24/7 Executives is a series of stories on high-performing professionals who are as serious at play as they are in the conference room. See the other stories here.
Trusting in the strength of her body to swing on the trapeze at circus school for the first time was equal parts thrilling and terrifying for Catherine Connors.
The daring acrobatics perfectly symbolized the huge risk she took when she left a job she loved at Walt Disney Co. to start her own media development company, Demeter Media LLC.
"When you're confident in your resources, and your expertise and your talent, that effectively is your trapeze – you can balance in the air, and bend over backward, and contort yourself, and swing and fly because you have that sturdy bar underneath you," Ms. Connors says in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
The Canadian academic-and-blogger-turned-executive has long held a strong interest in the development of programs empowering girls. Setting up Demeter Media has enabled her to form partnerships with companies such as Disney and children's magazine publisher Cricket Media to bring those types of programs to fruition.
"I think this is all the more true for women, and particularly important for girls, to feel like the universe that they see on the screen and on paper has something to do with them individually and that they see the opportunities to participate," says Ms. Connors, whose current projects include a family travel series for a major entertainment network and taking Cricket's brand to digital and broadcast platforms.
Born in Vancouver, a mother of two, she was living in Toronto and running a successful mommy blog, HerBadMother.com (named one of the 25 best blogs by Time magazine in 2012), when Disney recruited her. Ms. Connors, who started blogging in 2006 about the time she left academia as a political theory lecturer at the University of Toronto, could never have predicted that connecting with other women online through blogging could take her career on the trajectory that it has.
Ms. Connors spent almost four years at Disney, working first in New York as director of content and community on its parenting site Babble.com, then moving to Los Angeles to become editor in chief at Disney Interactive Family.
She describes her role at Disney as a "well-paid floating brain," and realizes that for some people that would be a dream job. But Ms. Connors didn't want to just sit in a room and talk about the projects. "I wanted to make it happen, to have it sit on my shoulders whether or not the thing actually got made."
Ms. Connors eventually realized that to get her pet projects done she could be much more effective outside the entertainment giant, and thus decided to build her own company.
Holding the position that she did within Disney created a huge amount of stress for Ms. Connors, which only grew as she considered going solo. She learned to deal with it by pushing her body to its physical limits through scrambling, climbing and bouldering, as well as testing her strength at circus school.
"I started hiking and bouldering in Joshua Tree National Park [in California], and it was like the skies opened up and angels started singing," she says. "I could stretch my muscles, exert my strength, and get to a very high terrifying place, and feel this quiet, and this light and space.
"That experience of strength, of being in my body, pushing myself, taking risk and confronting how scary it can be to pull yourself up on a very tall rock, proved to be a distraction from the stress of work-life but also a way of clearing my head and making me better at what I do."
Ms. Connors acknowledges she is often so deeply committed to what she is doing that she finds it difficult – and somewhat undesirable – to leave her work in the office. But physical exertion can counter that.
"It's occupying brain space all the time,' she says of her work, "but the more I'm thinking about my muscles, the less I'm thinking about Y project or X program."
She adds her hectic work life had reached the point where coming home and pouring a bourbon or sitting by the pool no longer helped her clear her head.
Los Angeles, itself, can also be an antidote. "You could look at the business environment here as cut-throat and I suppose that it is," she says. "I've been extraordinarily privileged to have landed in an environment where I feel like I have room to move and I'm not scrambling.
"It was harder in New York, where everything is about what you've done and your success history, as opposed to here where what you've done isn't as important as what you could do."
For creative people who love starting pie-in-the-sky projects, Ms. Connors says Los Angeles is invigorating. "Conversations here are more about, 'Hey, what can we collaborate on?' Plus, every entertainment exec here probably does yoga or hikes in the hills, or sees a naturopath, so there's a crunchy woo-woo element to L.A. that takes the edge off.
"You can have a super intense meeting but then you can stand up and tell everyone that you need to go meditate and they're totally going to get it. L.A. is intense, but it's wrapped up in this highly creative environment that makes it feel more like a giant sandbox or intense playground than anything else."
All these factors mesh perfectly with her business philosophy, which Ms. Connors is able to distill into two words: create and collaborate. She believes that every enterprise is fundamentally a storytelling enterprise of which creativity is at the core, and collaboration is vital.
"Any company, organization or movement's posture has to be toward the people it is going to include as collaboratively as possible," she says. "We live in a time when it's not enough for media to broadcast; and it has to be not just mindful and respectful, but deeply purposeful about the fact that if someone is watching something on their iPad or reading something on the Internet, they're engaging and they want to feel like they're involved."
Knowing these fundamental truths about her rapidly evolving industry, and recognizing her need to be highly physical in order to continue to excel at what she does, Ms. Connors has been able to stretch and fly, both literally and figuratively.