In the second in a new series on Women in Leadership, Anthony Rose speaks to Micho F. Spring Chair, Global Corporate Practice and President, New England for Weber Shandwick
CEO. Deputy Mayor. Chief of Staff. Awarded the Order of Isabel La Catolica Award presented by King Juan Carlos of Spain. One of the “20 Most Powerful Women in Boston” by Boston Magazine. These are all titles that this powerful woman of influence has held during her illustrious career.
But Micho’s story of influence and success began during the Castro revolution in Cuba when she had to flee to the US along with her family.“It was 1960. I was 10 years old. And we had to leave everything we owned behind as well as family, status and influence to escape Castro’s threat to send all children, including me, to the countryside for ‘re-education’ — to Pioneer School. Until that point I had enjoyed a very sheltered environment.
Overnight, all of that changed,” shared Micho. “I learned how fluid and elusive status and influence can be.” Micho’s earliest impressions about influence came from her mother, who in pre-Castro Havana, when women were
expected to stay home, was on the Board of Directors of Cuba’s most influential newspaper and was a consultant to
McCann Erickson, a leading global advertising firm.
“I often marvelled at the work my mother did even though I was very young at the time,” Micho said. She helped McCann’s global clients, such as Esso and Coca-Cola make their advertisements culturally relevant to Cuban audiences. She even got me to model for an Esso ad when I was 8!
My mother was always positive, courageous and tenacious — she had a beautiful smile,behind which was a steely determination. It takes courage to break down “To influence you need a very specific objective orgoal. You must want to get something important done. Then you must find the path of least resistance – you need to know which hands to hold and which arms to twist to get there. It takes courage to breakdown the barriers and reset things in a positive way, especially given the challenges she faced leaving Cuba.”
Micho was also heavily influenced by her father, who was a doctor in Cuba, at a time when being a doctor was more akin to public service. Micho remembers many nights during her childhood when her father was awakened in the middle of the night by the phone at his bedside calling him in to provide medical help to someone who needed it. Micho cannot remember a single time he did not respond to the call.
The move to the USA was challenging and Micho remembers her mother’s admonition to blend in, become an integral part of their new country, and focus on looking forward. “If you look back, you will turn into a statue of salt,” she often said, in reference to the story of Sarah in the bible. “She reminded me not to speak Spanish on the bus so that I did not seem different in New Orleans, where we first lived, so I would blend in. When we left Cuba, we went from being part of an elite to being a minority overnight. I learned the difference between status and influence, between assertion and persuasion. I saw my mother, for example, persuade a dentist in New Orleans to take care of my braces for free because we had no money to pay, as I sat in the dentist chair, horrified to hear her ask.
‘In my country,’ she explained to this surprised dentist, ‘doctors don’t charge each other out of professional courtesy.’ My father was indeed a doctor, but he was still in Cuba and I am not sure the courtesy applied across national borders!” added Micho.
Ability to influence
Micho continued to be amazed by her mother’s ability to influence. “At the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an exclusive girls’ school in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, my mother persuaded the Reverend Mother, as again I watched in horror, not only to grant me admission two weeks before school started, but to give me a full scholarship because we had no money. My great Aunt, she explained, had left all her money and her silver to the Convent of the Sacred Heart a few generations before. My teeth were straightened and I got a first rate education at Sacred Heart 91st Street, for which I am forever grateful, but more than that, I learned all about the power of persuasion and the importance of communications to influence and get things done and achieve your objectives. Through all this, my mother never once lost her dignity or her humor. I learned that everything communicates, and that having a goal, understanding the environment and then having a clear picture of whom you need to influence and how in order to get the right result is crucial. And of course, I learned that it often takes courage, which was the most important lesson from my mother, particularly when the answer at first is no,” shared Micho.
So when Micho was told by her college counselor that it was impossible to get into Georgetown University, where she very much wanted to go to college, she researched what the least popular major was — it was Portuguese– and she applied for it, persuading the Dean of Admissions that she firmly believed Brazil was the country of the future. And Micho was right!
