Are leaders born or made? Do women in the workplace have unique advantages? Limitations? What if they’re women of color?

These were some of the questions CBIA explored at When Women Lead, its first-ever conference on women in leadership June 8 at Hartford's Infinity Hall.

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'Crucible experiences' color the types of leaders we become says keynote speaker Mary Kay Fenton.

The sold-out event featured more than a dozen young and mid-career female entrepreneurs and C-suite executives in pharmaceuticals, healthcare, insurance, law, manufacturing, services, shipping, municipal government, academia, consultancies, and nonprofits.

Keynote speaker Mary Kay Fenton, executive vice president and CFO at Achillion Pharmaceuticals, emphasized that key experiences are the foundation of leadership, and that the really tough ones—those she called “crucible experiences”—color the types of leaders we become.

“I’ll share five lessons with you that I learned from my own experiences.”

Jump in. After graduating from college, Fenton took on volunteer work that eventually became a paid position with a nonprofit in inner-city Milwaukee—“a true rust-belt city at the time.” Tasked with getting people employed, she started a temp agency owned by local churches.

“I had nothing but a liberal arts degree. What did a young, white, privileged woman know about social justice and the experiences of black women?” she asked.

Though it was early in her career, she didn’t let inexperience get in the way.

“That was one of my foundational experiences. I jumped in.”

Be trusted. After working for a nonprofit for four years, Fenton enrolled in an MBA program, where she recalls a game played in the first two weeks of Management 101. The class was divided into groups playing two sets of cards. One deck was labeled “power”; the other “trust.”

Round after round, each group had to decide whether they wanted to play the power card or the trust card, and the rules were simple: If your team chose power and the opposing team chose trust, the power team got 10 points. If both teams chose power, it was a draw. But if everyone chose trust, all groups gained 50 points.

Fenton considered the last of these situations a win-win, and that’s the approach she advocated for.

“I was convinced my strategy was the winning strategy. After multiple rounds, we lost miserably. We got crushed.”

The moral?

“Trust matters, but it’s not easy to create in a business context.”

Trust matters, but it’s not easy to create in a business context.
— Achillion's Mary Kay Fenton
Indeed, James Kouzes and Barry  Posner, researchers in the field of executive leadership, found that what people seek most in a leader—more than competence, enthusiasm, or a sense of direction—are honesty and integrity.

“Be trustworthy,” said Fenton. “And be clear.”

Tenacity and resilience are underappreciated. Fenton recalls joining Pricewaterhouse Coopers in their tech practice “when Connecticut really anchored itself in the biosciences and in technology transfer with Yale, Quinnipiac, and other universities.”

In 2000, when she was pitching the PwC brand to bioscience startup Achillion, she recalls, “I was offered a job at the fledgling company. This was another ‘jump in’ moment, because I didn’t know anything about the field.

“In 2003, when Achillion was asked to present at the J.P. Morgan Conference in San Francisco with the ‘big boys’—for those of you who aren’t familiar, this is the Academy Awards of the biocience industry—investors were saying Achillion was going to be the next IPO. It was a heady time.”

Six weeks later, Achillion’s drugs showed toxicity in clinical trials.

“It took three-and-a-half years to get back to that heady time,” Fenton recalls.

“The big wins and big losses are always in the news, but what gets short shrift is the long slog—the operational setbacks, the boss you can’t imagine working for one more minute. Those are the things that make you resilient, that take discipline and give you the long view.”

When asked if women are more resilient than men, she said, “I would contend that we have an advantage on the resilience scale, just because of having been excluded from many of the privileges that males enjoy.”

Get the right people on the bus. During Achillion’s startup phase (Fenton was only the 12th employee they’d ever hired), she was told, “If it’s not science, it’s your problem.”

What that meant was that human resources, legal functions, logistics, and project management all came under her purview.

Eventually, as the company grew, it began hiring experts in each of those areas, and Fenton found it hard to relinquish control.

“I didn’t like my world getting smaller,” she said.

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Eileen O'Donnell moderates the Emerging Leaders discussion with panelists Jessica Ritter, Keshia Ashe, and Andi Campbell.

But having the right people in the right positions, she came to understand, allowed the company to move faster and more smoothly.

