Abigail Posner On Being Agile And The Importance Of Listening

Abigail Posner is Head of Strategic Planning at Google, where she manages a team that inspires brands to be more progressive in the digital space. On top of that she's a driving force in making the organization more insightful. I met with her on a Monday morning in October and was struck by her tenacity and drive.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I didn’t have a particular role but I always liked fashion. For a nanosecond I thought I’d be a fashion designer but then realized that I’m no good at drawing and I don’t really like the artistic side of it, so I scrapped that.

I always knew I was interested in other cultures and being in the field hustling with people from all over the world. An outdoor market, like a Bazaar, is my favorite place to be. I was very interested in how culture, business, people and senses, all interact.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Golda Meir, Former Prime Minister of Israel. She was a badass in a crazy time that was extremely macho and she got the ears of all the biggest leaders in the world. It's not that I'm a feminist or not a feminist. She just had the guts to have an impact and that’s what I’m about.

What single book had the greatest impact on you?
A book of simple poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson. My father used to read it and still to this day he knows those poems off by heart. There's something very reassuring about hearing them.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I go to bed somewhere between 11:30pm and midnight. If it's a normal day when I'm taking my children to school, I get up at about 6:30am. 

What is your favorite time of the working week?
Wednesday evening because I've gotten through some of the Monday hellishness. Evenings in general are a good time for me to get work done here at Google.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
I have to start with school because it molded me a lot. I had a great experience in college. I found something that just clicked in me and I've been taking that with me forever in my career. I studied Anthropology and I loved it. I also love being around many different types of people, which is what I experienced in college, so it was a combination of those factors.

I was always interested in the confluence of business and culture but there wasn't really an appetite for that when I graduated. So I went into Management Consulting. At the time I was graduating, in 1995, it was still a recession and I was lucky to find a job. I was a little bit type-A and wasn't willing to just languish out there whilst something just right came my way.

There was no concept of networking and my school wasn't very good at navigating for me. So I was like right, what are my options? Graduate School, Banking or Consulting. Banking, I did not like at all; extremely male-oriented, extremely competitive and involved topics that just weren't interesting to me. Doing a PhD was not on the cards for me. I grew up as the daughter of academics so that wouldn't have been the craziest thing but I wanted to be out there in the thick of it.  

So I just accepted Consulting. I got a job and realized very early on it was not for me at all. I was failing in it. Really Failing. The best gig I had to do was with the marketing side. I didn't put two and two together at the time but that was my first project so I did really well and then slowly but surely it started getting worse and worse, and I pretty much got fired. It was terrible. I was working so hard and it was a horrible experience. I kept asking: where's the consumer in all this? They were doing all these analyses and I was like: where's the human being in all of this? But I still didn't put two and two together.

Luckily my Mother (who was Dean of Wellesley College) set me up with a few connections to talk to and somebody said: You should go into advertising. I was pretty taken aback. I was only exposed to Advertising via TV shows like Melrose Place! I’d never known anybody in advertising. But I thought I'd give it a shot and I met somebody in New Business in one of the agencies I’d lined up and she said: You should become a planner. I launched into my spiel about the interaction between culture and business and every time I’d previously launched into that there would be the glazed-over look from all the guys in consulting, but this woman was the first person who listened to what I had to say and actually understood.

At the time Planning was very nascent. JWT had just started a planning department so I met someone there and I got a connection at DDB and they offered me a job and I accepted. I didn't really know what it was I just jumped in. They liked the fact that I’d studied Anthropology because they had started to work with Anthropologists so that's what got me in.

I spent the first 11 years of my career at DDB. Planning was so new that you could work your way up very quickly. It was perfect for me. I got married and had three kids whilst growing in my career. Then at some point I realized that this can't be all there is. This planning mindset isn't just for advertising. I didn't really love advertising. I liked the culture of advertising, I liked what I was able to do, but I wasn't in love with advertising. So the year after I had my last baby I decided it was time to start building and having a point of view. I started writing articles, branching out and looking at other things.

