"You choose how far you go."
By Alixandra Rutnik on Mar 22, 2022
In conversation with Elevate mentor Vida Cornelious
Elevate is a mentorship series for modern leaders. It's 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. We interviewed Nancy Vonk, who will be kicking off Elevate with Susan Credle during the first session this Friday, March 25. We also interviewed Swati Bhattacharya who is one of our fabulous mentors for this series. We're two days away so get pumped!
This week, we caught up with another powerhouse woman who will be providing mentorship to attendees after each day's "Leadership Lesson" that is sure to leave you feeling elevated and ready to own your worth. Vida Cornelious, VP Creative at The New York Times, gets real with us and shares her striking journey in this interview.
Elevate is designed to empower women and nonbinary individuals. Name two mentors who have empowered you and helped you get to where you are today?
I'm sure it will sound cliche, but my mother was a great mentor and she empowered me to get to where I am. It can be challenging for a parent to understand a career like advertising and what it means for their child’s future aspirations. It wasn't a career that was familiar to my parents, but they believed in me because I believed in me. And no matter what the endeavor, my mother (and father) were always very supportive.
"It wasn't a career that was familiar to my parents, but they believed in me because I believed in me."
As the youngest of five girls, my mom had plenty of ways to mentor all of us, but her way of supporting me specifically was to encourage my artistic pursuits. She was a teacher but also an opera singer, so she understood and appreciated the arts. I felt my mom understood my desire to do something creative and make a living out of it.
To this day, she still appreciates my creative pursuits and encourages them– my writing, especially. Her advice is always about how to treat others– “Be kind, be fair,” because that is how people will remember you and respect you. Like most moms, she is so right.
What are the leadership qualities you strive to embody as VP Creative at New York Times?
The leadership qualities I hope to embody are respect, integrity, diplomacy, fairness, and empathy. I definitely learned a few things from leaders that I have worked for over the years who displayed these qualities.
And of course, there were some behaviors I would never emulate from leaders I've worked with too. But I have seen the response a leader can get when they truly believe and live these qualities every day. People can see it is authentically who you are.
I am a firm believer in “treating others as you want to be treated,” so these qualities are the result of the way I have been treated in my life and throughout my career.
I would say I'm type A-, if there is such a thing! I'm not a full type A in the classic sense. But I would say I fully honor and strive for excellence in whatever I am doing. I want the people who work with me and for me, to really feel as if they are doing their best work with me. Not in a mercurial, dictatorial type of way, but in a way where you unlock the best in someone by helping them see more in themselves than they even thought was there. I would say 95% of the time I am calm on the outside, with a little tornado going on the inside!
"I want the people who work with me and for me, to really feel as if they are doing their best work with me. Not in a mercurial, dictatorial type of way, but in a way where you unlock the best in someone by helping them see more in themselves than they even thought was there."
You went from ECD to VP Creative– since the promotion what new and challenging leadership roles have you taken on?
Well, the biggest responsibility has also been very rewarding as well– operationalizing the team in a way that is truly effective. That was a real challenge before. I am very proud of that because I am a firm believer that people can do their best work when there is less “sludge” for them to wade through. So leading with clarity and transparency goes a long way in getting your team to feel confident, be organized, and ultimately deliver their most effective work.
What makes you a great leader?
If I was answering as if I were one of my employees, I think they would say I am smart, strategic, inspiring, and a good listener. I do ascribe to having an open door when it comes to my team– I always have, because I don’t like not being accessible to my team. But, I do require that team members are transparent with their immediate manager if they want to raise an issue with me, simply because I want my managers to have visibility. I don’t like “leapfrogging” over management of any kind, but I do believe being open and fair, and transparent about my expectations are some of the things I have been told make me a great leader.
Name a challenge you’ve experienced during your career. How did it make you stronger?
The challenges I have encountered in some way come back to race and gender. Being a woman of color, I was not always considered or respected as “The Boss.” I have literally walked into the room as the CCO, with one of my Copywriters, who happened to be a white male, and he was automatically thought to be the leader. That level of subconscious bias has existed in so many instances in my career, I've lost count. Those moments definitely made me stronger.
"Being a woman of color, I was not always considered or respected as “The Boss.”" I have literally walked into the room as the CCO, with one of my Copywriters, who happened to be a white male, and he was automatically thought to be the leader.
That taught me that I could not shrink to others’ expectations of what they thought was my limitation. It was as if there was a perception that I– a woman of color– could never have achieved the top ranking, to be leading a creative vision. It was as if the ad industry didn't think it was possible that anyone other than a white male be qualified to do that job. So that thinking made me even more determined to be the best leader I could be, and do it without bias of any kind.
What conversations are you looking forward to engaging in with other women and non-binary individuals during Elevate?
I’d love to talk about really owning your power, whatever that might be. And how to do it. Power does not have to be forceful to be effective. Power means mastery to me. What is it that you want to MASTER about being a leader of people and in your own life? I keep a running list of quotes to remember in my phone and I love this one from James Kerry Marshall, a phenomenal Black painter and iconic figure. He said, “the lack of mastery makes you vulnerable to the imposition of somebody else's will in every respect. Once you have mastered something, YOU choose how far to go.” I love this quote so much, and I think about it often because it says it all.
Talented people will always have options. I have reminded myself of that when I have wanted to leave a job or felt as if a place I was working at just didn't serve my needs anymore or align with my values as a leader. I had to remind myself in those scenarios, “Vida, YOU choose how far you go. Don't let this place dim your light.” I have literally said that to myself. And that is when I knew, it was time to move on. I often feel we as women think it is ok for someone else to determine our success or path when in actuality we have the power to determine how far we go.
"I often feel we as women think it is ok for someone else to determine our success or path when in actuality we have the power to determine how far we go."
Check out the Elevate slate!