10 Powerful Women Executives Share How to Thrive as a Leader
Leading a large company can be challenging. At the same time, it can be an opportunity for tremendous personal and professional growth.
Authority Magazine recently ran an interview series called “Women of the C-Suite,” where hundreds of women executives shared the leaderships lessons about how one can thrive both personally and professionally in a leadership position.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz (President of the Charles Schwab Foundation)
- My advice — is to not always follow advice. Look inside yourself for your answers. I learned this lesson when I was an undergraduate at the University of California Berkeley and was trying to zero in on my major. I liked math, especially statistics, and wanted to pursue it more. I especially liked the way numbers had their own truth, the way they could tell a story. All that ended abruptly on the day that the dean unleashed his dose of professorial advice. I can’t remember his exact words, but the message was loud and clear: “Don’t major in statistics; you don’t have the grades; try something less demanding.” As a young woman, I believed this man — and abandoned all hopes of becoming a mathematician. Was he right or wrong about my abilities? Honestly, I don’t know (although I suspect he was wrong, given that I went on to have a successful career in finance). But I definitely know that he was wrong to discourage me from finding out. Yes, it’s smart to seek guidance from others who are in a position to know more than you do. And yes, it helps to consider different perspectives, ideas and points of view. But remember never to let anyone discourage you from pursuing something (or someone) that you love. Don’t let anyone trample your curiosity. Listen to yourself!
- I’m a big believer in to-do lists. I learned a long time ago to make a list and put a little box by each entry so that when something is done, I can check it off and move on. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and helps me focus on the next thing. But as my to-do list has grown along with my personal and professional responsibilities, I’ve also learned what I consider to be essential to getting things done: Add a few "don’ts." Of course, that doesn’t mean you should shirk your duties or ignore important tasks. What it means is realizing that to accomplish more, you have to find ways to stay fresh and focused. And sometimes that actually means doing less. My "don’t" list includes: Don’t be afraid to delegate, don’t say yes to everything, don’t expect yourself to be available 24/7 and finally, don’t ignore your need for R&R.
- Push yourself out of your comfort zone. A number of years ago, a friend wanted me to meet Khao Cates, a young rap producer with an interest in helping kids and teens. I didn’t know anything about this person and I confess I wasn’t really into rap music, but I agreed to meet with him. And what a meeting it turned out to be! Not only did Khao and I become great friends, he actually wrote a rap for me about money management — which I performed in front of 400 teachers, regulators and nonprofit executives at an awards event. Talk about a new experience! While this meeting didn’t point me in a new career direction, it did evolve into Khao writing raps for each module of our Money Matters program for teens. It was a novel idea that made finances more relevant and interesting and helped engage the kids in the program. And I like to think it was a good example to my team of what can happen when you push yourself out of your comfort zone and explore new ways to solve problems.
- I encourage everyone at the beginning of their career to be introspective and identify that one thing, whether it’s a skill, a cause or an expression of art, which makes them feel energized, talented and worthwhile. In my mind, that one thing never changes. It may evolve or take a different form, but I believe that the essence of what makes each of us tick stays with us for life. And the sooner we can recognize and cultivate that passion, the better. My thing is helping people achieve financial security. The key was paying attention to the charge I got every time I was able to make a difference in someone’s life. Once I understood the power of helping someone achieve financial wisdom, I knew that I had landed on my life’s work.
Toni Murphy (VP at Comcast)
- You're there to take over. One of my first managers, Jeff Sine, told me “you’re not here to take sides, you’re here to take over.” He helped me understand that I was there to take on and learn all I possibly could so that I would be invaluable. He helped me understand how to deepen my impact and make sure I had my name associated with it.
- Know who you are — but also from whom you came from. My mother always said it’s important for you to know not just who you are but whose you are. This freed me up to be my whole self both in a spiritual sense as well as a child to my parents, whom I knew would always support me. It was a good reminder to not lose yourself in the world and to walk in your own light. The world deserves to see the person that you truly are.
