Every woman has a story — life experiences and decisions that have shaped who she is today. Likewise, every leader has a story — positions accepted, others declined, projects accomplished and tasks failed. Both sets of experiences intertwine to uniquely define a person.
- For Carole Sanderson, work and independence have always been part of life. She got her first job at age 12, and her dad told her then
that you come into life alone, and you go out alone, so she’d better take care of herself along the way. Now as CFO and a partner at Herschman Architects, she’s fiercely motivated by all the experiences life has to offer.
- Mary-Alice Frank loves interesting work and stresses a sense of urgency and professionalism in everything she does. If not for exciting work and opportunities, she says she would probably never get out of her pajamas. Her motivation drives her now as the CEO of the American Red Cross of Greater Cleveland.
- Sari Feldman is the teacher and feels responsible for grooming the next generation of professionals in her field. As executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library, she subscribes to philosophies in Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great,” and focuses on listening to and training people to improve her libraries.
- Deborah Plummer’s high standards of excellence rub off on her colleagues. After successfully completing a Martin Luther King Jr.
event earlier this year, rather than resting on their laurels, one of her employees instead asked, “What’s next?” That’s the attitude she
attacks life with and promotes and expects from people as director of diversity at the Cleveland Clinic.
- Elizabeth McIntyre is an information junkie and recovering perfectionist, which is fitting for her role as assistant managing editor/Metro for The Plain Dealer. She says having kids cured her of unrealistic perfectionist standards, and she constantly reads both fiction and nonfiction to get as much information as possible.
Each tale differs from the next, but while every woman brings a different story to the table, these leading ladies hold to similar principles when it comes to managing their organizations and growing as professionals.
Creating the right atmosphere
One of the most important aspects — and often one of the most difficult — of leading an organization is the people, as many issues center on personnel. Success starts with hiring and knowing what you’re doing in that process.
“Have a process — a consistent and objective process — and then go with your instinct,” Feldman says. “Most leaders who know their organization and are open to relationship-building will have a feel for people when they’re going through an interview process. At the end of the day, you go with your instinct about someone.”
Having a process to make hiring smoother ensures that you get the people you really want in an organization, but you have to know what you want and differentiate that from what you need.
“As a former educator, I look, and I can see potential in folks, but there’s a difference in seeing potential and supporting them around getting to that potential versus hiring the people you need to actually execute,” Plummer says. “That has been a growing edge for me is to make sure I’m hiring people with those requisite skill sets and talent mix that’s going to support the team I need to get the job done.”
Once you bring people into an organization, they need to be given flexibility and space to do their jobs.
“The worst thing you can do is to dictate to them how to do their jobs,” McIntyre says. “There’s nothing more stifling to creativity than somebody who puts a lid on you.”
Allowing people to work freely helps give them the support they need from their supervisors and managers, and it makes them feel trusted. Flexibility helps them feel better about making decisions in their position and for the company as a whole. These decision-making skills help them grow stronger, even if they make mistakes.
“Allow them to make mistakes and realize that it’s OK when you make mistakes,” McIntyre says. “A lot of times, there are learning opportunities in the mistakes you make, and don’t browbeat them when that stuff happens. When people realize that you’re going to be supportive of them when they do try something that may be a little more risky, they’re going to be more apt to try that again.”
McIntyre says mistakes can help the supervisor learn, too. Often when reviewing mistakes with employees, she discovers a flaw beyond the employee’s realm, such as in a department or the company’s process, which also contributed to the mistake. This helps her correct the outside variable to help alleviate more mistakes in the future.
But telling employees it’s OK to make mistakes, then acting differently when your own shortcomings are waving in the breeze, can set a sour tone in an organization, so leaders need to own up to their flaws, as well.
“People see the people at the top working hard and being accountable, taking the hit if they get something wrong, not pointing a finger at someone saying, ‘Well, it wasn’t my fault,’ instead of saying, ‘I made a mistake, and this is how I’m going to resolve it,’” Sanderson says. “That helps them build confidence and gives them a good example to follow.”
When leaders work to establish and nurture relationships with employees, it generates more ideas and allows leaders to keep their finger on the pulse of their people and what they do because it fosters open communication.
“The best ideas come from people who are working in the field, and communication will really pay off in terms of solving problems before they really are problems — bringing innovation to the organization and keeping leaders in touch with what’s going on at the local level, because one day, you’re a leader, and the next day, you’re a tyrant because you’re so out of touch,” Feldman says. “It’s like a tyrant-prevention program.”