I got big job offers from other agencies but it was the same old thing and I wanted to do something different. I got a call from a headhunter who said there was a job at Publicis. The role was different and intriguing because it provided the opportunity to shape the planning department and the company culture. I connected extremely well with my boss and it was also a way to improve my salary. So I joined Publicis and worked extremely hard. I was pitching all the time but the industry started getting worse and worse, and I started getting less happy.

I realized pretty firmly that not only did I have to start setting my sights on other worlds, I really had to start building a network. I didn't have one. Now it's commonplace but social media had only just started. I didn't really spend my time talking to anybody except my kids and my boss. I was head to the grindstone, work, work, work. To me, going out and meeting people was social and I didn't have time for that and didn't believe it was part of my job. But little did I know it was part of my job.

I had a bit of a wake up call and knew I needed to meet more people, stretch my wings and extend myself on social media. I remembered a headhunter saying that I should write a blog. I was skeptical, what am I going to write a blog about? Mommy-hood in Manhattan? How many more blogs do you need? I had done a lot of work on beauty and culture for a client but it never made much headway given urgent needs, so I decided to share it on an online publication. That became my blog. It was all about beauty and culture because it's a topic that's interesting to me. I'd done a lot of work on it and it's always topical. So that's my website, Beauty Skew: beautyskew.com

Around the 4-year mark at Publicis I took stock. I had my blog out there, I was making a point to make connections and I gave myself an ultimatum. Either I get fired or, I was working on the two biggest pitches simultaneously of the office that year and I said, if we win these pitches great, if we lose these pitches great, it's the kick in the butt I needed to get out. Did we win the pitches? No and I said, that's it.

I went on a quest to meet people and purposefully didn't look at advertising. I would just meet people and say: Can you give me the names of three more people? and it went from there. I spent a lot of money on wine and beer and coffee. I just made it my job to find a job. It worked.

Now I'm at Google and that was almost 3 years ago. I knew planning had a role to play in many different industries and it was just the right moment in time where enough industries had realized the humanistic approach to problem solving is applicable and necessary to these different worlds.  

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
The ability to be agile. I don't know if I've totally overcome it, but I'm getting there.

I remember as a Planner I would work so hard and my brief was done when I said it was done. But if you do that then you can't take feedback and you can't evolve because when we work so hard at getting it perfect, it's so hard to change it. It could be a deck or an article or anything.

What I've learned here is that it's going to be ever-changing. You've got to ask for feedback because we're in a very networked organization and feedback is critical, not only because you've got so many great opinions to learn from, but also that's how you socialize your work and how you get people to endorse it.

So the lesson here is: Don't work too hard for too long. Perfection doesn't exist because you can't afford it.

What motivates you?
I'm motivated to make an impact. To show my kids what it's like to be a contributor to society and a healthy and well-rounded individual.

I'm also motivated by my own personal growth. I want to prove myself and I want to create something that is of value.

What advice would you give to your children at the start of their career?
Always listen. Listen, Listen, Listen. I'm not the best at that, but it's something that we have to do and we have to train people to do.

Be Agile and Flexible.

Meet as many people as you can.

Work your ass off. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My family. 

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Working hard. You have to work hard at a marriage. You have to work hard at raising your children. You need a strong work ethic.

You have to love people and even if you don't love to hang around people, you have to love that what you're doing is to give them something. 

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Appreciate how great our lives are. To notice it, see it and observe it. 

I teach a course here on being insightful. There are so many cool things in our lives that we just don't even notice. We'd be so much happier if we saw those things.  

What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?
Visionary and Courageous.

They need to really care about people. If you think of it like the military, people are going to go and fight with you, and give of themselves for you, because they believe in you and because they believe, you believe in them. Whether it's believing in your workforce, whether it's believing in humanity or whether it's believing in your consumer.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
My husband. I always have a cadre of buddies that I get my energy from. I'm a very extroverted person in that way. But at the end of the day who's got my back? My husband. 

What's next?
Increasing the impact that my team and I can bring to the world. To change people by getting them to think in a new way and getting them to appreciate what they do and who they are.


As told to Caroline Hugall at Google Offices Chelsea Market, New York City on Monday 20th October 2014.