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‘Treat Assistants Like They Are the Boss,’ and Other Wisdom From Madeline Di Nonno

October 13, 2018 | Filed in: Woman of the Week

Madeline Di Nonno, the CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, always knew she wanted to be in charge. But of what? She started her career with a bevy of internships, landed a job at ABC Television after college, and climbed her way up the ladder from there—only to hit a roadblock once she reached the top. Today, she works to advance the careers of women and girls in the entertainment industry (the company’s motto: “If she can see it, she can be it”). Here’s how she found her calling, handled bad bosses, and learned to “give good phone.”

Madeline wears the Nell top, the Mejia pant, the Sherry dress, and the Roberta earrings.

I OWE MY CAREER TO INTERNSHIPS. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college, and I was really worried about being able to find work when I graduated, so I took every opportunity to intern that I could, starting when I was 17 years old. I interned during spring break. I interned during Christmas. I interned all the time. My first internships were in the garment industry in New York, because I absolutely loved fashion. Then a family friend who had connections at ABC Television opened up some doors for me. Once I interned there, I realized that entertainment was my passion. I also knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a CEO.

I INTERNED FOR A LOT OF EXECUTIVES IN NEWS AND SPORTS, mostly doing administrative things, or publicity, which was the department where I wound up getting my first job after college. I just worked wherever I could. I got to intern for Roone Arledge, who played a big role in making ABC Sports what it is today, and Bob Iger. Bob’s management style, and how he treated people, made a big impression on me. I would go and sit in his office and ask him questions about his career—I had such gall. He was so patient and kind to me.

ONE OF MY RESPONSIBILITIES AS AN INTERN was to open all the mail sent to ABC. I had to read them all and code them and categorize them: Was it hate mail? A fan letter? What should we do with it? That was brutal, but also very interesting. Some of the people who wrote in were destitute, begging for money, sharing hard-luck stories. It gave me insight into people around the United States who were consuming news and watching TV.

Madeline wears the Nell top, the Sherry dress, and the Roberta earrings.

I’VE NEVER HAD A PROBLEM ASKING FOR HELP. I just don’t. I think it’s partly my personality. I’m outgoing. I like people. I like to talk. I’ve always been a serial networker. Maybe it’s also because I knew I had to open doors for myself. I was privileged in that I went to college, but I didn’t have opportunities handed to me. If there was one person who could connect me with some high powered people, that was it. That was my only shot.

MY FAMILY EMIGRATED TO NEW YORK from Italy. My father worked in mechanical engineering, and my mom was a bookkeeper on Wall Street. My parents worked very, very hard to better themselves. Their work ethic, being second-generation Italian-American, was fierce, and the expectation that I would do even better was omnipresent. It was part of our DNA. You had to work hard to get ahead, and there was no free ride.

I NEVER HAD AN ISSUE WITH BEING SURROUNDED BY MEN in the workplace. It might be partly because of how I was raised: I’m an only child, and I grew up around seven older male cousins and spent a tremendous amount of time with them. When I was at ABC Sports in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was almost all men. But I never felt uncomfortable. I grew up in East New York, in Brooklyn, in a tough neighborhood, and I’m pretty streetwise. I don’t know if it came from my upbringing, but I just didn’t have any fear. I knew I could walk out the door if it was a bad environment, and that I could find work, even if it was through a temp agency or something. But that was a privilege. I didn’t have children. I wasn’t supporting a family. I wasn’t a caretaker. I was fortunate that all I had to worry about was making my rent.

Madeline wears the Susanna dress, the Paloma trench, the Double Wrap belt, and the Pave earrings.

I DID ONCE WORK FOR SOMEONE WHO SAID INAPPROPRIATE THINGS. It wasn’t sexual; I would probably call it verbal harassment. I was in my twenties at the time. At one point, he said something to me that crossed a line, and I responded with something like, “If you do that again, it’ll be the last thing you ever do in your life.” And that was it. I left that position a little while later, on good terms.

