By Cecilia Calderon – March 2020
This year, Stop At Nothing is celebrating 30 years of helping organizations and their employees. This is a big milestone for us, and we are proud and grateful as SAN continues to support organizations, leaders and teams worldwide. Our monthly blogs provide insights and tools that inspire leaders to transform their organization’s culture.
March 8 is International Women’s Day, and the entire month of March is designated as Women’s History Month. To honor successful women in business, Stop At Nothing selected three highly regarded and accomplished women business leaders to be featured in this piece. We wanted to hear from senior women executives about the lessons, successes and challenges they encounter in their roles and throughout their careers. We particularly wanted to focus on how self-awareness helped each of our interviewees in their leadership journey and practice, and how it is helping during today’s unprecedented challenges.
We also asked how they are dealing with the current changes brought about by COVID-19. We invite you to read this piece as a refreshing break from information overload during these challenging times.
Our featured leaders are:
Vice President of Research & Development and Corporate Quality Assurance for Welch’s
Head of Human Resources for Grupo Urrea, a Mexican manufacturer with a global presence in the consumer goods/high quality precision tools industry
Executive Director and COO at Meritain Health, an Aetna company
For me, it started with understanding myself. Spending time and asking, what is it about my abilities that enable me to give my best contribution? What I have tried to do throughout my career is to align my uniqueness and strengths with business needs and opportunities. It is about the alignment between what I want to create for myself and organizational goals. I needed to spend time with myself, not an easy feat in today’s fast-paced world, but oh, so necessary. Of course, this approach does not absolutely guarantee success, but it opens me up to move in the direction I have forged. For me, it also ensures that I am in the right environment.
Another strategy that has served me well is that early on, I started drafting what I thought my career vision would be – my goals – and answering questions like, Do I like doing the work I do? Do I want to be able to manage people and lead people in the future? So I started developing a path, adjusting it, refining it and owning it. This has been a compass for me. I had a draft and I had this path, and I paid attention to it. I never waited for someone else to tell me what my path should be. So where I saw an opportunity, I raised my hand. That helped me grow.
For me, it has always been about setting goals. It was about deciding what I wanted, what I envisioned and why I wanted it as a professional – and to understand the value that I will get from every work experience. Of course, what happens once the goal is set is not necessarily linear, but it brings you closer.
Another strategy that has helped me is to have a mentor, someone you trust, who helps you reach your goal and tells you when you are moving away from it. I am a Systems Engineer. Early in my career, my plan was to be an IT Director in a multinational company. I was fortunate to find a mentor for my entire professional career. One of the things he told me was not to restrict my path, but to widen my horizon, and never lose sight of the goal.
He said if you want to be the director of a transnational company, do not put a last name to that title. And that’s exactly what I did in my career. I have gone through different functions, always giving my best, and always learning, which is itself a valuable strategy.
For me, I think one of the most important strategies, whether you’re female or male, is to focus on building strong cross-functional relationships. As a leader, I think effectiveness is dictated by our influence and the followership we can create. I feel very strongly that this approach has to expand outside of your own personal organizational structure. I think creating those mutually beneficial partnerships and relationships with your peers helps you to grow your influence and have others recognize your value.
Once you let people see that you’re approachable and you establish a rapport, the relationship takes on a life of its own. I’m not talking about being friends with everybody. I’m talking about building bonds with those who you have to depend on, and with those who depend on you. When you build these relationships, it lightens the weight significantly.
The one lesson that stands out for me is being a humble leader. We are minds and hearts leading minds and hearts. The gift that humility has given me is that it has allowed me to learn. Humility has given me permission not to take myself too seriously and not to become my own worst critic. The power of humility has given me permission to continue to grow by giving me permission to fail.
Although “choose your battles and choose them well” is a lesson that may seem trivial or perhaps common, it has been fundamental to me. At one point in my career, I had a very difficult situation with a colleague where I went to every battle this person invited me to. And without realizing it, I began to doubt my achievements and myself. The worst thing was that I started to believe what he was saying.
