It’s not often you hear a high-ranking executive at a tech company discuss the merits of classical ballet as a business metaphor, but Bonita Coleman Stewart isn’t your typical leader.
Currently, she’s vice president of partner business solutions at Google, having worked her way up from a position as national industry director of automotive when she was originally hired by the search giant in 2006. Though many Googlers were recruited right out of Stanford’s computer science program around that time—founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are both Stanford alums—Stewart hailed from DaimlerChrysler. In pre-bust Detroit, she was busily leading the automaker’s charge in interactive communications.
A graduate of Howard University and Harvard’s MBA program, Stewart points out that she started her career in IBM’s sales and marketing departments. These bookends in tech companies gave me a radar detector for new possibilities, she says. Stewart, who takes ballet classes at least once a week when she’s not traveling, stretching beyond limits is second nature to her.
Being ahead of the curve has proven to be Stewart's biggest hurdle as she’s risen through the ranks. "Whether it’s working within auto industry or now with Google’s advertising clients and publisher partners, the biggest challenge is convincing others to see what you see," she tells Fast Company, "and encouraging them to pick up the pace of change."
To do this, Stewart says, "I had to take a step back to make a bigger leap forward." The best advice she ever received, Stewart says, was the encouragement to take a deep dive into the auto industry and learn the complete product cycle.
Before a dancer can effortlessly turn a pirouette or balance on pointe, he or she must spend many hours of training at the barre repeating and perfecting each movement.
Gaining an understanding of the automobiles’ distribution channels such as the way dealers worked gave Stewart the confidence to move faster. "It [also] gave me credibility and understanding," she says. Armed with both skills, "You naturally have results leading people, and have a bigger impact on the organization," she says.
To achieve this, Stewart became an educator. She emphasized showing—not telling—colleagues and customers about opportunities to stretch and grow.
This is common in ballet, she explains. Unlike musical scores or plays for scripts, dances are taught by demonstration step-by-step, so the performers can see exactly where they should place their feet, or hold their arms in a three-dimensional way rather than a flat notation on a piece of paper.
At DaimlerChrysler, Stewart says she spent time researching the buying process from a consumer’s perspective. "I knew [web search] technology would empower consumers and their approach to buying new vehicles," she says.
It was quite another task to convince even those in the industry that search could be used to sell a car when what sold it in the past was sight, sound, and motion. So she painstakingly spent time demonstrating how search worked.
Stewart continues to get buy-in this way, and says she spends a lot of time doing one-on-one consultations. "It’s more experiential [to show] how consumer behavior is changing, but it’s more important for [partners] to experience the technology themselves," she adds.
Working effectively with others has been the hallmark of Stewart’s success. When she started at Google, she had to build a team, revenue stream, and strategy from scratch. "It was certainly a lot to learn," she admits, especially when Google acquired YouTube, providing even more opportunities for partners and advertisers through its video platform.
"There was this constant change which I personally thrive on," she says, but the realization that she is with her "peeps" kept her energized. Similarly in ballet, Stewart says it takes a constantly evolving combination of discipline and musicality to create perfection.
"Most importantly you must dance as a corps," she explains. "From a leadership perspective and where business is headed, it’s a much more collaborative environment."
Solos and duets aside, Stewart says: "You always come back together in some formal alignment."
The ensemble that existed at Google was the right environment for Stewart to take a big swing, have license to dream, and to use data versus opinion to drive new strategy.
When Stewart was offered the job at Google, it didn’t take much convincing to get her to leap. But as with any grand jeté—ballet parlance for a gravity defying split-legged jump—it took preparation, and the confidence that she could make a solid landing.
"As women, we are so harsh on ourselves," she says. "It’s been written many times that we think we have to have all the skills to take a leap." She adds, with a laugh: "I think we have to lighten up a bit."
She draws confidence from her parents’ counsel. "They would always say, remember that when one door closes, it is not the only door," she says. "If you are well prepared another will open."
Stewart confirms this has been true throughout her career. "The things you thought you wanted and needed to be successful, maybe didn’t happen," she says. "That is what I saw in terms of taking that leap that moved me to the other side [from DaimlerChrysler to Google]. It was a perfect fit for me."