Women in Business Q&A: Madison Cork, President and Founder, Cork Communications

Madison Cork

Madison Cork, President and Founder of Cork Communications, is a leading public speaking, storytelling, presentation, and communications coach. Madison has a vast knowledge of the premier vocal and movement techniques including Linklater, Fitzmaurice, and Alexander, as well as over 15 years of her own professional experience as a Public Speaker. In addition to coaching, Madison is a Professor of Communications, Theatre, and Voice at Bellarmine University as well as an accomplished Film, Television and Stage actress, holding highly prestigious awards such as an Ovation, LA Drama Critic's, Backstage Garland, Denver Critic's, and a Robbie for her excellence in performance. Madison has the privilege of working with several Fortune 500 companies, successful non-profits, politicians, media personalities, and independent business leaders in major markets across North America.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I am able to laugh about it now, but attending 18 schools from kindergarten on was a huge challenge in my young life. My Mother had to overcome her own struggles and moving from place to place was part of that adventure. It was very difficult to say goodbye to relationships over and over again and figure out where I fit in constantly changing social dynamics. But, I am able to be grateful for those experiences today. It made me a great communicator, more comfortable in my own skin and in a wide range of circumstances, and bestowed a knowledge in me - I have the ability to choose who I want to be! I have the resiliency to accept a failure or challenge and then decide how I want that to shape me. Resiliency often leads to tenacity, out of necessity. Having been born in a poor part of West Virginia, to an uneducated family, having experienced difficult divorce both as a child and then in my own adult life, along with a career in entertainment that requires being your best and rethinking your limits - I had to adapt. If I simply took "no" for an answer or allowed myself to be compromised by rejection, then that resilient and tenacious spirit would have never developed.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Cork Communications?
I remember very clearly helping a friend, who was struggling with funding for her non-profit work, on a donor pitch. Like most presentations, it was clear, had a point, and plenty of data to back up "the ask". But it was boring. I was honest with her and gave her some ideas on sharing photographs of the children she was helping, allowing their stories to do the work for her, and create the emotional impact that drives a listener to action. The presentation became phenomenal, was a huge success, and I realized I had the ability to translate the influence and effectiveness of storytelling into a success tool in the business community. As an artist I was taught to bring the story to life, give it depth and breath, and then allow it take the audience on a journey that reshaped how they perceived a situation. This same philosophy now fuels all my corporate training and coaching. I am tremendously rewarded when I help a company regain a passion for their story and then incorporate it into their presentations.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Cork Communications?
The biggest highlight for me so far is showing my children everyday what a successful, independent woman looks like! On the professional front, helping a young entrepreneur launch his brilliant idea into a very profitable sale was a tremendous moment. When I met him I could tell he was bright, forward thinking, and full of vigor for the idea he was hatching. Unfortunately, he was also extremely shy, self-conscious, inarticulate, and could barely speak at an audible level. We spent several weeks together rebuilding his pitch presentation to tell an awesome story, training him on public speaking and effective presentation skills, and helping him step out of his shell and into the limelight that his efforts deserved. Two months later, he gave the pitch we had worked on to a very successful corporation. They were so impressed, they not only bought his company, but they hired him to join their team as well! I love knowing I was a part of sending him forward into a hugely successful career!

Of course, none of this comes without challenges. Keeping a high functioning work life balance when you are running your own company is always a front of mind hurdle. However, my most pressing challenge is changing the mindset of clients from thinking of communication and presentation training as a "nice to have" to the reality of how imperative it is that all their employees be able to do both of those things well. A company can be innovative and progressive, but if none of their team members can speak about that in effective and engaging ways, the work may as well have never been done.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
DO IT!! No day but today! The fear that holds women back mostly comes down to voices in our own heads that tell us we are not smart enough, strong enough, or wise enough to live our dream. Those voices come at us from many avenues, but that deep gut place that keeps bringing you back to the idea or the business you want to pursue is the one that needs to prevail. I would highly advise taking a good hard look at your own strengths and weakness before launching, and then surrounding yourself with a team that can support both. I do not have a strong handle on business finance. I knew this would be a huge challenge for me to manage at the same time I was launching my services and building a client base, so I solicited the help I needed in that area. In the beginning phases, look for people that will trade services with you, find an accountant that needs what you have to offer and come up with an exchange that's fair. It will save you both precious capital.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I am a strong believer in Tom Rath's philosophy in his book "Eat Move Sleep". I learned pretty quickly that I was of no use to anyone else around me if I did not put on my own life vest first. For me, that means eating a healthy diet that consists of primarily fruits and vegetable with a low sugar intake, no alcohol, and only caffeine from green tea. Exercising every day for at least 30 minutes. And being protective over my eight hours of sleep a night. These habits give me the energy and strength I need to give my best to my work and the people I care about. I also put a high priority on time with loved ones. This means I do not engage in social media and phones and email are put away by dinner time. This forces me to really reach out and connect with the people I choose to surround myself with and keeps both my head and heart focused on the long term and not the demands of the immediate.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
How quickly and easily we allow our ideas and initiatives to be stolen from us. Even my seasoned female clients struggle with how to handle the situation when a colleague usurps or takes credit for their work. Women are more naturally inclined to be relational, so when this happens we often question whether we somehow unintentionally gave permission, or worry about the consequences if we call it out. My advice is to always reclaim your work, but do it in a way that is full of sophistication and emotional intelligence. If you hear a co-worker reiterating your point or suggestion and trying to make it their own, immediately thank them for supporting your idea and agreeing that it was good! Then ask them if they would like to join you in your efforts to make it happen. It derails the usurper every time.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentors have come to me from the most unexpected places. I have finally learned to stop questioning that! Every day there is something I need to learn and grow from, and without mentorship I would never be able to navigate that. My significant other mentors me daily in his devoted partnership and willingness to help me problem solve on everything from client relations to nanny conflicts. Our four amazing kids mentor me with their love of life, relentless ability to love and laugh, and the quick and easy way they forgive. Other brave female business owners have provided clarity and wisdom from their own mistakes and successes. My amazing elderly neighbor even mentors me without knowing it, when she bops down the street on her daily walk with her died purple streak in her hair that shouts to the world - "I'm not done yet!"

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many prominent ones to choose from like Katie Couric and Arianna Huffington who have pioneered amazing paths for a new generation. I greatly esteem women like them who have worked hard and stayed true to themselves along the way. I heard Arianna speak recently at The Aspen Ideas Festival and she was so open about her own shortcomings and welcoming to others' thoughts and ideas. She said to ask ourselves everyday whose hand we would allow to guide our hearts and then instead place your own hand over your heart and trust that you had the wisdom to guide it yourself. I also deeply admire women leaders in my own community who stand up for social justice, fund raise for noble causes, run efficient and profitable businesses, and teach long hours in classrooms without enough resources.

What do you want to personally and professionally accomplish in the next year?
My main goals for Cork Communications are to expand our contracting into on-going training modules for highly productive companies, and to create online training tools that will allow access to a broader audience both nationally and globally. On the personal side, I want to be more mindful and finally learn to waterski!