of the day, ended up really enabling my career beyond that.”
AM-T: “Yes, because sometimes I think for some people the difference between a mentor and sponsor is a bit of a grey area…they don’t always know the difference.”
MN: “Absolutely. A mentor is someone you can go to and ask for advice, what should I do, how should I react, and a sponsor is someone who can make things happen for you, and he actually morphed more into my sponsor in my later years working at Motorola.”
The boss in question was a white guy from New Jersey. But he wasn’t her only mentor over the years – she had many, of different sexes and races, but she say the most important thing in a mentor is that they’re trustworthy and really honest with you.
At this point I wanted to talk about race – some of you will have heard the show I did on Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In back in the spring – it was really fun, there were six women debating the book, and one of my guests pointed out that the book speaks about women as if they were one block – it didn’t make any allowances for the fact that if you’re a non-white woman, you often have to deal with additional issues of perception or even hostility in the workplace that white women don’t have to put up with.
AM-T “And I wondered if you had come across any racism overt or otherwise in your career and how you managed that?”
MN: “All the time. Everywhere I go, there I am. I’ve been called a two-fer, meaning both female and black so I get to check two boxes. I’ve always taken it as a positive. I think who I am is really important to everything I bring. My diverse background means everything to me. Sure, there are certain situations where it’s seen as a negative or seen as being pre-judged, and I go into a lot of situations knowing that. I don’t run away from that. It’s part of what makes me special and important. It’s something you have to take pride in no matter how people feel. Right now we’re living in the dramatic world of Cheerios right now and all sorts of really crazy things... McCain’s son, marrying a black woman and that’s a problem, in 2013…hopefully at some point that’s not a conversation but while it is, I think it’s something I kind of take on head on and move through it hopefully with grace and ultimately with really great work.”
For anyone who didn’t get those references, a few months ago the breakfast cereal Cheerios released a TV ad featuring a mixed-race family. A lot of online racist invective was one of the results, although the outcry against the outcry may ultimately have been stronger. And the McCain she’s talking about is Arizona senator and former presidential candidate John McCain and his son’s recent marriage.
Monique works in an industry, advertising, whose ranks are notoriously thin when it comes to minorities – this in a country where non-white Americans are projected to be the majority of the population in a few decades. Oh, and it’s not exactly bursting with women in senior roles, either.
“Well I think the one thing that’s really interesting about this industry is much as we reflect the consumer for advertising to have a lack of diversity is such an oxymoron to me, I think it’s just bizarre. We should reflect the people we’re talking to. Shameless plug for UniWorld group but the one thing I love about my agency is that we are diverse. We really do reflect the people we talk to and tell our clients about and I think that’s huge. But yeah, Madison Avenue has a long way to go not just in terms of female but diversity in its truest form. So my dream would be we really reflect, especially here in the US, the American experience, which is not white and male, dominantly. That would be a tremendous help. But I think that it’s going to be kind of a slow move, I think everyone’s going to have to really embrace that. That also means you don’t necessarily have agency in your background. I started my career in Green Bay, Wisconsin, as a sales and marketing rep at a paper mill in a really tiny town called Kaukauna – and you know, there weren’t a whole lot of me walking around, and that was OK. Just because no one looks like you doesn’t mean you can’t have a great experience.”
As you’ll have gathered by now Monique isn’t one to let dodgy people or episodes derail her.
We ended up talking about women’s tendency not to toot our own horns. Or at least most women’s tendency…
“ [Laughing] I’ve always been a big mouth so that was never my problem, but yeah, we tend to do a really great job of keeping our heads down, working really hard and just expecting someone to pay attention. And shame on us. Especially if you’re doing good work. And you don’t have to be shameless about it, but you absolutely deserve to pay someone about it.
AM-T: “Can you give an example? It’s so ingrained, the whole modesty thing is just huge with women.”
MN: Well, one, I say write it down. The first thing you should do if you have a great accomplishment or feel like you’ve done something tremendous that’s helped the org or done something great for yourself, write it down, send a note. I just wanted you to know X, Y, Z happened and I’m really proud of it, or let’s say you saved the org some money, go to finance, get them to right the note on your behalf. Get that person to send the note on your behalf and copy you. We really need to find those way so to champion and sometime you have to step out of your comfort zone and do it. And get down to the self-evaluation, do no t hold back. That section that says your accomplishments, do not be modest, it’s not, ‘Well maybe’…no! What did you really do? Hopefully you’re doing it every 6 months, I used to have quarterly check-ins…even before the 6 months check in – say, ‘Hey, here’s where I am.’ Sometimes they say, ‘I don’t see that.’ Or they say, ‘Yeah.’ And then you have something to work towards. But stay in their face about it.”
That way, she says, they won’t forget about you at bonus or promotion time. Which some of us know through experience they easily do otherwise. So many women get upset and offended when we’re passed over for something but certainly for my own part I wasn’t doing any of this when I was in a regular job.
Other things Monique relies on to keep her track?
“Lists - I’m a list person…
AM-T: "It’s so satisfying….crossing things off…"
MN: "Absolutely. Write it down, cross it off, or you write it down and you keep it, those personal ones, I want to be married, have a child…you’d be surprised how close to these things you get when you keep reminding yourself about them.
"That’s a neat segueway…because you are married…right…and you’re expecting a baby?"
MN: "Oh my God, yes, I decided to do it in record time."
AM-T: “Both those things?”
MN: “Both of those things. I took over the company, got married and now I am with child. All of that within a year.
AM-T: “And of course there’s been so much publicity about pregnant female CEOs…did you pay attention to that?”
“Oh, I so did. I thought she was great. I thought she caught a really bad rap for her 2-week maternity leave, it’s her choice, she made a space…she could afford to do so, that’s not for any of us to judge. I watched that v, v closely. Now I understand even more so what that means in terms of the culture of your organization, and what that means is, I was asked not that long ago what kind of work/life balance programs you have at UniWorld? And I said well none that I know of yet but we’ll have one soon and I’ll be the guinea pig. I’ll take a few months, the last 2 months of the year and really bond with my baby and come back fresh in January. But I know women who have taken 6 months, or have taken a year. I think it’s really important to be able to do that and come back having not lost too much ground. It has to be to your spec. As an owner and leader of an organization for me personally it’s not something I can conceive of – I don’t necessarily know for sure, but this is the situation I’m in, I have some responsibilities that would not allow that level of latitude. But certainly if there was a woman on my staff who so desired I’d hope to be able to work with her, as well as the men. I think we leave them out quite a bit. I think they should be allowed to do the same with their children and I think we’re pretty lopsided on that as well.”
Monique Nelson, CEO of UniWorld Group. When my recorder ate our first interview she let me go back and ask her the same questions all over again.
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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.