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Thank you to the 1646 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 questions! I hope reading 7 Questions with

Denise Kohnke

helps you in your leadership.

Denise Kohnke

Denise Kohnke

Name: Denise Kohnke

Title: Founder

Organisation: 51Group

Serial entrepreneur, author of All Of The Other Marketing Books Are Crap, business and brand strategist. Still holds on to selling her screenplays, which is akin to holding on to becoming an astronaut. Mother of really good humans, which is her greatest achievement.

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

When you lead, you can lose yourself. People follow vibration, and look for synergies with their own values. When you’re not yourself, you live a lie. That is not to say that as a human, you can’t evolve, change your perspective or integrate new information in your belief system. But turning into something you’re not is the shadow to leadership, especially for women. What women often need to do to be heard, even if you are THE leader, can betray yourself and the women who come behind you. In decades of leadership, it has been extraordinarily hard to maintain who I am on the inside, because the roles we play, or are expected to play, are like chain link fences. I personally could be on the other side of the fence, I see it, but culture wouldn't let me get there because I had already committed to the lie, and in that, strengthened the lie's influence. Do not become something you are not for sake of the business. Ironically, who you authentically are is better for business.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

Are leaders born and not made? I believe so. In high school, I was the editor of the school newspaper and the literary magazine. In junior high, student government president. DNA is hard to combat. When I gained enough information to be dangerous in the advertising agency business, I went client-side. When I gained enough information there, I started my own agency. I have started and sold agencies, worked for years after an acquisition as an EVP in the acquiring business, and then started my own agency again. There was a pause when I went to work for a client, in the C-suite, to be able to take care of my husband, who has since passed. Where am I now? I led the formulation of a new agency with a partner, and it may just be the most successful agency of the lot. For sure, it is the one where I am my most authentic self.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I am all in on working from home. I have a three seasons room in the trees, and it is positively invigorating to be there working, music playing, with old dog Walter keeping me company. I am still a leader but I am leading us to business bliss. Work-life balance, fair compensation, no political tangle, minimal oversight (because I trust everyone) and a commitment to excellence well beyond the standards of our sector. So I get up, spend time outside with Walter, work among trees on projects I like with people I like, and then read and consume movies/streaming until Walter wants to go to bed. My hobby is screenwriting, so consuming movies/streaming isn’t laziness, it’s hardwiring plot and story beats in my head. For me, I choose it all, and it brings me peace.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

TRUST YOUR GUT. Period. I have done what accountants told me, lawyers told me, people who were “experts” told me. They were often wrong. Listen, factor, but trust your gut. Obama talked about that very thing, sorting input rather than automatically acting on input. My rational actions through the years may have been wrong, but my gut was always right, to this day. Hindsight confirms it.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

I stopped reading business books a long time ago (even though I wrote one: All Of The Other Marketing Books Are Crap). The books that have value have nothing to do with leading others, but they have everything to do with creating your your own code of conduct. The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz is based on the Toltec Mayan wisdom: 1. Be impeccable with your word. Say only what you mean. Do not speak against yourself or others. 2. Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dreams. 3. Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions. Communicate clearly to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. 4. Always do your best. Recognize that your best will change as you change. By always doing your best you will avoid self-judgement, self-abuse and regret…It all sounds simple, right? It is beyond simple to spiritual. We can only hope that every leader – in business, in politics, in education – will become aware of and adopt these principles.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

One of Simon Sinek’s books (which I have not read, but I positively love the thought) is titled by way of a Marine Corps practice on how meals were distributed: Leaders Eat Last. My take on it is if you want to build a team that will follow you into war, your responsibility is to demonstrate that you care. I also love that when a pack of wolves travel, the strongest is at the end. Translated, if others are staying late, you stay late. If others get a pay cut because of tough times, you take a pay cut first. True leadership cuts to the bone. There is no ego. And it is a beautiful thing.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

In the advertising and marketing business, I have always contended that you have to “stay in the game” at least part-time to stay relevant. To this day I hate management, but love leadership. My mantra when I did something – a business or creative brief, conceptual work, copy, pitch preparation – was “make it better.” Make it better. Three words that couldn’t be more powerful. My team mostly did make it better, or if they didn’t, the invitation was a behavioral cue to them on the nature of collaboration. When I DIDN’T ask them to make it better, they accepted that there was good reason, and respected that.

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