From this difficult situation, I learned to always give my best and not allow others to take my achievements away. I learned that people make you feel how you allow them to. It all depends on the power you give them.
I’ve had opportunities to work for people who ruled with an authoritative approach, and they created a clear separation, a loss of trust with others. As a result, they did not earn as much followership as leaders who partner with team members and encourage them to move forward together.
Another lesson is watching and learning from others. You learn a lot about who you want to be as a leader by watching those you admire. Of course, you also learn the things you don’t want to be and the behaviors you don’t want to emulate. So, figuring out how to take what you see and blend it with your own personal style is something that has been very valuable to me.
I think women especially try to do so much, and they want everything to go perfectly. Even when we know perfection is not what we should be striving for, we don’t want our families or our life outside work to be affected by the fact that we’re growing. I have found that creating a support system is critical and has afforded me the balance to fulfill my responsibilities without creating too much guilt and chaos in my life.
The other advice for women who want to be in a leadership position is about believing in their talents and abilities, and not doubting or setting limits. Confidence is tricky, and for many of us, there is a cultural component. We were socialized in a manner that confidence was neither necessary nor rewarded, so we get into patterns of apologizing and hesitating, which takes power away from us. We must consciously work on this.
I think what is essential here is not to change who we are, our essence. And for this to happen, we have to give ourselves time for reflection and internal listening.
On the other hand, I think that when things don’t work out well and you receive difficult feedback, don’t take it personally. Focus on what you can learn and see it as an opportunity for improvement. This requires work, but when you do, it’s wonderful.
I think you grow in confidence as you mature and have more experiences behind you. You always hear about that gap between men and women with respect to confidence and competence. Men often are perceived as more confident and sometimes women who are more competent don’t possess the same amount of confidence, so they miss opportunities.
My advice is, don’t underestimate your ability. There’s a saying, “You’re stronger than you know. You’re braver than you believe. And you’re smarter than you think.” I think that applies to life in general, and I also think it applies to aspiring leaders, so don’t underestimate what you’re capable of.
My first suggestion is to be a source of calm for your employees. We can do that as leaders by listening to our employees and having empathy for what they are feeling. Then we can individualize our approach to provide calm to each team member. For example, I have seen that some team members need a different arrangement in their schedules to accommodate small children. Others take office equipment home in order to be more efficient, and some need help prioritizing and structuring their daily work. Once employees are calmed, we can communicate clearly and set direction. Then they are ready to listen and take action, because they are no longer paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. Most importantly, they realize that you care deeply for them and their families.
As a leader, it is important to keep a balanced approach and take care of the short term while protecting the future of the business. While we focus on our employee’s safety and concerns first, as leaders we also need to keep our eyes on the goals of the company. This situation will pass, and we want our owners to be able to make a living for their families and our employees to be able to retain their jobs throughout this challenge and after it.
In times of crisis in general and today with COVID-19 in particular, it seems to me that the most important things to do are:
- Look at the reality, and from there, define possible paths to contain your team and the entire organization. It is critically important to be honest about what you know and what you don’t know.
- Talk to your team, listen intensely to know what they think, and perhaps even more importantly, what they feel, without judging them, allowing them to feel whatever they are feeling. It is important to recognize that all emotions are legitimate.
- Once you have defined paths and shared what you know with your team, it is important to create different forums and speak to them with the truth, compassion, and empathy. As an example, as HR leaders in this new reality brought by COVID-19, we are the ones in charge of guiding the organization. In my case, although we had protocols for these types of situations, they were very far from everything we are experiencing with this virus. I, therefore, called for an extraordinary meeting with the entire team. I started the meeting by sharing what was happening to me: like many, I was afraid, since I have an older family member at home. I mentioned and suggested some protocols I was using to keep my relatives safe. Now, more than ever, it is necessary to take care of myself to protect my loved ones. I also mentioned that this was a new situation for all of us, we had never experienced a pandemic in our lifetimes, and even though we have no experience, we would learn together. We created a robust protocol, not only for collaborators, but also for their families and the community. It has been very impactful to see how new leaders have emerged, and it has been very exciting to see them in action. By showing our commitment, speaking clearly, being empathetic, and by listening to each other, we have shaped the rest of the organization and have been able to handle this situation. There is still a lot of uncertainty about what is to come, however, we are optimistic that together we will be able to face any new challenges in front of us.
