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Vision and Voice are a Perfect Combination

An Interview with Denise Brosseau, CEO of Thought Leadership Labs

As leaders, we get the unique opportunity to build our brand and define our voice. And an even greater opportunity to ensure that what we have to offer gets shared with the world. How do you go about doing that?? Well, look no further as we are featuring Denise Brosseau, CEO of Thought Leadership Lab as our next Inspiring Interview. Not only is Denise a powerful female leader, but she dedicates her life to ensuring that other leaders can grow and share their voice to inspire others too. So without further adieu…

WeInspireWe: Denise, it is so great to meet with you. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Denise Brosseau: Thanks! My name is Denise Brosseau. And this may sound a little strange, but I am a thought leader about thought leadership. I work with senior leaders, primarily women, on their journey from leader to thought leader. I do my work through a lot of different modalities—speaking, coaching, training, teaching, facilitating, and consulting.

WIW: That sounds cool. What got you to this role?

DB: I spent my early career in the tech industry and founded my first company at 26 – a computer training business. After business school, I co-founded and led a trade association for women entrepreneurs (Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, now Watermark) growing it to seven offices across the US. I also co-founded the first venture conference for women entrepreneurs, Springboard, that has helped women-led and women-founded companies receive over $8 billion in funding since 2000 operating around the world. I started my present company, Thought Leadership Lab, about 10 years ago with a commitment to helping more women gain their seat at the table and build a public voice. I am also a lecturer at Stanford Business School, the author of Ready to Be a Thought Leader? and a frequent keynote speaker at companies and conferences across the US.

WIW: Clearly you are a successful, driven leader. What is Denise like outside of the office?

DB: My personal mission statement is “empowering others is empowering yourself” and I’ve tried to live that mission as a boss, mentor, coach, teacher and advocate for others, especially women.

I am passionate about the theater and will travel many miles for a great show. I also love to travel (I am collecting World Heritage Sites), spend time with interesting people and read widely. And I commit a lot of my time to NARAL and Planned Parenthood because without choice, nothing else matters.

WIW: So, Denise, not only are you driven but you are a powerful voice as a female leader. What has lead you to where you are today?

DB: As the youngest of three daughters of a strong and capable mother, I was raised to believe that every door was open to me – as long as I was well-educated and worked hard. I attended Wellesley College which only reinforced that belief. Since that time, I have sought out mentors and many folks who are smarter than me to help me on my path. I have also committed to communities of women – starting them, joining them and actively participating in keeping them going. Today, I run several communities and participate in others including the International Women’s Forum, a global community of 7000 women leaders from all walks of life. They inspire me every day to keep stretching and growing.

WIW: That sounds very intentional and focused. How would you describe your personal approach to leadership?

DB: People would tell you that I’m a straightforward, no BS, tell-it-like it is kind of gal. I believe in really clear communication and no hidden agendas. I like to work with people with a great “say-do ratio” (if you say you’re going to do it, then do it). I try hard to live by that rule myself. I get a lot done and for me variety is key. I never want a day like the one I had the day before. I am usually quite optimistic and believe that I can make a difference and I am personally driven to leave a legacy that matters.

WIW: How has that evolved over the years?

DB: I am more laid back than I used to be…okay at least a little bit! I still fight hard for the underdog and I am still very committed to championing women, but perhaps I have found additional ways to do that which are a big softer and more graceful than they were in my younger years. I do admit I used to have very high antennae for any possible slights against women and their capacities in the workplace and I would come down hard on any perceived slights. I’ve mellowed a bit, fortunately! Today, I try to laugh more and take it a bit easier on others and on myself.

WIW: As you have become more laid back and laugh a little more, what was an “aha” that lead you be the type of leader you are today?

DB: I was in a board retreat for a non-profit organization with one of my mentors. It was a day-long meeting and I was so impressed by her calm way of interacting, her judicious way of speaking only when her words could move the conversation forward, and her thoughtful insights. She helped me to realize that it is not about quantity but quality of participation that really matters. It is a lesson I keep pushing myself to remember.

WIW: Having a mentor is a powerful development tool. So is having a role model. Who do you admire and model yourself after?

DB: I model myself on many different people, I think there is much to learn from everyone! One of my mentors, Sam Horn, taught me to value my voice as a professional speaker and author and now I share those ideas with others. Another, Mary LoVerde, taught me the importance of rituals and connections and to trust my spiritual side. There are many others, but I have the good fortune to be in a mastermind group with the 2 of them who have been instrumental in my growth and development over the last 7 years. And, they are super-fun as well!

