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Women Of The C-Suite: Kate Jeffers of VB+P On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Senior Executive

Control your calendar (versus letting it control you). If I let it happen, every inch of my calendar would be filled back-to-back with meetings. I try to get way ahead of things and put in blocks of time on my calendar to think, write, eat, and just breathe. I really believe that I get more done in a week with fewer meetings because I’m focused, engaged, and driving the right outcomes with my teams.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Kate Jeffers.

A sixteen-year veteran of VB+P, Kate has played a pivotal role in the agency’s success. As Partner and President, Kate has led the agency to significant growth via a diversification of its offering, including discreet capabilities in experience design, integrated production, retail, and issue/advocacy marketing. Kate has also been instrumental in the agency’s partnership and recent launch of new brand AI firm, B R A I V E. Kate’s day-to-day responsibilities including running the agency’s departments and divisions, as well as collaborating with fellow leaders to ensure inspired people, clients, and creative work.

Prior to VB+P, Kate spent time at Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles and Paris, TBWA Chiat/Day and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, working across categories on significant brands and initiatives, including launching both the Apple iPod and Toyota Prius.

She nearly missed her calling in advertising, heading to UCLA Law School after college. She soon realized that ad people were more fun. Kate lives in Marin with her husband, two kids, dog, cat and about 13,000 honey bees.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I started transitioning to the role of President in the spring of 2020 (it became official in October), right after COVID hit and everyone started working from home. I knew that I wanted to make some big changes, but immediately realized that the first thing to address was how people were feeling. Sad, stressed, isolated, exhausted. So, I started opening up forums of communication. I set up weekly “office hours” where any employee could call me to chat about anything. I invited the agency into leadership meetings to hear what we were discussing. I asked teams to re-present client and new business presentations to the agency, so they could see them in action. Every week I held an agency forum on a different topic — from financials to process to divisions to clients — and had key stakeholders present and answer questions. My philosophy was simple: open up the company to people so that they felt part of it. It was pretty foreign to the way we’d run things in the past, and, quite honestly, a bit messy and exhausting. But the response was worth it. I think our staff felt very included at a time when it was more important than ever. This built a bond of trust and enabled a level of transparency that I think helped us whether the dialogue around DEI or around the changes we’ve since driven for the company. There’s no question that taking on leadership of a company during a pandemic was the most “interesting” thing I’ve ever done.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There have been lots of mistakes along the way, but one of the funniest might be an e-mail that my 5-year-old son accidentally sent to my most senior client. I had been doing what most working moms do — answering e-mails between folding laundry and making dinner — and had stepped away from my laptop in the middle of an important response I was drafting. When I came back to my computer, the e-mail was gone. It turned out that my son (who is now 14) had sat down at my laptop, typed out “Poopsie Chucklebutt” on the e-mail, and pushed send. Fortunately, my client was also a parent and an incredibly cool person, and it was fine. He’s actually a close friend and loves to tell that story to this day.

I think the lesson here is that we’re all human. Being an executive doesn’t make you a robot, and I don’t think you should pretend to be. At the end of the day, business is all about relationships. I really believe that showing up as your authentic self and letting the people around you do the same cements much stronger bonds than trying to appear formal or perfect.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My first job was at a big advertising agency, working on a marquee account. One day I was on the phone with a senior client who berated me until I started crying. It just so happened that the CEO of the agency was walking by and saw me in tears. The next day he drove me to the client, told him that this behavior was unacceptable, and had him apologize.

The fact that the CEO took the time to care about a very junior employee, and risked angering a significant client to defend me, has stuck with me all these years. It’s a reminder that human kindness and integrity matter, and it has guided my management style ever since. By the way, that CEO and I developed a great relationship, and he remains a mentor and close friend to this day.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

To me the best stress reliever is always a good laugh. I try to surround myself with people who remember to keep things in perspective and who can manage to find levity in a situation. If the tension is high, I’ll try to tell a joke (even a bad one). I’ve worked with people who get really formal when they’re stressed, and I think it just makes things worse. I want my team to realize that it’s not going to be the end of the world if the client doesn’t celebrate the work or if we don’t win the pitch. If everything is too serious, I think we’ve lost the plot.

To relieve my own stress I like to run, and usually do this at night after my kids are in bed. It’s the perfect time to catch up on shows. My favorite go-tos are Seinfeld, The Office, and Schitt’s Creek; they help me start the next day with a smile.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

The year 2020 was definitely a reckoning for the company and for me around diversity, equity, and inclusion. I had always been proud of our steady progress here — including the fact that over 60% of the agency identify as female, we have a significant number of individuals on staff who identify as POC and LGBTQIA+, and we invest in a number of programs to support diverse communities and partners. But what became painfully clear last summer was that this was not enough. We simply had not made the progress required in hiring individuals who identify as BIPOC, and, maybe most importantly, we had not done enough to ensure that we had created the culture, and even the processes, required to help diverse individuals and teams thrive. The first thing we did was to LISTEN. My partners and I made ourselves available to every employee. I probably talked to seventy people in a span of two months — people who just wanted to cry, vent, and talk about what needs to change — in our company, in industry, and in the world. It was incredibly difficult but also incredibly rewarding. I don’t think I’ve ever been through anything like it in my career.