When a team, a business and a community are faced with great stress and challenging times like those we are currently facing, it is important to do what you can to be compassionate and supportive, and also bring stability to the team. It’s important to check in with others to see what they are doing and how they are feeling. It’s easy for everyone to get caught up with addressing the challenge at hand and spend too much time in “go-mode.” Take the time to look up and make sure everyone is ok. It doesn’t have to be a scheduled meeting. A quick phone call, a note at the end of a hard day or a text just to check in are good ways of letting others know you are thinking of them.
In times of great stress, decisions, information and changes can happen quickly. Frequent and clear communication is invaluable. Keeping lines of communication open can provide answers and direction, and allow team members to share concerns. Communication keeps the team connected, so they don’t lack the support they need to stay aligned and move forward. The last suggestion I have is to encourage, empower and celebrate team members who step in wherever needed during the challenge. I have seen endless instances of incredible collaboration and creativity.
The very best in people come shining through during some of the most difficult times. I’m seeing it right now. It’s all around me, and it’s a beautiful thing.
I have been part of leadership teams where I was the only woman. I’ve been very resilient. I have stood for my values and for who I am, because I believe that that’s how I can do my best work. But I also realize that it hasn’t been easy, and I have spent endless energy worrying about being misjudged. What I realize now is that the energy could have been better spent solving problems for the business.
The good thing is that as I gained more confidence throughout the years, I realized that those things that make me different are exactly the things that others appreciate. So, now I appreciate those differences as well. This is who I am. I’m at ease with this. So once again we come to the topic of confidence and the opinion of others. Today when these thoughts come into my head, I treat them with kindness instead of falling for them and becoming self-critical, which does not help me at all.
This is a difficult question. I have always found the right people at the right time, good human beings eager to help me. Also, what I have learned is that perhaps most of the time barriers are internal. For example, we should be careful with what we tell ourselves, especially when things do not go well. Comments are not always going to be positive. What do we do with this? Do we learn and improve, or do we shrink and back down? This depends on you.
I started in a very small company where I was given a lot of latitude and exposure to different opportunities, and as a result, I was able to move up very quickly. Then all of a sudden, I was very young, and I found myself in business settings where I was the youngest person at the table by many years. That was really hard for me. What made it harder was when one business owner said to me, “How old are you, anyway? I have children older than you.”
It was very awkward, and it was very uncomfortable. This incident impacted my self-confidence and made me wonder how my team may be judging me as their leader. I was undermined publicly because of my age – not my ability, not my knowledge, not my effectiveness, but my age. It was not easy, and I overcame it by working harder and demonstrating that I had what it took.
I believe my greatest asset is my ability to approach situations calmly by balancing rational thinking and feelings. To me, this is my biggest asset. I can be a very rational and critical thinker, but at the same time, I can feel and care about other things that are more on the soft side. This balanced approach has been a big advantage in my career.
Without a moment of hesitation, I can say that my greatest asset has always been my team. A team I can trust. I know they will not always agree with me, and I have consciously created an internal culture where they openly share when they disagree.
Since we were kids, we were taught not to make mistakes, but when we try to avoid making mistakes, we hide them or explain them away. To me, what is worse is not learning. My team knows that if they make a mistake or something did not work out as expected, they can tell me. From there, we can learn so it does not happen again.
I’ve been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I have been given opportunities to expand my role in an environment where I felt supported to take on new challenges. This has allowed me to build my brand over a long span of time. I have also had some really good leaders, which afforded me the opportunity to build strong relationships that enabled me to be challenged, and empowered me to take risks.
