What Mei Taught Me

Condé Nast Entertainment has done a phenomenal job of curating top-tier talent to staff the lean organization, from entry-level roles to executive leadership. This access to successful and experienced leaders inspired me to launch a recurring feature here, in which I pick the brains of women who are truly doing it — leaning in, landing the corner offices, and breaking through glass ceilings.

Mei Lee, formerly the Vice President of Marketing at CNE (my boss!) — and presently a member of the Board of Advisors for the visual content marketing solution, Piqora — was (naturally) the first person I thought of for this series. Here’s what Mei taught me, with her own pearls of wisdom throughout. You’re welcome, readers.

Mei Lee, former VP of Marketing, Condé Nast Entertainment, and my personal mentor

Make the tough decisions.

Mei was often tasked with making tough decisions — but ultimately, she weighed the bottom-line impact for her team and our organization over any personal discomfort the decision may have caused. These repercussions were temporary, and optimizing team performance and impact took precedent. Says Mei, “99% of the people at the workplace are afraid and unwilling to make the tough decisions. That’s why leadership is rare and hard to find. The best leaders possess no ego and no bias. I always consult my ego and my judgment before I make any tough decisions — personal and professional ones. Once a tough decision is made, you should stand 100% behind it to maintain your integrity.”

Do the work.

Mei is a data-driven marketer, and challenged us to really “do the work.” Instead of waxing poetic about the intangible ROI of brand-building on Instagram, we were in the numbers, looking at week-over-week referral traffic and engagement to inform our strategy. Mei pushed us not to rest on our laurels, but to continue to do the work, first and foremost. I’ll never forget the moment she drove this home for me — it was during one of our many 1:1s, and she looked at me squarely in the eye and said,“Sofia — you’re losing sight of what really matters — the work.” It was the first time I’d been called out on something that I considered to be the hallmark of my career — but I realized she was right. Outside of inevitable office politics and the trials and tribulations of a fast-paced, high-pressure work environment, the real champions are the individuals who keep their head down and maintain an unwavering focus on driving impact and results. Mei’s maxim on this? “Stay close to the facts. No one can ever hurt you when you operate from the truth in corporate America.”

Be yourself.

I always relished hearing about the experiences in Mei’s career that shaped her professional development. During one of our chats, Mei shared bittersweet memories about a previous company in which she felt like she couldn’t truly be herself. (One story involved a distinct desire to drive past her office during her commute — this happened every single morning!) She loved our company, she told me, because our leadership team fostered a culture that empowered team members to be authentic. By opening up to colleagues and team members, Mei built a sense of trust and camaraderie that exists even in her absence now.

During my career from YouTube to CNE, I’ve struggled with this delicate balance of personality and professionalism. As a woman in the workplace, I was sensitive to being subjected to stereotypes — being labeled as “less than,” or having my intelligence and authority undermined. This concern led me to present myself as the very buttoned-up version of myself, but Mei pushed me to “let my hair down.” By breaking down my own walls, exposing my own vulnerability, and being relentlessly real, I achieved a deep-rooted confidence and a strong network of colleagues, peers, and friends who sincerely respect and value me in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible before. Being myself enabled me to build my reputation as a professional, and not detract from it as I’d worried. She sums it up nicely here: “Don’t work too hard to impress others at work. Just be yourself and be neutral when you meet anyone for the first three months.”

Be fearless.

Most notable about Mei is her courage — her Twitter bio even references her love for fearlessness! As a leader and professional, Mei embraces this attitude, and she challenges her team members to operate from a similar place. Under Mei’s management, I encountered many humbling experiences — I’ve been scared that others wouldn’t like me if I delivered negative feedback, I’ve been scared of not having the perfect answer, I’ve been scared of conflict. Her message was always consistent: do the work, and be fearless. She says, “The worst thing that can happen to us is death before life accomplishments. Failure, disappointment, bankruptcy, just fill-in-the-blank with your own word here, is really nothing to be afraid of when you are still breathing.“ It was a hard and uncomfortable journey (to acknowledge your fear and ultimately, co-exist productively with it is no easy feat!), but this is truly what Mei taught me, and it’s my privilege to share with each of you.

You can follow Mei Lee on Twitter at @himeilee.