Laughter doesn’t sound like your typical career tip, but keeping a sense of humor is one key piece of advice Maria Cristina “MC” Gonzalez Noguera shared in her recent conversation with us.
Gonzalez is a master communicator who is thoughtful with her words and approach, but embracing risk and fearlessness have also been important in her career. Her craft has taken her from investment banking in her hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico, to the White House as Director of Communications for First Lady Michelle Obama. Currently, as the Senior Vice President of Global Public Affairs at Estée Lauder, Gonzalez is building new government and public affairs capabilities on the legacy of a multi-billion dollar brand and yet she remains adamant that embracing a sense of humor and keeping perspective are key.
In our conversation, Gonzalez shares the secrets of how she continues to move her career forward, what she believes is new and exciting in the field of government, public affairs and communications, many words of wisdom, and of course humor. Translating her Grandmother’s Spanish phrases into English doesn’t always work, but they certainly keep her colleagues smiling and they kept us smiling as well.
Her Agenda: Which of your professional roles has been the most challenging? Which have you learned the most from?
MC Gonzalez: I am the sort of person that thrives on a challenge and that looks to problem solve. I’ve been that way all of my life, in my personal and in my professional life. I would say that all of my roles have had some kind of challenging component; if not, it’s not fun.
The most challenging, always, is when you start a new role, a new project, or a new responsibility. So if I had to look back at my career I would have to say that one of the more challenging jobs was my first job out of college. I was an analyst in investment banking. So even though I had done summer internships, and although I worked throughout my college years, when you’re starting adulthood [and] when you’re starting a new job, it’s hard. It was banking, it was circa 1997 and it was very much a male dominated environment. I was working in Puerto Rico which also has a certain layer of machismo. That was a challenge. But when we are challenged, literally, your brain expands. Studies have shown, that when you’re placed in a challenging situation, your brain grows. Through challenges, you learn resilience. You develop your own sense of grit and persistence. So although every new opportunity for me has come with some challenges, I’ve welcomed them because they lead to real growth.
Her Agenda: How have you been able to seize different career opportunities, and continue to move forward?
MC Gonzalez: I think it’s a combination of two things, you have to be open and fearless. You can’t be afraid to fail or afraid to figure it out. You have to be really open to opportunities.
When someone approaches you with a new opportunity, that’s really just the first conversation. As you think it through and talk to mentors or other trusted allies in your network, you start to (break down) the opportunity. You learn a lot from yourself in the process.
Her Agenda: You mentioned mentors. They have been important to you and have helped you to find new opportunities. How did you find them, and how do you continue to build your relationships with them?
MC Gonzalez: A lot of my mentors have been organic. The relationships have grown over time. I’ve been very deliberate in finding mentors that play different roles in my career development and in my life. Some are pushing me to do new and different things while others are much more encouraging.
Mentors are very important as you think about your career and you should make sure that you have two types. Mentors that push you hard, those who are truth tellers and that oftentimes tell you what you don’t want to hear. You also need the people that are going to be kinder and gentler. We all really need that balance.
It’s important for the mentee to navigate the relationship and come to conversations ready. What is the objective of the conversation? And what is it that you need from your mentor at that moment? Be mindful that the more senior your mentor, the more pressed they are for time, yet the more giving they are of their experience and their learnings.
Her Agenda: I have to ask about your experience in the White House. What was it like working closely with the First Lady?
MC Gonzalez: Our former First Lady is fantastic, and I’m so fortunate and thankful that I had the opportunity to work with her, and the incredible team that surrounded her and her husband. My time at the White House was certainly fast paced, it was fun, there was a lot of creative energy, it was exhilarating, and I think that anyone who works at any White House, regardless of party, would also say that it’s hard. It’s demanding. It is a moment in your life where you are really at the center of a lot and you have to be deliberate about how you manage your personal energy, how you manage your words, and how you navigate difficult situations for your principals. During that time I tried to always remember that these were personal relationships so we could have disagreements, but at the end of the day, everyone was feeling similar pressures and everyone wanted to do right by this President and this First Lady.
She is just … I can’t say enough good things about this First Lady, and clearly, I’m in good company; her approval rating throughout her eight years speak to that. She expanded how I think and approach life. Whether it was my own family, raising a child while I was working for her, or whether it was how we approached her issues and her platforms. Whether it was Let’s Move or Joining Forces, or how we launched Reach Higher, or Let Girls Learn. She was always pushing us to look at things in a far more creative way. She gave us the creative freedom to look at some of these issues differently.