The second thing we did was to bring in a Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, who helped us develop the right forums for internal communication, and conducted an exhaustive audit of our recruiting, hiring, workflow, and performance evaluation processes. The critical learning here was that, like many companies, we had systems in place that were limiting our ability to hire diverse (particularly BIPOC) individuals and to set them up for success.

In the early fall, we put concrete and significant 3-year commitments in place and communicated them transparently to our staff and to all of our clients. And we’re hell-bent on achieving them. As a part of this, I’m thrilled to note that we’ve already (in February!) exceeded our objective for visible diversity among our staff for the entire year, and as a result have been able to increase all of our goals.

We currently have an executive team that is 67% female and 33% POC. I’m proud of this, but want to make sizeable increases here. We have clear commitments in place and forums set up where we will transparently track our progress and hold ourselves accountable. To state the obvious, it’s critical that there is diverse representation at the very top. Of course, all staff need to see themselves in leadership. But even more importantly, the only way we can break down the systems that limit diversity, equity, and inclusion (and build the right ones) is to have the people with fully diverse perspectives empowered to make these decisions. I am fully committed to this fundamental shift.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

I think it starts with a recognition that, while we have to do everything possible to get it right within our own company, that is simply not enough. We recognize the responsibility that comes with our competency in marketing/communications and have offered our pro bono services to our clients and to nonprofit organizations in support of messaging and campaigns that further DEI. We are currently working on a number of initiatives.

I also think it means taking every opportunity to contribute on a personal level. I’m very passionate about education access for kids from underrepresented communities and work closely with two organizations — Summer Search and SchoolsRule — who focus on this. Just as we’ve learned at our own company, there are systems in place that limit diversity, equity, and inclusion, and perpetuate the problem. It’s critical that people with power and authority disrupt these systems, so that everyone has equal access to opportunity. To me, this starts with our kids and education.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

I think the role of a Chief Executive is to create the environment for people to do their best work, so my job is less tactical, and much more amorphous. And a big part of it is being honest, authentic, and empathetic. I’m not doing the work as much as I’m developing teams and supporting them to successfully do the work.

I see myself as having four key responsibilities in this role: clarity, alignment, accountability, and transparency. First, setting a clear vision for the company and an actionable plan to achieve it. Second, ensuring alignment on what leadership is responsible for and how everyone is expected to “show up” in their roles every day. Third, providing honest, real-time feedback that holds everyone accountable (including myself). And, finally, ensuring honest, ongoing communication about how the company, and the leadership, are delivering.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I think there’s a myth that most of the work of being an executive is external to the firm. I have an important new business and client service role, so I certainly spend a lot of time talking to current and potential clients. However, I do believe that if I’m out telling the world how amazing our company is and yet our own people don’t feel the same or know where we’re going, then I’m failing. So, I think the most important part of my job is to ensure clear, accountable, motivated, and empowered people. This results in amazing work and a dynamic culture that I can then go tell the world about.

I think the other myth is that executives have it all figured out. The notion that the person at the top is polished, doesn’t have a life outside of the company, or has all the answers is just silly. I believe that the best leaders are those that are authentic and open and surround themselves with people who are smarter than them!

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I have a story from early in my career that speaks to this. I was in a pitch meeting with a big client. There were about ten of us in the room, and I was the only woman. The client turned to me and asked for a cup of coffee. I was not the most junior person, but the men below me didn’t offer. And the men above me didn’t step in. And I let it happen. In truth, I probably have twenty stories like that. There was even one point in my career when I managed a team that was all men, who not only disrespected me, but played poker on the weekends with my boss.

I don’t think most men in leadership positions have faced anything like that along the way. That said, I embrace these experiences because I do think they make me a better and more empathetic leader.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I’d been with my company for sixteen years before I took on my current role as President. I knew what the job was but came into it knowing that I wanted to approach it differently.

Both of our previous two presidents were great leaders but took a more “top down” approach to leadership. Employees were rarely involved in creating new policies or programs (for example, related to DEI), and information was more closely guarded by leadership. I’m not sure that approach works as well in our current environment. To create a place where people want to be, grow, and do great work, I think we have to bring them in closer to the process and be more transparent. And, they need to feel empowered to drive success for the company along with us.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I would not discourage anyone from becoming an executive if that’s their desire, but I will say that I believe good leaders are authentic and humble and don’t take themselves too seriously. If you think you know everything and are not open to input, I’m not sure you will make the best leader. It’s a bit ironic because the classic version of the “successful executive” is someone who has all the answers. But I just don’t think that’s modern business.

