Dear Melissa: A Letter Encouraging You to Define Your Own Power

How watching the secretary to Governor Cuomo brought out the coach in me.

New York is a tough place to establish leadership, especially in politics. Your local platform can unexpectedly shift to a world stage; everyone’s a critic and an expert, so you’ll quickly gather qualified naysaying; and Albany is an historic establishment with notable footsteps to follow – the Roosevelts, the Cuomos, the Clintons (DeWitt and George) and more. One has to have stubborn resolve and immense self-confidence to advance in the state capital.

Fixed to my Manhattan apartment throughout the COVID-19 crisis, my daily routine started with watching Governor Cuomo’s press briefings and being riveted not just by his command of the situation, but more specifically by the fierce demeanor of his second-in-command, Secretary Melissa DeRosa.

I wondered, who is this lady next to him constantly passing him written notes and bravely defending their work? The New York Times wrote an article about her, where Cuomo referred to her as “an equal and opposite force.” I was fascinated by her relationship with him, who she seemed in tandem with, despite his reputation of being a difficult boss.

But mostly I imagined how being female, with its built-in criticisms, expectations, and unspoken rules, might make this very public political experience even more challenging. Watching Melissa’s inspiring participation in the Governor’s briefings caused me to muse about unconscious gender biases, the paradoxes of competence and perfectionism, and authentically being your true self as a woman. These are all challenges I help my female executive clients tackle on a regular basis.

The leadership coach in me really came out. This was a woman I wanted to work with to help her further grow – to develop her own style and define her own power, to stop serving a male lead and truly step into female leadership. She’s material to be a prime politician, if she decides so. What’s stopping her?

So, I wrote her a letter. It wasn’t just a bid for her business as a client – it was a message on where I saw her strengths, her potential, as well as challenges she faces. Here it is:

Unapologetically fierce and totally feminine, a role model for leadership.

Dear Melissa,

This is a long note sent to a busy woman, so let me cut right to the point - I would like to start a conversation with you about female leadership.

My mission is to support women who fully embrace their femininity and inner power. I strongly believe that the future of leadership will be pioneered by compelling, competent women. Women like you. I have committed my professional life to support ambitious leaders because the world needs more visible role models, to not accept the current standards, dominated by men, and to be pioneers for a better society.

Which is why I hope to begin a conversation with you about leadership, gender bias and the challenges successful women face when they make an impact. As a New Yorker by choice, a European by birth, and a soon-to-be American, I watched Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 briefings every day. Wholly apart from the substance of the briefings, I couldn’t help noticing the specific role you played. A powerful, experienced, well-educated, and well-prepared field marshal directing much of the State’s response to the pandemic and, more recently, the fallout from the murder of George Floyd.

I also appreciate your efforts to change policy regarding reproductive rights for single women, and your support for the State Council on Women and Girls. You are a model of modern female leadership.

All that you do so well has caused me to reflect on what it takes for a woman to grow a powerful leadership presence, in a world where we must contend with paradoxes. I have personally experienced the fine line between competence and perfectionism, the challenge of finding a personal center of authenticity in the midst of masculine norms and balancing feminine wisdom with ambitious drive in every situation.

Melissa, the fact that you both exemplify and fight to resolve these tensions is an inspiration. My mission in life is to stand next to women like you, to allow them to realize and embody this new way of leading, and to see how bright our future can be when these leaders shine in full.

I would like to learn more about you, and to dedicate myself to help you achieve your highest ambitions. I want to stand by you and to support you to propel your career and impact.

That’s my ask: a conversation with you. Are you willing to continue this conversation?

Thanks for taking the time to read this note. I look forward to hearing from you and getting to know you.

Veronique Bogliolo Friedman

I mailed the letter to Melissa but didn’t hear back. If I’d engaged in a coaching session with her, I’d first let her know that the world needs more of her. That there is a scarcity of leaders like her who fully embrace their femininity and inner power. I strongly believe that women like her are the model of future leadership, and that we don’t have to emulate male behaviors to succeed.

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