Micho attended Georgetown and Columbia Universities, served for four years in New York City government, and then received an MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“In fact when I decided to pursue a Master in Public Administration at Harvard even though I had not finished my undergraduate degree, I persuaded the Admissions Dean that my four years in between working for the Mayor of New York were the equivalent of the credits I was missing. I think my ear is trained never to hear NO. NO just challenges me to finda way to get to YES — it energizes me, particularly when it is the established power networks that are in my way. It has served me well as a woman often challenging the status quo and hopefully has served my family and my clients,” shared Micho.
Her most valuable lesson on learning how to use influence to get things done, however, came on day one after joining the staff of Boston Mayor Kevin H White in 1976.
“To me, that was one of the toughest environments as a woman. Boston City Hall was an Irish white male bastion. They did not know what to think of a young Hispanic woman with a name that sounded Japanese — I was foreign in so many ways. The biggest challenge I faced as a woman was breaking down barriers and breaking into networks that historically excluded women,” shared Micho.
Micho found support however, in a man who believed in women in leadership — Mayor White.
“Mayor White called me into his office on the first day of my new job as a junior staffer and asked me to look out of the window at Quincy Market below, the crown jewel of his administration, which had just opened — his proudest achievement. He pointed to a huge, unattractive billboard the market’s developer had put up that said, For Rent, call this number”.
“You see that sign on top of that building,” the Mayor said, barely looking up from his paperwork. “It does not belong there and MUST come down. I want you to get that done.” The meeting was clearly over. “I had absolutely no idea how to get this huge sign taken down,” shared Micho. “I was terrified.”
Influence through negotiation
In the next few weeks Micho had to do research and ask for meetings with the head of Development, the Buildings Commisisoner, the Public Works Department, other staff members and permitting authorities, none of whom she had met and none of whom had to respond to her, and figure out who had the power to make the developer take the sign down and how to persuade them to do so. Three months later, after many negotiations with multiple stakeholders, Micho got the sign taken down.
She realized that Mayor White had given her an important test of how to exert influence without having control — key to being an effective staffer and getting things done against the gravity and the power of the bureaucracy. “It confirmed my belief that to influence you need a very specific objective or goal. One must want to get something important done. And then finding the path of least resistance to your goal is key. This is a very important skill to
have, especially for women in the workplace,” she shared. That single challenge changed Micho’s whole mindset.
“To this day I believe that was a very important lesson I learned among so many from the Mayor. I learned that influence is figuring out a way around traditonal patterns, finding the leverage points in an organization, reading the signals, and understanding this can be a major weapon in getting things done. And the importance of never taking no for an answer.”
Micho went on to serve on the staff of the Mayor for eight years, the last four as Deputy Mayor for Policy Management as well as Chief of Staff. During her time there, she witnessed first hand how conservative men’s attitudes were to women in the workplace.
“When I was Chief of Staff to Mayor White, I had to conduct the performance reviews of all 42 city commisioners against very specific policy goals we were trying to accomplish. One of our goals at the time was to increase the representation of women in the Fire Department. The Fire Commisioner at the time did not take the goal seriously and I was determined to hold him accountable for the goals we had set a year back, which the City was under court order to attain. During his performance review I shared that he had failed to meet this goal and he would not have a salary increase. He was furious, since this would affect his retirement. Helooked at me and said ‘I can’t promote women because they keep going out on maternity leave.’ I was visibly pregnant with my daughter at the time.”
But neither that commisioners’ attitude nor that of Micho’s other male colleagues could stop Micho from making a difference in her work. During her role at the Mayors’ office she helped steer the city through its worse fiscalcrisis, successfully ran the cable franchising process and was part of the team that helped transform Boston into the world class city it is today.
In 1984, Micho was pregnant with her son when the Mayor retired and she left City Hall after running the transition to a new Administration. As shelooked for new career opportunities, she was shocked to hear criticism about her plans to continue working even though she was pregnant.
