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Why great leaders get emotional

In this week’s “Women in Charge” series, Lego Group CMO Julia Goldin, chats with Mika Brzezinski about her leadership style, navigating her 1,800-person team through a global pandemic, her career journey and more.
Julia Goldin, Global Chief Product and Marketing Officer at the LEGO Group.
Julia Goldin, Global Chief Product and Marketing Officer at the LEGO Group.Courtesy of LEGO Group.

Many leaders, particularly women, tend to hide their emotions in attempt to look strong and keep things at arm’s length. Not Julia Goldin.

The global chief product and marketing officer at Lego Group says being an emotional leader is an asset to her management style and helps her connect and communicate powerfully and effectively with her 1,800-person team.

“I really believe that it's important to be yourself,” Goldin said in a recent interview with Know Your Value founder and “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski. “I don't hide away from how I feel about things. And if I feel really upset about something, I will voice it. If I'm feeling really happy about something, I will voice it as well. But for me being an emotional leader is also being sensitive to people and their emotions.”

She continued, “20 years ago, people would say ‘you're too emotional, you react too emotionally to things,’ but I don't think that there's a right or wrong way to lead … For me, it really works.”

Goldin, 52, started at Lego Group in 2014 and previously was global chief marketing officer at Revlon and before that spent 13 years with the Coca-Cola Company, where she held several senior global and regional marketing roles.

She chatted with Brzezinski about her leadership style, navigating her team through Covid-19, her career journey and more.

Below is their conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Mika Brzezinski: I just kicked off a huge campaign with Forbes magazine, celebrating 50 women over 50. I'm wondering if you ever envisioned or planned your career after the age of 50 in your mind when you were younger.

Julia Goldin: I thought 50 was old when I was young … But what I'm finding now is 50 is the new 40 or the new 30. I feel very vibrant. I don't feel old. I think I can bring more to the table now than I ever have before ...

Brzezinski: It's so funny, almost every woman that I've interviewed, especially the women who made the list, they had the same answer. It was white space in their brains, like it was just not something that came to their mind at all. They often thought about their 20s, 30s, 40s, and having kids and trying to plan — but not after 50. And I agree with you. I feel like I have so much more energy. Like my kids are grown and I'm sitting here doing twice as much as I used to do because I can.

I'm curious, is there anything about your background, including being an immigrant, that prepared you for the job that you have today and to be able to adapt to new situations in the workplace?

Goldin: … I never planned for any of it because when I was 13, I said the world was completely closed to me [when I was growing up in St. Petersburg, Russia]. I didn't think I would have any opportunities.

… I came to the states [when I was 13 years old], and we were super poor. So, I didn't really think that I would have an opportunity to be on the world stage, meaning having a global job, running a big global brand, being able to impact so many different things. So, I didn't plan for it.

Every step of the way, I came as an underdog, and I think this was the kind of immigrant mindset, you know, having gone through being really poor, being marginalized, misunderstood, feeling like the stupidest person in the room because I didn't speak the language. I never came into anything as a sort of designated winner, as a person who was supposed to be getting the job, who was supposed to be getting into a top school.

… I think I kind of have this resilience in me to have to fight in order to survive, but to thrive and to find my way. I'm super adaptable to change but also, I need change. I like change …

One of the things that now we talk so much about is diversity, inclusivity and being able to appreciate differences. I’ve actually experienced that a lot, during childhood and the immigration process. Secondly, because I was always putting myself into different situations, in different cultures — I would sort of thrive in that. I can really appreciate how to see and understand the differences that different people are bringing …

Brzezinski: You know, my parents were immigrants from Poland and what was Czechoslovakia. They have a resilience that they taught me. And I noticed here in America, there was such an emphasis on having a nice house and everything being perfect. And my parents didn't care about any of that. They were constantly focused because they fought so hard to get here.

Going back to what you call your “emotional leadership” style, I call it passion. I'm very passionate about what I'm doing, and I feel it. I feel like showing that is not a bad thing. And I sometimes think women have been a little hesitant about showing their feelings.

Goldin: I think it's also OK to be sensitive, because if you are sensitive, then you might be sensitive to how your words might affect others.

Brzezinski: I think it's important, and I often advise women to be sensitive to what you need and to express it. I think women struggle with asking for what they need. Employers can't read your mind. And for some reason, women feel guilty about this. Can you talk a little bit about asking for what you need, whether it be travel or working from home or whatever it is. Do you struggle with that? And what's your advice to women?

Goldin: Of course I struggle with it. I see it in myself and also see it in others.

… My first pregnancy, I felt really apologetic about the fact that I was pregnant. And I was literally working like minutes before my C-section, and I was back to work six weeks later. I was so apologetic, like “Oh my God, I'm going to be away.” And then, eight-and-a-half years later when I had my second son, I took four months. I was in Japan. I thought that I deserved it and that I needed that time.

I push myself to ask for things for myself. It's not natural to me. And I don't like asking ... One thing that women should work on is to be much more confident and comfortable. They deserve the same as they would like to do for others, because if anybody works on their team, they would want that person to be healthy, to be happy, to take care of themselves, to be balanced, to take care of their life, to have what they need in order to be safe. And you need to be happy in your life in order to get successful … It’s the job of a leader or a manager to help them feel comfortable.

Brzezinski: I think you've reflected how a lot of women feel. It's a discomfort. Women need to realize you can’t grow unless you have what you need. It's simple, but women really feel guilty about asking for what they need, while men just take it … I think a lot of us have made it to very high positions despite these issues. And we can make it an easier road for women coming after us, if they learn how to effectively ask for what they need.

I'm curious about how the past year was for your, with the pandemic and our country’s racial reckoning. What did you learn about yourself as a leader?

Goldin: … I think I experienced my best leadership moments during the pandemic, even though I couldn't do certain things because my team is all over the world and I couldn’t travel…

What I learned was the importance of authenticity. And then I would go back to the emotional leadership because I started to share very early on what I was feeling, what was I experiencing … That suddenly made [people in my organization] realize that I was a person just like them and that I have new issues, that I have problems with children being at home and combining that with work, that I have problems with having an older teenager … worries about my elderly … It made me real to them, and I think that was a very important part of the leadership.

The other thing is of course prioritization was absolutely key and crucial because you have to acknowledge the fact that you just couldn't carry on the same load of work that you could when everybody was going to the office and school … I am the kind of person who goes for unicorns, but you have to really go for what's real, what's here, what's now.

… [Regarding] Black Lives Matter, I was in London, but my team was in Denmark. This happened in the U.S., and we felt very quickly that we wanted to respond, but with action … We committed and donated $4 million to organizations to supporting marginalized Black kids.

In some way, it was very much about prioritization — being able to mobilize fast and react quickly, focusing on what needed to get done.

… The brand was very powerful last year and continues to be. I'm very proud of the work that my team managed to do, because we launched all the products and campaigns we planned, despite the fact that everybody was at home. So for me, the big learning was about the role of the leader to support and enable. Not just to set the vision … but also to be there to help people and bridge whatever was needed to support them …