Val DiFebo, CEO, Deutsch New York

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The All-Inclusive Leader

By Meghan Miranda

Famous for the truncated statement, “I don’t think of myself as a woman,” published in New York Magazine in 2010, Deutsch New York CEO, Val DiFebo is nothing short of bold.

(In an interview with Business Insider, DiFebo clarified her statement, which should have read, “I don’t think of myself as a woman, but as a business-person that is a woman.”)

And competitive.

This married mother of one, stepmother of two and grandmother of three started at Deutsch when there were only 50 employees. Today, there are over 1,000 – nearly half of which are in her New York office.

“We all have this DNA strand here. We like to win. We get jazzed by winning,” says DiFebo.

Unmoved by gender, DiFebo propelled herself from account manager, when she began her career at Deutsch in 1992, to one of few women in executive roles in advertising.

Her expertise and unique role as a powerful woman amongst Mad Men, has garnered much attention from the media over the years. Appearing once on the on The Apprentice, she has also made guest appearances on the Today Show and CNBC Sports Business.

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During her 21-year tenure, DiFebo has not only helped grow the company, but also shape the company culture by encouraging and supporting employee run special interest groups, such as the GOD+S of Deutsch (Gay’s of Deutsch + Straights), which helps to educate and embrace diversity and Deutschabilities, designed to dissolve the stigma of disability in the workplace and beyond.

As a psychology major at Williams College, DiFebo says she was always interested in the way people think and what makes them change their minds about things. This curiosity not only helped her develop a passion for advertising, but also made her aware of an asset she considers one of the most important in skills in business –active listening.

She wants her team to know they’re heard, that their input matters. It’s empowering and a big part of the Deutsch culture.

“My leadership style is very inclusive and transparent,” she says. “We’re all glass here, literally.”

That’s right. The New York office, which DiFebo helped design, features glass walls.

Reflective of her open door policy and people-first leadership style, it helped earn the Deutsch New York office a spot on Crain’s New York Business’s the Best Places to Work in NYC list in 2008.

Deutsch, Inc. was also named one of Advertising Age’s Best Places to Work in 2011 and 2012.

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Little PINK Book: What do you think is the biggest issue or concern for professional women right now?

Val DiFebo: Women are underrepresented in high level positions. Identifying companies that will provide you with the opportunity to advance is the biggest thing. I recommend interviewing and assessing the company you’re going to work for. Ask yourself, “Is there someone here who will champion my work, or am I going to be the first person to break ground and am I ready for that?”

The culture at Deutsch is receptive to gender neutral contributions. Women here feel like they can succeed because they see women already in leadership positions. They know there’s a path.

LPB: What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

VD: Donny Deutsch said, “Be yourself.” If you are yourself, people will love you. Let people see you and you will do great things.

There was a time I went into his office with a question about a client’s big challenge and said, “We can answer this three ways.” He said, “Which do you think works best?” I answered quickly, “This one.” He said, “Then, why are you here?” He trusts that I can do my job and has never told me to do something I didn’t want to do.

I have seven people on the executive team and I empower and trust them do what I hired them to do.

LPB: What is your biggest weakness as a leader?

VD: I’m very hands on. I like to know what’s going on in every part of the agency. I like to be involved in the client business.

Most people would say a CEO has no business being involved in day-to-day business, but many of our clients’ CEOs are involved so I can call them at any time and discuss their business.

LPB: What is it about your background that resulted in your choices and success today?

VD: I grew up in a very blue-collar home in the Bronx. I have three sisters. I’m also of Italian-American descent, second generation. We are very connected to extended family. We have 25 people around all the time. I grew up comfortable in a large setting. Additionally, I was often fortunate at a young age to have speaking opportunities and that always excited me; public speaking is a thrill for me and something I very much enjoy.

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LPB: What is the craziest thing you’ve done to win a new client?

VD: We don’t do “stunts” or go over the top to get a prospects attention; we let our work and team do the wowing. Once when we got to a pitch there was a blackout and 20 of us had to crowd in a small conference room with very little natural light. It was actually fun and I think a real bonding moment. We won!

LPB: What do you do to relax and rejuvenate?

VD: I love to travel with my family. We were in New Orleans recently, and we were also in Europe. We just go. I have a natural curiosity for the way other people live.

I’m a water person, so I enjoy visiting beaches whether it’s Montauk on Long Island or the South of France.

LPB: What are your best balance tips?

VD: Balance? What is that? I don’t balance; I juggle … like a person in frenzy. I live in the moment. When I’m with my eight year-old son, I am Mommy. I am there; I’m present and not looking at my BlackBerry. Once a year, I serve lunch at his school and, when I’m there, I’m there.

I ask myself how I am going to be a great mom and how I am going to be a great leader for the agency. Something has to fall by the wayside. My house isn’t that neat. If you walked in you would say, “Whoa!” In our entry way we have a basket for mail, paperwork for school, etc. and it has been known to overflow.

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LPB: Is there one thing particularly important you sacrificed for career?

VD: I’ve made a very intense effort to participate in family and friend activities, while managing my career. Early in my career I probably left too many PTO (vacation) days on the table.

LPB: What are you reading?

VD: I find Michael J. Fox completely inspirational. He’s smart and funny and he has such an optimistic outlook on life. Whether you read Lucky Man or Funny Thing Happened, you walk away inspired.

LPB: What’s one random fact about you?

VD: I almost drowned twice. Once in a pool when I was two years old and again at age 25 in Mexico. I can swim but I was caught in a rip tide. I didn’t panic so I was able to figure out how to get out. An event like this gave me great perspective on how precious life can be and if you remain calm, you can get through anything.

LPB: What is one goal you have yet to achieve?

VD: I’m on my way to doing some of the things that I think are important from a legacy standpoint. I’m trying to be involved in educational causes that will help shape leaders for tomorrow.

I’m a cofounding board member of the Hearts of Gold Foundation and involved with Urban League and Williams College and Buckley Country Day School but there is so much more I want to do. I wish my tentacles were longer.

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LPB: How do you define success?

VD: At work, I’m so proud of the team that I have. The fact that they want to work here and make a difference every day at this company is meaningful to me.

At home, I think about how I can be the best mom every day, and my son knows that. I am the board chair at his school, working with a talented group of trustees and a strong, innovative headmaster on toward long-term strategic visions for the school. I bake for the bake sales. My son insists on nothing store bought, so we do it together from scratch.

Because Bryan is eight, cupcakes are the hot ticket item. But, we also bake and decorate theme cakes for birthdays. Our favorite was creating a 3D Winnie the Pooh.

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