“Come back to us when you are serious,” some of the interviewers told her, not even bothering to hide their bemusement that she would seek employment when she was six months pregnant. Micho persisted and finally was recruited as CEO for a start up Company– Boston Telecommunications Company.
“At that time, the telecommunications industry was mostly male and I was often the only woman in the room. Attitudes toward women in the corporate sector were far behind attitudes in government, so I found much more resistance to being taken seiously as a CEO. Delivering business results was key — there was less margin for error because I was a woman, and I had to work twice as hard to establish my authority at meetings. But I felt I had earned an organizational behavior degree at City Hall that served me well,and knowing when to assert and when to beg was extremely useful. The fact I know how to close the deal and bring in business was very helpful.”
In 1992 Micho joined a strategic communications firm called SawyerMiller Group, which would finally become part of Weber Shandwick.
At Weber Shandwick Micho began to unleash the full power of her ability to use communications as a key vehicle to influence outcomes on behalf of clients. Her practice focuses on enabling corporate clients to use communications to support their business strategies, enhance and protect their reputation, and respond to public policy challenges. During her tenure at Weber Shandwick, Micho has counseled clients across industries on a wide range of reputational issues, including CEO succession, mergers and acquisitions, litigation and regulatory matters, and corporate responsibility. Her current clients include Liberty Mutual, McCormick, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“Influencing attitudes, habits and policies on behalf of our clients has become my full time profession. I came to understand that communications is key to influence and it is the currency of change,” shared Micho.
Micho shared with me several examples of her influencing skills in action. The first example was when P&G acquired Gillette in 2005. Micho commented, “P&G bought Gillette, an iconic Boston based company,at a time of great anxiety among Boston’s business, political and civic communities. Several key Boston based institutions had recently been sold to outsiders, notably Bank Boston, the city’s most prominent bank, and the Boston Globe, our major newspaper. When Gillette announced it was selling the company to Cincinnatti based P&G, it felt like a deathblow to the city’s pride. Matters were made considerably worse by the outgoing CEO of Gillette’s remarks in a speech to the Boston Chamber of Commerce, where he was critical of the city and the way he had been treated and acknowledged he had never moved to Boston while running the company.”
Micho received a call from P&G’s Charlotte Otto, then P&G’s Chief External Relations Officer asking if Micho could help P&G generate a more positive environment, as they entered the Boston market as a key player. “Charlotte and I met and reviewed options. We determined the damage was such that we needed to go beyond extending Gillette commitments and defining the obvious economic benefits having a company like P&G could bring to the region. Since P&G markets to women (as opposed to Gillette, which markets predominantly to men), we decided we would launch a campaign to get women leaders in this region excited about the prospects of P&G having a significant presence in Boston. We developed a list of women influencers and went to work, and organized a way to reach every one of them through small breakfast meetings and open forums, and we defined the benefits of having such an iconic company as a new player in Boston. Within 60 days the fever had broken. We also engaged the economic development community, the universities where P&G conducts research, and announced a series of CSR initiatives, but the backbone of the campaign was our women influencer strategy and it turned the tide. P&G’s acquisition of Gillette is considered one of the most successful in the history of the Company,” shared Micho.
Another great example came in a highly controversial area of tissue sample collection and genome mapping.
“Ardais was a new start up focused on building a high tech tissue bank, where hospitals could store tissue samples and researchers could retrieve them as genome mapping opened up the possibilities of much more targeted cures and personalized medicine.Ardais raised the capital and attracted the talent to establish the gold standard in the field, but no major hospital wanted to be first for fear of being perceived as trading on their patients’ tissue samples. So what could we do to reassure a major hospital to take the first step? Irecommended a risky strategy — that we go after an editorial from our region’s newspaper of record, the Boston Globe. If we could persuade the Globe to do an editorial endorsing the concept and naming Ardais as the ethical gold standard in this new category, we could get a major hospital to sign and the business could proceed.
