Female leaders: Finding their own way

12.12.2014 Article, Careers, Charlotte Center, Leadership, School News

Sarah Johnson (’15) came to “Myths About Female Leadership: It’s Not About Fitting in, It’s About a New Path” to learn how to break out of the mold in which she says she often finds herself as a woman in a male-dominated field.

“It’s about being yourself, not about trying to be so overbearing and dominant,” says Johnson, a first year MBA student in the Charlotte Saturday program and a nuclear reactor operator for Duke Energy.

That’s the primary lesson she says she learned from the five panelists at the Dec. 10 event at WFU Charlotte Center. The program, co-sponsored by the Charlotte Observer, featured:

  • Ann Caulkins, publisher of the Observer;
  • Lynn Good, president and CEO of Duke Energy;
  • Andrea Smith, global head of human resources for Bank of America;
  • Pat Rodgers, president and CEO of Rodgers Builders; and
  • Susan DeVore, president and CEO of Premier Inc.

This group talked about far more than how to get ahead. They addressed how to be true to yourself, how to focus on staying healthy in the face of incredible stress, and how to be an authentic role model – advice, they said, that applies to all current and future leaders, not just women.

Moderator Caulkins prompted the panelists to offer business (and life) advice on:

Plotting out your career path – Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg might advocate that every woman develop an 18-month plan and a “dream” plan, but DeVore said her path was more informal than that.

“I stayed really focused on performing in the job I had, and keeping my eyes open for a new opportunity,” she said. “Opportunities present themselves if you’re aware and listening.”

She said, as did Good, that she always accepted calls from headhunters, even if she was happy in her job. Talking to a headhunter will either validate your current role or open you up to a new opportunity.

Mentoring relationships
The best seem to develop unbidden and remain informal; gender of the mentor is irrelevant. Rodgers became known as the builder who would sit on the loading dock with subcontractors to show them how to do the in-depth reporting required for government jobs. But, “when someone asks me to mentor them, I’m never quite sure what they mean,” she said.

That’s why it’s vital, Smith said, to be “much clearer about your purpose” when you seek mentorship. “It’s about looking for people you can learn from,” she said. Asking for specific guidance is key. And being open to getting and giving candid feedback on the job often can teach you just as much as a mentor can.

Breakout moments
DeVore recently led the charge to take Premier Inc. and its network hospitals public. That meant convincing 100 hospital owners to follow her lead. And when she returned from ringing the bell on Wall Street, her team was there to cheer with her – they felt invested in the success, too.

Then there was the time, earlier in her career, when her spreadsheet ranking individual employee performance – and her comments on which employees should be developed – was sent inadvertently to the whole staff. She got a call from an employee who ranked a three, who asked, “Why don’t you value your threes?”

She decided to call all 300 of them, asked them why they thought they ranked a three and how she could help them change it. “They [my breakout moments] were either very painful or very cheerful,” she said. “The painful ones are more import than the joyful ones. You learn a lot more.”

Grace in the face of stereotypes
Rodgers once was banned from a construction site because she was a woman; she managed her crew via phone from the office.

During an interview for her current job, a board member asked DeVore why she wasn’t warm, personality wise. Her first impulse was to ask if they’d say that to a man, but she then she wondered if, in an effort to avoid being stereotyped as too feminine, she was masking her true personality.

Every female executive has a story. How they handle it is what sets them apart.

For instance, when Good walked into a networking breakfast before a board meeting at a former company, the CEO asked her to get the pastries. “He thought I was the help,” she said. She didn’t correct him; she found someone to bring in the breakfast. He didn’t realize his mistake until she got up to speak during the meeting.

“I find people underestimate me. That can be an asset,” she said.

In the end, your main concern should be staying true to who you are – and not compromising your integrity on the way. “It’s about dispelling those [stereotypes about female leaders] by what you deliver and how you deliver,” Smith said.

Photography: Stephanie Chesson