While the corporate world at large crawls towards gender parity in leadership, companies with women at the helm are raising the bar in every sense, across all industries. Through the constant change and unprecedented uncertainty of today’s business environment, talented women have established themselves as leaders among leaders, driving innovation and creating value through visionary, transformative leadership. Ellig Group is honored to count many of these game-changers among the previous guests of our monthly podcast, Leadership Reimagined. In no particular order, here are some of their choice words of wisdom for aspiring executives and established leaders alike:
I never aspired to be in the C-suite. That was never on my list of “what I want to be when I grow up.” I always wanted to have impact and more impact. Every job decision I’ve made, I’ve done by answering the question, “will this next step have impact? And is it the most impact I have available to me right now?”
So many people have a goal or an objective, but they don’t tell anybody. I’ll mentor people, and I’ll say, “what do you want to do?” And when I finally pull it out of them, they’ll say, “oh, I want to run a business one day,” or, “I want to be a Chief Marketing Officer,” or whatever it might be. And then I say, “great. Who knows?” And their answer is, “what do you mean?” Listen, if people don’t know what you want, they can’t help you. So for me, being ambitious meant setting goals, but just as importantly, it meant letting people know what my goals were so they could help me.
Let me give you a few examples of [leadership] essentials. One, of course, is “do the right thing”. And that is absolutely core. But my second leadership essential is, “lead with excellence, confidence, and humility”. And humility is really important because leaders with humility are learners. They don’t feel like everything needs to be built by them. So [instead of thinking], “Oh, I have to build it myself,” they’re willing to look outside. They partner, they build great teams. And I knew that as we move forward with the pace of change, with the importance of our ecosystem partners and the more and more complex business, I needed to underscore that all of my leaders needed to be learners. They needed to have that humility. They needed to be externally focused, not always internally focused.
Maybe there are [diversity] quotas in legislation in some places, or maybe your identity checks the missing box on their list. So maybe your background gets you through the door, or maybe you have a mentor or sponsor who gets you there, but after that, it’s on you. There’s no shortcut to preparation and excellence. Those qualities will dispel any myth, any stereotype or preconceived notion about who you are or where you come from, because results speak louder than anything else.
I think having a financial background and skill set can really enhance a person’s career in so many ways. Knowing how to interpret a balance sheet and understanding finance and accounting. The language of business is an invaluable skill, even if you don’t want to be a CFO or aspire to have a career in finance. But I do think being a CFO gives you a really unique perspective in a corporation. You are the allocator of capital. You’re a partner to the CEO and other business leaders, you’re a spokesperson for the company, to investors and other stakeholders. It is second in nature only to the CEO. It’s really a unique opportunity and perspective on how to operate and understand a business.
I think a lot of people misinterpret the CFO role as a back-office function, but world class CFOs are very close to the business and help steer and drive the go-forward strategy. Also, I think financial expertise is a highly sought-after skill that boards are looking for as well. It’s a great entree to the C-suite. We talk about only 4% of board members being women of color. But diversity in the C-suite is another huge opportunity and I think the finance function is a very beneficial one.
Early in my career, trying to break into private equity and investing, I was always the only woman and many times, also the only minority. So I had a little bit of a double whammy going in, and I always felt like I was a little bit on the outside. Of course, one big challenge faced by most executive women I speak to is when you are the most senior woman in a room, and people turn to your junior partner or vice president who’s a male and address them as the boss. Also things like being asked to take a coat or coffee. But those are also opportunities to show up. And I have found throughout my career, when I was prepared, and I opened my mouth, and I presented facts, a lot of times the energy in the room would change immediately as I started talking, because it was clear who was the most senior person in the room.
I always go to Maya Angelou, my favorite poet, who said, “don’t make money your goal. Instead, do what you love and do it so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.” I think that’s the first place to start.
The second piece of advice is: don’t aspire, but rather serve. I’m a big believer in servant leadership. If you put others ahead of you, if you are there to serve them, it’s amazing what comes back at you.
I listen a lot. I read all my emails. No one scans any of my emails. UPSers and customers are really great at sending me notes. It’s extraordinarily helpful because rather than poo-pooing what they say, I go check it out. Oftentimes that leads me to an opportunity I didn’t know was there.
I think we all need a plan, but we all need to be prepared for that plan to be upended. I was an Urban Fellow under the Koch Administration. I was granted a fellowship to come into government. It was the city’s only recruitment mechanism in the late eighties, and you were able to pick your agency and work directly with commissioners and heads of agencies. In that process, I was encouraged by the leaders of the fellowship program to try something outside my area of interest. At the time, I was on my way to law school, hoping to fight for the rights of juveniles in the justice system, and I did a ton of interviewing with commissioners around the city.
In the 80s, coming out of the fiscal crisis, the city was a very different place. The physical plant was terrible. There was absolutely no way for anyone in government to hire anybody because there was a freeze on new hires. But they could bring on urban fellows, and every Commissioner in the city wanted one, so I got all sorts of offers to come into agencies and shadow the Commissioners. On a whim, I took on two fellowships, a summer one and an academic year one, and I decided to try economic development. It was a very sophisticated, quasi-public agency with a president, a board of directors, carpeting and air conditioning.
At the time, the city was a really horrendous place to work. I went to school in the Bronx; I’m pretty tough, but I have to say, walking into the Public Development Corporation, I thought, “you know what? I could spend a summer here and just figure this economic development thing out and try it on for size.” It was then and there that I realized I had real estate development in my veins. I would never have known it had I not spent that summer doing projects around the city, large scale public-private partnerships.
I think that the key role of a leader is to set a clear and inspiring vision for the team about what the priorities and key strategies are. And then to create an environment where everyone feels like they can bring their full selves to work and thrive. Breaking down barriers when they get in the way. It’s really about being humble enough to know that you can’t do it yourself, and that the efforts and achievements of a team are always better than those of an individual when you’re all rowing in the same direction.
So the advice that I give is, when you’re early in your career, don’t be focused on promotion timing, be focused on acquiring diverse experiences, work in a different function, if you’re in the finance organization, ask to work for a few months in the marketing organization. If you work in retail, ask to work in the field. When I was growing up in the marketing organization at P&G, I had the great opportunity to spend three months working as a sales rep, stocking shelves, calling on grocery store managers, understanding how to build a display. These were things that really helped me later on. Also, when I was running the global cosmetics business, I took the opportunity to go to a Boots cosmetics counter. In the UK, just outside of London, I spent a week as a makeup artist at a Max Factor counter that we had at Boots.
Now, I’m not saying I didn’t get help; I’m not sure you want me to be your makeup artist. But I learned so much throwing myself into that different experience. So that’s what I always say to young leaders: don’t be focused on how quickly you can move up, be focused on how well rounded your learning is. Because that’s ultimately what will give you the perspective to make better decisions, and to be a better leader of people across functions that you don’t understand very well.