"Go Ahead. Fail Up."

By Alixandra Rutnik on Mar 07, 2022

In conversation with Elevate speaker Nancy Vonk

Elevate is for the women who want to feel empowered. It’s for the non-binary individuals who want to learn to be exceptional leaders. And it’s for the women who want to support other women.

Elevate is a series of two-hour sessions featuring incredible speakers, successful mentors, valuable lessons, and intimate conversations with powerful women in our industry. The first session is on Friday, March 25– so mark your calendar!

We caught up with Nancy Vonk Co-Founder of Swim & One Club Board Member, who will be joined on the Elevate stage by Susan Credle Global CCO at FCB & fellow Board Member to share their leadership lesson– “Leading from the Heart: The Susan Credle Playbook.” And judging by our conversation with Nancy you will not want to miss this Elevate session.

As Co-Founder & Partner of SWIM and a board member at The One Club what leadership skills do you use every day that you teach on a regular basis?

On a good day, I have listening skills on my side. When I’m truly present and open to what people have to say, I understand their point of view better. I can empathize. They’re more likely to feel motivated to come along with me when I propose something because they feel heard and I built some trust in the process. When I first learned how important critical listening is to success as a leader, I was like, that’s a skill? You can learn? I wish I’d gotten a clue way sooner. This is a skill I sucked at for most of my life, and I don’t get an A+ now either. But I’m way up from F-. If I could only teach and use one leadership skill every day, listening would be it.

Another thing that helps me is my skill at navigating conflict. Every single day comes with conflict and the knee-jerk impulse to avoid it. I use a simple technique to make better decisions when I’m in an emotionally charged, conflicted situation– for instance when someone believes strongly in a proposal and I don’t. I ask myself the following questions to decide what to do: “What’s the worst that can happen if I say no?” “What’s the worst that can happen if I say yes?” “What’s the best that can happen if I say no?” “What’s the best that can happen if I say yes?”

Why did you feel there was a need to create SWIM?

There’s always been a big gap for creatives where leadership training should be. Even David Ogilvy, famous for promoting his agency as a “teaching hospital,” reserved formal learning for people outside the creative department. They were just supposed to get it. My Ogilvy co-CCO and Swim partner Janet Kestin and I saw so many around us getting a promotion with no blueprint for leading. “Sink or swim” was the only advice they got. And people were drowning in every direction. We had stumbled up the ladder, learning mostly the hard way– from big mistakes.

By 2011 the ad world was finally waking up to the price to be paid for rising leaders that lacked the “soft skills” that motivate others to do their best and retain great people. Around the globe, the most senior leaders openly worried about handing over the reins to people not equipped to lead. Janet and I felt we could step into that big gap with learning geared to the specific needs of creatives. When we launched Swim ten years ago, the response to our leader toolkit validated there was a huge need in the industry and a big appetite for formal learning.

With SWIM, you teach leadership skills, but what has SWIM itself taught you, particularly about working women?

I’m teaching what I need to learn. One of the most common things we try to help women grasp is how critical it is to have boundaries. Doing research for our book Darling You Can’t Do Both, we learned women are raised to be pleasers to this day. By the time we enter the workforce, that’s hard-wired and often sabotages our advancement and well-being. Learning how to say “no” when that’s the right response is something everyone wants help with. Women can have happier, more successful careers when they have boundaries, and speak their truth even if it may not be well received.

"One of the most common things we try to help women grasp is how critical it is to have boundaries."

We have found that the need to be liked is a particularly powerful driver for women, across cultures, roles and seniority. Janet and I are no exception. Today we spend a lot of time helping women to see how putting “like me!” first as leaders undermines making good decisions, being respected, and getting to great work. When giving honest feedback, holding people accountable, and pushing to reach higher become new hallmarks, people have better careers to show for it. That’s the ultimate way to be “nice” to the people you want to support.

Does the title of your book, “Darling, You Can’t Do Both” draw from personal experience based on what people have said?

“Darling, You Can’t Do Both” is a verbatim quote from my boss back in the 90s. Right after telling me he thought I’d make a great leader and wanted to promote me, he said that if I accepted the big job, he had to recommend that I not have children. “Darling, you can’t do both.” (He had three himself, and a wonderful wife who played the traditional role.)

"“Darling, You Can’t Do Both” is a verbatim quote from my boss back in the 90s. Right after telling me he thought I’d make a great leader and wanted to promote me, he said that if I accepted the big job, he had to recommend that I not have children."

I wasn’t sure before that conversation if I wanted to lead, or if I ever wanted children. This got me off the fence. I immediately got pregnant. Janet calls it my “revenge pregnancy.” I chose not to accept the top creative leader role until five years later. Of course, I’m in Mark’s debt– having Lily is the best thing I’ve ever done.

