Celebrating Burke’s Legacy of Women Leaders

Nearly 90 years ago, Burke was founded as a data collection agency by Alberta Burke. Since then, the organization has upheld the high standards of quality and care first set forth by its founder’s initial vision. And today, for the first time since Burke’s inception, the firm is once again led by a strong, inspirational woman.

In honor of this year’s International Women’s Day, we sat down with Burke’s CEO Diane Surette to discuss the significance of leading a top global research firm, her perspective on this year’s International Women’s Day theme, #EachForEqual, and the influential wisdom she’s gleaned throughout her career.

How does it feel to be the first female CEO of the company since Burke’s founder, Alberta Burke?

A few words come to mind: humbling, grateful and determined. It’s an honor that comes with a tremendous feeling of responsibility, but one I take great pride in fulfilling.

When you think of what Alberta faced when starting the company in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, it’s hard not to be inspired. At a time when it was difficult for anyone to start a business—let alone a woman—she showed tenacity, integrity and was unrelenting in her pursuit of quality. All of which are things that live on at Burke today, and are traits I strive to channel in my professional life as well.

When you think of what Alberta faced when starting the company in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, it’s hard not to be inspired.

She also was not alone. She valued and sought out guidance from mentors and those around her, always learning and growing. In my own journey, this has also been paramount. I am constantly reminded that that I am not in this alone, and continually find opportunities to seek coaching, feedback, insight, expertise from those around me.

We definitely still feel Alberta’s influence today. It’s something I actively try to channel and uphold. Like Alberta, I have a lifelong love of business and business strategy, and a passion for learning and connecting with people. It’s truly an honor to be in this position and continue her legacy—especially alongside a leadership team comprised of many other women, as well.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #EachForEqual, meaning that each individual has the power to impact the society as a whole—with the goal of creating a gender-equal world. What does our industry stand to gain by working towards greater gender equality? How have you seen this already coming to life?

I strongly believe that we get better outcomes when more voices are heard. We gain more, and ultimately have more creative, diverse and innovative solutions, when multiple different viewpoints are brought to bear.

However, in order to get those perspectives, you need to have a place where people feel comfortable sharing their point of view, and trust that it will be respected. I know that especially for women in many environments, this isn’t the case. So as a leader, it’s important to continually foster that sense of openness and respect. It can feel very vulnerable to invite viewpoints that don’t match or support your own, but when you do, you’re more likely to have a better result.

As an industry, we can only benefit from representing a wider breadth of perspectives. Consumers represent every imaginable circumstance, background, opinion, personality—so the more we can consider multiple points of view, the better we will ultimately be able to serve our clients and their consumers.

“Imposter Syndrome” is something a lot of women—especially high-achieving ones—experience. In a nutshell, it’s a fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Have you ever felt this? If so, how have you overcome this feeling?

Oh yes, definitely. There have been many times throughout my career when I’ve wondered, “who, me?” or said, “no, that’s not me.” But, ultimately, I’ve realized that I can feel confident in who I am and what I have to offer.

I’ve learned that it’s ok to own the fact that I am strong in my craft—business acumen, financial and people; being able to take on multifaceted challenges, and pulling in the right people at the right times to do the right things.

I’ve learned that it’s ok to own the fact that I am strong in my craft—business acumen, financial and people

Coming to this realization—which sometimes still pops in as an “ah-ha” from time to time—reminds me that, while yes, I do have a lot to give, sometimes it’s not about having all the answers myself, but instead, shining the light on those who undeniably do.

It comes back to that idea of being vulnerable. But it’s in that vulnerability that you can find strength, for yourself and others.

What advice do you have for other women rising into, or already established in, a leadership position?

Pay it forward and lift others up. In most cases, you didn’t get to where you are on your own, so take people along with you. If you share the light instead of trying to take it all for yourself, you’ll often actually end up with more.

Given what you know now, what advice would you give your 25-year-old self?

Chill out. [Laughs.] But seriously, that applies to so much, going all the way back to wisdom my dad was always trying to instill in us—don’t be afraid to make mistakes. (He used to say, the only people who don’t make mistakes are people who don’t try.)

First and foremost, you need to trust and believe in yourself. Be open to opportunities that are presented to you, since the path will likely not be a straight or easy one. It’s ok not to know every step of the process, or to bob and weave until you find your right path. Also, to never lose sight of the importance of relationships. Have an insatiable appetite for feedback (and do something with it!), and always give credit to others when credit is due. Keep your friends, family, colleagues and network close—invite them in and bring them along for the ride. It’s ok to be shaped in part by others, but never forget to honor the impact all those different interactions and experiences have had on you.

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