Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. For the next few weeks, we’ll be talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, and about Brody Moments (from Jaws’ Police Chief Brody and his famous line “you’re going to need a bigger boat”) related to the coronavirus.
Today we talk with Sharon Callahan, Chief Client Officer at Omnicom Health Group, Chairperson of TBWA\WORLDHEALTH, and CEO of CDM Agencies. Her 30+ years of healthcare marketing and communications includes strategic skills developed in consumer and professional advertising, medical education, clinical programs, publishing and digital. She currently sits on the boards of the Coalition for Healthcare Communication, the Arthritis Foundation, Women Against Alzheimer’s, the 4A’s Government Relations Committee and is vice-chair of the LGBTQ Victory Fund. In April 2018, Medical Advertising News recognized Callahan as “Industry Person of the Year” for her strong business leadership and substantial contributions to the advertising and healthcare industries.
David and David: Can you give us an example and context on a specific Brody Moment from your past?
Sharon: About 10 years into my career, I was faced with a big, uncomfortable life decision. In 1996, there were not many gay women out in the workplace or having kids. I wasn’t in the closet at the time, but being a pregnant lesbian wasn’t something I was dying to tell my conservative clients. I was on a successful career path, but I realized that if I was more open and honest with myself, it would create a better future. My soon-to-be-born son deserved no less. That decision changed the course of my career because it forced me to become much more vulnerable and true to myself. And that’s been the most essential leadership trait I’ve been able to draw upon ever since.
David and David: What do you think are some of the Brody Moments leaders are experiencing today, in the context of the pandemic?
Sharon: The marketplace and employees are demanding brutal honesty from leaders, while also asking for hope in a way that’s credible. That’s a very different way of being for many leaders. Few are accustomed to addressing people’s fears, and we haven’t really seen this level of aggressive transparency before. Leaders are pivoting their style to remain successful and to ensure that people continue to follow them. We all just had the future land in our lap, and there is no guidebook.
David and David: During the pandemic, how, if at all, has your role as a leader and advisor changed?
Sharon: This crisis is creating a whole new future and that’s been challenging and scary for me because I’m used to having a clear picture of what’s ahead, and now I don’t. People are hungry for their leaders to tell them what the future will look like, but right now you have to be vulnerable and say “I don’t know, so let’s pause and figure it out from here.” There’s no pretending that this is temporary and that you have the answers.
Working remotely has been particularly challenging because I became the new CEO of a company in March, just as the crisis was starting. I didn’t know anyone, and the task was to lead a turnaround, reset purpose, and redefine values. I think that working virtually, it’s still pretty easy to maintain a culture and sense of transparency and honesty with people you already know. But with people you don’t know, it means you have to amp up that level of transparency and honesty so much more. You need to be present, regularly check-in with people, talk to them, and get the pulse of what’s happening. That has been exhausting. It requires a level of energy and intention that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced in my career. It can be done, but only if you are also taking time to recharge and take care of yourself. You can’t be good for others if you’re not good to yourself.
David and David: What do you see ahead with respect to a “new normal” after the crisis is over?
Sharon: Situations and challenges are changing daily, which requires everyone to become more comfortable with uncertainty and able to tackle rapid change head-on. We’ve been hearing about the need to be agile for a long time, and now you have no choice. If you’re not wired that way, it will be tough going forward.
There’s also a leveling that’s happening between people. I was recently onboarding a new client - a very high-powered person who always shows up perfectly and is very much in control - and she was going on and off camera, shushing her daughter who kept showing up in the background. I stopped the meeting to ask her if it would be better if we met that night, after her daughter went to bed. I said “It looks like you have your hands full. My kids are older and I don’t have the same pressures.” That’s what I believe is required going forward: someone saying that they understand what you're going through. We’re all just people and maybe the future brings that into sharper focus for all of us.
David and David: And what do you see ahead for women in leadership specifically?
Sharon: I just did a round-table for the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, with women who had just won important awards - rising stars and luminaries in healthcare. I went around and asked them what they had done to promote their award and, without exception, every one of them said they didn’t really make a big deal of it. They put it on LinkedIn or the company sent out an announcement, but that was about it. Women are still raised to be humble, and unfortunately, when you’re humble you become invisible. In business, you have to be visible to be valued, because if no one knows who you are, then it doesn’t really matter what you’ve done.
Leaders are made in times like this. But our current circumstances make people even less visible than usual, so women are going to have to be that much more assertive to be seen.
David and David: Any other advice you can offer? Parting words?
Sharon: We’ve all been suffering a lot of burdens, and also receiving some amazing, unforeseen gifts. This has been a defining time in everyone’s journey; a shared, global experience of change and of struggling through emotions. We’ve had to be resilient and endure, and now we have to endure more. I look forward to the world becoming kinder and more understanding as a result. I hope we don’t let that go.
Original article posted on Forbes on July 6, 2020
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