One of the most challenging years in Serda Evren’s life taught her to look hard at herself, find the value in everyone, be open to people, and have fun. It was a very productive eighth grade.
“Leadership is about making decisions and sometimes you have to make tough decisions but you make them full of heart; you make them with emotion but you don’t let your emotions make the decision,” says Evren, who recently added a North American communications mandate to her role as Vice President of Communications and Philanthropy for MasterCard Canada.
When she was 13, Evren’s parents emigrated from Istanbul to Toronto, and suddenly the outgoing and full-of-life teen was the odd girl out. “We moved, leaving home and friends, for this completely new place at this critical age,” she remembers. “English wasn’t my first language, I wasn’t into New Kids on the Block. I was bullied and teased, but I realized you either make it or you don’t, and I decided to make it.”
That experience during her formative years made her realize the importance of seeing people for who they are, and understanding who she is. As she has advanced in her career, she has built on that philosophy to include helping others understand what they are good at. “I thought of myself as a generous, thoughtful, loving person and all they saw was a new kid. I wanted people to see who I really was, and that motivated me to always try to see people for who they truly are.”
Life became better, thanks in part to Evren’s practice of reading the newspaper aloud every day, cover to cover, to practice her English. By grade 10 it was flawless, and she was also a master of current events, which launched her passion for politics.
The University of Toronto was even better. She ran for the student union office, and in third year volunteered for the federal Liberal Party. With two years of volunteer service and a brand new political science degree under her belt the Liberals offered her a paying job. Thus began several years of long hours, lots of travel and sometimes living out of a suitcase. “The biggest gift of politics, other than the opportunity to change the world, is the people you meet. You work long hours in the trenches, you share beliefs, living together, travelling together, not eating or sleeping well. These people are your lifeline, and you form life-long friendships.”
Working in Federal and Provincial politics during the Jean Chretien and Dalton McGuinty administrations and a 14-month stint in Washington, DC, where she interned with Representative Congressman Anthony Weiner (yes, the “sexting” congressman) gave Evren insight into what makes a good leader, and a bad leader. A big part of that is surrounding yourself with the right people. “You can be a genuine, incredible, person, but if you’ve surrounded yourself with the wrong people it’s not going to work.”
Building a good team requires recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses. It requires some thoughtful introspection. “You have to spend time on yourself to be self-aware. You have to really understand yourself… your strengths, weaknesses, motivators, demotivators. If you’re not self-aware how can you possibly build an effective team around you?”
That also means finding your purpose. She advises: figure out the value you bring, what you’re really good at, and harness it. Deliver on it every day. Show up every day to make the team or the organization function better.
One thing Evren’s team – and her bosses – will tell you is that she is fun to work with.
“Let’s have a good time. Let’s build something together we’re proud of, so you feel good about what you’re doing.” She is not a stickler for hierarchy. “It kills spirit and inspiration,” she says. “There have to be lines because you’re not doing the same job and don’t have the same responsibilities but … I’ve seen people who put 100 steps between them and junior staffers and there’s no reason that needs to happen. I’d rather be building the bridges, being collaborative.”
Her goal is to build inspired teams – where everyone has a purpose and a role in making something better, and making a real impact. “It doesn’t have to be something huge, like reinventing PR. It could be that at a moment in time you brought forward an idea that shifted a strategy or changed a perspective.” It also means she doesn’t have to pretend to be good at everything. Leaders who succeed in building teams of people with diverse skills create successful departments or functions.
“I have never had an ‘end goal.’ I believe in letting opportunities find me. Who knows what the future holds but if I help people find and develop the value they bring, that’s something that helps those individuals and the organization for a long time, and I call that success.”