Women in Public Affairs to Know: Dana White

March 16, 2021

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This interview is part of a series on “Women in Public Affairs to Know,” by the McGuireWoods Consulting Women in Public Affairs initiative. To learn more about the initiative or recommend a woman for a future interview, please visit our website.

Dana W. White is the chief communications officer of Hyundai Motor North America and is responsible for leading all regional communications and public relations strategy for Hyundai Motor North America, Hyundai Motor America, Genesis Motor America and Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama as well as the office of Corporate Social Responsibility, Diversity and External Affairs in coordination with other affiliates including Hyundai Capital, Glovis, Mobis and the Hyundai Washington D.C. office. White most recently led a consulting firm specializing in geopolitical risk and strategic communications, where she was an advisor to CEOs of Global Fortune 500 companies, U.S. senators, governors and senior U.S. military officers.

Ms. White also served as the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and the Chief Pentagon Spokesperson for the Department of Defense and Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis. She provided strategic guidance to all branches of the U.S. Armed Services, Combatant Commands and senior civilian leaders. In addition, she was the Director of Policy and Strategic Communications for the Renault-Nissan Alliance in Paris, France. She was a Professional Staff Member on the Armed Services Committee of the United States Senate, and an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal based in Hong Kong. White served as the Taiwan Country Director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Director of the Washington Roundtable for Asia-Pacific Press at the Heritage Foundation. She was a publicist at the Fox News Channel in Washington, D.C. and served as deputy press secretary on the U.S. House Republican Conference.

The interview below was conducted by Michele Satterlund, senior vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s Virginia state government relations team and Mona Mohib, senior vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s federal public affairs team.

 Dana White

Question: You have a history of working for hard-charging male leaders, from U.S. Sen. John McCain, to Gen.  James Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, and now José Munoz, Global COO of Hyundai Motor Company and CEO, Hyundai Motor North America.  What skill or ability have you honed, or had to develop, to have your voice heard when working with such strong personalities?

Dana White: I think the most important thing when working with hard-charging, brilliant men who have very little time and process information very quickly, is the ability to edit your answers and to know what they need to know to make a decision. For example, when Secretary Mattis called me upstairs, generally I knew what it was about and I would think through what he needed to know as I was walking up the steps. Between my office and standing in front of him, I had already thought through what I was going to say. I make my answers succinct. I know my audience and I know that they are there to make decisions and I am there because they trust my judgment. Giving your recommendation can be a hard thing to learn especially because the people I have worked for are intense and fast-moving. But, I know they have me there because of my knowledge and judgment. I think it can be particularly difficult for women, because often women and minorities walk into situations where they think they have to come in and justify their presence. They don’t; I always think, “if you’re in the room, you’re good enough!” What I knew in all of the situations with Secretary Mattis, Senator McCain and now José, is that they trust me and expect to know what I think. If they have questions, they’ll ask me, but I always lead with my recommendation. I have found superior leaders seek contrary, divergent and diverse perspectives, because it empowers them to make the best decision—the first time.

I remember my first time in the Pentagon I cried in the parking lot because it was so intimidating how you are expected to answer questions. It was hard because I would make mistakes or I didn’t know how I was supposed to answer or what answer to give. I was in my late 20s and every day felt like a struggle.  Then, one day, a colonel told me that it’s okay to make a mistake—the problem is making the same mistake. The system provides for making mistakes, as long as it’s a brand new mistake.  That’s when I understood that my mistakes were necessary to learn and gain confidence in myself and my judgment.  

Another thing that has been helpful for me is working across multiple industries and disciplines. I believe the more diverse one’s work experience the more mental muscle memory you build. It’s important to learn to be comfortable not knowing but confident enough to learn. I am supremely comfortable being uncomfortable.  I’ve grown very comfortable embracing fear.  It’s like a warm blanket to me now. Learning to transform my fear into the fuel I need to always get better has built my confidence in what I know and in what I don’t know. I’ve been trusted in positions because I know what I know and am not afraid to say “I don’t know but I’ll find out.” Too often women suffer from thinking that we need to know everything.   And if we make a mistake we marinate in it too long. When most men make mistakes, they move on very quickly—like it never happened. I have found it’s better to make a timely decision with 70 or 80% of the information rather make the perfect decision with 100% of the information too late.  The winning formula is to gather the most relevant information available and make a decision.  I find that a lot of women are hesitant to make a decision with incomplete information—which can be a major barrier to achieving greater responsibility and leadership.  I’ve found just the ability to make any decision often separates the leaders from the followers.  I love to read biographies.  All of the best leaders have made colossal mistakes—sometimes with catastrophic and career ending consequences. But the best of them use their failures to fuel them and propel greater performance.  As women and minorities, we can let perfection become the enemy of progress.  I think as women we need to think more about taking risks and using out fear to fuel our future—not stop it.  That’s the key difference between people who lead and people who follow. Sound decision-making is the key to being an effective leader because standing still is not an option.

