As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Burns.
Deborah Burns’ story has always been about invention and reinvention — she’s lived those two keywords throughout her career as a women’s media Chief Innovation Officer and award-winning author. The experience of writing her memoir, Saturday’s Child, illuminated the path to her second book, Authorize It! Think Like a Writer to Win at Work & Life. Now, Deborah combines her strategic business and creative expertise with workshops that help teams improve results — learn more at: https://www.deborahburnsauthor.com
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I was the only child of a larger-than-life, unconventional mother and because of the dynamic of that core relationship, I’ve always been fascinated by women and their stories. I grew up to be a journalism major in college with the dream of being a reporter, but entered women’s magazines instead and lived a media career that took me places I never imagined.
One of those places was England, where I found myself staring at portraits of unconventional women from history in a London museum. I suddenly knew that I had to learn more about them — and then write a book about my mother. Although I never had imagined myself as an author, it was a lightbulb moment that kicked off a seven-year creative journey. Ultimately, Saturday’s Child was published and then another unexpected thing happened. The experience of writing that book — which took me deep into a literary world filled with wisdom that also applied to the world of work — gave birth to my second book, Authorize It! Think Like a Writer to Win at Work & Life. Now, I show teams how to level-up through better business storytelling. At work, whoever tells the best story wins, so helping non-writers shape their stories for success advances careers and ensures that everyone lives up to their potential.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Being so deep into my career grants me a certain perspective. In a way, I’m sitting on a perch and can now look at everything that’s come before from on-high. And the most interesting thing is not a story but a force — serendipity. Everything is in a story for a reason, and it’s the same for us in our own stories. Everything I’ve ever done in my career — even the roads I thought were mistakes — were actually building blocks that reconfigured themselves into something new down the road.
For serendipity to strike, we all must actively do three things that happen to be hallmarks of every great writer: (1) have a discovery mindset, (2) step into new territory, and (3) stay open to possibility and the plot twists ahead. The second before my best ideas hit, they weren’t there. I believe that they appear because I’m always doing those three things — and I’m willing to put in the work and develop the sparks that come my way. When you are constantly inhaling what’s around you, you can exhale new ideas that will ultimately contribute to your growth and success — just as I did with my first and second books.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Always aspire.” My mother was an extraordinary woman who ended up living what she would call an ordinary life. Still, she always aspired to greatness, and this was a powerful example and roadmap for me.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
I can’t say that a single book impacted my leadership style because I’ve always been true to how I’m wired — I had no choice but to lead from the heart in a nurturing, mentoring, collaborative way. That said, many books have validated this intuitive, authentic approach, which, for many years was not “in fashion.” One in particular is Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. In it she shares her transformative leadership vision that is grounded by vulnerability and courage in the face of uncertainty. Published a decade ago, it’s even more relevant now given our transitioning times and the dramatically shifting world of work.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In the same way writers must differentiate their characters so that readers and viewers can tell them apart, we all must also distinguish our companies so they stand out from the pack.
What differentiates my business now is actually everything that I’ve ever done before. My journey bestowed a particular expertise on both the business innovation front and the creative front, and that’s what I leverage to separate my professional development workshop business from others. I don’t stop at translating wisdom about story structure to motivate and create more dynamic teams. I also can roll-up my innovation sleeves and help those teams find new solutions for the problems they face. That unique combination presents great value to the companies I work with and cannot be easily replicated by another entity.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Given the path that I’m on, it would be to learn how to think like a writer and apply that mindset to your career. In addition to an openness to discovery and possibility — and to the dedication to develop the ideas or plot points that come your way — there are two more writerly tips that will help anyone be more successful and live up to their potential:
- RESILIENCE DESPITE ADVERSITY. We all have wounds, hardships, and obstacles in our way even when we’re on the right path. It takes resiliency to continue moving forward, along with the ability to reframe what could be a negative as a positive. As the child of an emotionally distant parent, I could have stayed mired in what I didn’t have and longed for. Instead, I chose to see that she was the mother I needed to become who I am. Reframing helped me to see how always wanting to capture her love made me more intuitive and inventive — two of many pluses from our relationship that served me well at work.
