Design leader interview series: Heather Stern
By Lilly Smith
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Design leader interview series: Heather Stern
By Lilly Smith
Design leader interview series: Heather Stern
By Lilly Smith
Header Image

For AIGA Women Lead’s first interview series, we sat down with women pioneers at colleges, design studios, agencies, and large companies to share their unique stories: the journey from mentee to mentor, frank assessments of women and the design field today, and how they’ve demonstrated a commitment to gender equity in the workplaces they now lead.

As Chief Marketing and Talent Officer at the creative consultancy Lippincott, Heather Stern hasn’t been one to shy away from challenges. In fact, over the arc of her career (which spans from the literary to branding and marketing), she has embraced them. But what happens when the biggest challenge is yourself? In conversation with AIGA executive director Julie Anixter, Stern answers this question and more: how to confront the “imposter syndrome” that holds many women back, why you should never say “no” to an opportunity (even if you think you’re not interested), and why you have to be discerning in the advice you take—because sometimes those voices are just noise on the way to the top.

What does Lippincott do and what do you do?

Lippincott is a creative consultancy. We work with leading companies around the world to help them shape their businesses for the future through the power of brand, design, innovation, and organizational engagement.

We were founded over 70 years ago and for many years, we were the best-kept secret in the industry. People didn’t always know us by name but they knew our work—the Campbell’s soup can, the American Express blue box, the Delta experience, the Starbucks siren, and so and on.

My job is to ensure that the world not only knows our work, but knows the unique firm behind it—to raise awareness for our incredible talent, our cutting-edge ideas, and the impact that we have on the companies we work with and on the industry at large.

A few months ago I was given the chance to take on an expanded role in overseeing the people side of the company, encompassing talent development, recruiting, HR, and culture. We always refer to the notion of “wearing many hats” in our jobs, but in this case, as Chief Marketing and Talent Officer, I really do wear two distinct hats.

Since I first took on this expanded role, and still today, my title is met sometimes with quizzical looks or the occasional, “Really? How are you planning to do both of those things?” I do wonder at times if I wasn’t a woman whether I would get the same reaction, and in a new role that kind of talk can make you question yourself and your abilities. But I try not to feed into that. At Lippincott, being the head of marketing and being the head of talent has many synergies. At the end of the day, we’re a human capital business and people and relationships are at the heart of it all.

That’s not to say that taking this on was not a challenge, and as with taking on any new role, I gave myself the time learn, to listen, and to make mistakes. But I also just dove in, because I believe in our capacity to take on more than people think we can. To knock it out of the park when they’re expecting a single or double at best. And at Lippincott, that’s what we do. So now when people give me that raised eyebrow or ask me point blank, “How are you going to succeed at that?”, I answer “Watch me.”

Well, clearly you have achieved a seat at a table in the creative world. How did you get to this role?

When I look back on my career thus far, I see all of these twists and turns. They add up to this picture of my “career path” that kind of makes sense, but the truth is that when you start out, you really can’t know exactly what you want, what you’ll excel in, or what opportunities might come your way. I’ve had the good fortune of having mentors who believed in me, took the time to teach me, and pushed me to do more. I also think I’m a natural leader and connector, an incredibly hard worker, and that my experiences collectively have afforded me some great learning to get me to where I am.

So, how did I get here? I studied English and majored in philosophy; I always was attracted to the arts, literature, and music. When I graduated, I got connected through a friend to author and journalist Gail Sheehy, who was contributing editor to Vanity Fair and known for writing the book “Passages” in the ’70s. Her husband Clay Felker started New York Magazine. It was thrilling to work for the literary elite.

Gail was an early role model of what a powerful woman could be and do. She has an insatiable drive, confidence, curiosity, and a “don’t take no for an answer” attitude. I worked for her while she was writing a biography on Hillary Clinton who had just announced her candidacy for Senator of New York. It was an exciting ride but there came a point where I knew it was time to move on.

I ended up at Elias Arts, which was known for pioneering audio and sound design in commercials and film—think Ridley Scott’s Alien trailer, MTV’s “Man on the Moon” riff, and Apple’s 1984 commercial. They were starting a branding division and I was their marketing and communications manager. I was also introduced to this opportunity by a friend.

I learned the power of branding and the critical role it plays in organizations, and I got a taste of working on multi-disciplinary teams, which inspired me to seek out future roles that equally valued left-brain and right-brain thinking.

My most recent position before Lippincott was leading marketing in North America for WPP’s Millward Brown. With 85 offices in 55 countries, I had a fast-paced education in global brand building, and it offered me a large marketing platform and a global network of colleagues to learn from. And, at the time, both our regional CEO and our Global CEO were amazing female business leaders—Mary Ann Packo and Eileen Campbell—so that was also part of my passion for the job. I soaked in so much during my time and got to a point in my career where I felt that I had “made it.”

When I got a call from Lippincott about a new position they were filling for CMO, I wasn’t even going to take the meeting. But I did, and each time I went back to Lippincott, spent time with the people there, and learned more about its rich history, I became more excited. It goes to show you that you should never say no to a conversation about a new opportunity, even if you’re 100 percent sure, as I was, that you’re not interested.

I think there’s a great lesson here for younger women about letting your curiosity and your intuition go, trusting them, and being willing to try new things. With this in mind, what do you think is most challenging for women in the creative industries?

