In August of 2019 Lippe Taylor hosted an event called Taking Her Seat at the Table: Strategies for Reaching the C-Suite as a Woman. The centerpiece of the night was a roundtable discussion on the topic of executive female leadership.
Participants included Pfizer EVP and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Sally Susman, Citi Head of Corporate Communications, Jennifer Lowney, Scholastic EVP of Corporate Communications, Stephanie Smirnov, Merck Executive Director of Leadership Communications, Joanna Breitstein, former SVP and CCO for Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Kym White, and Pernod Ricard Director of External Communications and Customer Success, Taylor Foxman. The conversation was moderated by Lippe Taylor CEO, Maureen Lippe, and former Chief Digital Officer of Bayer, Jessica Federer.
The discussion was intended to distill the key lessons each woman learned from her respective rise to seniority, and advice for future generations of female leaders. Below is a video recap of the night as well as our key takeaways from the conversation. If you'd like to hear the entire conversation you can listen to it on our podcast here, or check it out on our YouTube channel.
Don’t wait for an invitation, expect it.
Pfizer’s Sally Susman shared a particularly insightful strategy she utilized to gain more even footing in her male-dominated field: she learned to play golf. "It's important to refuse to be excluded. I learned to play golf just so I wouldn’t be left behind." This simple example speaks to a deeper mindset of self-empowered equality as Sally urges women to refuse to be excluded. Whether it’s golf, dinner, or any kind of event, it’s important to have the expectation of inclusion instead of hoping for it.
"Don’t wait for a formal invitation, or for someone to hold the door, but present yourself as ready, willing, able, and expecting to be included.”
Have an analytical approach to inclusion & fighting bias.
Jennifer Lowney from Citi outlined an impactful policy whereby Citi utilizes data and research to fend off unconscious bias. Jennifer elaborated: "It’s easy to change policy, what’s difficult is to change behavior…” In an effort to drive change, Citi has a third-party representative from their talent company sit in on reviews and talent assessments, noting any trends in preferences that hiring managers may not be aware of.
There’s no ‘I' in team, and that’s just fine.
When discussing executive female leadership Kym White mentioned how frequently women are discouraged from taking credit for accomplishments. "A lot of women have been told that 'I' is a dirty word - it’s always ‘we' - women typically will deflect a compliment by saying it wasn’t me, it was the team.” This is a shot in the foot for aspiring female leaders as ownership of accomplishments is essential to promotion; male counterparts typically have little trouble claiming credit. Promoting and acknowledging the team is a critical element of leadership, but so is accepting credit when credit is due.
"There’s a role for ‘I' and a role for ‘we' and we need both to be in our vocabulary."
Find accomplices, not allies. Sponsors, not mentors.
Scholastic’s Stephanie Smirnov made a number of distinctions regarding the support system women should build within their organization. There are mentors, who will offer advice when asked, but then there are sponsors, who can be career game changers because they coach you and force you to be better than you could have been on your own. "I had a sponsor who actively pushed me to the next level with my career and advocated about me in rooms when I was not present. The distinction between sponsors and mentors is important to remember. I owe it to the two sponsors who got me here” Stephanie then went on to differentiate between allies and accomplices and how allies will fight with you while accomplices will fight for you.
Having internal champions in your organization is priceless. If you can find them, keep them close, and if you can be one, be one.
“Being an ally is stating that 'I stand with you’ - But if you’re an accomplice you’re going to COME THROUGH for that person.”
In times of crisis, focus on unity, not division.
Despite the progress that it brought, the #MeToo movement struck fear in the boardrooms of countless businesses across America as male leaders were afraid to bring female colleagues into more personal or intimate situations, such as 1:1 dinners or overnight trips. Joanna Breitstein from Merck illustrated how certain leaders were able to effectively utilize #MeToo as a vehicle to facilitate more conversations about unity and inclusiveness, as opposed to focusing on the fear factor. As she put it, “The #Metoo movement could be seen as divisive between men and women but... we have to focus on what brings us together. Our culture should be all about values of inclusiveness, diversity, justice and freedom, and that's actually what brings us together rather that divides us.” Taking crises like these and honestly addressing and discussing their underlying causes is how leaders truly bring forth positive & lasting change, as opposed to simply reacting and covering their company’s behind.
There’s a difference between speaking up and being heard.
Taylor Foxman from Pernod Ricard spoke about how, early in her career, she would push herself to speak up in meetings to ensure she was engaged. Now, Taylor aims to be in as many meetings as possible but focuses on listening first, then being strategic about when she speaks up. “Nine out of 10 times, I don't say anything. I just want to absorb. But when I do say something, I'm listened to and I think something to think about is active listening and being more strategic when you talk.” Instead of just jumping in to be heard, Taylor listens intently and takes the time to formulate a thoughtful reply. This practice ensures that people listen when she speaks since her voice is synonymous with well thought out solutions, insights, and meaning as opposed to impulsive responses.
Jessica Federer, recalls being told by a colleague that she was ambitious — this should have been a compliment, but it was not presented in that way. "That was never a positive term when someone used it, and yet it is a trait that we need in our companies, to be ambitious and to set goals and to go further."
The notion of ambition in the context of female leadership has received a negative connotation, and this has to end. One of the reasons ambition is discouraged among women, is that it tends to intimidate others. "The other thing that you all probably heard is people are intimidated, and it's brought to you as though it's your fault and that you need to fix it."
While internal politics, employee social dynamics, and emotional intelligence are all pieces of the leadership puzzle, there are certain things to ignore; the intimidation stigma behind ambition is one of them. Nobody broke through glass ceilings with humble goals and an acceptance of the status quo. Ambition is the name of the game when it comes to leadership and a quality that should be celebrated, encouraged and rewarded within companies and amongst colleagues. Claim your ambition and wear it with pride regardless of how much it rocks the boat. If it doesn’t work out, see the next bullet.
Be Willing to Walk
A very important consideration on the path to leadership, is to know when it’s time to walk. Sally Susman described the importance of being willing to leave a company if it consistently under-appreciates your contributions: "If women just say I should've gotten that job or I deserve this, or I'm underpaid, but you sit there and continue to exist in that environment, it's demeaning and it provides others the opportunity to demean you.”
While it’s important to fight for equal opportunity, it’s also important to recognize cul de sacs when you see them and exit hopeless scenarios accordingly. Certain companies are simply not willing to change, and a hard part of becoming a leader is recognizing where you can’t win and moving-on. Doing so can even lead to unexpected opportunities further down the line.
Sally elaborated on an instance where leaving her company provided her a great growth opportunity at another company. Later, her original company hired her back in a more senior position. Had she never left in the first place, she claims her leadership opportunity may never have happened. “I don't think they would've considered me for that position if I had just stayed in house with them for those years.” A part of self-empowerment is realizing that you have options - if a company is not recognizing and rewarding your contributions, you have the option to find one that will.