(Read a man’s perspective of the conference).
Fifty-five years after Texas A&M University first began admitting female students, Mays Business School is encouraging women to step into top leadership roles in their organizations and communities. Mays’ Women’s Leadership Initiative Conference, held Oct. 19, offered tips on becoming a transformational leader, overcoming issues that women face in the work world, and negotiations. The conference was attended by approximately 400 current students, former students, Mays faculty and staff, and key stakeholders.
The conference opened with a welcome by Mays Dean Eli Jones ’82, who pointed out that the first strategic initiative in Mays strategic plan calls for increasing diversity and inclusion. This conference encourages women – who are often missing from corporate executive offices — to start stepping into leadership roles.
From bossy to transformational
In the opening session, Julie Lenzer ’88, the director of UM Ventures at the University of Maryland, addressed the challenges women face in assuming leadership roles. She noted that shattering perceptions can be challenging, especially in relation to the term “bossy.” That term – which means having authority – often takes on a negative connotation when describing women. “We need to be authoritative at some point in life,” she said.
Using her own professional trajectory an example, Lenzer encouraged the audience to relax and enjoy the flow of their career. She said the journey is going to be different than they imagined and at times circuitous. “You’ll go some places you never would have imagined,” Lenzer said. “You’re going to be okay.”
The Dallas native’s circuitous career path first took her to IBM, where she was one of only a handful of women working in the department. “Someone asked, ‘What is she doing here?’” Lenzer remembered. “I replied, ‘I’m here to help you.’”
She quickly learned that many underestimated her professionally based on her gender, clothing and shoe height (she prefers high heels). “You get to choose how to respond and you learn to ignore obstacles,” Lenzer said.
No longer willing to travel extensively after the birth of her daughter, Lenzer left IBM to found Applied Creative Technologies. The company, which did production analysis, continued to grow and had its best year in 2003. That same year, Lenzer’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In their talks after his diagnosis, Lenzer’s father said he always wanted to write a book about Howard, the Duck. She offered to help him, but that dream remained unfulfilled because he died 10 weeks later. “That process changed me,” Lenzer said. “I wanted to do something different. I still loved being a CEO, but I was burned out.”
After exiting the company, Lenzer attended the Arab Business Women’s Summit in 2005. She told a woman at the summit that she planned to write a book – and that woman was an author. A few months later, the author contacted Lenzer because her publisher was looking for a book like Lenzer’s. As her book neared publication date, she received the proof of her unpublished book’s cover featured a photo of a duck. That struck Lenzer as a moment of serendipity because it tied her book with her father’s unfulfilled dream.
In the time since the book’s publication, Lenzer has held many roles, including serving as executive director of the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship and heading the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship within the U.S. Department of Commerce. She also embraced unexpected opportunities that have come her way, such as an invitation to lead the G-20 innovation task force. Even though she did not have training in diplomacy, Lenzer decided to accept the invitation and prepare for the role through talking to diplomatic personnel in the U.S. State Department. “We all have that moment when we think we’re in over our head, but you have to tell yourself, ‘I’m here for a reason,’” she said.
Lenzer encouraged the audience to build a strong and smart team whose members shares their values and who can handle their jobs in such a way that frees the leader to do strategy. In addition, she tries to surround herself with smart and driven people who can help push her. “You are the average of the five people who you spend the most time with,” she said. “I try to strive to be the dumbest person in the room.”
The ATT Innovator of the Year siad transformational leaders are driven by the need for change, have an inspiring vision and aligned objectives, and care about their team. She noted that some leaders are chess players who know how to effectively tap into their team’s strengths; the worst leaders are checker players who sees everyone as the same. Lenzer encouraged participants to strive to be the former while leading by example.
In talking about work-life balance, Lenzer called for women to prioritize their lives through identifying whether a situation, issue or relationship is glass (which will break) or rubber (which will bounce). However, she cautioned that these classifications can change over time so women need to constantly reassess. Lenzer also tries to find balance through being creative and present for major family milestones. She also believes being an entrepreneur allows her to have more flexibility in her schedule. “The power of being your own boss means you’re able to choose how you spend your day,” she said. “You have to figure out your priorities but you can be fluid.”
