Review | Our Turn, Kirstine Stewart

25614229In a nice little bit of serendipity, I read Kristine Stewart’s Our Turn immediately after Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. While Big Magic inspired me to tap into the creativity within me, Stewart’s book inspired me more in the vein of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business. Like Sandberg and Slaughter, Stewart is a powerhouse of a role model for young women — currently overseeing Twitter’s North American media partnerships, her previous roles included Managing Director for Twitter Canada, Executive Vice President of CBC’s English services and Senior Vice President of Programming for Alliance Atlantis. It’s a helluva resume, though as Stewart wryly tells us, upon being named one of Canada’s “Top 40 under 40,” her ten-year-old daughter’s immediate response was, “Well, what number are you?”

Stewart builds upon Sandberg’s advice to “lean in” and posits that the time has never been better for women to rise to power career-wise. Power has shifted from money to information, and with the proliferation of the digital age, access to information has become a lot more democratic. More importantly, thanks to social media and the internet, the era of top-down marketing spin has given way to a multiplicity of voices, and active listening has become a much more valuable leadership skill than old-school authoritarianism. As such, soft skills traditionally associated with femininity have become valuable currency, and while I would not ascribe such skills to one gender over the other, I agree with her observation that traditional power structures are already shifting, and that new types of leaders are emerging as a result.

A wonderful example of this new type of leadership is a trip that Stewart took with her programming staff at Alliance Atlantis, “a train ride out of Toronto and as far west into suburbia as a GO ticket could carry us.” At the time, the company’s networks were presenting home styling shows that featured duck confit and Le Creuset cookware, and Stewart realized that many Canadian viewers would not be able to relate to this content. The goal of the company field trip was to “get out of our little urban bubble [and] recognize that people, their choices and their aspirations, were different everywhere, and those differences mattered.” (p. 32) The result was shows like License to Grill and Property Virgins, shows that were still aspirational but definitely more within reach for a larger swath of viewers. Stewart’s leadership relied on listening rather than dictating, and while she faced some resistance from more traditionally minded corporate suits, her gamble paid off. I especially love this line about her philosophy to programming, which can be applied to many other types of business:

Sure it was still worth seeking to inspire and elevate viewers, but if you make them feel like they don’t belong in the tent, they’ll never enter it, and you’ll never reach them at all. (p. 32)

Especially inspiring about Stewart’s story is that she never even planned to enter the media business. Her degree was in English literature, and she’d planned to have a career in publishing. It was only when a job offer with a publisher fell through that she was forced to take a job with a media outlet, and discovered a love for the industry. It’s no wonder she considers herself “anti five-year-plan, because in my experience the best things do not flow from making a plan and sticking to it.” Her career choices have been directed by intuition rather than long-term planning, and so far it’s been paying off.

This is somewhat of a relief to learn, since circumstances so easily have a way of changing up five-year-plans, and while I admit to being somewhat intimidated by all that Stewart has accomplished and is continuing to accomplish, I’m also quite inspired by the fact that she didn’t plan all of it out from the beginning. This is not to ascribe her successes to luck and external circumstance, but rather to note that, true to her leadership style, a lot of her success has to do with responding to circumstances and taking initiative in a way that fits best. I love that, because it shows there is no single best path to success, and more to the point, that there is no single definition of success. Stewart notes:

What I tell [my daughter] about ambition, as I would tell any woman, is that success is not just about climbing. Leading comes from learning, in all its forms, and personal happiness will only be yours when you choose your own ladder. (p. 12)

From Stewart’s career trajectory, most notably making the risky decision to leave the top job at CBC for a risky venture heading Twitter Canada, I would add that the ladder to success isn’t itself quite as straight as traditional wisdom would have it. Rather, it branches out, and offers all sorts of interesting possibilities.

I love, and am inspired by, the listening and learning mode of leadership that Stewart presents. As with Gilbert’s Big Magic, this appears to be the right book at the right time for me, and I would recommend it to women everywhere.

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Thanks to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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