3 Predictions from Women Leaders for 2017

Over last year’s holiday season, I visited Mary Ellen Brewington, a friend of mine, who along with her brother, runs a large beverage distribution company called Cherokee Distributing. As I was leaving, she walked me out, and I noticed some pretty gifts wrapped under the Christmas tree in their lobby. Asking her about it, she said, “Oh, I bought something for each of the women who work here.”

Mary Ellen’s care for the women in her organization got me wondering what other women leaders might do to help others of us in 2017, so I polled 100 of you, and here’s what you told me.

1. It all starts with you.

Diana Reid, EVP at PNC, says she’ll push to be seen for the value she adds, not as some diversity statistic. And, in turn, she’ll be working hard to treat “every employee of mine as individuals, not stereotypes.” I know firsthand the work Diana does to support and uplift women; it sounds like in 2017, she’ll be doubling down on her efforts. Anisa Telwar, founder of cosmetic accessories company Anisa International, and Elisa Camahort Page, BlogHer co-founder, are both looking to dig deeper for meaning and insights that can come from regular practices, like morning meditation, or doing a self -review of where their innate skills meet their passions. Anisa’s hope is to “blend real strength with genuine softness” so she can better support her teams in meaningful, teachable ways.

2. Use Your Influence

Beth Bronfman, CEO of NYC’s View Agency, says 2017 is the year she will help women stand up for themselves by “taking charge of their personal brand,” focusing on their messages and spreading their thought leadership. Angie Chang, co-founder of Women 2.0 and VP of Hackbright Academy, agrees that this is the year we should expand our influence by writing for publishers like Forbes and Huffington Post.

Julie Fasone Holder, board director of Eastman Chemical, observes that the Women’s March on Washington will empower all of us and that we should join organizations like C200 and Paradigm for Parity, whose missions are to support women every day. She asks each of us to have strong voices and not fall victim to “manterrupting.”(Great word). Media executive Angie Epps agrees, urging women in 2017 to express ideas as openly and proudly as possible. “Be declarative,” she counsels us.

3. Choose Hope, Not Despair

Great leaders embrace hope, so it’s no surprise that your feedback reflected that, even in the face of the election overhang. CEO Tena Clark, DMI Music, will be taking more risk –not less – in 2017 to push us all forward. Sandy Carter, CEO/founder of Silicon Blitz and Chair of Girls In Tech, says women’s solidarity in 2017 will “leapfrog a drive for both intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs, accelerating products for women, funded by women. Diana Reid feels strategic opportunities are sure to surface in this time of uncertainty and disruption. We just need to keep our eyes open for them. Silicon Valley CEO of Metric Stream, Shellye Archambeau, says what we all hope will be true: In 2017, we “will be seeing more women getting a seat at the table.”

All of your feedback tells us to act. To take charge of our personal brand. To march. To join. To write. Go for it ladies! You inspire me every day.

By |January 31st, 2017|Leadership|0 Comments

Working for a Predator

You may have read about the notorious firing of Roger Ailes last week. Most in media know Roger, but if you don’t, he was the founder of Fox News, and he ran it from a throne of unfettered power for the past twenty years. He wasn’t challenged by his boss Rupert Murdoch because he made gobs of money for Rupert–like billions. In early July, one of the female anchors for Fox News, Gretchen Carlson, came out publicly with a lawsuit against Roger for sexual harassment. His castle began crumbling the day after the suit was filed, as Rupert’s sons, who are now co-leaders of Fox, hired a law firm to investigate the claims. They turned up enough evidence that Roger quickly resigned.

I worked for Roger when he ran CNBC, before his Fox News stint. My boss had been terminated, so I reported directly to Roger. He was at the corporate office in Ft. Lee, NJ, and I ran a territory out of the Midwest office, so I didn’t interface with him too much. But when I came to Ft. Lee I’d drop by his office, and we’d talk. I told him I’d like to be considered for the national job my boss had just vacated. It turns out I lost to a good guy, David Zaslav, who now runs all of Discovery Networks. David and I have remained friends over the years.

In my book I told the story about losing this promotion to David, and how it’s always important to be a good sport in those situations. If you can keep your head up and are on right side of providence, something redeemable will come from such a loss. For me, it meant taking HGTV founder Ken Lowe’s call three months later, to become employee #2 for HGTV. That was pretty darn redeemable.

