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Women in charge: Mastercard's Cheryl Guerin

Mika Brzezinski chats with Mastercard’s EVP of marketing and communications in North America about her rise to the top of her field, dealing with “nice girl syndrome,” working amid a global pandemic, building a personal brand and more.
Cheryl Guerin, EVP, North America Marketing and Communications at ?Mastercard.
Cheryl Guerin, EVP, North America Marketing and Communications at ?Mastercard.Courtesy of Mastercard.

When women are faced with the unknown in the workplace, they shouldn’t seize up. Rather, they should seize the moment.

That was one of the biggest takeaways from a recent discussion between Know Your Value founder and “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski and Cheryl Guerin, Mastercard’s executive vice president of marketing and communications in North America.

Guerin learned that lesson in 2005, when she pivoted from advertising to digital marketing at a time when social media was starting to build in a big way. She was nervous when her boss told her to view the job as a “white board” and for her to create her own path.

“This is so Know Your Value, because I talk a lot about women disliking a path that doesn't have clear rules, benchmarks and very strong borders,” said Brzezinski. “And you were given a white board. That's the worst news on Earth for many women. Sometimes we're like, ‘No. please give me rules!’

Brzezinski asked Guerin how she got over that mental hurdle. Part of it was having a supportive, female boss who believed in her, she said.

"But Cheryl, you did that already. You know how to do that. And I think there's a better opportunity for you,” Guerin recounted her boss telling her. “There's a white board ahead of us in digital. Look at what's happening. Times are changing. Dig into that. You could own it and really build from nothing,” the boss added.

Guerin listened and eventually succeeded. “It was scary,” she said. “But it was so interesting. I learned out of this experience that first of all, when you take on something new that no one else has done before, nobody else knows how to critique you, because they haven't done it before either.”

In three months, Guerin became the resident expert in social media and marketing at a time when it really mattered, which she described as a “game-changer” for her career. “[I learned] you can do something, and adapt it from nothing. And then two, I [learned] I needed that prodding and that's really important to have leaders do this for women and give them that little extra push and rationale and the feeling that they can do it.”

They also chatted about Guerin’s rise to the top of her field, how she has dealt with “nice girl syndrome,” working amid a global pandemic, building a personal brand and more.

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

Brzezinski: You’ve talked before about having a “Sally Field-you-like me” complex and having “nice girl syndrome.” I think we might be soul sisters! Those were some of my biggest problems early in my career. Tell me about that.

Guerin: I really do have this. And, all kidding aside, I won a Miss Congeniality award when I was in high school. It’s natural. You want people to like you, to be inspired by you …

When I had less confidence, I compromised more than I should have. I didn't realize it at the time, because you want to be non-confrontational, you don't want to get into conflict.

…The reality is you can be yourself, you can be a good person, but you could add a strategy, a point of view, a stance ― and you can confidently have a discussion and debate without taking away anything. Over the years I've learned if you're generally approachable, if you're generally always there with authenticity, people will respect you. And that gives you a right to have your point of view …

You don't have to change your persona either. One thing I never lost is that approachability [with my co-workers]. I would never want to change who I am. And it does take having a point of view and having confident conversations with your team on vision and direction. I know there's the stereotypes about women, and some think you should change your persona and you have to be ruthless to get to the top. That's the worst thing… If you're the person who’s battling everything, you just become hard to work with.

Brzezinski: I'm curious about building your own personal brand, which I don't differentiate too much from reputation. What’s your advice to women about how to really differentiate yourself from the crowd?

Guerin: This one goes back to staying true to who you are and your values. I feel like I've had different brands over the years, but one thing is always stayed consistent is that I'm never in it for myself. I always put our company, team and people first. And then good stuff is going to happen to you as an individual when you do that…

…Look around. Look left, look right, understand the strategies of the teams that you’re working with. And then ask what contribution you can make. It may not be in your job description, but the more you can add value to others and their objectives [the more you will differentiate yourself]. Always be seen as somebody who's supporting others, particularly women…

Brzezinski: What did you learn about yourself and what was your biggest challenge or accomplishment during the pandemic?

Guerin: Here's another example where in particular women were really stressed. I feel very lucky that my kids are a little older now, but people with young children are really stressed. So how did we pivot?

We had close communication. We would have these daily calls with my leadership team where we check in and stayed in close contact. And this became really pivotal for us.

… Within three weeks of Covid-19 hitting, we switched everything to virtual programming. And the good news is, we were able to scale even more. So, our reach expanded significantly, our impact to provide the capabilities that people needed to get their businesses online that we made virtually were really critical.

…The thing that I'm most proud of is when you dig in and find an insight and get risky and challenging things to market. One of the things was we launched "True Name". We launched prior to the pandemic, and then we launched with a big partner of ours, Citibank, during the pandemic. And it allows transgender and non-binary people to put their [chosen] name on the card. You can imagine having a card that doesn't identify with who you really are. So, you don't have pride in it. And then the safety, security and embarrassment that it could cause in somebody's life … It’s just an insight we had. I'm so lucky to work for a company that believes in inclusion and decency. We plowed through barriers and got this to market. It's rolling out and scaling with other banks and around the world … It’s something I'm so proud of.

Additionally, we’ve been a long supporter of women and small businesses. Then Covid-19 hit and [these women] got hit the hardest, particularly Black women in businesses. And so one of the things that we did is we launched an entire "digital doors" program to help [move storefronts] online and also providing the insights, learning and the tools to do it. And we just launched a campaign with Jennifer Hudson to shine a light on the role and the value of what these women are doing for our economy. And to inspire people, to support Black, women-owned businesses at this time, like we are doing. I have a role that I'm blessed to have where I can find ways to bring new value. Our brand is human, and we have a company that's focused on inclusion