This week is the 11th annual gathering of people from the Advertising and Media communities for Advertising Week (#AWXI) in New York City. I'm thrilled that I was invited by Arianna Huffington to participate alongside experts and other female executives to discuss Thrive and how women can lead the way in redefining success in the workplace to lead more sustainable and fulfilling lives.
If you asked me a few years ago about women in the workplace and senior executive leadership, I would have told you that I didn't think much about it. I wanted to be seen as a strong effective leader, judged by my accomplishments, contributions and potential -- not my gender. That all changed three years ago when I became the North American CEO at global media agency, MEC.
I never wanted to be a CEO. Conventional wisdom showed me that this path required significant sacrifices. And I didn't want to be yet another stress-addled senior executive who surrendered my personal and family life for a big job and a corner office.
In an industry where diversity is a critical need, the resounding demand for other female CEOs came to the forefront when I started to serve MEC in this capacity. I began to hear things like, "I'm so glad it's a woman in the role." and "I'm proud to be working at a company that recognizes and rewards strong female leaders." I realized I had a responsibility to identify myself as a 'female executive' rather than an 'executive.'
The conversations and debate around Women Leadership continue as more articles, studies and books focus on the topic. Search results for Women Leadership on Google exceed 99 million results. Yet we still live in a world of imbalance. According to the 2013 Fortune 1000 list, women currently hold 4.5 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions and 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions, a slight increase year over year. I believe the dearth of female leaders in executive roles in many cases stems from old-fashioned stereotypes that seem to be in constant battle with our modern day living. I look forward to the day when I no longer see cover stories like last year's feature in The Harvard Business Review : 'The biases that still hold female leaders back- and how to overcome them.'
We seem to live in a society in which, fairly or unfairly, a woman's success is too often measured by the home she's built rather than the work product she delivers. A driven woman who devotes much of her time to achieving success in the workplace is somehow assumed to be deficient in her devotion to her family. As if somehow one precludes the other. I was fortunate enough in my career to have mentors teach me, by way of example, that these two were not mutually exclusive. We as women should not be afraid to achieve great success in the workplace out of fear of what that might insinuate about our life at home. Gender roles have shifted.
In my case, when I sat down with my husband to discuss the opportunity presented to me, I knew that this was a 'seize the day' moment. Although the role would require additional travel and some modifications to my personal life, it was an opportunity based on the culmination of my career and successes achieved, and I wasn't going to let fear get in the way of my potential. I knew I was poised to lead and inspire change, while continuing to grow as a person as well as a female executive.
Diversity is a crucial element to the success and continued growth of the marketing and advertising industry. We must bring that perspective to our agencies as the competitive landscape grows and keeping great talent becomes increasingly more difficult. Ultimately, this isn't just an issue for women leaders to address, it's everyone's responsibility to create opportunities and ensure an inclusive environment that actively considers women throughout their career paths. This requires a coherent and consistent approach to talent management and development -- understanding what motivates and fulfills the people you want to be the future of your business.
To my male and female colleagues, I hope you start to lead your teams and businesses with a philosophy I've adopted from someone earlier in my career: "Get comfortable with the uncomfortable." If we want to create the workplace of the future, we must get comfortable with leading through the unknown.
This post is part of series produced by The Huffington Post for Advertising Week 2014, in conjunction with the Advertising Week conference (New York, Sept. 29-Oct. 3, 2014). To see all the posts in this series, read here. To learn more about Advertising Week 2014, read here.