Powered By Women Q&A

Successful strategies for flourishing women leaders

Ahead of NH Business Review’s Powered By Women speaker series, we asked women in leadership roles from a variety of industries to share their advice for achieving success amidst ongoing challenges in the workplace. Their wealth of personal experience provides invaluable guidance to women at any stage in their career to position themselves to move up in their management structure.

Our panel:

Victoria Parker, Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Faculty Administration, Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics, UNH. paulcollege.unh.edu

Sandra Wong, MD, MS, Chair, Department of Surgery, Dartmouth-Hitchcock. dartmouth-hitchcock.org

Patty Blake, Senior Market Manager-V.P., N.H. West Market, People’s United Bank. peoples.com

Tara Trafton, NBT Bank, Senior Vice President and Regional Credit Officer. nbtbank.com

Gerri M. Vaughan, President, Tufts Health Freedom Plan. thfp.com

What are some of the elements to look for when investigating whether an organization is open and comfortable with female leadership?

Parker: “I would advise potential hires to look at the current leadership within any organization they are considering joining, with the following questions in mind: What is the existing distribution of women in leadership roles? What kinds of roles are those women in? Do those roles include multiple departments/functions? How long have those women been there? Did they grow their careers in that organization or join it after they had succeeded elsewhere? To what extent do members of the organization of all genders demonstrate interests and lives beyond the workplace? (These can be assessed via noticing artifacts in their offices that indicate travel, family or hobbies, and/or whether any such topics come up in conversation.) Ask questions about how success is defined, assessed and rewarded in the organization. Organizations that have well-developed approaches to talent management and clear criteria for success and advancement have often already grappled with questions about how to create a level playing field on which different approaches to leadership that attain equivalent outcomes are equitably recognized.”

Wong: “Much of the current data shows a lack of opportunity for women leaders, so just looking at the number of women in leadership positions in an organization may not give you the whole story. It is important to evaluate the extent of institutional support for equity through intentional efforts — this includes accountability among male leaders for these shared goals and how women support each other within the organization.”

Trafton: “You need to be observant. Does the company have women in senior leadership positions, and where? Are women in leadership roles in more traditionally female-led divisions, such as Human Resources, or across all departments? One important thing to consider is whether it is an industry that has a material female leadership component. In some, there aren’t as many women in the industry, which leads to less in leadership positions.

“NBT does an outstanding job with women in leadership positions across all areas of the organization. In our leadership development programs, there’s a conscious effort to include both men and women. We have an Emerging Leaders program for those at the early to mid-stage of their careers, for employees that have demonstrated leadership potential, and another similar program, Star Impact, for those midway through careers. These are intensive 18-month programs that are designed to develop leadership skills. They are great programs and an incredible investment by NBT as a way to develop future leaders at the company. Look at where the women are in the company, and learn how the company invests in and nurtures its leadership talent.”

What are some strategies that can help women advance in their organizations?

Blake: “I believe it’s important to take responsibility for our professional development and advancement, and that requires some of our own marketing and self-promotion along the way. Be on the lookout for opportunities to interact with key members of your organization’s leadership team. Initiate a ‘skip level’ meeting with your manager’s manger to discuss your performance, goals and development. Take on additional responsibilities outside of the scope of your current role to demonstrate your desire to grow and develop within the organization. Also, no matter the size of the organization, change is inevitable. So embrace it and use it to your benefit by offering to become a mentor or peer coach to help other team members navigate through it.”

Trafton: “Having a positive attitude and seeking out challenges will serve you well over the course of your career. Volunteer for projects that allow you to work with many people, and across different parts of the organization; it will provide you with a big picture and a broader understanding of how the company functions, and you’ll get to know not just the different parts of the organization, you’ll also meet a wider range of people. When you first start out in a career, you’re tightly focused on the job you were hired to do, and doing it well. That’s important, but if you want a rewarding career, it helps to learn as much as you can about the company you work for and the broader industry. Think big picture versus day-to-day. You’ll learn so much more about your employer and advancement opportunities if you don’t limit yourself. And, when you volunteer for projects in other parts of the organization and do a good job, you’re more likely to be recognized across the organization. Your value goes beyond the division or department you were hired into.

