Valarie De La Garza, CEO of communications agency Fenton, believes that embracing discomfort and taking on fear has made her a more effective leader.
On Taking the Lead video podcast, she openly discusses how she battled imposter syndrome and societal expectations during a 100-day interim CEO role, ultimately gaining the confidence to thrive in the job.
Here are excerpts from the full video interview:
What’s your “Leadership North Star?” What are the most critical leadership tenets that have guided your career?
In leadership, embracing problem-solving is at the center. The best leaders are natural problem solvers who don't shy away from challenges. They prioritize finding solutions and avoid getting stuck admiring the problem. At Fenton, our clients pay us to provide solutions, and we must have the courage to explore various options.
Additionally, leaders must demand excellence from themselves to expect it from others. The pursuit of excellence is ongoing, and failure can be a valuable learning experience. Humbling moments often offer the best lessons. True leaders are empathetic and kind, earning respect through inspiration and demonstrating humanity rather than intimidation.
Who are the top three leaders who inspired you, and why?
I've been fortunate to have many who've played significant roles in my journey. Three individuals stand out. First, the late PR legend Ron Rodgers, with whom I spent ten formative years at the Rogers Group (later Rogers Ruder Finn). Ron was not only smart and strategic but also radiated pure joy for our agency and the business. His infectious energy drew you in, and I often find myself asking, "What would Ron do?" as a CEO.
Secondly, Elizabeth "Biz" Daly, a vice president at Manning Selvage & Lee, mentored me early in my career. She emphasized the importance of excellent client service, attention to detail, and anticipating client needs. Above all, she taught me that integrity is paramount in our industry.
Lastly, Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, inspires me as a problem solver for social change. His courage and determination to bring positive ideas to life, especially in helping formerly incarcerated individuals and gang members, demonstrate the essence of leadership.
Under your leadership, Fenton leads the industry in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) with 55% of the agency’s overall staff and 62% of Fenton’s C-suite representing people of color. So what’s your answer to agency leaders who say it’s difficult to find qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds?
Well, the short answer is I'm living proof that’s not true. While there's undoubtedly a desire for change, it's disheartening that diversity hasn't improved much in my 30 years in this field. I've been the only person of diversity in some agencies I worked for, which shouldn't be the case.
At Fenton, we approach diversity and inclusion as a shared responsibility, not just HR's job. We established a DEI task force with staff from all levels to gather insights and ideas from diverse experiences. Holding ourselves accountable and being open to individuals from nontraditional backgrounds has widened our talent pool and contributed to our success. So, I encourage others to give it a try.
What was your biggest leadership error in your career (Please be honest!) How did you recover? What did you learn from it?
My biggest mistake was not initially believing in myself when the opportunity to become CEO arose. I suffered from imposter syndrome and doubted whether I was qualified for the role, buying into societal myths about who should hold such positions. Fear played a role as well. A friend and CEO, Connie Tang, advised me to propose an interim role for 100 days to gain confidence and demystify the job. This experience helped me overcome self-doubt and build a strong partnership with our owner.
Two years later, I'm grateful for taking the role and openly share this experience to inspire others to confront their doubts and fears. Leadership involves leaning into discomfort, being courageous despite fear, and taking a chance on yourself. If others are willing to see that and do that for you, you should absolutely pay attention to it and do it for yourself.
What’s your message to women of color who want to lead, regardless of industry?
Imposter syndrome is something we all grapple with, especially as women of color. We often hear those inner voices suggesting that we're not qualified or that someone else should take on a role. Instead, we should ask, "Why not me?" and consider the possibility that we can excel.
It's essential to shift from a deficit framing to an asset framing mindset. Our diverse backgrounds bring strength, resilience, and problem-solving skills. My message, particularly to women of color, is to recognize the value in your experiences and confidently bring them to leadership roles.
Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching, which empowers PR and communications leaders and executives to breakthrough results via executive coaching, and helps communications agencies achieve their business development, profitability, and client service goals, via consulting and training. You can find him at www.jacobscomm.com, [email protected] @KensViews, or on LinkedIn.