As a part of our interview series called “Women of the C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Christena Garduno.
Christena Garduno is the CEO and founder of Media Culture, a global, multi-platform brand response agency that delivers nimble, bespoke omnichannel media campaigns to generate qualified leads and drive sales. Her expertise, experience in all aspects of direct response advertising, and ability to create innovative solutions to common problems have proved instrumental to Media Culture’s success. Christena’s dedication to making Media Culture a strategic, analytical, and trusted partner to clients has been the foundation for the agency’s growth and continued competitive success as the surrounding industry has experienced rapid change.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you down this particular career path?
Thanks for having me! A little about my background…Many people might not know this, but I actually started off my career in accounting. That being said, it didn’t take me long to realize that my true passion was in business, especially in the advertising industry. I think it’s such a fascinating field because all businesses, from small companies to large corporations, depend on advertising to get their products or services in front of consumers.
In addition to helping clients achieve their business goals, working in advertising has allowed me to continually grow, and build something I am profoundly proud of. While some agencies are pursuing hands-off fully automated digital approaches, I helped build an agency that believes in the power of relationships and the importance of human insight in analyzing data to optimize campaign performance. By delivering a perfect balance between human touch and advanced technology, we help our clients stay agile, anticipate market demands and be at the forefront of what’s next.
Everyday, I am learning something new, brainstorming ideas, and helping clients solve pressing business problems. It’s different every day, and that’s what I love about it. I believe that advertising can transform the world — impacting how we see, think, comprehend, and act in our society. It can drive businesses to compete, and it has the power to sway consumers to purchase products and services within seconds! Advertising is truly an incredible power if you think about it, and the exciting part is that at Media Culture, it is up to us to decide how to use it. We think of ourselves as an extension of our clients’ marketing team and the weapon in their arsenal that helps transform their business.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Well, I’m not sure if this is an interesting story or more of an achievement, but when I first took over as the CEO, I was prepared to face and overcome any challenge that would come my way. Although I had been in the advertising industry for a long time, I knew that being a leader in an organization would be more demanding. My first goal was to encourage teamwork in all aspects of the business. However, I wasn’t sure if my staff would adopt and embrace the changes I intended to make. Honestly, I was expecting resistance, but to the credit of my team, they embraced the changes, and together we started making a positive impact on the business. I completely underestimated them! Within a short period, we extensively grew our business and improved our client satisfaction rate.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, I’m not sure how funny it was, but I can definitely remember a mistake I made early on in my advertising career. I remember a time when I was helping one of our clients with one of the services we offer. We worked long and hard, my team and I, to make sure everything was perfect for this client. And as we did that, we developed some of what I thought should be standard practices that we could implement on future projects. I even remember saying, “We should use this same approach and strategy on all of our clients going forward!” And I encouraged the team to follow the same steps for future contracts.
But I definitely ate my words on that one. We later realized the approach did not work well with other projects, and the lesson I learned was that every client is unique! There’s never a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to marketing, and we learnt that each project has unique elements and requires innovative problem-solving techniques. That’s why at Media Culture, our three core values are: trust, transparency and tenacity. We believe in having honest conversations with our clients so we can curate the best solution for them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I agree. We all need a hand along the way to succeed in any endeavor, and I definitely have a list of individuals that have played a huge part in my success in advertising. Of course, I’m very grateful to my mentors and clients who gave me my first opportunities in the field. I had to start somewhere, and they were willing to give me a chance, and that means so much to me. I also have amazingly supportive friends. But, if I had to pick one person who has made the most difference in my life, I’m most grateful to my father for his unwavering support and for always being there for me. My father played a huge role in my being involved in the advertising industry. He always encouraged me to focus on my dreams and offered wise counsel, even when I was on the verge of giving up.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
What a great question! For me to regain perspective in uncomfortable situations, I usually concentrate on something physical. Because reactivity has such a strong physical component, I focus on my physical self to remain calm. First, I take a breather. I can stay in my body and out of reactive mode by taking a few deep breaths. For example, when I attended some of my first few meetings as a leader, I used the 4–7–8 breathing technique for quick results, which involves breathing in for 4 counts, holding for 7 counts, and exhaling for 8 counts. This breathing technique is described as a natural nervous system tranquilizer. Before I react to anything upsetting, I apply this technique. Another way I normally relax, though it may sound strange, is by touching and observing what’s around me. For example, I might put my hand on the table, or pay attention to the feeling of my feet on the ground. I sometimes keep track of where my legs are on the chair when sitting, or even pay attention to the art on the walls or the size of the room or anything else that adds to the impression of the space.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Yes, this is such an important topic, and when we talk about creating an inclusive, representative, and equitable society for all, we need to remember it’s not just a small thing we do today, it’s a true and lasting change that needs to be ingrained in everything we do. Individuals and organizations must be willing to stand for more than just the moment, beyond single donations or hashtag pronouncements.