Q: You have observed that all strong leaders are committed to the same three tenets:  1) they always have a vision; 2) they are always serving others; and 3) they are passionately curious.  Can you share in more detail why these principles are the foundation of great leadership?

Dana: When I wrote my book, I had just lost my dad. I was thinking about how I’d lost this pillar in my life—my father.  Our parents provide the blueprint of our existence. They are the first and arguably the most important leaders in our life. Then, I started to think about all of the leaders who helped me become the person I am today. I realized that I wasn’t who I am because of me or what I’d done, I am who I am because of all the leaders in my life who have led me to be who I am today. When I thought about that, those three tenets came to mind.

From the first day a parent gazes into their child’s eyes, they imagine who he or she will be and they communicate those expectations throughout that child’s life. It’s why being a parent is the most important and consequential job you’ll ever have in life!  Even if you became president of the United States, it’s a 4-8 year engagement at most! Parenting is lifelong vocation. That’s why it’s so important for parents to set the right expectations early and often in their child’s life. In the end, it’s what our parents said about us that we believe. My parents and grandparents would never do the things I’ve done, but I have achieved what I have because they dared to dream of a future beyond their own experience. Lastly, I think the best leaders are forever curious!  It’s been a common attribute in every leader I’ve worked with over the years. Great leaders are never satisfied. They are always asking, “What else can I learn? What else can you tell me? What else should I consider?” Secretary Mattis is an avid reader and has an insatiable curiosity. José is the same way. He’ll say, “Dana, what can you tell me about this? My daughters are doing this Snapchat thing, talk to me about it.” He always wants to know more. Things are always changing and the best leaders know they have to adapt and evolve.

 Dana White

Q: I have heard you say that people, particularly women, self-sabotage their careers without even realizing it.  Can you talk more about this and share your observations on how to overcome career mistakes.

Dana: One of the major ways women self-sabotage is they walk into every situation thinking that either people don’t want them there, they aren’t welcomed or they don’t deserve to be there. Often women walk into a room with one or more of those thoughts, but the fact of the matter is, 99.9% of the time, no one is thinking about them at all. People are thinking about themselves and their own challenges. They are not thinking about whatever perceived burden you’re carrying walking into the room. When you walk into a room with an aura that conveys, “no one is going to take me seriously, because I’m a woman or I’m Black, or in my case, I’m a Black woman” then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  And unfortunately, this can all be communicated in less than 30 seconds of entering the room. And whether it was true or not, the opportunity is lost because you chose to allow your perception to dictate your reality.

The other way women sabotage themselves is thinking that they have to be like men. Women are incredibly powerful creatures. There’s a joke: “What did God say after he made man?…I can do better!” Women possess an innate drive to be better, a natural curiosity and are rarely satisfied with the status quo. My wish is that more women understood that our supreme power is being exactly who we are. When we understand exactly who we are, it’s much easier to do and get exactly what we want!

Another mistake: We talk too much. We talk to justify and explain rather than to answer. And it’s not about gender—it’s about roles and responsibilities.  As a female executive, I too get frustrated when anyone spends 10 minutes telling me something that could have been answered in two. I can’t get back those eight minutes. Three days a week, I met with Secretary Mattis in a small group and I presented first in a room of all white men. I was the only woman and the only person of color. I was not there because I am a Black woman. I was there because Secretary Mattis expected me to cover his blind spots, navigate the challenges of our unique media landscape and maintain the integrity of the Defense Department and the U.S. military. He expected me to know what he needed to know. I think women often suffer from overthinking everything! I found that when I focused on my boss, my team or the task at hand—I had less time to think about myself. I understood what information Secretary Mattis needed and now what José needs.  I’ve found people couldn’t care less about who you are, what you look like or where you come from if you are solving their problems.  Moreover, the same people you believe are your greatest obstacles can become your greatest advocates and mentors.

Women are very adept at communications.  Early in life, we learn to imply, allude and foreshadow our needs.  We are well schooled in the art of being mysterious and passive that we rarely even ask ourselves what want—let alone communicate it to anyone else clearly.  I think some of this stems from plain old fear.  If you never ask, if it’s never clear, then you may never be rejected or told no.  However, I have learned “no” can be the greatest blessing. “No” means this course of action is no longer an option.  “No” is a brand new chance to find “yes.” “No” can be your best friend and save you a whole lot of time.  Most workplace communications advantage men because it tends to be very task and result driven.  If a woman fails to adapt her communication skills, work can become soul crushing. At work, it’s less about gender as it is about decisionmakers and non decisionmakers.  I am female leader and decisionmaker. I just want the information I need to make a decision. I prefer people lead with their recommendation and if I have questions, I’ll ask but I don’t need to know every detail that led you to your conclusion. That approach is about the speaker—not the audience which just needs the pertinent information to make a decision and move forward.  Time is my most precious commodity. Too often, women communicate to build consensus and that can be good at times.  However, at the end of the day, a decision has to be made. All I want is the relevant information I need to make the best decision now.  I cringe when I hear female colleagues go into long explanation and I watch the eyes of the men glaze over.  It happens within 60-90 seconds of them opening their mouth. It’s heartbreaking to watch! One of the most valuable things I learned at the WSJ editorial page was start from the end at the beginning.  Lead with the answer not the explanation.