“It doesn’t diminish you; it enhances you," she noted. "For those of you who are used to wearing many hats, as long as you’re wearing your favorite hat when the dust settles, you’re fine.

“CFO is my favorite hat.”

Better together. Fenton majored in economics, and after freshman year, she said, “all the women were gone.”

She admitted that while she liked economics well enough, she also felt the pull to switch to English.

She asked the audience, “How many of you are math and science people?” Several hands went up. “What about language and words people?” Others went up.

“What about both?”

In the middle of the room, a single woman’s hand remained raised.

“You win,” said Fenton.

“That is a choice you should never have to make,” she said, recalling a math instructor who had asked the same question of Fenton’s 13-year-old daughter.

The teacher operated on the premise that students are one or the other. Fenton argues that we can be both.

“Be an integrator," she said. "People who are both are uniquely positioned to prosper.”

The Parent Trap

“When I started out,” said Fenton, “I was told that you don’t bring the kids into the work conversation, but I don’t think that’s realistic. You can’t hide that you’re a parent.”

What’s more, she said, “If you bring those same skills to the workplace that make you a good parent—strategic thinking and functional leadership—you’re too valuable to be ignored.”

But expectations for men and women with children are often different, the speakers agreed.

Jessica Ritter, a partner with the law firm Shipman & Goodwin and a mother of two young children, noted that daycare providers will often call her cell phone “10 times before they’ll call my husband, who is also a lawyer.”

It really is a man’s world. You really do have to prove yourself twice over.
— Shipman & Goodwin's Jessica Ritter
She explains, “They don’t want to bother him. When they reach him, they’ll say, “We called Jessica multiple times…”

The implications, she says, are that children are primarily their mother’s responsibility and that a man’s career is more important than a woman’s.

Ritter was one of three panelists who come from male-dominated industries: parking services, engineering, and law.

“It really is a man’s world,” she said. “You really do have to prove yourself twice over, and I do think there are limitations when you are a woman. While we’ve come a long way, it’s still hard to achieve that balance.”

Andi Campbell, vice president of human resources at LAZ parking, agreed. “Every time I walk into a meeting, I hear, ‘Hi, sweetheart.' That just speaks volumes about what we’re up against.”

Keshia Ashe, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit STEM career mentoring organization ManyMentors, and fellow entrepreneur Eileen O’Donnell, of the marketing firm Odonnell Company, agreed that women are often treated differently from their male peers and that for women, likability and success don’t always go hand-in-hand.

Born or Made?

While speakers largely agreed that they had, as Joelle Murchison put it, “an inherent need to move things along, which is a nice way of saying ‘running things,’” they agreed that “it’s important for your village to help you out.” Murchison, who is associate vice president and chief diversity officer at the University of Connecticut, advocates for having an informal board of directors: people of various ages and backgrounds you can consult with and learn from.

Jett, who credits emotional intelligence with much of her success, adds, “I think there’s also a lot of training involved.”

She said she focused on emulating people, testing what works and what doesn’t, and developing leadership skills along the way.

“I was made,” she said.

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"Command your worth, know what value you bring, and communicate that to your organization," says UConn's Joelle Murchison.

Yvette Melendez, vice president of government and community alliances at Hartford Hospital, agreed.

“If we don’t believe leaders can be made, I think were limiting the possibilities for many, many women," she said.

"I jumped in and did things I had no business doing. I learned that I could take risks and make mistakes.”

She joked, “I have a dish towel that reads, ‘I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, I’m thinking of making a few more.’”

Melendez reiterated the need for formal and informal mentors and “surrounding yourself with bright, young, capable women so that you stay relevant and fresh.”

Leadership, she also believes, is less about the positions we hold than the actions we take.

“Without a formal education, my mom worked at a time when women working outside the home was a big debate; she advanced herself," she said.

"My aunt in Puerto Rico, who weighed 90 pounds, drove a truck and started her own business.”

How we enhance our sphere of influence and grow our network can be thoughtful and strategic, said Jett—who frequently looked to her boss’s boss, the person with biggest assignments, and other influencers—or less formal.

“You expand your network with people whose interests or experiences may not align with your career,” she said, but can be helpful in unexpected ways.

