Career & Success

Denise Brosseau: Find the “Palace of Possibilities”

The CEO of an executive talent agency discusses the value of directness and knowing when to say ‘we’ and when to say ‘I.’

April 15, 2013

| by Erika Brown Ekiel



Denise Brosseau, CEO of Thought Leadership Lab

Denise Brosseau is the CEO of Thought Leadership Lab, an executive talent agency. Previously she was cofounder and CEO of Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (now Watermark, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year) and cofounder of Springboard Enterprises, both organizations for women-led startups. She received her MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1993. Her book, Ready to be a Thought Leader?, is scheduled to be published by Wiley Press in 2014.

In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?

My business: How to scale your impact and influence in the world.

My life: How to get more women leaders at the top of every organization.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Early in my career I had a mentor, Eunice Azzani, then a senior partner at Korn Ferry International. She told me, “If you are not living on the edge, you are taking up too much room.” I am always pushing, always headed toward the next challenge.

What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?

Knowing when to say “we” and when to say “I.” It is a challenge most of us face in our careers. We are often part of a team that created or gave life to a vision, and it can be hard to stop saying it’s ‘our’ idea and say ‘I’ am the leader. At the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE), I had a cofounder who came up with the idea. She did the initial research, and it was her ‘baby.’ I came in as her first follower. Eventually, I had to step out of her shadow and take the stage as CEO. In 1997, I went out to raise money for the organization. In those first conversations she always came with me. At some point I had to say, “I believe in this idea, and we are going in this direction.” Women tend to struggle with this. They may give away too much credit to others or hesitate to step into the spotlight. Learning when to say “we” can also be a challenge. After we started a FWE chapter in Seattle I flew there to meet the leadership team and give a presentation about the beginnings of the organization. Instead of saying “we,” I kept saying “I” as in: “I launched this,” “I led this initiative,” etc. At the end, the woman who chaired the board said, “You did a great job but it would have been better if you had said ‘we’ more often.” Lesson learned.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?

Figure out if anybody cares about what you are doing first. It can be exciting to start a business but I have wasted a lot of time building businesses around solutions to problems no one else thinks are worth paying for. You should start by saying, I have a hypothesis, and then go out and get feedback. Don’t stop or get paralyzed when you get your first “no,” but listen to the underlying reasons. When I worked in business development at Motorola, I would ask, “If we could create a product with these features for this price, would you be interested?” Let people react to the hypothesis. The true driver then becomes: Are they willing to put their money into it? When? Do they ask how quickly they can have it? You want to see an “I need it now” response versus a “Sure, that would be nice.”

Also, when you are coming from left field with something new, like we did with Springboard — the first venture conference just for women entrepreneurs — a lot of people will tell you ‘that’s a stupid idea’ or ‘that can’t be done.’ You need to surround yourself with orthogonal thinkers who can cross boundaries and are open to new ideas. They are able to see what is possible.

What inspires you/how do you come up with your best ideas?

I have worked in so many different industries and niches: big companies, small companies, government, for-profit, not-for-profit, etc. For me, it is about expanding the adjacent possible. Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, explains that the world is full of many possibilities, but only certain things can happen. Only by opening doors to new opportunities — a new adjacent possible — can you create what I call a palace of possibilities. I have more doors open — a larger palace of possibilities — than most people, so I can see connections others may not see. My best ideas come from this collage of experiences.

What is your greatest achievement?

Cofounding the Springboard Venture Forums. We have helped more than 500 women entrepreneurs around the world raise more than $5.5 billion for their companies. I now serve on the Council of National Advisors.

What do you consider your biggest failure?

The toughest time in my career was the dot-com crash in 2001. The Forum for Women Entrepreneurs was within a few thousands dollars of closing shop. At one point we had 7 offices and 1,200 members but in 3 months our funding screeched to 0. Entrepreneurship was just not happening anymore. The phone kept ringing but it was mostly men. They would call me and say, “You have a connection to X person, can you introduce me?” The guys were reaching out but the women, including me, were essentially hiding under their beds. My failure was that I didn’t want to tell my board or my advisors about the challenges I was going through. As soon as I did, solutions presented themselves. Everyone says women are so good at asking for help, but that is not my experience. We think we need to be superwomen and overcompensate by trying to handle everything ourselves. You are always going to have setbacks. You need to pick up the phone and find the help you need.

What values are important to you in business?

Directness. With me, what you see is what you get. In corporate America that did not fare in my favor. As an entrepreneur, I like that I get to select my own clients. I choose to work with people who are straightforward and appreciate my directness.

What is the best business book you have read?

Most recently, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath.

What businessperson do you most admire?

Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels. Unlike most business leaders, he became successful by making sure it was all about the people, not just numbers or ego. Also, I like that he is honest about the challenges he has had to face in his life.

What is the most valuable thing you took away from your time at Stanford?

Number one, when you want to change people’s behavior in a company, change the compensation structure. Number two, sunk costs are sunk. Don’t keep throwing good money after bad. Also, I really enjoyed Jim Collins’ entrepreneurship class. During one session he asked the class how we keep our ethics. I said, “My mother always told me to have F-you money in the bank so you can walk away from a bad situation.” He wrote on the board: “What Denise’s mother said.” I think I’m still famous in that class for having said that. I hope my mother never finds out!

What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?

Portfolio careers. Unlike my dad, I don’t have to work for just one company and have all my eggs in one basket. I have five different income streams which makes me much more resilient to economic downturns.

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More