By now, the pandemic’s devastating effect on working women, including executives, has been well-documented.
But what worries business leaders like Cigna’s Wendy Sherry is the potential long-term impact on gains women have made in the workplace.
Speaking May 26 at CBIA’s When Women Lead conference, Sherry, president of Cigna Connecticut and Payer Solutions, cited a recent McKinsey & Company study that showed the pandemic is forcing women to leave the workplace.
“To think that an event like COVID-19 could profoundly change the career trajectory and the leadership potential for millions of women is remarkable,” Sherry said.
“It makes you wonder what the workplace of the future will look like if women start to leave in large numbers.
“What will it mean for the women who are left behind? What will the long term organizational impact be?”
'More Work to Do'
So, she said, the most important question becomes, “What can we do now to keep the women leaders we have while ensuring that the pipeline for future women leaders remains open and active?”
Being a woman in a senior leadership role at Cigna, where she’s spent most of her career, puts Sherry in the small minority of women leaders.
She cited research that shows only 4.9% of Fortune 500 CEOs and just 2% of Standard & Poor’s CEOs are women.
“This is despite all the studies that show women are just as capable, if not more effective, than men in leadership roles,” she said.
“Numerous studies point to higher productivity and stronger financial results with women in leadership.”
Despite these studies, women have yet to achieve equal representation in the top tiers of business, she said, adding "clearly there is more work to do.”
Rising to the top of her field didn’t happen by accident, Sherry said.
“It took focused actions on my part, on the part of my employer, and the support of key leaders.”
She said mentors helped her succeed, that she still mentors others—and encourages women to seek mentors.
Sherry’s road to success includes what she calls the three be’s: Be intentional, be visible, and be courageous.
Being intentional is about identifying and setting a specific goal and writing a developmental plan to achieve it—"and it’s not just a generic goal."
Sherry explained that her goal was precise, included a set time frame, and identified key actions she needed to take.
Then came the hard part: Sharing that goal with people who could help her.
“That’s people like your manager, a sponsor, an HR leader, a leader in an area where you desire to work one day,” she said.
Some women may not be comfortable being visible, but Sherry said it’s necessary.
“I know this can be challenging for many women because, again, this is where (second guessing) starts to occur," she said.
“‘Will I sound arrogant? Will I sound boastful? Shouldn’t doing great work just be enough?’
“Unfortunately, it’s not.”
She suggests sharing a positive email received from a client, highlighting a significant milestone the team achieved, or sharing an idea for a future product or a process renovation.
“The most important conversations about your career happen when you’re not in the room,” Sherry said.
“A true leader will promote the good work of his or her team because a true leader understands the power of lifting up the team.
“So when you are not in that room, you have to make sure it is filled up with great stories about your work and your leadership.”
Being courageous, she said, is a matter of “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
She cited studies that show women are far less confident in their abilities than men when they are younger, but that as the years progress, women become more confident and men less.
“This suggests that we need to help younger women feel more confident that they have the knowledge, the talent, the skills, the confidence to achieve and to advance,” she said.
“This is a huge area of opportunity for mentoring and leadership development, and it’s an area I personally focus on when mentoring young, female talent.”
Sherry advises women, especially younger women, to be courageous and willing to stretch personal boundaries.
“Apply for that job that you did not think you were ready for simply because you couldn’t check all the boxes,” she said.
“Chances are your male competition for that job, trust me, can’t check all the boxes, either.”
Like many of Connecticut business leaders, Sherry said she learned valuable lessons about herself and her team while navigating the pandemic.
“Take stock and make sure you are truly focusing on what matters most today, then reassess it tomorrow,” she said.
Leaders should never forget about the power of their team “because what you do and the actions you take affect and involve others.”
Sherry says having the right strategy is important, but having the right people is critical.
“Do not try to do it all yourself. Lean on your team and empower your leaders,” she said.