“I was always taught to focus on your personal brand. Network throughout your organization and get people to know your brand. Have an open mind about who you meet.”

Negotiating Your Worth

Other conference topics included pay equity, negotiating your worth, and specific challenges and opportunities for women of color.

“I’ve been in rooms where I was the only woman, and the expectations were low,” Melendez recalls, “and I had to work twice as hard.

"Sometimes I know I’m the token, because they need a Latina, or they need a woman. I say, take advantage of that, because you prove yourself and make it easier for those behind you.”

“Typically, in my line of work,” says Jett, “I would be the only woman of color in the room.”

I didn’t want to set the precedent that women of color wouldn’t be good in that role.
— ICSGroup's Medina Jett
Jett specializes in legal compliance for the financial services industry.

“I always felt tremendous pressure that I was representing the entire group of African Americans, and in particular, African American women," she said.

"I didn’t want to set the precedent that women of color wouldn’t be good in that role.”

Murchison, who developed the framework for The Travelers Companies’ diversity focus and assumes her new position at UConn on July 5, says, “I negotiated a month off between jobs. Not maternity leave,” she clarified, “just time off. Be confident in knowing what you deserve.

"Don’t take a statement and turn it into a question, like many women do. Command your worth, know what value you bring, and communicate that to your organization.”

Ritter added that women often apologize unnecessarily—a habit she herself has worked to break.

She, Murchison, and Melendez note that it’s important to understand the relationships at work and how to reasonably negotiate in the space you’re in.

“Do your homework,” said Melendez. “Know what you’re asking for and why. Have a sense of reasonableness, and be creative and flexible.”

What not to do? Don’t get hung up on a number, said Ashe.

As important as honoring your talent and skill, the speakers said, are understanding that for a business, the timing of a promotion or pay raise request may not be right, and some businesses—because of their size or the nature of their industry—are not able to accommodate every request.

“Let’s be honest,” said Campbell. “Business is business, and sometimes things can’t be done. If you’re a good, talented professional working for a company that isn’t working for you, then move on.”

'Lead from Everywhere'

In June 2014, Bonnie Malley celebrated her 27th wedding anniversary; 25 years of living in the suburbs; and 28 years with The Phoenix, where she was executive vice president and CFO.

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"It's a direction, not a destination," says Hartford's incoming COO Bonnie Malley.

The company had been struggling, and a colleague sent her a quote inspired by Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

Malley panicked.

“I said, ‘Oh, shoot! I have no dreams! I have twin sons—I have dreams for them. I have a stepson—I have dreams for him. I have dreams for the barista at Starbucks.’ But I had no dreams for myself.”

Malley spent a lot of time reading, thinking, and listening. Though she admits she was at the pinnacle of her career, she began looking for work in a cause she believed in.

Two years later, divorced and living in what she describes as “a tiny apartment in Hartford,” Malley is embarking on a new career as chief operating officer of the city of Hartford.

“I’m leaving my job as CFO of a public insurance company, the industry I’ve known and the life I’ve known, to do this," she said.

"You don’t need to be confident that everything you’re doing is the right thing; you just need to be moving forward. It’s a direction, not a destination.”

Leaving behind the comfort and safety of a familiar role and familiar place is often what leaders do.

“It takes courage,” says Murchison, “and women have that.” They’re also good at what she calls hypertasking—an invaluable tool in a COO’s toolbelt.

Jett adds that women’s strengths often lie in connecting with people on an emotional level, and that women are leaders because “we’re nurturers. We have the ability to recognize the differences between people and know how to lead one type versus another.”

While these qualities are not unique to one gender, Jett believes they “may be more innate to women.”

“Without stereotyping,” said Melendez, “there are characteristics that women bring to a job. We’re listeners, communicators, and enablers—in a good way!”

Her advice?

“Model high performance," she said. "Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, no matter how smart you think you are. Be authentic.

“Lead from everywhere.”

Filed Under: General, Management
  • Saralyn Kerrigan

    I attended this event, loved it! thank you for bringing in such engaging speakers and thoughtful panelists!

  • Claudine M. Widmer

    How does one receive an invitation to events such as these? Thank you!