But maybe there’s another lesson here, one that keeps rolling through my head. What if I’d offered that job, and moved the Packard unit to Ft. Lee? Roger never made advances, but what if he had? The fall-out from his firing has pulled back the curtain to show many other women who were victims too. And the most recent reports revealed a woman who’d had a consensual relationship with him (PS did I say Roger has been married this whole time?) over the years, while she worked for him. When asked about it she said she feared him, and felt dependent upon him for her career. Then there’s a woman who was a Fox News lawyer, and who paid to hush money to victims.

How did we get to this place as women, feeling that to keep our jobs we had to relinquish our self-worth in the bargain? If I’d made that move to Ft. Lee and was subjected to his advances, I hope I would have been a fighter, like Gretchen. But at what cost? Ugly headlines, lawyers, and the whole mockery of Roger’s severance payout –$40+million. Ailes seems to be the only winner here.

I write this with a sad heart for all the other Gretchens out there. I may have dodged a bullet, yet every day women in every job, in every industry, are still battling.

By |August 8th, 2016|Leadership|0 Comments

One Key (and Often Overlooked) Leadership Skill

Ben Zander, the famed conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and author of a sweet little book, The Art of Possibility, wrote of teaching kids music. He chipped away at his students’ anxiety over performing by doing something really radical—he gave everyone an “A” grade when the class started. His only requirement was that in the first week of class, each student had to write a letter to him envisioning what their growth would be at the end of the semester– what they thought they’d learn– that warrants the A. He reported that it worked amazingly well! Without worrying about competing with others for grades, and by setting goals, the students relaxed and improved their performance skills. All of us in leadership roles are teachers. But how effective are we in guiding and grooming our folks to realize their potential? It’s one thing to deliver a performance review once a year. It’s another entirely, to offer feedback regularly—and to do it by giving that person an A. This would sound something like this: “Here’s what you’re doing really well, and here’s where I’d like us to focus on in the next few weeks (or months).” You are in it together, and she starts with a reminder of why she’s valued by the organization. To grow your folks so that one day someone can step into your shoes, is an enormous part of your charge as a leader. Teaching and modelling is what good leaders do just about every day. Today, when I write, speak and mentor, I try to keep in mind this notion of giving an A. I’ve never heard a bad question in the Q&A parts of my speaking. I’ve not met anyone who isn’t inherently gifted, who might just need a little chipping away to realize her full-blown potential. As a leader, you can improve your team’s performance in many ways, so here’s another one. Make the extra effort to give out A’s whenever you possibly can.

By |April 26th, 2016|Leadership|0 Comments

The Only Skill You Need to be a CEO

I went through school terrified of math. I liked business subjects a lot, just not the numbers part, and somehow I avoided having to take any college math or finance classes. I remember breathing a sigh of relief when I got my first job. “Whew! I dodged that bullet.” So imagine my surprise when, in a middle management job, I got handed an income statement. Uh- oh. Sins of omission always seem to come back to haunt you. I asked to be sent to a finance course, and my company agreed.

If you’re in business, you can’t hide from numbers forever. Especially if you want to play a senior role one day. Finance is the most basic business language there is, and it’s used pretty frequently once you arrive into a role managing others. Whether doing budgets or reading balance sheets, it really pays to at least know the basics, because financial statements are your company’s scorecard.

The thing is—you can mostly learn this on the job. Yes, I took a finance seminar, but it was really basic and after that I just asked a lot of questions of our CFO or others in accounting. You sure don’t need to know the intricacies of accounting rules for reporting or any such detailed information. Just the finance basics.

Most every CEO is a composite of many skills, like sales, marketing, product development and operations. The only CEOs I’ve met who needed just one skill are those who grew up in finance. And most of them enhance their skill base beyond just finance to get operational experience too.

