How to lead and succeed, right now. Advice from FLOTUS's former Comms Director

Former FLOTUS Communications Director, a Hispanic Woman, Discusses Leadership, Diversity and Breaking Barriers

I waited for Maria Christina Gonzalez Noguera (who goes by "MC") in the sunny lobby of an interactive agency in Union Square NYC. At the time, MC hadn't yet started her new role as SVP of Global Affairs at Estee Lauder, and my office was in NJ, so meeting someplace central was ideal. As she exited the brushed-steel-door elevators whoever was in the perimeter slowed their step and turned their attention towards her. The cluster of hip-clad and smartly faced agency folks knew someone with clout had just entered their sphere. MC has a room-altering presence, a forceful combination of effortless grace, muted seriousness, and sparks of levity.

You Need to Balance Aspiration with Necessity

"We all should aspire to something bigger and better than who we are or what we are," she stated frankly as we began our conversation, "but you need to be grounded and real about the bottom line and the need to return value."

It's this balance that I wanted to understand: How to create a business, a career, and to be a leader in an era where we need (and want) to both change the world and to support ourselves financially.

"If you are running your enterprise in the most efficient and effective way," MC shared, pressing her fingers against the table as if pointing to a diagram of what she was expressing, "then you will be able to innovate in a way that helps others. There has to be an understanding, which is probably why we've seen in the last 30 years, a development of CSR departments in big Fortune 500 companies. So it doesn't have to be one way to fully only make money or fully only do good. You can certainly bridge the two."

"And it takes a unique form of leadership?" I asked

"Vision, relentless focus, empathy, raw intellect, agility -- learning and physical agility. The ability to quickly pivot when something isn't working. I think that is an ideal. I would feel comfortable working for a company that has 3 out of 5 and that the other two were aspirational or part of the conversation. I don't want to work with a superwoman or superman who is so perfect. People who can articulate a mission and can demonstrate action against that mission...once you start demonstrating action, that's the type of leadership needed. "

The MC-5 traits for leadership:

- Vision
- Relentless Focus
- Empathy
- Raw Intellect
- Agility (both learning and physically)
- (The ability to articulate the mission through taking action)

"And how do these relate to being a woman in the workplace, a person of diversity?"

"There are real inequalities in our education system that make it harder for a child born in an underserved community get to, say, Stanford. There is a misperception that all the barriers were eliminated and now everyone - as long as they work hard - has a straight shot to Stanford. As long as that child is smart and applies him or herself, the opportunities will be granted. That is just not true. There is an enormous amount of work to do in that space. And society must decide if that's a priority or not. I certainly see gaps in terms of female potential in the work environment. And I think part of it is who I am and where I am in my life. I'm a 41-year-old Hispanic woman with a four-year-old son and a supportive husband, I am educated by all accounts with a resume that shows I've worked hard and have been focused in my profession. But I still encounter moments in my day-to-day interactions where I am dismissed or just ignored or not brought into a conversation. I don't know if it because I am female, if it is because I am Hispanic or because the person in the conversation isn't capable or smart enough to want to bring others into that conversation. But those barriers, that gap definitely exists. And I think it's similar to the conversation on diversity."

"How are we going to get there?" I asked.

"I think things take hold when they are evolutionary. And so bringing people, minds, hearts and souls together is probably going to produce deeper roots and, therefore, better results...You have to give some thought to what is it that we are trying to accomplish and what does that look like. And you have to literally paint that picture whether it's with words or pictures. What is your end state? And then you reverse engineer your need to get there. You have to start somewhere. If we sit here and talk too much, then we become paralyzed. Then you realize the truth, which is, it's insurmountable (MC laughs). So you have to start somewhere, you have to start chipping away at it."

Just as MC entered the elevator to head to her next appointment, we shook hands and she looked me deliberately in the eyes, both searching and reaffirming. She was double-checking if I was a person of trust. If I would take her counsel and put it to work, share it wisely. I hope I have.

You can read a full interview with MC here.

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