Employees have to trust their supervisors and managers, though, so leaders must make employees feel that their interest is genuine.
“They have to see you out of your office forming and building relationships — getting to know them as people,” McIntyre says.
“Listening is always the key. I try to do as little talking as possible when I’m interacting with people in my department because it’s really important that you hear what they say because I’m not going to learn anything from me prattling on about something.”
Feldman says part of establishing trust and relationships is not closing off communication from management’s end. While many leaders dodge employees’ questions, she attacks them head on and doesn’t screen or censor them.
“I want people to feel confident in their relationship with me,” Feldman says. “A relationship goes two ways. It’s about trusting me and having confidence in the decisions I’m making, and that they’re in the best interest of the institution. If I can’t accept the questions that people want to ask me, I’m not fulfilling my part of the relationship. It’s not just about getting information, it’s about giving information.”
Sanderson says it’s helpful to establish relationships through outside activities, such as recreational sports, as that can lend more insight into a person when they have their guard down, rather than in a professional setting. “You can get a feel for people for how they are when they’re in other situations — not just the work environment,” Sanderson says.
This allows her to understand their lives more, which allows her to understand their professional choices, motives and ambitions. “What you do in your personal life reflects on your professional life ... and what you do in your professional life reflects in your personal life,” Sanderson says. “You have to be able to integrate those two, and most of the successful people that we see out there do a real good job of that.”
While it’s important to hire the right people, give them room to do their jobs and establish relationships with them, it’s equally important not to keep them sidelined as time moves on and their skills improve.
“Having that promotional track is very encouraging for people,” Feldman says. “People want to know that there’s opportunity in an organization, that they’re not stifled at the level they come into an organization. We want to retain our excellent staff. If we can’t provide some promotional opportunities, then people will leave and go elsewhere.”
There are different types of employees though, and not everyone is suited for advancement in an organization.
“You have some employees who just do work, and you have other employees who are always looking for an opportunity, and that really creates a lot of desire to give those people more work, more responsibility, and let people bring back those results to the firm,” Sanderson says.
It’s important for leaders to identify those employees thirsting for opportunities to propel the company forward.
“People that are motivated — and you’re assuming they have baseline competency and skills — will seize new opportunities for the organization,” Frank says. “They’re sitting in a meeting and some idea floats by them, and it may not be in their area, but they say, ‘Hey, I’ll take that on.’
“Those are the ones that can rise to the top in an organization, because they’re not concerned with themselves — they’re concerned with the organization. If you find people that are motivated to take on work outside their comfort zone or area of responsibility, they tend to be the people that can really benefit the organization strategically.”
When those people are identified, Frank says leaders need to close the skill gap between where rising stars are and need to be by creating opportunities for them to work on projects and take on more work. Identifying those needed skills helps a leader more clearly train and nurture someone to the next level.
One of Frank’s employees wanted to move into a management position, so she gave him some responsibility on a project level to see how he responded and if it was something he enjoyed and succeeded at. It also allowed her to work with him on communication and other skills he needed to advance.
While working with employees, it’s also important for leaders to show employees they notice, care and appreciate their efforts. Rewarding them boosts their morale and helps gain their respect and loyalty while deepening the employee-employer relationship.
“There’s a lot of ways to reward people — by acknowledgment, title, money, or when the opportunity becomes available, promoting them or putting them on key activities,” Frank says. “Everyone’s looking for a different reward. You have to know the person.”
Recognizing and rewarding other people’s accomplishments also helps remind leaders that they can’t do it all themselves.
“That’s the leadership piece that becomes so critical — knowing the gift that people bring to the table will help bring it to a totally different level or collective wisdom that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve on my own,” Plummer says.
When aspiring to get ahead, people should examine their lives and see where they can gain experiences.
“There’s tremendous value for young women to get as many leadership and management experiences as they can,” Frank says.
“There are some that are more valuable and some that are less. The more you can put yourself in a position, either as a volunteer or a salaried position in your job, to manage or to lead, you learn something. Then you need to take from those experiences that learning and apply it to your own career and your full-time occupation.”
Plummer says it’s important for women to continuously learn because it gives them knowledge and experiences that help them as they get on and off the career ramp throughout their lives.