And I must say, it is impossible to solve a problem without first comprehending it. Our first step toward a more inclusive society is to educate ourselves and to learn to empathize with the realities and challenges that others face. We need to listen, care for, and learn. Second, we must actively support marginalized and minority populations. Support can come in various forms, such as giving employees time, space, and resources to process the external stresses that affect them. It could also entail providing financial, technical, or social resources to marginalized groups. Everyone should speak up in support of minorities and against the prejudice and discrimination they face because the world is not always fair to them. It is also important to note that everyone has a role in the battle for a more inclusive and fair society, but not everyone’s part is constantly front and center.
And finally, it’s important to remember that the prejudices and discrimination that minorities face aren’t just a product of today; they’re a centuries-old legacy, a structure developed over time. A shift toward equality will take time to develop, and it will require commitments from both institutions and individuals to create a more inclusive reality.
Okay, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does, but in just a few words, can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I’d say the main difference is just a greater breadth of responsibility. Instead of one department and just a few people, executive leadership involves managing or directing employees in an entire organization. You’re managing on the macro level to influence, inspire, motivate, guide, and encourage these individuals to achieve both organizational and individual goals. And then of course, similar to other leadership roles, traits, such as empathy, willingness to collaborate, and the ability to listen, are especially valuable to a successful executive.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The first myth I’d like to squash right now is that if a woman wants to make it to the top, she needs to act like a man. While there’s much we can learn from the men who’ve come before us, that doesn’t mean we must do things the same way to be equally successful.
Another myth about executive presence is that well-groomed leaders naturally look great without putting in any effort, but that’s just not true. Many leaders make the conscious choice to maintain a professional image by dressing up appropriately — but like for anyone else, it takes time and effort once they get out of bed in the morning.
Another myth that drives me crazy is that you’re either born with leadership qualities or you’re not. Sure, some people seem to be born leaders. Then for the rest of us, it’s not true. We can acquire leadership skills. It just takes a little work — and maybe some outside help — to get there.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by female executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Some female leaders are hesitant to speak about their achievements for fear of appearing egotistical or conceited. The perfectionism qualities of many female leaders immobilize them. And on top of that, as women we face a similar internal conflict regarding being regarded as respected leaders versus domineering ladies. The truth is women are systematically disadvantaged on many levels, from being held to a higher standard than their male colleagues to confronting entrenched gender stereotypes. We often have to overcome internal and external obstacles to have the courage to share our views. And for women in business, it may be difficult to trust and value the distinctive characteristics of female executive presence as personal and organizational advantages. All of these combined just lead to an overall challenge faced by women in leadership positions… and that is a lack of confidence. My advice on that… Just relax, unwind, and be yourself. Don’t think too much about it. Get out of your head and go to work!
