When Vanessa Kingori OBE got her promotion to Publishing Director of British Vogue, she became the first woman and Person of Color to hold that role in the brand’s 100-plus year history. It was a landmark achievement, as Kingori herself acknowledges:
Suddenly all these People of Color started reaching out and going, 'This is amazing, you're going to kill it!'. And then suddenly you're like - pressure! Most poignantly, I was the first woman. That really shocked everyone, including myself.
And then Kingori fell pregnant:
That was in my first year of that role, which was quite controversial. I remember a colleague saying to me, ‘What a disaster, all these years we've waited for a woman and now it's going to be so hard’.
I thought, 'Patriarchy is real'. But I made a public showing of being pregnant. I wanted to show that women can be in leadership roles and embrace the duality of our roles. I hope fathers and other parents do the same.
The experience guided Kingori, who is now Chief Business Officer at Condé Nast Britain and Vogue European Business Advisor, to lean into her identity much more. When you step into a new space, you have to make a choice, she argues - embrace who you are into that role when there’s no formula and you haven't seen anyone else do it; or try to walk the proven path in terms of following how others have done it.
This choice was especially important as the 10 brands Kingori was now running required a lot of change; more so, they included the brand that creates 50% of the firm’s revenue:
We have nine brands that generate 50% and one brand, Vogue, which creates 50%. Everybody wants this job to run Vogue, but no-one really wants to do the task, which is change the thing that pays all of our salaries and that everyone's watching so closely. The easiest thing to do is just do what was done before. No-one can criticize you, as that's how it's always done.”
However, Kingori decided on the former of the two choices, as she felt she’d always be a second-rate version of someone else:
I decided to embrace the level of disruption that creating change on such a big brand generates, and the pushback, because people who are winning tend to embrace change less. If people can see things are going wrong, they tend to say, I want on the life raft.
It was a real challenge for Kingori, one which required bringing her own specific attributes and skills forward rather than try to acquire others. Speaking at the Salesforce Trailblazing Women Summit in London, she recalls:
I embraced my femininity in using empathy, trying to listen, trying to bring kindness into the role, be very strong in my decision-making, use all of the attributes that I had.
Another lesson learned from her progression to the top is that leaders have to get comfortable with constant disruption. For a long time, the leadership path has been linear and followed a certain hierarchy: study here, get your first job, gather a wealth of knowledge that translates to power in leadership. Then sit at the top while everyone down below gets on with their jobs and defers to you for advice. She explains:
In this era of change and disruption, that model works less or doesn't work. We are constantly needing different people, new insights, people who have different experiences, who are younger, who may not have had the same level of exposure and experience, but are maybe more deeply entrenched in understanding an area of disruption. Leadership needs to have a fluidity to it and a constant learning, a constant interfacing, a constant exchange.
Mentorship and sponsorship is crucial when it comes to diversifying the C-Suite. Zahra Bahrololoumi, CEO at Salesforce UK & Ireland and herself a Woman of Color, argues that an initial issue is people often confuse mentorship - someone who shares their wisdom, lessons learned, and helps you realize your full potential - with sponsorship - somebody in a position of influence or power that can direct or control an outcome of your career. And you certainly don't find all that in one person, Bahrololoumi adds:
Throughout my career, where I've been disappointed in my immediate workplace and haven't had strong female role models to look up to, I sought it in clients. I worked with clients where they had strong female leaders who would make me question and help me think through some of the challenges or options ahead of me. Sponsors were the ones that really propelled me through my career.
If it hadn’t been for the support of a sponsor, Anne Stagg, CEO - UK CXM at Merkle & Dentsu, wouldn’t be in her current role. She explains:
I would never have applied for this job. When I was asked by a sponsor to consider taking the role, my instinctive reaction was that's not something I ever had in my plans.
While it turned out to be the best decision she could have made, it wasn't an easy move. This time, it was mentorship that led to success. In the first few months in her new role, Stagg had two mentors, who each brought very different advice. She explains:
They coached me into the role and made a huge difference to my success and the business outcomes. I'm now blessed to have two very strong female leaders who bring very different coaching and guidance for me.
This is now having a knock-on effect, as Stagg is ensuring she mentors other female and diverse talent in the business:
We pay it forward. We think deliberately about the people who perhaps are not naturally inclined to raise their hand. They need that community, they need line managers who will do that for them, who will brag on their behalf. Look for those people.
While the other panellists have benefited directly from mentors and sponsors, Kingori hasn’t had either in any official capacity. She says:
I've had lots of mentors, they just didn't always know they were my mentor. Some of them were just friends who I hung on every word.
Those numerous voices have proved equally important for Kingori’s progression, offering great examples of juggling family life, managing upward, emboldening a team, or just showing up in their identity:
On the point of diversity, when you are trying to step into a role that hasn't existed before or someone like you hasn't existed in that role, there is no one person who can tell you how to do that because no one's done it before. What I've observed from being first in roles is that you need a patchwork quilt of people. It's so important to listen to multiple voices and form your own quilt.