Though the path to success looks different across different fields and industries, there are a few common denominators, like aspiring to "get to the top," yearning for autonomy, and being able to feel passionate every day. And each of these things usually involves being a leader in some shape or form. Whether we're talking about managing a team of people, being our own boss, starting a business, or even just inspiring our peers, effective leadership is key to success.
Some are born to lead, and some fall into leadership roles serendipitously, learning as they go, but however they get there, good leaders are pretty heroic. In fact, they make their jobs look easy when that's far from the truth. So to find out what it actually takes to get there, and to learn what qualities and skills are essential to the job, we asked women from a range of industries and backgrounds to share their wisdom with us.
Specifically, we spoke with Vikki Johnson, senior managing director at global commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield; Massah David and Miatta David Johnson, co-founders of leading creative agency MVD; and Alex Williamson, chief of brand at the dating app Bumble. Read through to learn about the less glamorous side of leadership, the qualities it takes to be successful, and the inspiring stories of how each woman made it.
VIKKI JOHNSON, Senior Managing Director at Cushman & Wakefield
How She Got Where She Is Today: Like many people fresh out of college, Vikki Johnson changed her mind a lot. "I started out in college as an English and psychology major, expecting to become a child advocacy lawyer, and worked for various law firms as a legal assistant and as a court reporter," she says. "At one point, I realized the road was too hard and I wasn't cut out for it emotionally, so I began looking around for what to do with the rest of my life." She dabbled in venture capital ("too dry") and ended up answering an ad in the paper for a retail real estate developer.
"I had no idea what that was, nor had I ever given any thought to how stores were built or occupied their spaces, etc., but I always loved looking at buildings and would go into every open house on weekends daydreaming about how I would fix it or redevelop it," she tells us.
It ended up paying off, as she immediately took to the business. "It had all the components that I enjoyed: the creative aspect—working with architectural plans (without needing to be an architect), the study of stores and merchandising—and my legal background, which gave me a leg up on reading and interpreting legal documents. I'm a believer that a person is good at what they enjoy and enjoys what they're good at, and it was the realization that I could be good at this… and enjoy doing it. I found that instead of my brain clicking off at 5 p.m., I was visualizing moving walls, creating space, reading leases, and running different economic scenarios."
Read through our conversation below.
The Key Qualities of Good Leaders: "Integrity, which is a balance of wisdom, honesty, and a sense of humor. And don't take yourself too seriously, but be the one others can come to for learning and leaning. Also, don't betray confidences."
Her Mantras: "Pick your battles, and don't be frustrated when your own expectations aren't met."
Advice to Other Leaders: "Leaders generally have bigger leaders they have to answer to, so being goal-oriented is important, but you'll achieve better results if you work as a team and everyone can share in the win. Everyone has something at which they excel or can contribute, so finding that in each person and placing them in a position to utilize the best of their abilities builds self-confidence and inspiration."
The Biggest Challenge: "Meeting everyone's expectations and needs. Trying to maneuver through a field of different personalities and managing conduct. Setting boundaries and following through."
"Don't be afraid to teach someone to follow in your footsteps even if they may one day surpass you." — Vikki Johnson
On the Difference Between Leadership and Success: "It's kind of like being a platoon leader: You have to show the infantry how to fight so they can save themselves and be an asset to the team. Don't be afraid to teach someone to follow in your footsteps, even if they may one day surpass you."
On Her Mentor: "Margaret Thatcher—she was fierce, but even her enemies respected her."
On the Best Advice She's Ever Received: "Know what not to work on. As commissioned agents, and as women, we tend to run in response to every request or take on every assignment offered up, mostly because we want to meet someone's expectations or in many cases just because we want to keep our competitors from winning the business. But time spent is all you have by which to measure your success, so spend it wisely."
MIATTA AND MASSAH, Founders of MVD Inc
How They Got Where They Are Today: Before sisters Massah David and Miatta David Johnson founded their own creative agency, they dabbled in a few other jobs. "I was actually in school at Howard University, and I couldn't find a major that was going to teach me what I wanted to learn about, which was the music business, Massah tells us. "I felt like I'd be better off getting hands-on experience, so I dropped out of school and moved to New York with basically no money. It got to a point when I couldn't support myself, and my mom told me I had to go back to school or come back home.
I moved into the projects because I wanted to stay in New York to figure it out, and I worked my way up."
When she was working in marketing at a label, she was also working a side gig with her sister, coming up with concepts for events and campaigns, and working with artists like Kanye. Meanwhile, Miatta was just getting started as a financial reporter. "I was excited about it at first, but after a couple of years, I just knew that it wasn't my calling, so I started to moonlight as a publicist, helping my friends who were artists. Because I was a reporter, I was hearing pitches all day long from publicists and learned the field that way.