Our book is designed to be a career guide for women and it shines a light on making two full time jobs work. It shows women how to go after the money they deserve, speak up with more confidence, how to network effectively, how to mentor and get a mentor, and get what they need and want to have happy careers. Our editor at HarperCollins heard us share our career story at an event called Women of Influence, and she insisted one thing was non-negotiable for the book she subsequently invited us to write– the title had to be that quote.

"Our book is designed to be a career guide for women and it shines a light on making two full time jobs work. It shows women how to go after the money they deserve, speak up with more confidence, how to network effectively, how to mentor and get a mentor, and get what they need and want to have happy careers."

Name a few challenges you’ve experienced throughout your career, and tell us how they made you a stronger woman and leader.

I have stage fright, like, big time. It started in puberty and got worse over time. In the workforce I avoided any time in the spotlight, even once I was in senior roles. I wouldn’t even accept the invitation to simply hand off an award to a show winner on stage. I’m very proud (in that sort of way ex-smokers are proud of quitting), that I finally decided I had enough of being jerked around by my fear. It was holding me back, keeping me small, and making me miserable.

The turning point was being asked to chair Canada’s top awards show at the time, that awarded the best television ad of the year. The audience was typically over 1,000 people. This time I said “yes,” with a game plan to accept every invitation to speak leading up to the day of the show to try and inoculate myself to the fear. I made my strategy “prepare, prepare, prepare.” I did a TV interview and didn’t die. I was on a panel. Still didn’t die. By the time it was show time, nine months later, with several small successes under my belt I actually relaxed (a miracle!) and had a good time on the stage.

Since then I had another major growth spurt by taking a weekend acting course that helped me get over my fear. It enabled me to see “failure” as “failing up,” as actors do. Now I am not deathly afraid of screwing up (which I’ve done countless times), especially remembering, nobody gives a shit when you do. You live. They forget in 10 seconds or less. I still have stage fright, but I have a system to manage it. I never thought I’d say these words to anyone– I’m represented by two speakers’ bureaus.

Another lifelong challenge with a really negative effect on my career (and karma) has been being careless with my words. I am known to many I’ve worked with for speaking before thinking. This was often with the intent to share my honest opinion that I just knew people would benefit from hearing. Sometimes that’s ok, but many times it led to someone crying in the bathroom.

I badly needed to learn empathy– putting myself in someone else’s shoes before choosing my words with care– and real listening. I have historically talked WAY more than I’ve listened to another’s point of view. I’ve worked hard in more recent years especially, to see my counterproductive and sometimes harmful actions clearly, and act accordingly. Changing this kind of hardwired bullshit isn’t easy. But I am highly motivated. So I’m always glad to tell people with a similar problem that they CAN change, it’s actually possible to learn empathy and the listening skills that facilitate that.

Then there’s everyone’s favorite, imposter syndrome. I already know every single reader (nearly) just read those words thinking yeah, check! Because every single women’s Swim group or audience member at a talk, when asked if they have it, has raised their hand. That’s thousands of women. So it’s a thing! Many studies back that up.

From my days at the University of Delaware, even graduating first in my major, I thought I’d be found out any moment for being a fraud. To this day it can bubble up. I have a theory on how this can be, for most women. We’re taught that we have to be perfect. Yep, we got that memo about the same time we were taught to be pleasers. Early, early in life.

In fact, women at work are expected to be closer to perfect than their male counterparts. So we aren’t just paranoid. But, here’s the thing. It’s impossible to be perfect. When we inevitably make mistakes, we take it as evidence we don’t know what we’re doing. Proof! I’m a fraud! My career will be over any day now when someone busts me!

Not only is it impossible to be perfect, but also it’s a stupid goal, anyway. Strive to do your best, not “be perfect.” Your best is good enough. The reality is people hate so-called perfect people. So who would want to be that? Just blew a meeting? Be grateful for the lessons you can take from the fail. And know that mistakes are the #1 teacher for humans. Let go of the miss, don’t chew on it for eternity. Ever notice how men roll with it when they blow it? They’ve got the right idea. Learn and move on. Your mistake did not on any level out you as incompetent. Ok sure, there are some actual frauds, but I’m sure you can rest easy.

Today I am pretty darn good at making mistakes. I have let go of that horrible inner voice that tells me how useless I am after I fall short on something. I train women to wrap their arms around fails, theirs, and those of people they lead. The alternative is to be paralyzed by harsh inner judgment and playing it safe to avoid mistakes, which leads to staying small and keeping others small. So, go ahead. Fail up.

