“Influential Women In Business” is an NQuotient blog series that interviews extraordinary professional women leaders. As a company, our goal is to empower women by teaching them how to network more efficiently with the intention of serving as a catalyst to increasing the presence of women in senior management roles. These women have graciously shared a few minutes of their time to tell us what experiences they felt have helped them reach their professional goals.
Anne has a track record of over 25 years in executive leadership within the advertising and marketing arenas. She now focuses her time on projects that empower people both on an individual basis and as a collective. Areas that are considerably passionate to her include creating communities of connected women, supporting health-related initiatives, delivering quality education, and participating in the arts.
We had the opportunity to catch up with Anne Devereux-Mills and ask her about her personal journey as a woman in business.
Can you tell us a little about your journey from where you started and how you got into your current role?
My professional background consists of serving as CEO of 5 different ad agencies in New York, and I spent a lot of time in the very complex and male world of advertising. There is not a disproportionate number of men in the industry, but there is a disproportionate number of men at the top. I struggled with how to maintain my feminine self, while fitting into a world that was clearly a man’s world. The scenes you see in Mad Men have not changed much; it really is that kind of world; since I refused to be something else other than my authentic self, figuring out how to fit in as a leader when I didn’t look or behave like anybody else was a challenge. While sometimes it was hard on a peer-to-peer level, the harder part was being given equal inclusion within people above me at corporate headquarters.
When connecting with peers, there’s a philosophy that I’ve taken on, and that is that there isn’t a finite amount of many things in the world. Things like love, acceptance, or success. I just began to operate in ways that would allow me to be the most helpful, empathetic, and accepting person; regardless of whether that person was a peer, superior, or a new young person coming into the company. We’re not competing for a limited sized pie and by being competitive and complimentary, we can actually grow the size of the pize. This philosophy has made me change my view and made me feel less threatened and more willing and able to help others. You have to compete with yourself and be your best self as you rise up the ladder; after a certain age and a certain level of accomplishment and self-awareness, you realize there’s enough room for everyone to have victory.
There are fewer risks when you are not worried about losing something. You can follow your intellect, your heart, and your conscience because being your best means to be a good human being both in the work place and the world. And at the end of the day, at night when you go home, you can reflect on things like, “Did I not only maximize my contributions, but also help others maximize theirs?” It’s within that second piece where you can make the most progress.
Within the industry, and within my general life, the two people I would turn to as my mentors were both men. In my day, if you were a senior woman, if you got up there, you had to be a “tough broad.” I got hurt just as much, by senior women as senior men. A mentor needs to be the type of person that doesn’t see you as a woman, but sees you as a human with potential. There are those special human beings, and it doesn’t matter what gender they are. It was difficult to find people that would accept and mentor me as well as knowing who to trust in the world of advertising. There are times when you are pleasantly surprised because someone is far better and more human than you expected. There are also many times you’re really disappointed because the people who you thought were congenial colleagues have disappeared from your life. Who you can trust is a constant guessing game.
I transitioned out of advertising into my current role because of four major inflection points in my life. First, I was a single mother with cervical cancer and two melanomas, all while raising my children and running a company. Second, my youngest child was about to leave for college and I would be alone. I took my last job a year before the last recession. It was the first time I’d run a company that was a turnaround rather than a startup. It was not in my nature; my nature includes creative entrepreneurial positivity and building. Instead, I was in charge of refocusing the company by getting rid of old reputations and old people; I wasn’t particularly comfortable in that role.
As a way to provide positive connections for my colleagues and myself during this tough transition, I helped found a non-profit for orphaned children in Uganda.
Right as my child was about to leave for college and I was in Uganda, my doctor called with my third inflection point, “Your cancer has spread. When you return, we will need to do a surgery to remove half of your vagina. I’m so sorry to give you this news.” It was devastating news.
When I got back to New York after my trip, I was preparing myself to build this company, take some time off for my health, and rebound back into my role as CEO. To my surprise, and what brings me to my fourth inflection point, instead of supporting me through this time, my boss of 20 years told me that they would find someone else to run the company. Within one week, everything that I had was gone. All that I had left was that the person I loved and he lived on the West coast.
I decided it was the opportunity to rethink what I was doing. I moved to San Francisco to be with my now husband. I found myself asking, “How do I start again? What can I do to play to my strengths?” I had been a sister to two other women, a mother to two amazing girls who are now women, and I attended Wellesley where I was surrounded by 2000 amazing women. I felt that in my past careers I couldn’t be myself as a woman, and I missed the intimate connection I had with other women. I had the opportunity to meet Candice Bushnell, author of Sex and the City, and I decided that a comradery between women similar to the one in Sex and the City was something that I really needed. So I founded an organization called Parley House which is intended to be an inclusive community of women who come to connect and pull each other forward.
