Innership for leadership

After Mother's Day reflection, Visa's top Asia-Pacific marketer shares a personal opinion on the challenge of 'opening up' to become a better leader.

Frederique Covington Corbett with her goddaughter Valentina Moreno.
Frederique Covington Corbett with her goddaughter Valentina Moreno.

Last Christmas, I received an unexpected 'gift' that shattered my beliefs about leadership. You know, the gift of feedback, yes, that one; there should be an emoji for it, as the feeling is best expressed with a crunched banana-split face. As leadership author Gabrielle Dolan puts it, “every time we ask for feedback we are competing with the in-built human DNA of self-preservation”. Well, my Darwinian moment came, and along with it, the realization that leadership is, actually, about 'innership.'

As a female in her late 40s in a senior leadership role, with two kids, two dogs, a supportive husband, and expat life in tropical Singapore, things had been going pretty well. I'd risen from the advertising ranks of Madison Avenue (for those of you too young to know, it’s not a department store, but the once-upon-a-time mecca of the advertising industry in New York) and I learned to make a living by sharing the small things that make consumers tick with ad execs. My role for many years as a “strategic planner” was to mine consumer insights, find those Seinfeld observations of life, reckonings of why people do what they do, and extract them to make great marketing campaigns. My trade, was people, discovering the unknown, unseen, and uncomfortable truths that they kept hidden from others, and mostly, from themselves.

Working across cultures from the shores of Europe, New York, LA, and Asia, I learned a lot about the inner workings of people. Sitting in focus groups, I could tell pretty quickly who was the liar, the overbearing parent, the coffee drinker pretending to like tea, or the mom buying premium diapers to make up for her insecurities. This knowledge served me well to build global brands and make it to chief marketing officer. Then, I became a leader, and my focus shifted from the sphere of the within to all things external. I focused on projecting a confident image, giving speeches, articulating a clear and inspiring vision of the future, motivating my team to engage with that vision, and coaching them to be more productive.

Then, just when I thought I was at my peak, I received feedback that despite my team’s strong engagement scores, something was amiss. Some folks didn’t feel a sense of kinship with me, they were intimidated, afraid to take risks, they wanted more authenticity, more connection, more imperfection, more truth. What?! I was angry, broken, and adrift for weeks on ends. What had gone wrong?

I called Cheryl Breukelman from Epiphany Coaches for help. As a starting point, she made me watch Brené Brown's video on The power of vulnerability. I read True North and realized that on “The Journey to Authentic Leadership” chart, I was in the ditch of “crucibles.” Defined as a severe test or trial, often traumatic, intense, and always unplanned, crucible experiences “force leaders into deep self-reflection, where they examine their values, question their assumptions and hone their judgment. I started working on a program to foster more intimacy with my team to build trust and relationships.

The 360 feedback was clear: my team didn’t want more vision, more predictions, or more smart stuff, they just wanted to know me. Why did I come to work every day? How did I manage to be a working mom and the long hours? What were my values? What legacy did I want to leave behind?  Everything forced me to re-examine what was within me, rather than the image I had projected externally.

It seemed easy enough conceptually, but it wasn’t in practice. Opening up about myself required a lot of courage, and I failed many times talking about my pets to dodge personal questions instead. But then, bit by bit, I gave people clues about who I was. I started with the small mundane stuff like what I had for breakfast, or why I was late for a meeting confessing to having slept in. I stopped trying to be perfect. I went to drinks my team instead of keynoting the monthly orchestrated birthday cake ceremonies. When asked to give an opening speech at a senior leadership meeting, I took the jump and talked about my family, how they had defined who I was, I shared personal memories, showed pictures, distilled my outlook on life, and explained how I gave meaning to my work and why I did it. It was the first time people came to hug me after a business presentation. I felt like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

From there, every day was a little easier. I made a point to have some time for stories and sharing genuine interests in every encounter and every meeting. I asked people how they felt, before asking them if their project was on time. I asked my boss to call “cats” on me (our secret code word) when I went too brainy instead of personal. I started to talk about all the things I was not sure about, instead of being knowledgeable about everything. I asked my team to help me more because I couldn’t do it alone. I went personal and vulnerable every chance I had. I agreed to do a Mother’s Day op-ed for the company blog that shared all the intimate details of my motherhood strategies. I did a talk on wellness revealing all the tough times I struggled to stay sane. Keynotes weren’t something I feared anymore, nor burdens I had to rehearse for hours. I just spoke from my heart, and it was freeing and enjoyable. I had found leadership through innership.

The old-English word “leadership” lædan which means “to pull” has a derivative in Indo-European Germanic called laidjan which means “to travel”. For me, it encapsulates the true idea of leadership. Contrary to what we are taught, leadership is not about an external process of forcing others along or projecting your best self. It is about an inner journey where having seen your heart, others give you permission to take them somewhere with you. As Joe Jaworski said, “Before you can lead others… you have to discover yourself” and the ability to travel (laidjan) inwardly, is a critical leadership quality to connect authentically with others.

I wanted to share this account of my inner self-transitional journey to inspire all other leaders on the path of self-disclosure, purpose, and significance. As women leaders specifically, we often hold back on building intimacy and divulging too much about ourselves because we are afraid it can be construed as a sign of weakness, or worst, used as collateral against us. But it is precisely when we embrace the inner path of leadership that we can change the stereotypes of leadership and make it a process filled with meaning, purpose, and love.

Frederique Covington Corbett  is SVP Marketing Asia Pacific at Visa

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