What are you most looking forward to discussing during the Elevate series?

I’m excited to learn from the great speakers, mentors, and attendees, who always play the dual role of learners and teachers in a program designed to foster a lot of conversation.

In my session, we’re going to unpack what is working in leadership now– what inspires and motivates people to deliver their very best, through the example of one of the most successful leaders in the industry, Susan Credle. Her style is refreshingly counterintuitive to the decades-long approach to lead through “command-and-control” that defined generations of leaders before her and is still a go-to model for leaders who have learned by example that’s how you run with the title.

I’m really looking forward to where Susan stands on modern leader concepts and practices like listening, vulnerability, honesty, generosity, giving credit, and putting employee well-being first. We want to provoke new ideas and enthusiasm around the rewards of leading authentically and fearlessly. Conventions be damned.

What is the benefit to creating a leadership learning space specifically for women and nonbinary individuals?

So many benefits! When women and non-binary people are in a learning space without men, they’re more likely to be totally candid. It’s a safe space to put everything on the table. They have more opportunities to create community with peers in the process of learning together and to get ongoing support from people living with the same issues. Another big benefit can be the greater likelihood they could come out of it with a new mentor, or become a mentor to another. The general lack of female mentors is a missing piece in career advancement for too many women.

"When women and non-binary people are in a learning space without men, they’re more likely to be totally candid."

You’ve had a long history of offering advice, from Ask Jancy and Pick Me and beyond. Is there any piece of advice that you felt strongly about back then that you may have a different opinion on, several years and a world of social media later?

I have no doubt something in Pick Me would make me cringe based on how I see some of the issues today. Just looking again at the chapter called “Women: The Vanishing Act,” I’m so glad that our prophecy that things weren’t on track for the world to see more female CDs was wrong.

In the years since we wrote it, The 3% Conference and Time’s Up Advertising have been two of the major forces driving up the stats dramatically from “3% CDs.” The picture painted in 2005 was a lot bleaker than it would be if we were about to put out our 6th edition like Luke Sullivan, author of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. In my imaginary revised chapter, I would make noise about how critical it is for women to network, find female mentors, and work where there’s flex time if parenthood is a life goal. I would have put more into how to make motherhood and work, work.

How would your advice to women in their mid-twenties, mid-thirties, mid-forties, etc. differ?

We’ve learned from working with women around the world, at various levels of experience, that the big issues transcend experience and culture. So there isn’t much I’d say to the youngest I wouldn’t also say to the older person.

A few things women at all stages would do well to work on: #1, Get past “be nice.” It will keep you on the sidelines if your default is to capitulate to the wishes of others, as you were taught from childhood. Others will get the better projects, promotions faster, and the higher status.

When you stand up for yourself, advocate for what you want and say what you really think, and you will see that rewarded amply in the long run. In the short term, if your bold behavior isn’t always enjoyed, that’s ok. No really, it is.

"When you stand up for yourself, advocate for what you want and say what you really think, and you will see that rewarded amply in the long run."

Another piece of advice for women of all ages: It’s not enough to do a great job. If you want to advance you have to “make your excellence visible”– lead the important meeting, accept the offer to speak, go to networking events and approach “important people.” Leverage the connections you’ll make (often really hard for women, who feel guilty about it). If you’ve been helpful to them, there’s nothing wrong with asking for some kind of help down the road. I love Mick Ebeling's formula: “Give, give, give, ask.”

To repeat myself because hey, you can never hear it enough: Have boundaries, and stick to them. At work and at home.

Since Elevate is about empowering women and nonbinary individuals, name some mentors that have empowered you and helped you get to where you are today.

I love this question, it’s great to reflect on that with so much gratitude. My first mentor at work was my first boss, a force of nature named Sam Macuga. I think she was all of 34, leading a boutique agency in Washington, D.C. Her impact on me dawned as the years went by. Now I see her as probably having the biggest influence on me of anyone.

She modeled strength, using her voice (often VERY LOUDLY) and fearlessly. She had a razor-sharp sense of humor, patience (especially with the youngest), generosity, and true care for her people. She expected a lot and gave a lot to help me meet her expectations. She owned her title with confidence, even when I’d guess she was “faking it till she made it.” She said what she thought without pausing for a moment to wonder if it would be well received.

My first mentor in life was my mother. Everything I need to know about leading was on display every day. She didn’t have a big fancy job, most of her energy went into raising her four kids and volunteering. But wow did she get things done. With strength, conviction, honesty, kindness, and humor. She always spoke her truth. I’m still trying to live up to my mom’s model.


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