We put together a team to explain the concept and the safeguards to patients that included medical ethicists and even a Rabbi. We marched into the Globe, and while we were all waiting in the hallway, the Editorial Director saw me, and said for every one to hear – ‘Micho, you are not with the tissue snatchers, are you??’ This was not an auspicious way to start the meeting.
We spent the next hour answering every possible question. We persuaded the Globe. They published a glowing editorial and the next week one of Harvard’s leading teaching hospitals signed the agreement to move forward,breaking the ice and paving the way for other hospitals across the country,” shared Micho.
Micho is today one of the most celebrated women professionals in Boston.Over the last four decades as a government, civic, and business leader, Micho has helped shape public debate on numerous issues in Boston and beyond. She has managed many political and advocacy campaigns and is a frequent independent media commentator. On multiple occasions she has been named one of the “20 Most Powerful Women in Boston” by Boston Magazine.
Micho currently sits on the Executive Committee of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, is a founding member of the WBUR Group Executive Council, and is a Founder and Chair of Friends of Caritas Cubana.
She holds numerous board memberships, including NBH Holdings Corp,the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, The Boston Foundation, and the Massachusetts Women’s Forum, of which she is a past President. Micho was inducted as a Legend into the Ad Club’s Hall of Fame and recognized as a Distinguished Bostonian by the Boston Chamber of Commerce. In addition, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s Women’s Network, the Women Who Give award by the Women’s Lunch Place, the Give Liberty a Hand honor by the Massachusetts Immigration & Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), the Jorge Hernandez Corporate Leadership Award, and the Order of Isabel La Catolica Award presented by King Juan Carlos of Spain.
Five simple steps for influence
Micho shared with me the five simple steps she uses in her “Influence Process.”
• Have a clear purpose: Before you attempt to influence, you must be clear about your objectives what it is you want to influence.
• Listen carefully and make sure to understand the environment: Figure out who your allies and your opponents are as well as the pressure points you need to target. Train yourself to read the room.
• Connect the dots among peoples’ agendas: Know where they are coming from. See what could be a win-win versus
• Prepare,prepare, prepare: Throughout my career I have been better able to influence when I had all of the facts and was better prepared than my opponents.
• Believe in the power of sisterhood. Ask other women for support and support other women: Secretary of State Madeline Albright once said that there is a special place in hell for women who do not support other women — and I strongly believe that. Join women’s networks or start them!
• Remember that everything communicates:Be conscious of what messages you are sending both formally and
informally by what you say and do. Symbols are powerful.
“Influence is after all knowing which hands to hold and which arms to twist!” added Micho.
Alongside her illustrious career Micho has faced another challenge that many women across the world face. Breast cancer. She has reapplied her influencing ability to meet this challenge with similar courage.
“I was diagnosed 10 years ago, and it stopped me in my tracks. I am lucky that we caught it in time so that it is very much in my rear view mirror.But what I think was transferable was my ability to look for things I could influence in order to have some sense of control — for me, after I finished radiation, it was to focus on diet and exercise. I became very disciplined about eating healthy and exercising regularly, which studies show is very helpful in avoiding recurrence. And I try to help other women going through it, because having that network was crucial in getting me through that initial shock,” she shared.
Today Micho enjoys the simple pleasures of life.“I love running, swimming, yoga, and am an avid reader of history, particularly biographies. I have been married to my husband Bill, whom I met at Harvard, for 38 years and he is my soulmate — the nicest guy I ever met. We are blessed with a growing family, and I spend most of my spare time trying to influence my grandson Julian (5), granddaughter Vera (1) and newborn grandson Mason,” concluded a beaming Micho.
Reprinted with permission from “Break the Ceiling Touch the Sky: Success Secrets of the World’s Most Inspirational Women” by Anthony Rose published 2014 by House of Rose Pte Ltd.
Break the Ceiling Touch the Sky 2015 – The Conference for success and leadership for women will be held in SINGAPORE on Sept 29, 2015. For registration of delegates please visit www.houseofroseprofessional.com