Stand and Deliver: Unstuckable Leadership with Heather Kernahan
by Lisa Gable · 13 Nov 2023 · 11 min read
My Stand and Deliver series features women who lead through inspiration and aspiration. Today’s article highlights Heather Kernahan, a global tech executive, strategic adviser, and sought-after speaker who has broken through the walls of her industry and created a game-changing UNSTUCK leadership model.
I chose to interview Heather Kernahan because of her remarkable expertise in empowering female leaders and founders and her unique ability to discern when individuals are prepared and confident enough to propel their business or personal growth. My conversation with Heather comes at a significant juncture as she just launched her highly anticipated book, "Unstuckable," a title I predict will soar to bestseller status. Heather’s extensive experience, gained through her involvement with organizations such as the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, Women’s Startup Lab, and Grand Central Tech, has enabled her to guide numerous women professionals and startup founders on their journey to success.
Please introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about your career and what excites you about your current stage of life.
I’m the CEO of Hotwire Global, a communications and marketing consultancy for innovation and tech companies. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and get to travel around the world, working with our team and clients in cities like London, Munich, Sydney, Singapore, New York, and Paris.
I started my career in marketing and communications roles and had my mind set on being a chief marketing officer. When researching CMOs and how they got to their positions, I realized many of them had done an MBA so I decided to pursue that degree. During one of my last finance classes of my program, my professor was talking about the numbers CEOs rely on in business. I raised my hand and said, “I’m trying to be a CMO. What numbers should I look at?” He replied that the program was training us to be CEOs. I walked out of class a bit stunned. It hadn’t occurred to me that someday I could run an entire company, not only marketing. From that moment on, I started working on developing my skills to become a CEO.
There are so many things I’m excited about in my current stage of life. Next year I’ll be fifty, and I expect it will be the best decade yet. One of my kids is in college, and the other is in high school and very independent, which means my husband and I have much more time together. In my role at Hotwire, there is a lot of room for impact with our team and clients. I’m grateful for life so far and planning more big things ahead.
Tell us about a major transition period in your life (major move, career move, family, unique opportunity) and what prompted the change.
After I’d been in tech for about a decade, the company I worked for was sold to its biggest competitor. We were a proud Canadian tech company, and I felt devastated by the development and very worried I’d lose my job. My daughter was eight months old, and my husband was staying home with her. The pressure was on to figure out what would happen next and how we’d have an income.
It was during that time I started to develop the UNSTUCK blueprint as a way to focus myself on my strengths and value to the teams I worked with. I figured I’d likely lose my job, so I got bolder in my interactions with the acquiring company. I proactively reached out to people at the company, and when I met with the leadership team, I told them that I was open to moving locations or roles if that option was available. The day the deal finally closed, I got a call from someone on the leadership team saying they had a role for me but I needed to move to San Francisco and that they would handle all the visa requirements and moving costs for my family. That moment changed the trajectory of our lives and my career. I accepted the role, and we moved to the Bay Area. That was eighteen years ago, and we’ve never looked back.
What are the three top tips you have for woman trying to assert her influence and ideas?
First, understand who you’re working to influence and really understand their perspective, motivations, and what they’re trying to achieve. One of my mentors always tells me “seek to understand and then be understood” whenever I’m frustrated that I’m not making progress working with others. When I switch my perspective to truly understand that person first, I can be much more strategic in moving my agenda forward.
Second, develop your ideas into an ownable thought leadership platform or unique narrative. Actually write down your ideas and develop them to be relevant, current, and memorable. Then take your ideas out to speaking opportunities and write content for social platforms (i.e., post your content on Linkedin regularly and talk to the media). You can develop influence by sharing your ideas publicly and finding support in a broad community.
Third, use the reframing technique to help conquer any insecurities or doubt that comes up while working to assert your influence and ideas. As I put my ideas out to the world, I often think, This is hard and damn scary. Then I repeat to myself, I do hard things, and I’m scared but doing it anyway. Writing down the thoughts that limit you and then writing the reframed version is a powerful tool to keep moving forward.
How do you help unleash leadership at all levels?
To help unleash potential in leadership,, the focus is always on the potential, values and vision the person has and helping them to see it for themselves. Within the business I lead, we have programs that offer a chance to travel to an office anywhere in the world, we have leadership development classes, and we have a program called Hotwire Ignite Possibilities that connects tech businesses who are run by minority leaders to our team of communications and marketing experts so we are getting access to different startups and founders. I am always looking for ways to help leaders see where they are limiting themselves and remove those barriers to make anything possible.