- Ask yourself what you are waiting for. Bob Victor, my first boss at Comcast, used to say “what are you waiting for?” Whenever I would come to him with ideas, he encouraged me not to wait for someone to give consent to do what I thought was right for the business. He gave me permission early in my career to feel empowered to share my point of view and step into myself.
Kim Dixon (Executive Vice President and COO of FedEx)
- It’s not all about you! Going from individual contributor to leader requires you to focus on the entire team’s success, not just your own. Early in my career, it took a few thumps on the head for me to figure this out. Once I did, I saw that when I focused on helping each person on my team succeed, we all had better results. Each individual performed better and the entire team performed better, which of course means I delivered stronger overall results.
- It is critical to put the right people in the right positions. As the leader, your job is to get the weak player to perform at a higher level, or otherwise, find a new player. I think we’ve all seen a leader wait way too long to address weak performers. This drags down everyone and people lose confidence in their leader. Move quickly.
- Know your numbers. No matter what department or organization you’re in, knowing your numbers is important. Market trends, impact of programs, revenue results, cost savings or whatever is relevant to your function. You need to be able to decipher what the numbers mean for your company and then drive actions to constantly improve them. That doesn’t mean memorizing all of the numbers, but you do need to know how to access the data, spot key trends and recognize what matters most to your organization and to the company.
- Don’t be afraid of change. Change means growth, personally and professionally. If you change jobs or simply take on a special assignment, you’re going to learn something new. From my experience, changing it up in the workplace is like trying new foods — you’re going to find things you enjoy that you would never have imagined. Have the courage to embrace change.
- Energy matters! The personal energy you bring with you — whether it’s positive or negative — greatly influences everyone around you. Positive energy often comes from giving helpful feedback in a manner that builds people up. That kind of energy is fuel for the team to succeed. No one draws inspiration from a leader who yells or makes negative comments. On the other hand, who doesn’t want to work in a positive environment where everybody feels valued, and where they are encouraged to grow? Think about the kind of energy you bring to your team. Everyone is taking their cues from you, every day. Your facial expression, your actions and your words — they all matter. I try to be cognizant of that and provide the most positive energy I can. Of course, it’s not always easy to project positivity. If I’m not having a great day, I consciously try to limit my visibility so I don’t project negative energy onto the rest of the team.
Sheri Bronstein (Chief HR Officer at Bank of America)
- We have to acknowledge that the workplace as we know it is changing. I want us to start solving some of the challenges we’re facing when it comes to training and education, technology, and how we have to help the workforce adapt if we’re all going to be successful. I don’t just mean for Bank of America, but for all companies. That’s why we’re piloting programs to change the environment our teammates come to work in every day, our global diversity and inclusion team is developing an initiative on the Future of Work focused on the responsible growth of our workforce, and we’re partnering with other financial services firms on ways to increase diversity in STEM programs.
- I’d like to start a broader conversation about emotional wellness to help take away some of the stigma associated with mental health. As employers, we have to understand that life is complicated and it’s our obligation to help our teammates have an open conversation, and to provide the resources that can help.
- I believe that HR has to be an extension of the business, not separate from it. To do that, and be successful, a HR exec has to have sound business acumen, good judgment and then both of those have to be supported with data and analytics.
- There is no substitute for on the ground and in the trenches experience with the business, especially for HR professionals. You have to get in there, learn what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, what the employees need. Otherwise, you have no experience or knowledge to help bring in and develop the right talent to help the business succeed.
- You also have to learn how to make good, well-informed decisions and sometimes just trust your gut. Lots of times, HR decisions are based on data, but there will always be times when you have to rely on your judgment and the counsel of your peers.
- The breadth and depth of our company means that an HR executive has to be rooted in data, and the ability to analyze that data, to drive progress. Being able to analyze that data, and use it to drive the business forward has been an area I have stayed laser focused on. I believe that has been a critical quality to my success.
Diana Takach (SVP at David’s Bridal)
- Never stop asking questions or stop looking to push the envelope. You have to have a voice at the table but ensure that your views are with purpose and results. Additionally, not every impact has to be big. Sometimes the short-term over the long-term ones have the larger impact.