When we launched Reach Higher, she really put herself out there. Reach Higher is about making sure that youth from underserved communities have the vision and the plan to pursue post-secondary education, so she told her own education story. She told about what it was like for a girl from the Southside of Chicago to get into Princeton and then into Harvard.
I suspect that her legacy will be one of smart creativity.
Her Agenda: The Internet and social media have changed the way that we live and communicate with each other — and the field of communications in general. As an SVP for a multibillion-dollar company, what do you find new, emerging, and/or exciting in the field?
MC Gonzalez: There is no better, more interesting time to be in communications and public affairs than now. We have the rapid growth of varied communications platforms that are changing how brands and people communicate what they are about. We have the opportunity to take exciting risks.
If you think about social media, some of the platforms are meant to be experimental. That creates room for a lot of creative fun. When you juxtapose the new platforms and the call for authenticity from consumers and constituents and juxtapose that with policy and today’s political environment, these are really interesting times.
Her Agenda: How do you think that brands must adapt given this call for authenticity?
MC Gonzalez: Social media has really changed everything. Consumers are speaking, influencers are speaking, media editors are speaking; they are really all influencing each other. So when everyone is in the mix then there are a lot of opportunities to amplify a strong voice or point of view, and that’s really exciting.
In today’s world if it’s not authentic, and if it doesn’t feel right, to the consumer, to the influencer, to us as a company, to my colleagues who are driving very successful brands, then it falls flat. You have got to iterate and you have got to reinvent. I have been working for over 20 years and when I think about the earlier days of my career, we thought about how to make people like things. The big difference now is that there is a recognition that you really can’t make people, whether consumers or constituents, like or adopt something that they don’t think is authentic, or that they can’t relate to. So that shifts the responsibility onto us, whether you are a company or you are a political candidate, to really think about what is it that your consumer is demanding, and how do you fit that need. How do you come up with creative solutions for your consumers?
That shift is real. The power shift of consumers driving much more is real. I think it speaks to the intersection of communications, public affairs, and CSR, this question of what is the truth, and what is authentic. It depends on perception and what is important to you. Truth is becoming a rapidly changing and complex idea, and it’s based on one’s beliefs, choice of media, and political leanings, that’s something that we have to really spend some time understanding.
Her Agenda: If you had to give your 30-year-old self a few words of wisdom, what would you say?
MC Gonzalez: I would start with reminding myself to keep a sense of humor and perspective. The exciting part about [your thirties] is that it comes with a lot of change and many opportunities to take risks. Through it all, I would remind myself to keep a sense of humor. There are many times where you have to laugh at yourself. Also, keep perspective. It’s okay to fail, it’s okay to ask for help. It’s certainly okay to ask for help. And it’s important that when you do ask for help and when you do admit failure that you learn from it.
I would also remind myself to stay true to what you want. Often times throughout our lives and especially through our careers, many different people are pushing you in different directions to accomplish their own objectives. So that’s why it is so important to find time in the day to just stay silent for a second, take a moment, and think about what is it that you want and what is it that you need, whether it’s for your own personal success, or for the success of the company, the cause or the issue that you’re working for. That’s important because it’s not just about yourself right? So what is it that you want or need to truly contribute to something bigger than you.
Her Agenda: Do you have a mantra or an affirmation that you live by?
MC Gonzalez: So this is where the sense of humor comes in. I am bilingual, my first language is Spanish, I’m originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico. I don’t think that I have a mantra or an affirmation as much as throughout the day I often find myself saying things like, “Well we have this saying in Spanish.” I try to translate these phrases and sometimes they come out awkward. They come from the time I spent with my Grandmother when I was younger. She had wonderful phrases; some were funny and some were full of wisdom.
Her Agenda: What advice do you have for the young women who read Her Agenda and are building their lives and careers?
MC Gonzalez: Three things. 1. Be courageous. Go after what you want, what you think is important, and what will be transformative in your life. 2. Surround yourself with people that support you, people that are truth tellers, people who will catch you when you fall 3. Surround yourself with a lot of women! We are our biggest assets, we are our biggest supporters, and we have to remember that. We have got to support one another. We are so fortunate to be in a club of women, and we have got to support one another.
[Editor’s note: This interview published on May 1st, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity.]