WIW: Those are very valuable lessons to learn. What else have you learned along the way?

DB: My style doesn’t work for everyone and can get me in trouble – because I don’t take any BS and do not suffer fools (or mansplaining) gracefully. However, I have also learned that at times my style is just what is needed in a group setting because I do call out bad behavior with no hesitation and others can’t or don’t. They often thank me for my willingness to do so, which always surprises me. I think it’s hard to appreciate our own gifts.

WIW: How would you like to see your leadership style continue to evolve in the future?

DB: I’m still working on patience. It’s never been my strong suit and if I can be more patient, I know it will serve me well. I am learning to be (more) patient with myself too and work hard to eliminate the “itty bitty shitty committee” in my brain that can be too negative and pessimistic.

WIW: So powerful to take the time to think about what you want and how to get there. Some of that comes from observation and some of it comes from trial and error. Can you give us an example of a particularly difficult leadership situation and how you handled it?

DB: There have been many difficult leadership situations over the years but one that comes to me right away was my last year in the tech industry. I was working with a senior leadership team that didn’t have their ethics aligned with mine and there were several times when I had to stand up for doing things more ethically – eventually resulting in me leaving the company. One thing I learned in my career is always have some F-U money in the bank, so that you can walk away. It is easy to see how you can get swept up in a hairy mess if you don’t have other options.

WIW: Being able to stand up for what you believe in is not always easy. That holds true for a lot of women as they try to be strong leaders to you. What does female leadership mean to you?

DB: It means women who “will” – women who will step forward and show the way; women who will take a position of authority; women who will choose what’s right; women who will create a better future for themselves, their families, their communities and the world. And, it means a world that empowers women to know that they can and should stand up as leaders by providing them education, resources, confidence, and opportunities to be in leadership roles.

WIW: “Will” is all about the drive and fervor to get what you want. What does supporting women to get there mean to you?

DB: A number of years ago, there was a global study known as the GEM Study that was trying to assess what were the key factors between when a country moved from third world status to first world status. At the beginning of the study, they believed the key factors were things like climate, natural resources, government, etc., but instead they learned that when funding went to women, the country prospered and when it didn’t, the country never moved forward. They learned that when women receive money, they invest in children, community and church and when men receive money, they invest in booze, babes and betel nuts. (I always liked the alliteration of that.) This was just proof of what I’d always believed – that women, left to their own devices, will invest in what matters and will create a path forward not just for themselves but also for others, for the whole community.

WIW: What do we need to do as a collective to allow for female leaders to thrive? DB: More education, more leadership opportunities, more encouragement, more championing of women. We also need to continue to showcase more women leaders, as you are doing here. It starts with all of us championing and celebrating each other every day.

WIW: We definitely want to celebrate and showcase successful female leaders! What do you believe are the biggest challenges that women face today that keep them from success?

DB: The governing forces in many countries are pushing us backwards – for example taking away our rights to decide what’s right for our own bodies through withdrawing access to birth control and abortion. This should be our #1 focus as far as political power – only support/elect pro-choice candidates and also, if you’re pro-choice, I hope you’ll run for office. We can all give our $$ to women’s choice causes and elected officials who are committed to preserving and helping us regain our rights.

WIW: We can’t thank you enough for all of these great insights and tips. Do you have any particular advice you’d give to a young woman trying to grow herself?

DB: I think the key piece of this question is that it needs to be her leadership style – meaning that while we can learn from others and take ideas from others, we must find our own path forward by experimenting, observing, regularly learning more about ourselves and being willing to ask for advice and counsel. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s better not to go to people and ask for their “help” as that puts you in a one-down position. Instead, ask for their “advice and counsel” as that puts you on an equal footing.

WIW: Anything else you want to share to inspire great leadership from our readers?

DB: One of my early mentors taught me that leadership is really made up of three things – execution, relationships, and vision. When we get hired, we are often recruited for our ability to execute – get things done. Over time, we learn that it is our relationships that help us be most effective – knowing who to call, understanding the importance of delegating and having the skills to work together with lots of different folks. But we really turn the corner as leaders when we can step up to the third part of the equation – vision. We need to be the one setting the path forward and enrolling others to go in that direction with us. My favorite article that helps explain this is Women and the Vision Thing by Herminia Ibarra. Well worth a read.

Thank you, Denise for all of your words of wisdom and inspiration. It is so important to look inside to see what we want and to not be afraid to go after that. Whether that means seeking advice from others or empowerment to have the “will” to get there or the vision to rise up. Regardless, we know now that we all have a voice and an opportunity to always grow.

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