“Try not to overcommit or overpromise. It will happen sometimes, but try and guard against it, because you want to be the go-to person if something needs to get done correctly. Communicate if you have a problem or challenge, and offer a solution. Own your mistakes.

“It is important to let people know what you want to do, what you like and what you don’t. It’s hard to find good employees, and when companies hire, they are making an investment. They want to keep you.”

Vaughan: “Be proactive about your work experience and your career.  Make yourself available to be involved in work that is not necessarily ‘in your lane’ or usual scope of work. Demonstrate a desire to be challenged and show your passion to learn. Be inquisitive, curious and develop strong problem-solving skills early on in your career. These traits demonstrate initiative and interest to learn — both are critical for early career builders as well as for emerging leaders. Identify formal and informal mentors to help navigate your organization as well as to accept and receive feedback and guidance. Learn your blind spots and consistently be aware of how you need to manage and develop strategies to overcome. For many, initial reactions to feedback are defensiveness and denial — do you very best to not fall into that trap. Listen, process and grow; constructive and productive feedback will be your best friend throughout your career; embrace it.”

What character traits do you feel have benefitted you in your success?

Parker: “I believe I have benefited from the combination of tenacity, focus, humility and the ability to connect with others. The ability to connect has led to the development of real and mutual relationships with peers and those at other levels (both senior to and junior to me) at all career stages, enabling me to create a network both broad and deep that I turn to when I need another perspective, advice or simply a good listener. Tenacity enables me to persist even when projects or settings are in some way challenging. Focus enables me to achieve long-term goals while also paying attention to emergent shorter-term issues. Humility (which has taken some time to develop!) enables me to ask good, real questions, and to avoid assuming I have all the answer(s). Finding out what assumptions (which can often be unconscious) drive people and processes is essential to uncovering their underlying logic. Finally, a sense of humor is indispensable, so that I don’t take myself too seriously.”

Wong: “I’ve always been pretty stubborn. When I figured out that there was an important difference between being stubborn and getting things done, I became a lot more resilient and that became a definite strength in terms of having focused perseverance.”

Blake: “As Monty Python said, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’ Being positive and enthusiastic is part of my DNA — always has been. If you bring those traits and a positive attitude to the work place, it will be contagious and more often will help produce the desired results.”

Trafton: “This circles back to what I mentioned about strategies, having a plan for advancement and talking about it. When I first interviewed with NBT, I was coming from a 25-year career in banking predominantly on the sales side. During the interview process, I conveyed my desire to shift to the credit and risk side as the next step in my career; I had had some experience a number of years ago and felt it was a good fit for me. Credit and risk were two areas that were interests of mine. I expected this to take three to five years to allow NBT to get to know me and for me to get to know NBT. With all of the growth NBT has experienced, I was able to make the shift in a year and a half. I credit being given the opportunity to having had the conversations about my career advancement goals early and as part of regular discussions with my manager. I firmly believe you need to advocate for yourself, communicate well, be honest, own your mistakes, offer ideas and solutions, network, do more than is expected, follow through, recognize your co-workers, celebrate successes and believe in yourself. If you do this, you will be successful.”

Vaughan: “Resilience, authenticity, self-reflection and loyalty have served me well and have driven my personal and professional growth.  The term “older and wiser” is definitely true as I reflect on my professional journey.  For many years, I believed that the path to success was paved by being the ‘content expert’ who is over-prepared and ready for any question or challenge. I took pride in being an exceptional individual contributor with a relentless work ethic and commitment. This intensity consumed unnecessary energy and it took a while to understand the impact to myself and to others in an organization. I have had the benefit of having a few confidants and informal mentors who provided feedback, but my willingness to hear and self-reflect was critical in my path to leadership. Taking time to truly accept feedback and pivot in the moment and over time also demonstrates the authenticity needed to be a strong leader who embraces the need to evolve through feedback and awareness.”