Once I started moonlighting, I realized it was something I loved doing, and a few of my friends who were artists suggested I start my own business," Miatta tells MyDomaine.
The Key Qualities of Good Leaders: "You have to be extremely persistent. We heard so many nos, and people didn't think we were going to make it. Without being resourceful and aggressively persistent, not taking no for an answer, and constantly learning, we wouldn't have made it," Miatta tells us. "It not only takes a lot of grit to be a leader, but you have to be a resilient person of integrity." Massah agrees: "Both of our personalities are very strong, and we're both determined and driven. And if you don't have a vision of your overarching goal, it's difficult to lead."
Massah's Mantra: "Stay true to who you are."
Miatta's Mantra: "Block out the noise."
The Biggest Challenges: "When you don't have a lot of females in your industry, you have to create a tribe. That was extremely important, and I don't think we would've made it without having that core girl gang to help us go through the murky waters," says Miatta. And "sometimes you have to make decisions that may not be popular, but you have to do what is necessary. It took me years to come to terms with that," Miatta explains. "A personality flaw I had to overcome was to not take things personally," says Massah.
Another challenge was learning how to delegate. "I can't be everywhere, and the minute you think you can be is when things fall through the cracks," Massah tells us.
"The responsibility of any leader is to inspire in some way, shape, or form—whether it be through their tenacity, rebellion, precision, or sheer drive to see their vision realized." — Massah David
Most Exciting Project to Be Part Of: "The campaign we worked on with the California Endowment that worked on a project called 'Schools Not Prisons.' We helped land various artists to be part of the campaign and help facilitate. Common, Miguel, J. Cole. It was just life-changing to witness it and change the narrative," Miatta tells us.
On the Difference Between Leadership and Success: "If you've been blessed with a platform or have people that look up to you, that comes with a certain level of responsibility. Being a role model doesn't mean you have to be perfect; you just have to be real," Miatta believes. For Massah, "It depends. I think we need to re-examine the criteria for a 'role model.' But I do think the responsibility of any leader is to inspire in some way, shape, or form—whether it be through their tenacity, rebellion, precision, or sheer drive to see their vision realized."
ALEX WILLIAMSON, Cheif of Brand at Bumble
How She Got Where She Is Today: Before Alex Williamson joined the original team at Bumble, she majored in film and was involved in the freelance world, doing casting, makeup, hair, and wardrobe. "I loved to write and act, all of which helped me tremendously while overseeing the content for Bumble," she tells us. "Right before we launched Bumble, I worked at e-commerce startup called Accessory Concierge in Dallas, which helped equip me with many of the tools needed to manage the startup life," she tells us.
"I was the third hire at Bumble, before the product actually launched," she continues. In the early days, she was "managing social media and helped create the brand's voice, and within three weeks, my three-month contract was extended to a full-time position. Bumble launched in December 2014, and my role has grown and evolved in the past three years. I've had more titles at Bumble than I can remember!"
Read through our conversation below.
The Key Qualities of Good Leaders: "You have to be a good listener, you have to be open, and you have to be empathetic. I think good leaders surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are and empower them to become confident in their choices. I also think good leaders aren't possessive of accomplishments or precious with their time or their work. On a team, everyone is in it together. Wins should be celebrated and handed to the team, never owned by one person."
The Challenges: "I'm so lucky that I get to travel often to share Bumble's mission, but I think that's a little less glamorous than it appears to be. Long days, packed schedules, and spending time away from the ones I love can definitely be challenging. I also think one of the most stressful parts of being a leader is making sure everyone on your team is happy and has the support they need to be successful."
"So many told us that women wouldn't make the first move, and our app wouldn't be successful. But we found a way to move forward and create the empowering brand that Bumble is today." — Alex Williamson
On the Difference Between Leadership and Success: "I think leaders should be the biggest cheerleaders for the company, its employees, and its users. We work so hard to have an upbeat, kind company culture. Creating space for everyone to feel empowered and an office where people enjoy being around each other and spending time is one of the most important aspects of leadership.
Her Mentor: "My mom! She's a breast cancer survivor, the kindest woman I’ve ever known, and probably my favorite fashion blogger. The strength that she had through that journey taught me so much about being a leader."
Best Advice She's Ever Received: "Whitney has always said 'Don't take no for an answer.' At the beginning of Bumble, so many told us that women wouldn't make the first move, and our app wouldn't be successful. But we found a way to move forward and create the empowering brand that Bumble is today."