If you want an executive job someday, get some learning in the basics of finance. Either attend a course at your local college, ask to be sent to a seminar, and by all means become friendly with colleagues in Accounting and Finance. It’s worth treating them to coffee or lunch, and the time together will pay great rewards.
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By |January 25th, 2016|Career development, Leadership|0 Comments

A Leadership Conference in Italy

I recently travelled to Italy to attend a small conference of senior level women. Our goal was to strategize ways we might join together to topple the barriers impeding organizational progress around diversity. We all agreed to honor the Chatham Rules so I can’t share who precisely attended, but we had heavy hitters from all aspects of industry, women running worldwide, multibillion-dollar portfolios of businesses.

The kind of fight we have all waged to earn senior roles takes extraordinary effort. As I looked around the room, some seemed a little battle weary, but the overall impression was this: these are the elite. Most were in excellent physical shape regardless of age, as elite athletes always are. To be your all- around best you need robust health and top notch conditioning, because navigating career success, while thrilling, is an endurance game. I also noticed clothing choices which were tasteful and elegant. (Note to self: get some shoes that actually go with your outfit). And the brainpower—the brainpower was breathtaking.

I had fun learning some new terms. “Grass ceilings” are all the moments on the proverbial golf course that women aren’t a part of, those that help men to network and get promoted. “Permalance” are free lancers permanently on loan to companies, particularly start-ups. “Overpass” is the preferred metaphor to “off ramps,” those programs and connections organizations offer to employees needing a work break due to caregiving, who want to stay connected then dive back in after this life phase passes.

Elite leaders have opinions—many of them. Building consensus was a challenge for our moderators, as was managing our collective ADD. It’s hard to tackle topics around diverse leadership without getting impatient and irritated, given the stats haven’t improved in any real way for 30 years. Isn’t there some new, eureka strategy that we’ll uncover to change everything? Alas, like most complex issues, there is not one big answer. It’s a collective of many “small” things that, together, will spell change. It’s the blocking and tackling around many initiatives, which, pulled together, form a cohesive plan for change.

I left hopeful. We were a group with enough gravitas to really effect change, and many of us were also connected to other influential individuals, who we could ask for help to support us. I left hopeful, too, because after identifying the factors and creating strategies, there’s now a smaller task force whose charge is to write an action plan. Finally, I am hopeful because we agreed that our newest generation of workers, the millennials, have a lot to offer to help open up the pipelines for the broadest forms of diverse leadership. My millennial son is only a sample of one, but he is drawn to dating partners focused on career, and he works for a woman too. Baby boomer girls fought so hard to become senior leaders, and it may just be a non-issue for millennials. One can hope.

I left reinforced, since many of the things we identified and put on our solutions lists I, too, had identified in my book. But mostly I left happy to have made new friends, like-minded women who have the heart to make a difference.

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“Am I too nice?”

“Is it possible to just be too nice at work?” asked a young woman last week during the Q&A part of a speech I had given about my book. I sighed and thought: We’re still there. Yes, it is not only possible to be too nice but it’s harmful to you, and to those you love. By being too accommodating you give away all of your personal power. Yes, you may dodge conflict that could arise from saying no to someone, but the next time around (and there will surely be a next time) it becomes even harder to say no. Eventually, by being so ‘nice’ to everyone around you, there is nothing left of you. You’ve lost your center, the inner compass that guides and protects you from emotional harm. You’ve lost…you. I know all about this because in the beginning of my career I was too nice, and I was taken advantage of repeatedly. I wanted affirmation so badly. I had to learn how to create some boundaries for my own sanity. I role-played saying “Sorry, a bit buried right now” or “Sorry, I have a deadline” before the problem could crop up. I was never rude: I always delivered the lines with a smile and a shrug. It got easier. Most of us have others in our lives we love and are responsible for, whether it’s kids, a partner, or pets. We need to make a living so that we can help to support them. We need to have something left over to give emotionally after work. This is your inner circle. You need them and they need you. Often we people-please because we are trying to affirm our own worth. If you need me, I’m of value, right? I did this in spades my first few years of work at HBO, feeling the need to ‘live up to’ this incredible job I had. Calling on cable operators in Peoria or Eau Claire, Wisconsin was so incredible? So glamorous? I recall the moment this all changed, when I got promoted and had a team working for me. Now I had a legitimate reason to set boundaries! I became much more effective during those hours spent at work. Yes, it’s possible to be too nice, and it’s harmful to you and those you love. As author Melody Beattie writes: “Caring works. Caretaking doesn’t. We can learn to walk the line between the two.” Practice saying no with a smile and shrug. It gets easier, and life gets infinitely richer. Susan signature

Wisdom, Joy and Love

It’s hard to believe that in two weeks my book will be on bookshelves. It took three years, a lot more discipline than I wanted to have, and has provided great joy.

