Women in Business: Heather Aton, Chief Innovation Officer, Dudnyk

04/30/2015 09:33 am ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

As a healthcare industry veteran with over 15 years' of marketing and strategic planning experience, Heather has successfully built and launched major global brands and award-winning campaigns across therapeutic categories at Cline Davis & Mann, Publicis Lifebrands, Grey Healthcare Group, and Havas Health. She has been responsible for leadership at the network level, driving strategic business alignment and collaboration among portfolio stakeholders and global partners, as well as facilitating seamless integration across digital/multimedia, medical/scientific, healthcare professional, managed access, and consumer communications channels. Heather also maintains a strong commitment to supporting mothers and fathers in the workplace. To her, this represents an important, underserved U.S. policy area where she is determined to affect real progress and change.

Heather holds a BA in Public Policy from Occidental College.

How has your life experience and career made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in a family that placed enormous value on a well rounded liberal arts education. As a girl in my generation, it was truly unique to have parents with the exact same profession--they were both physicians. They had similar demanding schedules and earned comparable incomes. Both fulfilled leadership roles in their colleges, medical school and beyond. So for me there was never ever any distinction between what men and women could do. I swiftly bypassed the feminist movement without even recognizing it. I do look back on my parents' somewhat gender neutral approach to raising me and realize that I was never even remotely aware as a child of any gender related barriers to what I could do or accomplish. Ever.

My parents lived their values and they led by example. I trusted them implicitly and still do. And in turn they taught me never to make them not trust me. I was always encouraged to explore and experiment and to find successes in failure. Most importantly, because I was always ambitious, my mother reminded me time and again: "Heather, you can have it all. You just can't have it all at once."

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Dudnyk?
Working in New York for many years was incredible and definitely groomed me for my role at Dudnyk. I had the privilege to learn from bright and phenomenally talented people, and I had the opportunity to launch multiple major global brands. I am proud to have collaborated on developing many exciting, successful brand strategies. And I was trained to value and guide exquisite execution. This led me into an innovation role at Dudnyk that is equal parts stimulating, challenging and rewarding.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Dudnyk?
Highlights--working with amazing and brilliant, thoughtful partners who value innovation, learning, and understand the importance of vision

Challenges--occasional fear of change, which exists in every organization. Not insurmountable. But not easy to address either

What advice can you offer women who are looking for a career in communications?
I can offer the following advice to women in careers: Be curious, be true to yourself. Be thoughtful, respectful, and kind. Good is the enemy of great and great can always be greater. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance--don't be presumptuous. You can be graceful and influential at the same time. Have a point of view. Take a stand. Believe in yourself. And find your purpose.

I can offer the following advice to people who work in communications: All great brand stories are grounded in values and vision. Think about why you do what you do. Consider why the brands you work on can be great based on beliefs. Human user behavior is never motivated by a list functional features and benefits. Understand what's meaningful and deliver on purpose not messages.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I make it happen. I have carefully carved out my terms. I work hard. I deliver on my word and my commitments. I thoughtfully manage expectations. And I don't let my kids or my husband down. If I don't manage how it's going to be, then someone else will. I am dedicated to all but my number one most important job in life is my role with my husband and children. I care about exquisite execution in literally everything I do--at work, at home, in public. Yet I am really cognizant of the fact that I'll never look back later on in my life and say, "Hey, I really wish I attended that business meeting instead of being at my son's play". It is not comfortable or easy to make these choices. But it can absolutely be done with grace, responsibility and respect.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Family planning. And I don't think this is an issue for women alone. I believe it's an issue for women and men. I feel this is a huge policy gap in our country right now. The situations that parents and children must face to accommodate workplace demands and schedules are culturally and societally irresponsible. We have to fix this.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has made all the difference in my professional and personal life. I have been incredibly fortunate. The most influential mentor for me professionally taught me to be curious and never stop learning, to have a point of view, to challenge myself to think differently, to be positive and to get past myself. I have had amazing teachers who championed the importance of critical thinking. These are all principles that inspire me and that I try to extend to my personal and professional relationships.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Anne Marie Slaughter and Shirley Tilghman:
I attended a Women in Leadership event featuring a discussion between Slaughter and Tilghman at Princeton University in early 2013. Their examples are rich in admirable accomplishments but I am even more influenced by their personal perspectives on life and work. Tilghman wisely explained how to let go of guilt. There's no point in feeling guilty that you're not at home when you're at work or to feel equally guilty that you are at home and you should be working. It is very hard to do, but once you are able, it saves a tremendous amount of mental energy. Slaughter has really elevated for me the importance of family friendly policy and the essential role that men have in this issue as well. Childcare and parental leave are issues for single parents and dual income families alike, and in today's world the implications can be as difficult for fathers as for mothers in the workplace.

Carolyn Buck Luce:
In May 2012, I attended the Healthcare Business Women's Association Woman of the Year luncheon in New York. Carolyn Buck Luce was the keynote speaker. It was an incredible privilege to hear her, as such an accomplished executive and mother, talk about women wearing ambition gracefully. In her address, she stated, "Women are wonderful because, along with carrying half the sky, we are looking to carry the burdens and cares of so many others - and are afraid that we will let someone that we love down...What I have learned along the way is that you can have it all. That's different from doing it all - and you have to redefine what IT is. Why am I on the planet? What is my purpose? I have answered it this way for me. I am trying to learn how to be a good leader, to leave this world better for my having been in it." Her words captured so eloquently everything I believe in.

Lynne Neefe (my mother):
When I was growing up, my mother always spoke about her high school geometry teacher Mrs. Benner, whose oft repeated admonition was, "it's bad enough not to know, but not knowing that you don't know is the most profound ignorance." Giving this much thought over the years, my mother decided, especially in her practice of medicine, that she should never pretend to know what she didn't. She learned to question and explore and not be dissuaded from soliciting the input of others. She taught me this.

What do you want Dudnyk to accomplish in the next year?
Dudnyk has become one of the most desirable companies in healthcare marketing. Yes it is truly one of the most creative workplaces, but it is also uniquely positioned to partner with specialty clients who depend heavily on strategic and novel ideas. 2014 has been an explosive and truly innovative year for Dudnyk. The company methodically integrated carefully chosen outside talent across departments with its stronghold of accomplished tenured employees to influence new ways of thinking and constructively evolve historical ideas.

Dudnyk has undergone business transformation in the areas of network marketing, experience and content strategy, and organizational structure. It employs multiple experimentation work streams, including: Crowd-sourced creative development for client brands; new research tools; and active analytics monitoring and storytelling. Iterative experiments allow Dudnyk's leadership to learn from what works, what doesn't and refine accordingly.

In 2015, the company is poised for even bigger ideas and more agile methods of creative development. Dudnyk is going to evolve the way healthcare marketing is done, to incite the most motivating brand experiences, and to help clients move away from older funnel marketing models and outdated verticals that can't survive in today's dynamically evolving business world.