What are some of the barriers to female leadership and how would you address those challenges?

Parker: “Unfortunately, there are still many images and ideas about leadership that either consciously or unconsciously portray male leadership as the norm. As well, there are still assumptions made about how work and family intersect that can hold female leaders back. It is essential to question those images, ideas and assumptions, as well as to share narratives of non-traditional, atypical paths to success traveled by people of any gender. Education is powerful. I recently met a leader who would preface requests to her (male) boss for resources with the statement something like ‘research has demonstrated that you are going to like me less after I make this difficult request, but I wouldn’t be doing my job as a manager if I weren’t in here advocating for what my area needs.’ While initially taken aback, he developed greater awareness of his own reactions and assumptions, and ultimately offered her a promotion.”

Wong: “Strategies for advancement must be accompanied by intentional tactics. For example, a major barrier is a gap in sponsors to help develop and promote women leaders. There is increasing awareness that inclusive organizations which embrace and promote diversity do better on a host of measurable outcomes, including financial performance and employee engagement. Unfortunately, most organizations do not have training or set programs to deliberately develop talent and intentionally encourage leaders to recognize and promote female leaders. Providing opportunities for recognition and advancement is good for women, good for business and good for those who serve as sponsors — everyone plays a role here and everyone wins.

“While advancement within organizations is an important career goal, professional advancement can and should include external networks. Some of my greatest opportunities have come from taking on leadership roles in my national professional societies.”

Trafton: “It has to start at the top. An organization has to be open to having women in leadership positions. If that isn’t there, the barriers will be significant. It can be hard to break into established networks at a company where people may have worked together for many years and know each other well. It is all about making the investment, reaching out, finding commonalities and working on developing those relationships.”

Vaughan: “Taking risks and stretching one’s self to believe that you can take on a leadership role or lead an initiative is a common barrier that I have seen during my career. Many times, women overthink or overanalyze whether or not they meet every requirement in a job description or requirement before they initiate interest or formally apply for a role. The fear of current or future trade-offs (kids, family or other commitments) prevent some women from pursuing advancements whereas men typically take the risk, initiate and figure out the ‘how to’s’ later.  Women should do less overthinking and initiate and explore early on in the process to avoid losing opportunities that could otherwise work out and advance their careers earlier.”

Who were your mentors, and how did they help you?

Wong: “I have been fortunate to have many outstanding mentors, sponsors and role models throughout my career. I’ve always thought that a team approach is key when it comes to mentors, especially since there isn’t always that much overlap in our increasingly broad and collaborative health systems and professional societies. An often overlooked source of mentorship is peer mentorship—your peers can be an informal but valuable source of advice and support.”

Blake: “I am especially grateful to have worked for managers that took a special interest in my career development and were willing to share their knowledge and experiences to help me advance in my banking and management career.”

What advice would you give young women who are currently at the beginning of their careers?

Wong: “Even though a career is built on years and not days or weeks, it’s important to remember that time is a precious commodity for everyone. Time management is really about managing priorities, and that really starts with figuring out where your passions lie and then setting goals and being true to those goals. There will be some inevitable tradeoffs.

“There’s often that quandary with saying ‘yes’ to everything, getting too busy with busy work, and not being able to focus, versus saying ‘no’ to too many things so you aren’t missing out on important opportunities for professional advancement (or things that may be personally rewarding). Matching potential with opportunity really takes discipline with one’s time and energy.”

Blake: “Ask yourself the question, ‘How can I make an impact?’ Whatever it looks like, if you focus on that, it will help you stay motivated, feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment and set the stage for a successful and satisfying career.”