Q: In your book, “Leader Designed:  Become the Leader You Were Made to Be,”  you talk about the leadership lessons you learned from your grandfather, the publisher of Charlottesville, Virginia’s only Black newspaper, the “Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune.”  Do you see your grandfather in yourself and what role did he play in shaping who you are today?

Dana: I do! My grandfather’s words and expectations molded me.  My grandfather passed away when I was fifteen, but I can still hear his gruff voice saying, “Mouse, I want you to be a smart little girl.”  My grandfather knew the value of education and knowledge.  He often said knowledge is the only thing no one can take from you. While I never met my paternal grandmother, I suspect she and I share a similar spirit. My Grandmother Grace was the first Black registered nurse to work at the University of Virginia hospital. She had an entrepreneurial spirit and was definitely the brains behind the operations.  She invested in land and built a movie house in the backwoods of Charlottesville. The money my grandparents earned selling tickets and popcorn paid for my father to go to Howard University. My grandfather admired smart women.  As his only granddaughter, he made his expectations abundantly clear to me!

My grandfather was born in 1896.  He gave me a sense of history, purpose and drive.  He grew up in Virginia where Blacks were only educated until the 8th grade. He moved to Ohio to earn his high school diploma. He valued education and learning above all else. He never said “be nice or pretty,” he said “be smart.” This goes back to why family members are the ultimate leaders because they tell you who you can be. When I have had to choose between being nice, or playing it safe, I always go for the challenge, because I know—win or lose—I’m going to learn something and I will get better as a result.   When I think about the places, the opportunities and people I have met and known, my grandfather would be so proud of me, but he’d also say, “Keep going.  Keep running! Be smart!  They can’t take smart away from you. Go!”

I feel so blessed because I feel like the women in my family told me what I was made of—what I was capable of—and that men in my family told me where I could go. My grandfather, father and brothers have always been my strongest champions!

Early in my career, I was trying to decide whether to stay on the China Desk at the Pentagon or go to The Wall Street Journal and work in Hong Kong. I called my two older brothers for advice.  David said, “You should go to Hong Kong! That’s an incredible opportunity.  You get to be in Hong Kong and work for the Edit Page of The Wall Street Journal!  Do it!” My other brother, Sherman, said “No, you have a nice government job, you should stay. Why do you want to go to Hong Kong?” And then, I called my dad.  He listened to me intently and then started to chuckle.  He said, “Dana, I don’t know what you should do, but whatever it is that you do, keep doing it!”

 Dana White

Q: You sit on the boards of Women in Automotive, International Republican Institute and No One Left Behind, an association dedicated to ensuring that America’s wartime allies, particularly interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan, are honored for their service.  Tell us more about the organization and how you became involved.

Dana: No One Left Behind is the first board that I got on. One of Secretary Mattis’s three pillars was allies in partnership, and when you travel around the world and see what other countries do in support of U.S. efforts, it is awe-inspiring. There are people who risk their lives and the lives of their families to help and protect American soldiers. These interpreters and translators return to their communities at great risk to themselves and their families. The United States promised to provide special visas for these individuals but their applications can be delayed for years. It’s unacceptable. That’s why I got involved. It’s about keeping a promise and maintaining the integrity of America’s commitments. If you are willing to help the U.S., we are going to show up and help you. It’s a great organization and General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have been leaders in keeping our promise to these brave friends and allies. I hope people will research the organization and support our mission. 

I was honored to be invited to join the IRI Board.  For 25 years, Senator John McCain served as its chairman, because there was no greater advocate for freedom and democracy than Senator McCain.  IRI is an incredible organization that not only monitors the growth and decline of democratic proliferation around the world, but also works with local populations and parties to implement democratic practices.  I’m thrilled to join this important institution at this time in our history.

Women in Automotive is a wonderful group that is driving change within the auto industry based on real-time market changes.  More than half of all decisions regarding car purchases are made by women.  Female-led households are the fastest growing families in America.  Automakers ignore the buying power and preferences of women at their own risk.  Women are the future of the automotive market and the Women in Automotive Board is a great resource to help the industry evolve over the next decade.