I think another advantage is that I have had a very supportive household. We’re a two-career household; we have children and we juggle all the things that families manage day-to-day. My ability to put in the time, effort and energy throughout my career and to be where I needed to be was only possible because I have a very capable husband and an extended family willing to lend a hand. I consider myself lucky.
I remember flying back home after the HILS-1 seminar and thinking about the extraordinary power that exists within each one of us. The seminar reinforced the importance of staying in touch with the circumstances in our lives that make us who we are, by spending time with ourselves. We get so busy, that we forget to do this. For me, that week was a time to look deep within myself and learn from what I saw. When you are in tune with who you are, you can lead others more effectively.
One of the specific self-awareness gifts is that now I can recognize when I need a timeout to regroup. I have found this very helpful when leading others, particularly in tough situations, not only at work, but at home as well. Understanding my triggers and recognizing what I do when I am triggered has been invaluable.
Participating in the HILS seminar has been responsible for an important evolution in my life. What you have inside is reflected outside, even when you believe you are hiding it well.
Learning that how I show up at work and how I am perceived has an impact on others was a huge breakthrough.
In HILS-1, I discovered the personal triggers that make me angry that I had not identified. Now that I recognize them, they have lost a lot of power over me. I also learned that the person in front of me has nothing to do with my story, nor with the trigger. That person is not doing anything to me purposely, and I should not react impulsively to what is happening. I learned to stop and solve issues in a calm and friendly way.
I’ve learned a lot about myself as an individual, and as a leader. Now I’m very comfortable asking for feedback. I’m equally comfortable giving it. I’m sure I would have not said this 10 years ago. I seek it out, because I have learned about my impact on others. I want to make sure that my intentions are received the way they were intended. If I get feedback that states otherwise, change it and do things differently next time. Getting comfortable giving and receiving feedback has been a game changer for me.
The other big takeaway is about appreciating balance and how important it is. My big epiphany in HILS-1 is that my mom was a stay-at-home mom and my dad was a self-employed business owner. He worked tirelessly in the business world, and she worked diligently at home. I was killing myself trying to be just like them. It was clear that this was becoming a challenge for me, and the seminar enabled me to appreciate that other people also have challenges. This realization helped me find balance. When you achieve balance and you help others achieve it, people end up being the best version of themselves.
If you can appreciate the whole person and recognize that there is life outside of work, that’s a game-changer. Appreciation helps you build strong bonds with people, and strong bonds lead to strong team dynamics that create great momentum to move business forward. If you’re home and you’re feeling guilty about work, and if you’re at work and you’re feeling guilty about home, it is a lose-lose situation. Ideally, everyone should determine what that balance looks like for them, because it is different for all of us.
A big thank you to Mariceli Rodriguez, Tsipin Irrieta and Melissa Elwood for sharing their insights on how self-awareness contributed to making them more effective leaders, especially in challenging times.
These extraordinary women executives revealed how they became the kind of leaders they wanted to be by watching others they admired and by enlisting the help of mentors along the way. They were proactive in developing the self-awareness that gave them the confidence to transform negative feedback into positive improvements when things didn’t work out well. To achieve the work/life balance that is so important to women in particular, they created support systems that enabled them to grow in their responsibilities.
Mariceli, Tsipin and Melissa discussed the self-awareness takeaways from our Stop At Nothing seminars that resonated most with them, from recognizing personal triggers to understanding how team leaders “show up” and present themselves can have a tremendous influence on others. They shared personal stories about the challenges they faced that showed how a lack of confidence can lead to hesitation and sap leadership power. These successful women business leaders sometimes discovered that they were the only female in the room, or the youngest. Such issues led them to develop the resilience they needed to stop worrying about being misjudged and stand up for their values. These are the lessons that are relevant to Mariceli, Tsipin and Melissa, female leaders everywhere – and everyone else.
They believe in the age-old adage:
You’re stronger than you know. You’re braver than you believe. And you’re smarter than you think.