“Every experience that you have that is outside your window will bring so much back to your personal life and your professional life,” Sanderson says. “It gives you information to make decisions about your professional and personal life that if you never get out and talk to people, you’re not going to have.”
Formal education offers one avenue of learning, but there are other ways to learn, such as through the people you interact with.
“Have friends that are nothing like you,” Plummer says. “Fifty percent of your friends should be outside of your field, your work area, your political and your faith belief systems. That really forces you to learn. That’s the natural and easiest way to learn.”
Another way is through activities and involvement, whether it be volunteerism, politics, sports, community events or traveling. Each of these facets helps people grow as leaders.
Sanderson says traveling has helped her understand other cultures, so when she interacts with colleagues or customers, she can better relate to them. Additionally, she has a better understanding of why companies choose certain markets to test products in because she has been there and seen the business culture.
Outside activities can also help leaders network and make different contacts who could eventually help achieve work-related goals. Those groups can also help hone and sharpen skills one may struggle with without position or supervisor pressure.
“It thrusts you out of your comfort zone,” Frank says. “Perhaps you join a committee, and you have to introduce a speaker, and that’s not something you do every day, so you’re really nervous about it. It helps you develop those skills that you might not develop in your day-to-day job.”
Whatever the method, the women all agree leaders simply need to stay hungry for knowledge, or they’ll lose their effectiveness.
“Every opportunity you meet someone, or every opportunity you do something or be somewhere, there’s an opportunity to learn something,” Sanderson says. “You can’t get close-minded to learning because then you might as well just shut down, and there’s a lot of people that are just shut down.”
Taking, then giving
While outside learning experiences broaden a leader’s scope and ability, education within one’s field is also important for career development. “Find people in your career that you want to not only emulate but to learn from,” McIntyre says. “Pick and choose people according to their strengths and what they can teach you.”
There are different types of mentoring experiences, and the mentee can benefit equally from both.
“Sometimes you have formal mentors, who are the ones that sit down with you and help you map out your career path and help you decide where your talents are and strengths, and then there’s the informal mentors that you can just identify, that they don’t even have to know that they’re your mentor, that you can begin to say, ‘How are they doing what they’re doing?’” Plummer says.
Whether formal or informal, mentees should have clear goals of what they hope to learn and should communicate those goals to their mentors. This helps the mentor give better advice and create opportunities for growth.
While having a mentor can be helpful early in one’s career, once someone reaches a level of achievement, the tables should turn.
“There’s a responsibility that you have as a leader as your career progresses of helping out others, too, and giving them advice,” McIntyre says.
Frank suggests presenting opportunities to aspiring people to pick up tasks on a project that may help the mentor complete her work and help the mentee learn, creating a win-win situation.
Mentoring doesn’t have to occur only in the work force. Leaders can also give back by educating the next generation, as Feldman does by teaching at Syracuse University.
“I have an obligation to my profession to ensure that it stays strong and that we bring the most creative and talented people forward,” Feldman says. “I’m trying to give my students some of my own knowledge ... and help them get their first job out of graduate school.
“It seems natural. So many people supported me in my career move, and it’s my turn. ... If you believe in your profession and you want to keep it strong, you want to make that contribution to motivate, support and excite people coming up in the profession.”
Every woman is different and each has different aspirations and preferences for learning and leading. But despite the differences, it’s important for women to empower each other and have confidence in themselves. That confidence comes from knowing what you want and going after it without letting others create detours to that path.
“Sometimes we are such people-pleasers that we’re afraid, ‘Well, so-and-so will expect me to do this,’ or ‘This person has expectations that I’m going to do that,’ and ‘If I don’t say yes to this, they’re really going to be angry with me,’ and ‘I want everybody to like me,’” McIntyre says. “Get over that. Be honest with who you are and what you want, and then create the path to make it happen.
“Don’t worry about pleasing other people. If you treat people fairly and honestly, you will please people, and they will respect you for it. That’s not to say that everybody has to like you, but they will respect you because you’re fair and honest. If every decision you can make is based on what is ultimately right, people can’t argue with that.”
HOW TO REACH: The Plain Dealer, www.plaindealer.com; Herschman Architects, www.herschmanarchitects.com; American Red Cross of Greater Cleveland, www.redcross-cleveland.org, Cleveland Clinic, www.clevelandclinic.com; Cuyahoga County Public Library, www.cuyahogalibrary.org