What advice would you give other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

I think you have to be very clear with your team about what you expect from them and then give them infinite flexibility in how they deliver it. People thrive when they feel empowered to get their work done in a way that works best for them. This allows for personal perspectives and preferences to shine, and creates a more empathetic, empowering work culture overall.

I believe this approach is especially key for women, given their many responsibilities outside of work. Women take on more childcare responsibilities, tend to handle more care for aging parents, and now many women (and men) are juggling remote school duties as well. I think ensuring both clarity and flexibility are critical to the best way forward.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I hope I’ve used my success to make the world a better place! I’m definitely proud of the work I do with Summer Search and SchoolsRule, and their focus on giving kids from underrepresented communities equal access to education. As previously mentioned, I think it’s critical that people with access and power leverage it on behalf of those who don’t have it. I’m also proud of the work I do mentoring women across the industry. In fact, I’ve been leading the development and marketing of FELLOW, a mentoring based app developed by my company specifically for women in advertising. The idea behind FELLOW is a recognition that women (especially women of color) desperately need mentorship but have limited access to it — whether they’re lacking a broader network or don’t have time to make real connections. FELLOW aims to eliminate some of the key barriers to mentorship and to enable women to forge meaningful connections. We’ve completed a “soft launch” and are working through a larger rollout soon.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Control your calendar (versus letting it control you). If I let it happen, every inch of my calendar would be filled back-to-back with meetings. I try to get way ahead of things and put in blocks of time on my calendar to think, write, eat, and just breathe. I really believe that I get more done in a week with fewer meetings because I’m focused, engaged, and driving the right outcomes with my teams.

Do the hardest thing first. I wasted a lot of time in my career dreading a project or conversation, which caused stress and colored all my other interactions. I finally learned to get the hardest thing done first, which actually makes everything easier.

Set your boundaries. This is difficult to do when you’re coming up, and as a woman, but is so important. I missed countless weddings, family events, and even bedtimes with my kids because I was afraid to ask for the time off or to say no to a project (when I realize now it would have been fine). It’s so important to have a life outside of work, and to be clear about when you are and aren’t available.

Delegate. This is not easy, and takes time, but is absolutely worth it. I spent way too many years volunteering to take on work, or thinking it was easier to do something myself (vs. explaining it to someone else). The result was a lot of stress and sometimes even unfair resentment for the people around me. I think it’s so important for leaders to step back from the work and really think through what they should own vs. what they should delegate. And then to take the time to give people the clarity and context they need to effectively deliver.

Ask “What Would You Do?”. A lot of my job is to listen, and to field a lot of questions from our employees. One of the best (recent) tips I’ve received is, instead of always feeling like you need to have the answer (even if the answer is “I don’t know” — something I’m very comfortable with), flip the question, and ask the person “what would you do/suggest?” This has a number of benefits: it makes the person feel heard, it neutralizes criticisms masquerading as questions, and it actually enables extremely valuable feedback. I’ve actually implemented some ideas that came up as answers to this question!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would really want to focus on keeping women in the workforce. The pandemic has highlighted exactly how hard it is for women to do “everything” and the result is that they stop working. We now know that 2.4 million women in this country have left the workforce since last year. The truth is that women have been leaving advertising at an alarming rate for years because we don’t make the environment (the hours, the pace, the discourse) amendable to working moms. These are talented, creative women who have a lot to offer our field, and this reality is unacceptable.

I would love to find a way to tap back into this talent while not forcing them to choose between a full-time job and their family commitments. I don’t know whether that’s a network of freelancers, a union of creative moms, or an app that could match women with projects. But I am hoping the COVID crisis will lead to more openness and creative solutions on this topic moving forward. I hope leaders will reflect on how successful we’ve been with remote work and focus less on having “butts in seats” and more on engaging great talent. The industry really needs to find a way to use these amazing brains.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I think the mantra that I have taken most to heart is “leave someone better than you found them.” I like that this has a macro application — for example, leaving our planet better than we found it, or leading a company that provides support and stability for an ecosystem of people and their families. But maybe more important, it has a micro, everyday application — where every interaction becomes an opportunity to make someone feel better than they did before. This can manifest in acknowledging someone’s good work, asking them how they are (and truly caring about the answer), or stepping in to help when someone is overwhelmed. I think we can all use being busy as an excuse not to think about how our actions impact the people around us; this mantra reminds me to stop and check myself. And it’s something my husband and I encourage our kids to do as well. It goes back to my story about the CEO early in my career. He was a busy man who could have easily walked right by a junior employee who was upset on his way to something much more “important.” He chose to do something to leave me in a better place, and I’ve never forgotten it.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US who you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would absolutely love a coffee with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She is not only one of the most talented women in entertainment, but also smart, funny, humble, and socially conscious. I am a super fan.




In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

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