- COMMITMENT TO WORKING HARD. A writer faces the blank page every day and has the tenacity to take self-directed action — unless they pick up the pen, nothing happens. Every endeavor requires great effort, motivation, and the discipline to put your whole self in. You must be willing to do the hard work, roll-up-your-sleeves, and persevere when you hit an inevitable wall. I’ve had several side gigs in addition to a demanding day job for a decade and continue to rise early seven days a week to make things happen.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
My answer is tied to your question about books. When I mentioned that my heartfelt leadership style was once not “in fashion,” it was because of this advice when I first started working: Women must “walk, talk, and act like a man” if they wanted to succeed. It was the era when Boomer women like myself entered the workforce en mass to live the myth of “having it all.” This hard-driving, show-no-emotion advice was another myth that went entirely against my grain despite the power suits of the day. Instead, I opted for a complementary style that allowed me to tap my own authentic voice. And the result was better, more holistic outcomes for any team I was on or company I was with.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Successful C-Suite leaders and great writers have a lot in common, led by perspective — a power that you can activate and hone over time. The following character traits will help you to think like a writer who is inventing a successful protagonist — and will enhance your own perspective at work:
- BE OBJECTIVE. Strive to be an open-minded, non-judgmental, uber-observer of human nature. Writers and great leaders are always on the hunt for a full-spectrum view uncovering what’s behind the velvet rope. They are drawn to complexity; they innately understand that choices are rarely either-or, characters are rarely this-or-that and situations are rarely all good or all bad. For writers to discover what’s most interesting and true, they must stay open to possibility. And to create the most interesting story, objective writers realize — and anticipate — the unintended consequences of even the best decisions. This mindset will optimize your performance at work.
- BE INDEPENDENT. Strive to be a person who defines themselves versus letting others define you. This is the work all of us must do on our own character journeys to become our most evolved selves. To best own your narrative at work, be substantive in the face of our superficial, quick-hit, social-media-driven world. Develop a philosophical perspective built upon your curiosity and independent thinking. Your goals: always seek deeper meaning over just scratching the surface and always avoid the lure of what everyone else is saying or doing. As an independently-minded person with substance, your views will be heeded more readily, which helps you to get your ideas across and get ahead.
- BE EMPATHETIC. Strive to understand the POV — or point-of-view — of the characters in your work story. You may have a storyline in your head that you believe is factual, but someone else’s perspective may present an entirely different or additive POV that can help you see an event, circumstance or yourself in a completely new way. The result? Better outcomes.
Ok, 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 C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
We all know that C-Suite executives have to focus on the greater good for their customers and employees, lead short and long term strategies to create value, and get to the best considered decisions to return a profit. But what are some of the other responsibilities that are more nuanced? There are two that are directly tied to how writers think when they shape a story
- SUCCESSFUL C-SUITE EXECS ARE THE CHIEF BELIEVERS AND COMMUNICATORS. They believe in, package, and carry the message of their company, and articulate that story with clarity.
- SUCCESSFUL C-SUITE EXECS ARE THE CHIEF DISCERNERS OF TRUTH. They discern fact from fiction to determine what is worthy of their attention and what is not, and to get at the essence of something. Great writers know that there’s always more to the story — part of the iceberg is always hidden below the surface, the whole truth is rarely evident and the true meaning of events is often not readily apparent. Great CEOs look hard, read between the lines, and look behind the scenes to best decipher the real story. They listen more to what is unsaid than said, attempt to be an impartial spectator or a wry bystander, and see all aspects from on high — just like a writer would.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
There are two myths that I’d like to dispel.
- MYTH # 1 — CEOS KNOW EVERYTHING. Successful “C-Suiters” are keenly aware that they do not have all the answers. They know that everything is constantly changing and what once might have been true no longer is. They must face uncertainty every day and not only thrive, but survive. This fact keeps them humble and makes them — you got it — think like writers! Like the successful heroes or heroines in any story, CEOs need to be constantly absorbing information, reassessing, and revising so they can get to the best decisions for the greater good of all their constituents.
- MYTH #2 — CEOS DON’T ANSWER TO ANYONE. The fact that there are boards, of course, automatically dispels this one. But this myth-busting goes even deeper. Just like an author who answers to their reader, every CEO must always, always, always answer to their customer. The author is not the hero of the story they create, their protagonist is. Likewise, great CEOS know that their customer is the hero of their company’s story. Any executive who thinks they are the hero, or the company is the hero, does so at their own peril. They should answer to the customer or end user in every decision they make.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The three most common mistakes — and how to correct them — are:
- DELEGATING. Not being able to delegate or empower the people who work for them frequently trips up C-Suite leaders. How to mitigate: Recognize that for your company’s greatest success, you must play the role of supporting character at work, there to help your employees grow. Mentor them, don’t micro-manage.