I’m not sure that women in the creative field face anything different from women in other fields. Across the board, it’s a challenge to overcome old stereotypes about what women can and can’t do or should and shouldn’t do. It’s a challenge to walk the fine line between being seen as an ambitious leader but not being seen as too aggressive. Between playing to our inherent strengths as compassionate and nurturing individuals but not being seen as too soft.

We have to learn to see ourselves in the fullest, best way possible. It’s up to us to push forward versus holding ourselves back.

I look around and I see so many accomplished and successful women in our field, and that’s empowering. As much talk as there is about the competition that exists amongst us, I’ve experienced the opposite. It’s the women around me who have been my biggest advocates and vice versa. They’re the ones who remind me that those voices are just a bunch of noise.

You’ve nailed something really important, which is our self-concept and our willingness to allow ourselves the space to not know everything, but to lead anyway. How does Lippincott create a culture that supports women?

Lippincott is a fast-paced, client-driven environment, but we’re a culture that values talent over gender or background. Our business is made up of many brilliant women at all levels, and we’re proud to offer employees the flexibility they need—from hours to the ability to work remotely, which for a working mom like myself (or a working dad for that matter), is invaluable.

We of course offer maternity leave but we also believe deeply in the importance that both parents should have the opportunity to take time off, so we also offer paternity leave. We participate in WOW (Women at Oliver Wyman), a resource and networking group from our parent company whose goal is to foster greater inclusion through programs, initiatives, and events. And Gender Thread is something that organically got started at Lippincott recently. It is an informal email exchange for people with an interest in gender-related topics, where they can openly share news stories, ideas, questions, and more.

We also lend pro-bono support to organizations like Project Entrepreneur, which provides women access to the tools, training, and networks needed to build impactful companies, and AIGA Women Lead, which I am so proud to be part of (and so grateful to Su Mathews Hale and Deborah Adler for making it possible).

But no culture is perfect and we’re continuing to learn and evolve to make sure we practice what we preach. It’s a charged time and there is a lot of energy, anxiety, strength, and fear running throughout many organizations. I feel a deep responsibility—as a talent leader, as a female leader, and as a leader in general—to connect and listen to the women and men in our organization to ensure we’re progressive in how we attract, retain, and develop our female talent to full potential.

You've had great mentors and role models. What have you learned from them about leadership?

You’ll get a lot of advice, solicited or not, and you need to decide which to act upon and which to ignore. For instance, someone early in my career told me my job in our upcoming client meeting was to “show up and shut up.” You might have guessed that I didn’t listen to that one.

But others have stuck with me, offered up by both men and women:

  • Be the kind of leader that is authentic to you.
  • If you’re gut says something is wrong, it probably is.
  • Have compassion.
  • Cherish your team.
  • Be bolder.
  • Stop apologizing.

And I love this one from Amelia Earhart: “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.”

To all those who are seeking to advance, I’d say this: find new ways to add value, take the time to build deep relationships and partnerships, be curious about the business well beyond your role, be indispensable to the teams that you work for, and stay open and positive. Those are many of the things that have helped me to get to where I am today.

What is the greatest challenge you've faced and how did you deal with it to become a leader?

This question made me smile because for me, and I think for many people, there isn’t a single challenge that I faced, overcame, and then “Voilà! I’m a leader!” We’re always trying to be the best version of ourselves and certainly as we get older and collect experiences, influences, and inspirations, we know more about our strengths, our weaknesses, and what our specific kind of leadership is.

What have you learned that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

What advice do you have for companies that want women leaders?

Hire them.

During Women’s history month, AIGA is launching the Gender Equity Toolkit, a cardgame and tool to address gender biases and encourage empathy in the workplace. We asked Stern to answer a question from the “Building Connections” section of the kit: What is the one professional thing you struggle with?

Establishing boundaries and knowing when to break them is a challenge many of us face. We are connected 24/7 and the energy of being “always on” can be addicting. Sometimes you have no choice but to go, go, go, but sometimes forcing yourself to take a step a back and take a small break—to not answer that one last email—is actually the most effective thing to do.

About Heather Stern

Heather SternHeather Stern is Chief Marketing and Talent Officer of Lippincott where she is responsible for pushing the boundaries of brand building while nurturing a strong culture through hiring and engaging talent. As the firm’s marketing leader, Heather elevates its visibility through best-in-class thought leadership campaigns, partnerships, and branded experiences. From SXSW to Cannes to Lippincott’s own curated exhibitions, Heather helps ignite the bold conversations for which Lippincott is known. A determined change agent, Heather is front and center as Lippincott expands its integrated capabilities across brand strategy, design, innovation, and organizational engagement. In her talent role, she is dedicated to nurturing cross-functional teams and serving as a trusted advisor to Lippincott’s employees around the world. Heather is a founding member of the AIGA Women Lead steering committee, which was established in 2014 to address biases and inequities in the design industry. She loves her work but is most proud of her role as a mom to two amazing boys.

Having a network—a real network, and not just a number of connections on LinkedIn, is the most powerful weapon in business. Continually meeting new people and proactively putting yourself out there is essential.
I had no intention of changing jobs… but I made the move and started again. You have to be able to learn a new business, learn a new culture, and prove yourself in new ways.
Sometimes our biggest challenge is ourselves. The “imposter syndrome” that so many of us grapple with is real (even as we get to senior levels), and there’s a little voice that says, “Maybe I should take a back seat.” “Maybe I shouldn’t say what I really think.” “Perhaps someone else might be better for the job than me.”