Musician Alan Doyle calls Denise Donlon “the First Lady of the Canadian music business” and describes her 2016 memoir Fearless as Possible (Under the Circumstances) as “a funny and fascinating journey of a woman who has smashed every glass ceiling to smithereens and somehow has done it in the loveliest way.”
Author Margaret Atwood says Donlon’s memoir is “readable, engaging, fascinating” and War Child founder Samantha Nutt says Donlon “offers the kind of advice every underdog needs from the best friend we all wish for.”
Donlon brought her message of fearless tenacity to the inaugural 2017-18 meeting of the Women’s Business Network of Peterborough (WBN) yesterday evening (September 6) — a provoking message that she unearthed for herself partly through the process of writing that memoir.
The message? It’s not who you know, it’s what you do.
“I could drop enough names to bruise all of your toes,” Donlon smiled, as she swept away the obvious from room at the Holiday Inn Peterborough Waterfront packed with WBN members.
No one in the room doubted her. Donlon’s career has spanned the gamut from music and entertainment, to corporate leadership and humanitarianism. As the VJ, then producer, then vice-president and general manager of MuchMusic, Donlon rubbed shoulders with celebrities such as Beyonce, The Barenaked Ladies, Sarah McLaughlin, and the Dixie Chicks.
The list of stars in her world is seemingly endless. She’s wound her way through the mazes of corporate leadership as the president of Sony Music Canada, the decline of the record industry amidst the rise of Napster, and she’s navigated the partial collapse of public radio in the country — even while fighting for the jobs she had to personally cut as executive director of CBC Radio’s English Language Services.
In all of this, Donlon has been, as she puts it, “a lady leader in a male-dominated industry.” The trick to her success, she says, was finding her true purpose — her authentic self — and then staying true to her values.
“We have to know what we are doing and why we are doing it, whatever it is,” she says.
For Donlon, the clues came piecemeal: backstage at concerts, across boardroom tables, on sets with stars. They came in the form of comments or situations that “rubbed her the wrong way.” Gradually, she formed the social awareness that would become a hallmark of her career.
There’s a gentleness in Donlon’s voice, even as she tells her own gripping story of discovering her authentic self, a gentleness that may have its origin halfway around the world.
May 2000, Sierra Leone: Donlon had agreed to accompany Dr. Sam Nutt and Dr. Eric Hoskins on a compelling journey with War Child Canada to what had been recently labelled the world’s worst place to live — a country decimated by gangster wars over blood diamonds. She landed in Sierra Leone in a helicopter, in the midst of gunfire.
“I had a brief moment where I wondered why I was there,” she says. “‘I should be in some editing bay cutting a Madonna special.’ I found my courage in Sierra Leone.”
“I was there to give voice to women and girls in amputee camps,” she explains, showing a photo of a young child who, at the age of eight months, had lost an arm to the knife of a soldier. That lesson taught her the meaning of empathy and its value in conquering fear. Empathy became one of Donlon’s anchors as a leader, she says.
There were a few other anchors in her life: her husband, singer-songwriter Murray McLauchlan, and her son Duncan, now 25. Balancing family life and a career was never easy, she says. It required learning to care for herself, so as not to lose herself, now that she’d found that authentic self.
“First we need to know ourselves. Then we need to be kinder to ourselves, and to forgive ourselves when we sometimes make the wrong decisions — even if we know they’re wrong as we’re making them.”
Because making the right decision and doing the right thing is sometimes terrifying, and the fear is justified, she says. That little voice that reminds you of the risk can be “unrelenting.”
“It shows up all over the place, even at podiums when you’re thanking the Academy,” she says. She calls it The Imposter. “Strangle that little bugger,” she laughs.
While the fear is often justified when you are standing behind your principles, Donlon says the alternative — not speaking up — is often worse.
“Your integrity and your health will suffer. It’s inauthentic and it will make you sick. The real rewards in life are in doing the right things for the right purpose. If you don’t, the culture persists, and we must change it, if not for ourselves, then for our daughters.”
And today there are not only more opportunities to speak up, but also new seeds of hope, Donlon says.
“We are becoming more aware that hard-won freedoms can be replaced by the stroke of a pen. It’s a despairing time but it’s also a time when we have more tools at our fingertips than ever before: to communicate, to activate, to engage. We can and we should speak up.
“You’ll see what you’re made of and I bet you’ll like what you see.”
Donlon’s message clearly resonated with WBN members and their guests. And each WBN member has an opportunity to delve deeper into that message, as each received a signed copy of Donlon’s memoir.
“The part about doing the right thing and letting the chips fall where they may, that’s what will stay with me,” says Marilyn Cassidy of Speakers Group Inc.
Liana Andrews of Inclusive Advisory echoes the sentiment: “What will stay with me is ‘get in your mind what you believe and stick to your principles.'”
“If the message in her book is the same as what we heard tonight, it’s going to be a rewarding read,” says Carrie Wakeford of Black Cap Design.
Donlon is the first guest speaker for the 2017-18 WBN season, which runs from September to June. Other guest speakers for 2017-18 include Leslie Bradford-Scott (October 4th), Laila Ghattas (November 1st), and Tessa Smith and Faith Dickinson (April 4th), with more speakers to be announced soon.
For more information about the 2017-18 program for the Women’s Business Network of Peterborough and how to become a member, visit www.womensbusinessnetwork.net.