As a fellow within the Aspen Institute, I learned that when you have content based connections, it opens the doors to talk about shared experiences and to immediately have a commonality. When I built Parlay House I incorporated that insight. I began to find something to fill my loneliness.
Less than 4 years later I learned that others shared my need for a connection. We have over 700 members who help to pull each other forward. Parlay House is not about career advancement or complaining about husbands; it’s about talking about shared experiences that help you feel less alone. It grows every month. We pull in new people and ask them to bring in the next generation of women who would benefit. I call the ripple effect of inclusion, empowerment, and kindness the Parlay Effect. I like to think of it as a cascade of events that follows when you do something great.
What is your best networking tip?
I think my best networking tip is not to look at what someone can do for you, but what you can do for them. Because by understanding and getting to know people exceptionally well, all of your contributions are much more relevant and you get to know each other on an intimate level. So much of networking is often taking opportunities, taking challenges, or taking missed pieces to make yourself stronger. If you use your strength to pull other people forward it’s much more fulfilling. I would much rather have fewer connections with strong mutuality over a large number of connections with lots of taking.
Do you remember a time/incidence you felt you were purposely challenged because you were a woman? How did you handle that?
One incident that stands out to me happened when I was on the board of an advertising agency with one other woman and 35 men. She and I looked very very different than one another; I’m 5’4 and blonde and she was six feet tall with dark hair. Not once, but twice, one particular board member called one of us by the other one’s name. It was a way of saying, “A woman is a woman. You are interchangeable.” Would he have ever called the other men by someone else’s name? Never. There was an unaware (or perhaps conscious) differentiation happening at the table. Aside from talking to the other woman about it, I had to pretend it didn’t happen and move on; it wasn’t a community that would let you bring it up. Now, I wish I had been more outspoken and called more people out on their subconscious or intentional discrimination.
Would you say it is lonely at top or in the space you’re in? On boards that are male dominated? How do you work around that circumstance?
Yes, it’s lonely at the top. At my last job before Parlay house, when I got sick, I could count on two hands the number of people who truly cared. Despite that fact that I was connected to 1000s of people, all of the popularity I had was due to the power I held rather than the relationships. The boards that I’m on are all male dominated. I feel that some sort of awareness is starting to seep in. These men have daughters, and they are starting to realize that by the time their daughters are of the age to become members of a board, they want them to have the opportunity to do so. All goodness starts with an intention. Some industries are better than others, but there is a sense of awakening. One excuse I’ve heard before is, “We want women we just can’t find any.” My response to that is that, “You’re just not looking hard enough. I know so many good women, look outside your circle and you will find them.”
What would you say was your biggest mistake in your career? What did you take away from it?
My biggest mistake was not talking about how hard it was. That mistake was not just career related but also life related. When you’re a parent, as well as a leader, by talking about victories and not talking about the mistakes or defeats you’re setting yourself up as an impossible role model for people who are also struggling. To be a woman in a man’s world. To be a parent. Not talking about your challenges sets unrealistic expectations.
I’m now able to talk about the times that I’ve made mistakes. I have enough confidence in myself and I’m doing as good a job as I can. Now I can say, “Here’s where I wish I had said, ‘It was hard and here’s where I messed up.’” It’s helped me to be a better mother, coach, and partner as well as learn from the mistake of not talking about failure.
Favorite career book you would recommend?
Strength Finder — The reason I recommend this book is because I think, as a society, we’re conditioned to look at the things we don’t do very well and make them better, rather than looking at the things we do well and building on those abilities. With Strength Finder, you take a diagnostic that tells you you’re 5 strongest skills.
This is not new behavior. Students notice they got four A’s and got one B; instead of building the A’s they’re obsessed with improving their skills in that class with the B. When you get your job evaluation, you minimize what people say you do well, and focus on what’s holding you back. As women, we need those reminders to look for positions that work with our strengths. When you ask, “Am I in the right field? Is this the right job?” make it a point to remember where your strengths lie. When you talk to someone with different strengths it doesn’t mean that they are better off or worse off compared to you; it just means they are strong in a different capacity. For individuals and leadership teams understanding strengths, focusing, and building on strengths is a much better determinant of success for both the individuals and the group. As a leader, put people where their strengths are maximized.
Understanding this is extremely helpful for people early on in their career; it’s empowering and positive when you find a way to summarize your strengths. Having the ability to dial in on what you naturally do well will help you in interviews to negotiate on your own behalf. There are very few people who are excellent across every spectrum. Make sure to evaluate every new opportunity or relationship and figure out whether it’s a place where things you naturally do well will make you successful.