- You have to build trust. No trust, no action. I find it most important to take the time to understand how things are done, get to know the individuals as best you can, and understand their motivators as individuals and as a group. I’m currently in the throes of this process being new to David’s Bridal and hope to lead the team in a way that we all feel a sense of community accomplishment, no matter what comes our way.
- Listen first and keep listening. There is too much history to be ignored before you make a decision.
- Don’t be afraid to fall. Especially in digital, things are changing every second, there will be wins and losses — but the losses are what teach the lessons.
- Demonstrate consistency and results in order to build trust.
- Have fun! You spend more time with your team/coworkers than your family; make it worth your time!
Tracy Skeans (Chief Transformation and People Officer at Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Yum! Brands)
- Stay open to possibilities. If you would have told me coming out of school as a CPA that I would work in human resources, run a global brand and help guide a Fortune 500 company through a massive business transformation, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible.
- Don’t be fearful of running too fast. I encourage people to be courageous and take strategic risks. At Yum! we believe that our leaders must be "smart with heart" and have the courage to make the big decisions that will drive our business forward. Our most successful leaders have a growth mindset and they’re always looking down the road versus seeing what’s directly in front of them. I believe that if someone doesn’t stumble a few times to reach their goal, they probably aren’t pushing hard enough for big results.
- Lead with grit and grace. Growing up in Pittsburgh and being raised by a hard-working family, I learned that grit and perseverance, plus treating people well and acting with grace, are powerful combinations to unlock great potential.
- Advocate for female talent. I believe that leaders within organizations need to do a better job advocating for high-potential female talent and under-represented minority talent earlier in their careers. If more leaders would mentor and advocate for diverse talent, I think we would see more women and under-represented minorities advancing at faster rates into leadership positions.
Michelle Burns (SVP at Starbucks)
- It’s all about people. I believe that leading from the heart and head and in support and service of others is foundational to be a leader.
- Trust your instincts. I have learned that being too reliant on too much data, analysis, or process can sometimes slow you down and invites missed opportunities. Leading isn’t a perfect science but making decisions and owning whatever comes next offers great opportunities to grow.
- Be courageous. I believe that if you don’t take risks and challenge the norm as a leader, not only are you not setting a helpful example, but you are encouraging an environment of conformity and mediocrity.
- Let silence do the heavy lifting. As an early leader, I made the mistake of thinking I was supposed to have all the answers. Through many failures or short-sighted decisions without the input of others, I learned that asking the right questions and creating the space for others to contribute takes you a lot further faster.
- Create an environment where people can bring their whole self. Early in my career, I thought that work and everything else was meant to be very separate and not connected. It resulted in creating a perception of myself as a cold and distant leader. Over the years I have learned that creating an environment or culture that encourages warmth, belonging and openness can really support great teamwork and deeper, richer and more committed relationships.
Alexandra Wilkis Wilson (SVP at Allergan)
- Inspire as a leader. Cultivate a work environment that your team will love. Create clear values that instill pride in your team, and don’t hesitate to articulate behaviors that your team members will not tolerate. Set clear mission and vision statements and post them visibly on the walls for all employees and visitors to see. Do not micromanage, delegate and be present and accessible. Make sure each team member has a manageable number of direct reports. Be a role model for others.
- Recognize that employees have lives outside of work. Happy people will deliver great work. Enable your employees to have a personal life.
- Provide flexibility. Each employee may crave different types of flexibility. Talk to your team members to understand what ideal flexibility means to them.
- Provide childcare. Be supportive in helping your team members find access to childcare that works for them.
- Avoid assumptions about your employees. Don’t make assumptions based on your own personal biases.
- Keep in mind career pace will ebb and flow. Not all team members will work at the same intensity throughout their career, and that’s ok.
- Be transparent. Transparency can foster trust and gives people the psychological freedom they crave to perform to their highest, most creative and innovative potential.
- Don’t always keep things professional. When appropriate, still have fun with your colleagues outside the office.
- Be the boss you aspire to have. Embody the kind of person you would want to have as a boss.
- Be willing to learn from your employees. Keep a mind, knowledge can flow both ways.
- Practice effective communication. There’s no such thing as over-communication.