- INFLUENCING. Believing that everyone holds the same opinions you do, which shuts down contrary — but potentially meaningful — thought that would enhance results. How to mitigate: In meetings, switch from brainstorming to brainwriting — have employees anonymously contribute their perspective on a project or product, and then discuss the merits of each one as a group.
- TRAINING. Not bringing in outside voices for feedback, continuous training, and growth. Just like a writer who includes expert and developmental talent as they hone their manuscript, employee performance is enhanced through the same improvement mindset. How to mitigate: Identify a challenge area, find an expert, and schedule a “power hour” lunch with key employees.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Underestimating the importance of any area — whether it’s manufacturing, IT, marketing, distribution, or any other — is a critical error. Like subplots, all divisions are inter-related and contribute to the whole. That said, there is one area that tends to be underestimated or cut when budgets are tight — customer research. And not understanding your end user is the biggest mistake of all, especially in volatile times. The new normal affects every person and every business decision, so extra attention here will reveal new opportunities.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
I would have been a more effective leader earlier in my career if I fully realized the storytelling lessons my journey crystallized for me. So here are the five foundational principles that will help people advance into the C-Suite (and keep you there once you arrive!):
- EMBRACE THE NARRATIVE ARC. Work is nothing more than people on a collective quest. Understanding the four predictable cycles and four ingredients of any story — that also hold true for any project — is what will make you the leader you were meant to be and keep you moving forward.
- UNDERSTAND YOUR CHARACTERS. The greatest forces affecting the quest for greatness may be other people, and that’s a fact that plays out dramatically in your work life. Human nature and needs are the drivers of everything, and unless you grasp individual and group dynamics, you cannot lead or succeed as well as you might. And within that mix, the character you most need to understand is yourself.
- WELCOME CONFLICT. A story without conflict is a giant bore. Bumping up against an external challenge and finding your way around it not only keeps things interesting, it also builds resilience. Without conflict, results at work would be unimaginative and unproductive. No matter how annoying, we all need stressors to take us to from good to great. So, embrace conflict and confrontation (within reason, and civilly), and learn how to leverage it to win.
- SEEK THE UNCONVENTIONAL. The world is accelerating so quickly, and technology is changing so dramatically, that the familiar or historically significant is no longer enough. Since new situations can’t best be solved by doing all the same old things, think differently by searching for unpredictable and unexpected plot points everywhere. The unconventional will turn things around, open new doors, and deliver the surprising endings that amp-up success.
- STEP INTO THE UNKNOWN. All writers know that it’s not really a story unless there’s venturing into uncharted territory. We all must leave the known behind and tiptoe into the foggy unknown because that’s where what’s next awaits. Although it’s never easy, without discovering the new — and all the challenges that the unfamiliar brings — advancement isn’t possible. Anyone’s path to great leadership begins with that first step into the unknown.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
In the same way C-Suite leaders must answer to their customers, they also have a responsibility to do the same with their employees. To create a fantastic work culture, be sure to think like a writer and lead with:
- CLARITY. Understand who you are and articulate what you want in a way that your employees can absorb and act on every day.
- CO-CREATION. Your employees are on the front lines of their areas of expertise and hold many of the answers you seek. Rather than imposing a fully formed idea on them, tap their knowledge and co-create whatever story you need to present. They’ll have more ownership, and you’ll have better outcomes.
- RECOGNITION. As the heroes or heroines of their own lives, employees need to feel validated and appreciated at work. Help them shine by acknowledging and rewarding their accomplishments.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
In this moment, I would inspire the #thinklikeawriter movement. Great writers have characteristics that we would all be wise to adopt:
- WRITERS HAVE PERSPECTIVE. They are non-judgmental, uber-observers of life because they must write authentically. And to get at the truth, they need the perspective that only taking in all sides can bring.
- WRITERS ARE QUEST-CENTRIC. They first understand the story problem and then focus on the solution — the quest. This helps them to move their stories forward because they must always be for something rather than just against something.
- WRITERS ARE ALWAYS EDITING. They have a continuous improvement mindset and realize that nothing is ever really finished. The concept that everything can be made better with consistent reassessing and finetuning will make everyone more successful at work.
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