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Women in charge: NBCU's Linda Yaccarino

Yaccarino, who runs a $10 billion-plus annual advertising operation for NBCUniversal, chats with Mika Brzezinski about bringing more women into leadership positions, leading a 1,500 person team during Covid-19, getting over the fear of change and more.
Linda Yaccarino, the chairman of global advertising sales and client partnerships at NBCUniversal.
Linda Yaccarino, the chairman of global advertising sales and client partnerships at NBCUniversal.Jenny Anderson

Women may have been hit the hardest during the Covid-19 pandemic. But if there’s a silver lining to the turmoil of the past year, it may be the deepening acceptance of the long-overlooked truth that women make incredible leaders.

“Coming out of the pandemic, the most sought-after CEO trait, if it's not being talked about wildly today, it'll be tomorrow, are ones that demonstrate empathy and a lot of the soft skills that are applied to women,” said Linda Yaccarino, the chairman of global advertising sales and client partnerships at NBCUniversal. “So hopefully [it will shatter] those glass ceilings that still exist and we'll have more and more women in the C-suite.”

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That would be welcome news to Yaccarino, who in the beginning of her career, was typically the only woman in the room. When she was climbing up the ladder, every major agency and ad sales division was run by a man.

While that’s no longer the case in ad sales, women overall still have a long way to go. In fact, just 37 of the Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs.

Yaccarino ― who now runs a $10 billion-plus annual advertising operation ― rose to the top of her field while raising two children. Her daughter, Christian Madrazo, is currently a nurse at New York-Presbyterian — who volunteered to work in the Covid-19 unit at the beginning of the pandemic. And her son, Matthew Madrazo, is a former NCAA Division 1 hockey player who is now the director of sales at digital video company Studio 71.

She recently chatted with Know Your Value’s Mika Brzezinski on what it will take to bring more women into leadership positions. Yaccarino also shared what she learned about herself leading a 1,500 person team during the pandemic, getting over the fear of change and more.

Here’s their conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Mika Brzezinski: You’ve said in the past that far too often, women are told to keep their heads down. I also think many women like to keep their heads down. They wait for their turn, they play by the rules. I personally think many women like rules. Many also fear change, as opposed to the guys. But I look at your start, and you were drawn to media because it was always changing. What drew you to change? What was it about you that made you actually like change?

Linda Yaccarino: … I think it's a combination of because I started out in the business and gravitated toward content and the monetization of that content. A lot of the jobs or tasks that I had were very focused on what the consumer would like next. So, it was about their behavior, which drew me toward what's next. It appealed to my personality traits, which are always moving fast and getting bored easily … Also, earlier in my career I was involved in content and creative, and it was when I was an intern in college at NBCU … So that kept me asking, “what is the next big thing?”

…I think the tendency for women to [keep their heads down] stems generationally. If you were too aggressive as a woman, you [were seen as a too] ambitious woman, to the detriment of others. But for a man, you're interpreted as a hard-charging executive and in the leadership club that deserves to be in the C-suite. So, I think women tend to play it safe because a lot of leadership qualities historically were looked upon negatively towards women.

… You need to have someone who empowers you to really explore and expand all your leadership qualities that you have. So that takes a strong mentor or a strong boss ― particularly women ― to help others come into their own. And that's why I've been so specifically dedicated in my career to really try to lean in and focus on bringing up the generations of women behind me…

Brzezinski: In terms of women becoming COO or CEO, what have you learned that companies need to do? And what do women need to do for themselves? How do we get more women getting the right experience to vie for those positions?

Yaccarino: I think it's a problem that we have to attack from the top and the bottom. There are so many qualified women that have left the workforce and need to be re-skilled because they either left to take care of their children or their parents, and they need to have an on-ramp back in. So, I think many companies need to reach out into those sidelines and bring very competent women back to the workforce by re-skilling or up-skilling them.

… But to create opportunities for women into those COO roles or CEO roles, they say women have to have a seat at the table. But it’s really hard to invite yourself to the table, right? [So, it’s important to be] really cognizant as a leader to create additional seats for other females. And historically, when you were the one female leader that had a seat at the table, you were quite hesitant to invite others to the table because you were the one who had that only seat. I think we, as female leaders, have to broaden our aperture and be very intentional about growing and nurturing other women as they come into the workforce.

… We also have to be completely dedicated to nurturing women who are taking STEM roles … And that finance experience they need … that comes from intentional training … You have to have leaders that are being very intentional about cross pollinating and skilling people who have been kind of kept out and shut out of those positions in the past.

Brzezinski: I think what we’re discovering lately is that there’s a strength in numbers. Thirty years ago, in my business, I felt like it was hard to get along with each other. And now I feel like we're just like, “Come on in, please!” When I was starting out, I felt kind of like I was on an island.

Yaccarino: This is not a plug, but this is someone who has seen your events firsthand and seeing the interaction. What you've done is bring awareness and open the conversation, but giving so many people permission to even explore, ask themselves, “What is my value? Do I have greater value? Should I look either at doing something else? Should I ask for more?” And for a large number of women, asking for more is uncomfortable. So, when given them permission to even explore that, that's a confidence booster. That's a vitamin that professionally people need …

Brzezinski: I'm learning more about myself now more than ever in my career, because I've gotten to the place where I don't think I would want any other job. I don't know where you would go from this, but you could go anywhere. You’re in a real position of power … I'm curious, during the pandemic, did you learn anything about yourself or were you especially challenged when everything had to change so immediately?

Yaccarino: Well, of course we have changed as people, we changed as citizens of the country, we changed as employees of companies. So therefore, that's shaky ground under all of our feet and in all aspects of our life.

But you know, what I immediately found simultaneously in the early days of the pandemic, you're trying to take care of your family and make sure everyone's safe and healthy, but you also immediately had your family of employees to take after … Everyone's health and safety came much more before any type of business …So there was a reprioritizing of what both your employee base and your customer base needed …

…As a leader, you have to think like you're never done evolving. I think leadership is tested during adversity, and this was acute adversity … For me, it made me incredibly strong. I feel like I can take on anything. But I also learned that I wasn't finished … We need to continue to listen, learn and pivot. It has never been more important …

Brzezinski: I love the campaign you launched, #ShesMy to honor the women of all ages who have supported, inspired and championed us over the years. Can you tell me who the woman is who inspired you?

Yaccarino: It may sound a little cliché, but my number one top of the list is my mom. She's a first generation Italian-American. Her parents came here when they were in their mid-20s. She had a brother. He was able to go to college. She wasn't able to go. So that was a cultural thing, and she didn't have the opportunity to achieve, and she's wicked smart. And she raised her three daughters …She was [determined to] raise her daughters to be educated and to be financially independent. And I refer to her as my very own personal Kris Jenner, my own momager. She has been a spectacular influence in my life and continues to be today.