THE FIRST WOMAN I EVER WORKED FOR AT ABC is still one of my closest friends. To this day, I’m in awe of her—she’s dynamic, eloquent, polished, diplomatic. I gobbled up every moment I had in her shadow. Since then, I’ve worked for a lot of high-powered women as well as high-powered men. I try to take the best qualities from every boss I have. I’m big on thank-you notes. I think a lot of etiquette has been lost in the digital media world, and a mailed note goes a long way.

AS A RULE, I TREAT PEOPLE’S ASSISTANTS LIKE THEY ARE THE BOSS. Nobody taught me that; I’ve just done it ever since I moved up from admin work myself. When I was interning, I remembered who was nice to me and who wasn’t. Many people are so focused on getting to the boss that they’re not kind and respectful to the admins, but they should understand that the admin is the gatekeeper. If you’re respectful to them, you’re the one who’s going to get your calls put through. If an admin helps out with a big presentation or event, I make sure that he or she also gets flowers or a bottle of wine, not just the boss. Bosses get the thank-you gifts all the time, but it was the admin who did all the legwork.

Madeline wears the Gayle dress, the Carson blazer, the Broadway belt, and the Pave earrings.

ONE THING THAT REALLY BOTHERED ME as I moved up the ranks is that I saw so many people with stellar careers that were horrible managers— horrible. No one got rewarded for their management style; they would get rewarded for results. I understand that, but I witnessed so much bad behavior, and it didn’t sit right with me. I wanted to get to the C-level very badly, but I wasn’t willing to compromise my style and my integrity to do so. There was a point in my thirties when I decided that if I had to choose between one or the other, I would choose integrity.

WHEN I’M HIRING SOMEONE, I ALWAYS START with a phone call as a filter. If they can’t be articulate or express their personality through the phone, that’s it. I’ve never taken an in-person meeting before a phone call. Think about it: 90 percent of our work is done on the phone, or via Skype or Google Hangout or whatever. If your people don’t give good phone, you’ve got a huge problem. I don’t care if you’re a genius; if you can’t engage someone on the phone, you are dead in the water. Good phone skills are about being able to listen. Don’t interrupt. Also, do your research. I find that a lot of people don’t know anything about you or your company before they talk to you.

I’VE HAD A COUPLE OF EPIPHANIES in my professional life, but one of the biggest happened after I had ascended to a C-level position, but it wasn’t the right fit. Around the same time, a very close friend of mine died unexpectedly. She was very unhappy in her career and she didn’t live long enough to transition out of it. I had never thought about my own mortality; when you’re in your thirties, you just don’t. It stunned me, and it made me take stock. I thought, What if I could use my entertainment background for good? What would that look like? And that’s when I pivoted to the nonprofit world.

Madeline wears the Susanna dress, the Paloma trench, the Double Wrap belt, and the Pave earrings.

A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T TALK ABOUT or even realize that it’s hard to afford working at a nonprofit. The salaries are a fraction of what you make in the for-profit world. Financially, I was privileged enough that I could take such a severe pay cut and adjust my lifestyle. A lot of people can’t, and I’m very grateful that I was able to.

I WORK FROM HOME, and I’ve had an in-home office for more than a decade. It’s not a nook in the kitchen, or a guest bedroom-slash-office—it’s my office. I start my days pretty early. Not as early as some people, but around 6:00 or 6:30 a.m. The first thing I do is work out, whether it’s yoga or some sort of cardio. Then I grab a coffee and take a quick walk on the beach with my husband. I may do one or two more personal things and then I hit the ground running, usually by 8:00 or 8:30 a.m., and I don’t stop until around 7:00 p.m. I don’t take a lunch break—I just power right through.

I STILL DON’T FEEL LIKE I’VE “ARRIVED,” to be honest. I really don’t. I respect my accomplishments, but I don’t know if I can say that I’ve finally made it. I’m always trying to push for more. Do I feel fortunate in what I’m doing, and that I’ve benefited from hard work? Absolutely. But I don’t ever think, I’m there.

Photographs by Rich Gilligan.

Styling by SoHo's Samantha Michel.

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Charlotte Cowles is a New York-based writer​ ​and editor.​ ​Her work has been published in New York Magazine,​ Harper's Bazaar,​ and Art in America. She'd always rather be at book club. Read more of Charlotte's posts.

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