on forging your path and not taking "no" for an answer
Heather is best known for co-founding Egg Strategy– a successful marketing strategy agency that she led for 16 years. She was able to retire last year after growing Egg to include three offices, in Boulder, Chicago, and New York City, and developing an impressive portfolio of cutting-edge consumer insight and strategy work for brands including Hershey’s, Neutrogena, Clinique, and Remy Martin. She now teaches marketing classes to lucky undergrads in the business school at CU Boulder (and will soon be teaching innovation – her sweet spot).
Her path started long before her time at Egg, though. Her story is one of reaching for ambitious goals, not taking “no” for an answer, and believing in herself against the odds. She had to overcome personal and professional obstacles to create a great life and career for herself, which you’ll learn about below. In addition to her inspiring story, I also got the goods on her philosophies on leaning in and advancing one’s career. Read on…
1. BELIEVE IN YOUR POWER TO CREATE THE LIFE YOU WANT
Heather got married when she was still in college, which wasn’t all that uncommon at the time. A few years later, her marriage started to crack and at the age of 29, she found herself divorced with a little boy to support, and a fairly worthless degree in Art History. She had an urgent realization that she needed to figure out how she was going to support her little family.
She decided that an advanced degree was in order, so she studied hard and did well on the GMAT, and got into the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. For most of the three years she was in her program, she attended classes at night and worked out of her house during the day raising her son and doing graphic design. (Talk about grit...)
When one of her advisors at Kellogg told her that she was too old to get into advertising, she set out to prove him wrong. Weeks later, when she received her acceptance letter from her target advertising firm, Leo Burnett, she marched down to her advisor’s office and taped the letter to his door along with a note that said, “Don’t ever tell anyone that they can’t do something.”
Her persistence and moxie remind me of a quote that I recently came across by Oprah Winfrey. She said, “I am where I am because I always believed I could get here.”
She didn’t let setbacks constrict her world around her — she believed in herself and her abilities, and whole-heartedly pursued what she wanted. It would have been easy for her to feel like a victim of her circumstances following her divorce, or to reign in her goals following the discouraging feedback from her advisor, but she doubled down and pursued her objectives with all her energy.
We all have the power to develop this type of grit in our own lives. It requires making the decision to believe in our abilities over and over, with each new challenge, so that we can keep driving toward our goals. (Remember, beliefs are just habitual thoughts.)
2. DON'T TAKE "NO" FOR AN ANSWER
Refusing to take “no” for an answer is a theme in Heather’s career. After excelling at Leo Burnett, she moved to the brand side and had successes with all sorts of consumer products companies, including food, household products, spirits, and pharma.
My favorite story that she shared with me is from her time at Kellogg’s.
She had research that showed that people purchase a surprisingly large amount of their Rice Krispies to make Rice Krispy Treats. Given this info, Heather knew that she could grow the brand by encouraging people tomake more treats. Her idea was to create festive-colored Rice Krispies that people could easily use to make even more special-looking Rice Krispy Treats (with that “oooh-ahhh payback factor”) around the holidays.
History has proven that this idea was genius, but at the time, she got major push back.
But, she didn’t back down. Heather knew that the idea was worth fighting for.
So, without any support from her immediate higher-up, she got the right people on her side to figure out the formulation and how to put holiday Rice Krispies into testing and then production. In the first year — without any advertising — the Christmas colored Rice Krispies flew off the shelves. They became an important part of the portfolio for years.
Heather’s refusal to take “no” for an answer with the Holiday Rice Krispies resulted in a big win for Kellogg’s, but it was definitely a risky move.
That brings me to the next takeaway…
3. WORK WITHIN THE CORPORATE CULTURE
Heather has often been called a “change agent” in her career. She told me she thinks that label might be a little strong, but I suspect she is just being humble based on her advice:
“You need to believe in yourself. Be cognizant of the corporate culture, but be willing to push sacred cows out of the way – in a way that’s acceptable. There are times when getting your opinion out there will result in you being taken much more seriously and respected.”
A lot of Heather’s success has to do with the fact that she spoke up. She bravely stood by her ideas and vision because she knew they would have an impact for the company. Speaking up and advocating for her ideas allowed her to be seen as a leader, and she was able to accomplish great things throughout her career as a result.
If you aspire to leadership, you need to believe in your ideas and abilities and make your voice heard — and, there is a careful balance to strike.
It sure is appealing to zero in on that sexy part that says, “be willing to push sacred cows out of the way”, but don’t overlook the fact that it’s sandwiched between two really important statements.
It is critical to promote your agenda in a way that is acceptable within your company’s corporate culture. You need to use discernment to know when to push the boundaries, and when to pick your battles.
One more thing on the subject: don’t forget that if you want to make changes, you need to bring people along with you. Heather never could have brought her festive Rice Krispies to market without the support of a handful of people in other departments that believed in her vision. You need buy-in from others to become an effective “change agent”.