In one of my morning readings, it suggests that what we can give to the world are the gifts of wisdom, joy and love. I’ll hit the road the first week in February talking about the book, work culture, and leadership to groups around the U.S. I’ll talk to women’s groups about what gets in the way of our advancement. With all of this, I believe I can bring some wisdom to these topics. We’re all the product of our experiences. Mine has been varied enough, and – dare I say it! – I’ve been on this planet long enough to have accumulated some nuggets worth sharing.

As for joy, when I speak, I always talk about the importance of humor, laughter, and welcoming smiles. These things humanize us; they make us accessible to those around us. And there is plenty of benefit to you, as well. Medical research abounds on how laughter dissipates anxiety and stress. The physical act itself lessens your stress load. When we were building HGTV, I’d be in a meeting with my all-male colleagues and when a really tough issue would surface, invariably one of them would “leave the reservation” and tell a story they thought was just hilarious. The others would chime in, and before I knew it, the whole room was laughing. I found this very annoying at first. “Get back on topic!” my all-business brain would scream. But I began to see that this was how these guys released stress. I began to do it too, and what do you know, laughing really did help me to gain fresh perspective, connect with the team, and feel less anxious. Joy is found in laughter.

As for love, I see that in the practice of compassion, which is a connector when I speak. As the Buddhist nun Pema Choldron says: “Compassion practice is daring.” Real compassion is a relationship between equals, both having been wounded in some fashion along life’s path. For me, that means sharing my failures and mistakes in career, as well as my successes. I once read that one should never talk about failures when the audience is eating, for God’s sake! I don’t buy that. When we can share our roads wrongly taken in life and work, it’s learning for all. And there’s some healing that comes from sharing —airing — these experiences. The key is to always learn from them.

So here I go. Thanks for all the wisdom, joy and love you’ve sent to me along this road, rightly taken.

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Lighten Up

In the book The Levity Effect, there was a line that has stayed with me:

“Great leaders bring lightness to the workplace.”

I thought back to the building days of HGTV, when the guys and I would be trying to figure out a complex point of strategy, and out of nowhere one of them could break out in laughter over some seemingly unrelated moment – a meeting with an advertiser, or some marketing campaign detail gone wrong. My very linear mind would get bothered by the distraction, until I sat back and realized what was really happening. We’d laugh, loosen up and restart the brainstorm with fresh thinking. I’m thankful for those moments, because they changed how I led teams. I donned a softer touch. A lighter one. I saw humor and laughter as great motivational tools instead of distractions.

The rewards of humor and laughter have been written up in Harvard case studies and medical journals. They’re stress reducers, for one. Just think about having a good laugh. Afterward you feel refreshed, looser. Some of the stress rolls off. Humor and laughter also help us to better relate to one another, especially self-effacing humor, if you are leading a team. Acknowledging your own mistakes and laughing at yourself makes you accessible as a leader. It shows your humility and humanity to others. I write about that in my book, with examples from leadership and likeability studies. The root words in humor, humanity, and humility are all the same. We cannot have one without having the others. They all bring us home to our human-ness. They all lead back to connection.

It’s trickier for women to rise into leadership roles because there is bias in the workplace around where we really belong – tending to babies or running companies? Using humor can help with that as it makes us more accessible to our colleagues. Smiling a lot helps too. Just think of how you react to a smile vs. a scowl. One says “come on in” and the other says “stay away.”

Lighten up at work. Look around to see the irony or silliness of a situation, and instead of tightening up and wanting to fix it, have a belly laugh over it. I promise you’ll feel a whole lot better.

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Imperfection, Revisited

I’ve gone back to Brene Brown, and her book “The Gifts of Imperfection.” I have coffee with her in the morning, she travels with me, and likes to remind me of things during the day that she just told me, but I already forgot.

