Sue Unerman, the Chief Transformation Officer and author of The Glass Wall, has been working with MediaCom for more than 30 years. MediaCom with over 100 offices worldwide is an advertising media investment company. Their philosophy is: Seeing the Bigger Picture which means that their network of 8,000 people helps their clients look beyond the boundaries of traditional media to uncover new ideas and unlock growth. They challenge conventional thinking to build, optimize and drive their clients’ businesses forward at scale, as well as leading their industry in critical areas such as diversity, inclusion, and sustainability.
In an exclusive conversation with Aspioneer, Sue Unerman shared insights into her career journey, discussing the importance of diversity and inclusion. Read on for Sue’s advice for ambitious women to champion the success of other women while working on their own goals.
(A): You have been working with MediaCom for more than 30 years. What made you stay for so long and were there any challenges you had to face along the way? Please share a bit about your journey within your company. (S): I joined the company in 1990 when as an associate director, I was the most senior woman they had employed. I was the first woman on the board. The company has grown from the minnow I joined (UK only billing less than £50m) to a global business that now bills over £1.5bn in the UK. The reason I have stayed so long and the reason that I have thrived is also the reason for our market-leading success. The culture really puts people first and allows and encourages everyone to be their best self at work. There have been many highs and many challenges during that time, but the outstanding highlight is the diversity and inclusion of everyone that works here. The culture of inclusion and belonging leads our sector, and as I know from my last two books with extensive research of businesses worldwide, is a leading light in the world of work.
I try and be a servant leader. My role is to help everyone else shine. I practice empathy as much as possible. Some people think that this is a feminine trait, and it might well be, but I know plenty of very empathetic men and some women who are not. I think you learn humility as a woman leader, and how to be heard in a world that is not designed to listen to you.
(A): You have published three books so far. Your second book The Glass Wall was one of the bestsellers. Last year your new book Belonging was published. Can you tell us a bit about them? (S): My 2016 bestselling book, The Glass Wall, success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business details not just my own, but every woman’s journey to succeed in a business world that is built, not just for normal human beings, but for a minority of workaholic, driven, businessmen with full time stay at home partners. There are many gendered differences between men and women, and most women that I know, including me, struggle with showing off and are ambivalent about self-promotion. In this particular case, I have found a way to compensate for this ambivalence by making it about what the business has achieved and the team that I have led.
It is the workplace that must change, especially as we come out of the pandemic lockdown because research conclusively shows that more diverse workplaces deliver better decisions, profits and revenue. Despite over £6bn spent on diversity and inclusion initiatives, there has not been enough change. Therefore last year I have published a new book, Belonging, the key to transforming and maintaining diversity, inclusion, and equality at work. This diagnoses why there has been so little change and makes pragmatic and actionable change recommendations.
(A): You are an effective leader. What drives you? (S): I try and be a servant leader. My role is to help everyone else shine. I practice empathy as much as possible. Some people think that this is a feminine trait, and it might well be, but I know plenty of very empathetic men and some women who are not. I think you learn humility as a woman leader, and how to be heard in a world that is not designed to listen to you.
The brilliance of the people I work with at MediaCom always restores my faith and optimism. I’m always encouraged by anyone who speaks truth to power.
(A): What is the greatest risk that you have taken? How do you manage self-doubt and build your inner resilience? (S): Writing blogs and of course books in the public domain is risky. It means that you are expressing what you think in front of everyone, and of course, it is impossible to please everyone, especially when I aim to shoot down redundant heritage ideas and practices that are delaying equality for everyone. I work hard to be precise about expressing myself and back up my opinions with data.
(A): What according to you are the steps that companies should take to equal out the ground and to improve the representation of women in any given industry? (S): The World Economic Forum's latest research says that it will take 136 years for gender parity. This is unacceptable, better outcomes for women are better outcomes for family, for the economy, and for everyone. Taking action needs to be a much higher priority. Everyone needs to take ownership of this, or there will be no change. What we need are diverse voices and different skill sets in a decision-making body. In many cases still, this means being different by being a woman.
(A): Who were or are your female role models? If allowed to mentor another potential female leader, would you consider it? (S): I mentor, coach, and sponsor – we have programs in place at MediaCom for this. I recommend that everyone seeks out an informal board of advisors to help them with their career, both inside and outside the place that they work. I have many women role models, some are my bosses and colleagues, some are those women who have broken the mold throughout history. The strong women in my family are role models to me, especially my daughters.
I also very much admire (and wear) the designers Diane von Furstenberg and Vivienne Westwood – their creativity, originality, and consistent refusal to be stereotyped or boxed in.
(A): Where and in what roles are women in your organization's talent pipeline? What policies have you put in place to move your organization toward gender equality?
(S): We have strong women in leadership at MediaCom UK – my current CEO is a woman, and out of the last 4, 3 are women. During this time our business has gone from success to success. We have a very strong pipeline of women throughout the business. We have introduced micro-aggression and allyship training for everyone. The leadership team leads by example in challenging bias whenever we encounter it, and never being a bystander.
(A): What are your current goals? What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader? What is next in your life? What do you hope your legacy will be? (S): I am currently involved in leading the agile transformation of MediaCom, and last year developed a new skill as a Scrum Master. My ambition is, as it always has, to do my very best to make a difference in the work we do for our clients, for MediaCom, and for the wider business world. I hope my legacy is that I have helped women and other underrepresented groups to develop their careers at work to their fullest potential.
(A): What would you like other ambitious women to know about how best to move their careers forward?
(S): The best option for any ambitious woman is to champion others as well as herself.