Tell our readers about a passion project of yours, why it’s unique or special, and what attracted you to it.
My passion project right now is getting many more women to write business books. In the fall of 2020, as I was meeting clients, many of whom were CEOs of tech companies, three male leaders told me they were writing books. I was shocked they were able to run their companies during a complicated time and find time for a big project. When I asked each of them more about their books, they all said it was an important long-term goal, so they were making sure it stayed on their agenda. Those conversations caused me to reflect on the cycle of influence with book authors. Authors get interviewed in the media, are selected to speak at events, network with other influencers, and have new business opportunities come their way. In 2021, approximately 15 percent of the New York Times bestselling business books were written by women.
I decided that I needed to figure out how to write a book if I wanted to get more women writing business books. To figure it out, my friend Lindsay and I sent out emails to lots of women executives and gathered together eight other women. We called ourselves “The 10” and got to work figuring out how to write our first business books. Tricia Timm was the first to launch a book, called Embrace the Power of You. My book is next up, and I’m on a journey to encourage thousands of women to write their business books and build their influence. If you’re reading this and have a dream to write a business book, contact me, I’d love to help you get started.
Who inspires you today and why?
Bozoma Saint John has inspired me for many years and continues to do so. She started her career in CPG and transitioned into tech, taking senior marketing roles at Apple, Uber, and most recently, as CMO at Netflix. She embraces her Ghanese heritage and is an Ambassador for the African Diaspora and Special Envoy to the President of Ghana. She wrote her first book this past year, a personal one called The Urgent Life.
She inspires me in how broadly she lives her life and how she continues to evolve her career. She isn’t only on one path; she is seemingly traveling lots of paths, and I find that inspiring.
What is a future aspiration?
My future aspiration right now is to help thousands of women develop and launch their first business books.
My Key Takeaways
What strikes me the most about Heather’s interview is that she is straightforward and clear about what women need to do to advance in their careers.
Unfortunately, self-doubt and limiting beliefs hinder getting you and your ideas to market. It’s all too easy to underestimate one’s potential when faced with challenges.
Knowing Heather as I do, it was no surprise she stayed positive when her company was acquired. She proactively contacted her new leadership team, demonstrating her willingness to explore roles that might require relocation. Her story highlights that the path to personal and professional growth requires embracing change, taking measured risks, and remaining open to new possibilities.
Another critical success factor is an openness to diverse perspectives and opinions, even if other people make it challenging for you to achieve strategic goals and promote your innovative ideas. Our point of view sometimes does not align with our boss’s or colleagues, which can cause incredible frustration.
This is why my favorite Heather quote is,
“One of my mentors always tells me ‘seek to understand and then be understood” whenever I am frustrated that I am not making progress working with others. When I switch my perspective to understand that person first, I can be much more strategic in moving my agenda forward.”
Seeing the world from someone else’s point of view bridges these gaps and fosters effective collaboration. By genuinely understanding your colleagues’ and collaborators’ pain points and goals, you can reframe your proposal to create a culture of trust and inspire your teams. This practice enhances your leadership capabilities and facilitates your journey toward achieving professional goals.
Another step in personal growth is establishing yourself as a thought leader. Heather’s emphasis is on creating “ownable ideas.” Presenting your unique perspective defines your value and adds to any conversation.
You can write a book as Heather encourages you, but you can also get started publishing via platforms like LinkedIn, Substack, or Medium. They provide ample opportunities to disseminate your ideas and connect with like-minded individuals. And, one benefit of the LinkedIn platform is that it is a collaborative process. Strategically promote your agenda by commenting on others’ posts and embracing the power of understanding others’ perspectives. Share your experiences, insights, and vision to enhance your visibility and credibility within your field and contribute to a broader conversation.
Welcoming discomfort and learning from failures allows you to shed self-limiting beliefs and pave the way for personal and professional growth.
Embracing change, taking calculated risks, and seeking to understand are the cornerstones of a successful and influential career that can serve as an example for others.
I look forward to reading Heather’s book, Unstuckable, and encourage you order it now.
Unstuckable doesn’t just meet you where you are; it challenges you to challenge yourself. Heather will be the first to tell you there’s never a wrong time to dream big and forge ahead. Within the pages of her book, you’ll cultivate a mindset that transforms obstacles into opportunities, viewing them as raging rivers you boldly navigate with unwavering enthusiasm.
What lessons did you learn from Heather’s interview? Let me know what inspired you by connecting with me on Instagram or LinkedIn. You can also buy my book, Turnaround: How to Change Course When Things Are Going South, at www.lisagable.com.