The latest is about what else but perfection. I blogged about the 90/10 rules a while back, and since you might forget things like I do, the 90/10 rule goes like this: it’s really better to get things 90% right than doing things with 100% precision, because the last 10% isn’t worth the time it takes. Men get this; in fact their rule is more like 60/40. But that’s another blog for another day.

The perfection thing: we all have it in various doses if we’ve accomplished anything in life, but lately I find myself in that place of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s with pencil, ink, then magic marker. Brene Brown has many definitions for perfectionism that all begin with “it’s a self-destructive behavior,“ which I do believe is true. But what she doesn’t cover is something I feel in my gut when I’m chasing perfectionism. It’s the difference between healthy striving and going into that dark place of pushing and pushing toward a good enough that is never quite within reach.

I left corporate America 4 years ago. A big driver was to find more meaning in a quieter life without a public face. So now I find myself getting ready to publish a book, and here I go again, jumping on that public mouse wheel. Are the new website colors just right? Does calling myself an ‘executive’ sound pompous and unrelatable? Does ‘Meet Susan’ sound like some Wizard of Oz character behind the curtain? There it is – that place of overdrive and overthink, making myself crazy with perfectionism. The committee in my head is alive and well, and they can’t agree on anything.

Brown says self-compassion is the answer. She says loving ourselves is the bravest thing we can do. Sometimes when I think about those 30 years in corporate America, I wonder who that person was who made her way pushing, striving, reaching for the brass ring. I don’t recall much self-compassion, which, ironically means I guess I wasn’t all that brave – except for the last act, four years ago. Leaving early was brave. Now I get the chance to find the true gifts, as Brown calls them. Courage. Compassion. Connection.

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No Females Allowed?

In 2010 I watched Dr. Jane McGonagel, from the Institute of the Future, take the TED stage and share four traits of video gamers. It occurred to me: had I known of these traits a few years back, I might not have grounded my preteen son for sneaking Grand Theft Auto into the house. It also occurred to me that these traits — urgent optimism, social connectedness, and blissful productivity — were also the qualities of successful business leaders. It resonated so strongly that I wrote a book about it, which will be published next year.

So imagine my surprise when I learned that an upcoming global video gamer conference, organized by the IeSF (International eSports Federation), was banning women from participating? The conference is called Heroes of Warcraft, which is a virtual card game produced by Blizzard Entertainment. The reason the organizers gave for the ban was to avoid “potential conflicts” such as a woman eliminating a man. That would be conflict, to be sure, for the men.

This is crazy on so many levels. First, it’s not like there any physical restrictions when it comes to playing video games. I’m pretty sure women’s thumbs can move as fast as men’s. Then there’s the fact that almost half of video gamers are women. By keeping women out, they’re telling the video game console makers and marketers that their user audience should be 50% less. Good luck making that argument. Microsoft, Sony and others won’t be too excited about that result. There are also the software game makers, like Blizzard and Electronic Arts. Toss those video games out the window, ladies, and see how Blizzard reacts.

If organizing bodies thought like capitalists, instead of bureaucrats, they’d see the commercial insanity in their policies. It goes beyond just the video game makers too. The IeSF is a South Korean based organization. I drive a Hyundai Sonata. Suddenly my impression of this whole developing country, and what I buy from it, gets called into question. Am I going to turn in my car because of this? No. But serious female video gamers might think about it.

Another company that begins with A, and is the name of a fruit, might also be a little concerned. Many women who use their devices to download this game will hear of these rules and wonder: why would Apple partner with another entity that practices gender bias?

Perhaps the strangest thing about is where the competition is being held — Finland. Over the years, the Scandinavian countries, especially Norway and Finland, have been very progressive regarding women serving on corporate boards. The European Union’s largest women’s arm, called the European Women’s Lobby (EWL), does an annual report monitoring European countries and women on business boards. As of 2011, 45% of Finland’s state-owned companies have women on them. This is about triple what the U.S. has accomplished to date. Wonder if any of these gender progressive Finns made a call to the South Koreans?

Maybe so. 24 hours after word got out on the ban, social media went crazy and the tournament organizers retracted the male-only rules. I guess we women don’t pose as much of a “potential conflict” as was originally thought. Or, just maybe, they saw what a conflict we could pose just by uniting around an outdated practice.

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