A question often asked by the youngest and newest talents during our regular Coffee with the CEO conversations, I listened and mused on this. How did I become me? Not “How did you build a category-leading, multi-awarded, and globally-recognized company in just five years after retiring twice?” Not, “How did you re-build companies?” Not, “How did you become a success?” How did you become you?
The Gen Zs and Millennials, who compose 80% of our talent team at IPG Mediabrands Philippines, which I head, often tell me that our talks are inspiring and that I should in fact be, an influencer–for me to share my stories to a bigger audience, to have a bigger platform to share my stories.
The general image of an influencer is that of a digital native, one that is a generation or two younger than most people my age. But it seems the universe heard the question and was eavesdropping on our sometimes silly, sometimes serious exchanges and presented me with this OneMega.com opportunity. So, here I am, up for the challenge, a new experience, a new journey.
How I became me or Mother V goes back to my roots, the foundation of my values, to the family that nurtured me, to the unique community that shaped me and the public education that strengthened me.
I was born in Baguio, a middle child among nine siblings with very young parents. Sandwiched by two older brothers and two sisters ahead of me with two younger girls and two boys after me, it was an interesting position.
You can say that I was born with four bosses leading me and later had four subordinates that I was trying to teach and care for. It was an ideal training ground for diplomacy, camaraderie, and responsibility. I was sometimes part of the more experienced, wiser older team and sometimes I would champion and coach the kids who also challenged me and reported me to my “bosses.” We had a built-in 360-degree feedback mechanism. The older ones often get the brunt of the blame from our parents for our misguided adventurisms, but we younger ones were sure to get our fair share of retribution, implemented behind our parents’ back. Empowerment and empathy were naturally developed. This is how I learned to be a follower first, then modelling and practicing my new lessons on the younger set.
Growing up, limited resources and chores were necessarily shared. Values, like responsibility were taught more by actions, not just words. The usual source of Filipino family pride of coming home with good grades and honors were no longer a novelty, not when all your older siblings have already done it before you and several times over. The metrics and value of trying harder, were unintentionally set. To be independent and not be a burden to anyone. Minimum requirements of responsibility, my first KPIs.
When we were young, our parents would always say “Don’t be like us, be better.” We learned, inherited, and practiced traits like grit, resiliency, and hard work. They showed us the value of never giving up so that nine growing children who seemed to be always hungry could be fed, clothed and sent to school all for a better future, a better us.
Because they married in their teens, our parents were almost like our siblings, so close to our age, that they can relate to our youthful shenanigans. My late father, who had a brilliant mind and was a fashionable dresser, was a joker, a willing target for family pranks. (My older brothers fed him fried fish while he was sleeping, experimenting if he will eat it, which he did!) He always had an imaginatively funny take on situations. Once, envious of my playmate’s big new year’s day torotot, my father told me he’d make me one so big, it will start from our home in the valley, snake-up through the crooked streets and reach city hall (where he works), and when I blow it, the whole city will hear it. I believed him and his big dreams. Thankfully, this sense of fun, humor and adventure was also inherited by all nine of us. With very young parents, I can say that we all brought up each other.
It is my mother though who taught me how to treat each person according to his or her strengths, using tough love. We are nine, but she would have a different parenting approach for each of us. This is something that I often hear my teams playback to me, that my mentoring style is never one-size-fits-all. Her positivity and belief that tomorrow will always be better is something that has carried me through many challenges. My mother’s practical nature ran through everything including the way she solved problems, facing them directly and immediately. No dramas, no delays. Her philosophy of “that is done, learn your lesson, move on” is something that I practice, especially when I suffer defeats.
Whatever nurturing skills I have now, I learnt from my mother. Apparently, being a nurturer was not natural to me. Sometime in my life, I learned that my Greek archetype is the goddess Athena–war-like, competitive, with both masculine and feminine traits. And yet, I became maternal. So yes, with good role models, everything can be learned.
Growing up in Baguio, away from the comforts and safe haven of immediate relatives, honed early independence and respect for diversity, we were on our own, but had an inclusive community of playmates and classmates who are Baguio natives and fellow migrants from other provinces. The diverse environment broadened my outlook and appreciation for different cultures, beliefs, food, and dialects. Differences also opened avenues for innovations as we learned from each other and created new models for traditional games. It was a fertile ground to foster creativity, expanding our imagination as we assessed and accepted each other’s position. My philosophy now–that diversity fosters innovation–was rooted in my birthplace and hometown, Baguio.
And some of my best memories–part of how I became me–are tied to Baguio. Our childhood plays were both from the lowlands, taught by our parents and from the natural environment of mountains, valleys and crooked streets.
I learned leadership and bravery from experience, for example, by being dared to drive a make-shift cart , engineered and built by my brothers. Fearlessly maneuvering Baguio’s zigzagging streets, laughing wildly with the howling winds. Often we get thrown in small ravines, even with our anticipation of the unexpected in the next bend. I got all my childhood scars from these mini accidents, but it was fun and I proved that I was brave. This is also the early beginning of my philosophy of welcoming the unexpected.
Educated in public schools, I was blind to social or economic differences. Everyone was equal. I was part of the masses struggling to make a better life for themselves. No privileges as I took public transport and stayed in dorms. Recently, I saw some old pictures of my elementary school class and was surprised to see that some of my classmates were barefoot. As a child, I never noticed that. I was classless. A bigger high school with more than 1000 of us in our batch year welcomed me to a bigger playground, but as most high schoolers do, we spent those years horsing around and playing pranks on each other. We had very good teachers for sure, one was even a two-time cabinet secretary, but having fun was the priority. We were just having the time of our lives and I will always look back on those years with fondness. It is almost a surprise that our batch yielded so many responsible adults, each successful in our chosen fields. When I went to UP, my consciousness of inequality and justice deepened. The egalitarian attitude was strengthened when I naturally gravitated to leaders who lived this life. Today, I am proud to say that I treat everyone equally, with respect, regardless of their status in life.
So, how did I become me? By living life as best and having as much fun as I can. By taking what life gave and letting them guide and influence me. These experiences and combination of circumstances unconsciously influenced my brand of leadership. This is the foundation of my becoming Mother V.
IPG Mediabrands CEO Venus Navalta is a highly respected media practitioner and a role model for aspiring women leaders in the corporate world.
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