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I would say people often assume that once you have established a team with expertise in every aspect of your business, things will start running smoothly. Well, that is not the case. There’s more to it, and even with the perfect people in their perfect position, you’ll always have issues, problems and obstacles. A job is never just what’s on the job description. It’s full of ups and downs, and it’s about working through things together as a team — and it’s important for people on your team to match their individual goals with those of the organization. For example, one needs to understand that the job of most team members is to ensure there is no conflict as they go about their daily tasks.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
As you know, every leader is different. But I think the best executives inspire and motivate others by communicating in a style that draws people in naturally. They are able to focus, express a clear vision, and confidently convey amazing stories. In high-stress situations, I’ve found the best leaders don’t yell and scream orders. Instead, they work quietly and educate others on how to think and problem-solve.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
My advice to women is to play a role in raising young women to believe they can be powerful and proud of themselves. It has been discovered that women in executive positions score higher than men on resilience, pushing for results, pursuing self-development, demonstrating integrity, and taking the initiative, among other important leadership qualities. Those are our superpowers, and we need to focus on those to maximize our positive influence. Men are great too in their own ways — men outperform women in terms of technical expertise and strategic planning abilities. But when it comes to women as leaders, we should encourage women to take on leadership roles, and we should all work to instill confidence in our female colleagues to reach the top sooner. Having more women executives can only help our society! More so than male-led businesses, female-led businesses are known for fostering mission-driven cultures, effective top-down communication, and strategic compasses pointing in the correct direction. All female executives must encourage women to raise their hands, even if they do not satisfy all the criteria, and use women’s social awareness and relationship management skills to their advantage.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have tried to set an example for young female entrepreneurs and inspired team members to chase their dreams. We are also expanding our network of employees across the globe to build a more inclusive and diverse global corporate culture. And of course, I am a strong believer in giving back through charity work. Each year, we round up our staff for a day at Habitat for Humanity to help others and build our teamwork skills.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Consider a no as a possible and appropriate response — When a potential partner’s expectations or ideals do not align with your own. Even though the financial aid they offer is appealing, choose partners and donors/investors with prudence and caution.
- Avoid dodgy connections — A dodgy connection can completely turn your life upside down and make navigating your business exceedingly challenging. Everything is challenging at first, but it’s worse if you’re surrounded by people you can’t trust and count on.
- Trust, but be careful — While I will continue to trust individuals, it is always a good idea to follow up on any oral commitment with a written letter or contract. It simplifies everyone’s lives and gives the essential legal foundation in case it ever becomes required.
- Balance strategy and execution — When I became CEO, I was a firm believer in the need to have a well thought out plan but quickly realized that strategy alone cannot ensure success without a smooth execution mechanism in place. Having a sound strategy in place is critical for long-term success. It is critical to strike the right balance between a solid plan and effective implementation. In basic terms, strategy refers to doing the right things, whereas execution refers to doing the right things well. The strategy does not need to be an artistic endeavor; it only has to get you moving in the correct direction, with a greater focus on “moving.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of benefit to humanity, I would choose the hope movement. The most liberating and empowering gift you can give to a large group of people is hope. I hope you will evolve, that your lives will improve, and that your past will not define you. Many people suffer in silence, whether they are physically, financially, or psychologically afflicted. Hope is a gift that can change many people’s lives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your lives?
I’d have to say, “Good things take time.”
You know… you have to allow things to sit in your subconscious for a while. The same may be said for any action you take in life. It took me some time to achieve success as I ventured into business. I learned to be patient and put in more effort even when things seemed tough. It is good to not always establish lofty targets or anticipate immediate results from the start. All good things take time, and recognizing this simple concept will make things move much more easily.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Oprah Winfrey! But not for the reasons you might think. Many people view Oprah Winfrey as a role model because of her rough childhood, good philanthropic work, building schools, and the real contact she has with her fans. But for me, Oprah Winfrey stands out among many people because of her ability to empathize with others’ suffering. By doing this, she helps them overcome adversity, and that’s something that’s truly inspiring to me and something I try to emulate. I’d love to sit down with her for an afternoon and just learn from her! What an amazing experience that would be.