- Root for those who deserve recognition. Go out of your way to be a mentor and to champion people who deserve it.
Denise Lauer (CMO at Morton Salt)
- Be you. Not a version of yourself. By bringing your whole self and embracing what makes you unique as a female leader, you will connect with your team on a more holistic level that can lift everyone up. And don’t forget to have fun! We all spend too much time at work to not enjoy it.
- No matter if your team is large or small, focus on a few core principles. Treat everyone with respect. Communicate early and often. Give your team the tools they need to do good work. Empower team members to lead. And get out of the way.
- Never settle. This isn’t about the pursuit of perfectionism. It’s about setting a standard that you uphold without compromise. That commitment can take you to extraordinary places.
- Be impatient. We’ve all heard that patience is a virtue. But don’t waste time waiting for life to happen to you. Play an active role in the change you desire.
- Recognize others. Chances are, you didn’t make it this far in life alone. So celebrate those who have supported you along the way.
- Stay curious. In the workplace and life, learning never stops.
- Trust your gut. Your instinct is a powerful resource. Don’t ignore it.
Cara Brennan Allamano (SVP at Udemy)
- Don’t limit yourself. I started working at both Pinterest and Planet when I was five-months pregnant. Both times, I didn’t believe anyone would want to hire a woman who was about to have a baby — and I was clearly pregnant at all those interviews! Fortunately, I was wrong; both CEOs had total confidence in me. As a result, I had a great time building out the people functions at both companies, knowing they really valued women and families and were showing their commitment in tangible ways.
- Know what you’re good at. I had two jobs in my early 20s before I landed in HR. Prior to that career pivot, I was on track to be a bond trader, which involved a lot of analysis and spreadsheets and was very different from what I knew I inherently enjoyed doing. I got advice from lots of people, many of whom said I was crazy to give up a strong career path in finance. I was pretty good at it, but I knew I couldn’t reach my full potential doing it if my heart wasn’t in it. It took a little courage, but I quit that job and headed into HR. It was the best decision of my life. I’m so much more successful on my current career path than I ever would have been had I stayed in finance because it’s a better fit for my strengths. When people seek out my advice about how to manage their career, I always ask first, “What do you like doing? What part of your job are you good at that are also satisfying and motivating to you?” If you’re in a role where you’re not leveraging your strengths, quit. The sooner the better. Otherwise, you will be forced to change paths later anyway, and you’ll wish you moved earlier.
- Know what you’re not good at. I see a lot of people who try to fit themselves into a role they “should” succeed at. It rarely works in the long term. I’ve been in HR positions where the requirements of the role weren’t what I could deliver at a level I’m comfortable with. In those situations, I’ve had to get real about it and move on. Being honest with yourself about what you can’t do well is critical. Ask colleagues how they would rate you in your role, and if they don’t think you’re performing at a high level, ask them what they think you’d be better off doing. You have to be prepared to hear some hard truths, and you may be surprised at the answers. Either way, the information could put you on the path toward something that will be your best work.
- Know what you need to know. When I started in HR, I realized that the people I respected most in the function knew employment law inside and out. It’s a huge value-add to have an HR leader who has a strong foundation in the “rules” of employment so you can build a great culture on top of that. I bought the encyclopaedic “California Labor Law Digest” and read it cover to cover. This was not exciting content, to say the least, and people thought I was crazy, but I’ve been able to move faster because I don’t need attorneys to review all of the People Team’s plans. I can partner better with them and others because I’m knowledgeable myself.
- Get a hobby. The best employees I’ve seen are those who bring a lot of different insights to their roles. Most often this comes from something they’re engaged in outside their professional domain. I’ve had Olympic divers become amazing salespeople, surfers excel as attorneys and HR people who love to garden. They learn skills and habits in their hobbies that are positively reflected in their day jobs. Plus, it’s just a great way to bring more balance and resilience into your life. My personal hobby is world history; I read a ton and watch programs and travel to places of historical note. Learning about real-life stories that are full of success, failure and everything in between helps me develop empathy and a clearer view of the diversity of human experience. I use this everyday in my work.