Many women have difficulty making the transition from being tactical in their career to being transformational. Janeen Judah ’81, an independent director at Patterson-UTI Energy, offered three traits – excellence, endurance, and empowerment – that women need to step into transformational roles.
The first trait is embracing the concept of excellence through becoming good at a core discipline and in one’s current job. Judah also encouraged the audience to learn how to solve their boss’s problem. Through taking this approach, women will get additional opportunities at work and have the chance to differentiate themselves.
Judah also encouraged participants to focus on their presentation and public speaking skills since these skills help differentiate between early- and mid-career opportunities. “Find ways to earn and practice, especially if English is not your main language,” she said.
Women who seek to move into top leadership roles also need to get line experiences in the company’s core areas that interface with customers or are involved in making money. For example, a chief financial officer needs to get experience in audit, tax, compliance and treasury. Judah warned that women often get pushed into staff positions, where it is more difficult to get promoted into top jobs.
Judah, who was one of the first female petroleum engineers in the nation, believes that women need to be open to new experiences instead of rigidly following a career path. She described how she was on a scuba-diving trip when she received a call from her boss. That call led to a job offer for a position that was out of her comfort zone, but where she ended up learning a great deal. “A lot of the best opportunities you get are the ones you don’t plan for,” she said. “Look for the serendipity.”
Networking also is important and includes contacts made both inside and outside the company. Judah advocated for developing an extensive personal network that includes the Aggie Network, former colleagues, and people from professional associations.
Judah described endurance as the second trait needed to become a transformation leader. She pointed to the need to persevere and to develop grit and resilience. “You need to look for opportunities in hardships,” she said. “Don’t quit when things get tough. Usually that’s the time for innovation.”
The third trait that Judah highlighted involved empowering oneself and others. She encouraged the audience to be team players who keep the ladder down to help others through mentoring, nominating colleagues for project teams and advocating for others. “As you climb, pay it forward,” she said. “Do things without an expectation of reward. That way, you’ll build power within your network. Good karma does come back to you.”
Through taking these steps, Judah believes women will be able to become transformational leaders. “You’ll get known as a different kind of leader, as well as an industry leader,” she said.
Issues facing working women
During the luncheon session, a panel of female leaders discussed issues facing women in the workforce. The panel members included Dawn Constantin, senior vice president of marketing and regulatory affairs for BP Energy Company; Bridgette Chambers ’08, Mays executive professor; and Kristin Eschbach ’08, director of investments and financial services for USD Group LLC. Brandi Plunkett, director of Mays Center for Executive Development, moderated the panel.
The panel’s responses varied when they were asked to describe the common traps women face in becoming a transformation leader. Chambers suggested that many get caught in a cycle of weariness where they feel they are out of bandwidth. Eschbach said women need to be firmer when making decisions and not overthink everything. “Not everyone is going to agree with you,” she said. “You often waste a lot of energy wondering if you’re offending someone.” Constantin encouraged the audience to be authentic. “There’s something to be said about being yourself,” she said. “It fundamentally starts with being who you are.”
The panel also discussed the need to ask for what they deserve in negotiations. Pointing to compensation, authority, and recognition, Chambers stated, “It’s time for us to make these non-negotiable. Don’t accept something if it’s not right for you.” On a similar note, Eschbach noted that everything is negotiable, especially if a person is able to tie their work to revenue or cost savings. “Don’t negotiate against yourself,” she said. “Remember that there are things beyond salary, including vacation time, flex time, working on a unique project, getting a matching contribution, and health care benefits.” Constantin gave an example from her own career. As a Canadian, she would have been eligible for one year of maternity leave in Canada, but she transferred to a U.S. company, which had a policy of six weeks of maternity leave. Ultimately, she was able to negotiate five months of leave.
Chambers also believes women should seek out the overlooked opportunity to job craft. Through understanding her own capacity, a woman can use these opportunities to create a beachhead to brand herself in order to get out of a professional silo. These opportunities can help a woman differentiate and package herself for a new role.
Eschbach described what a critical role communication plays. She said male colleagues prefer direct, solution-based communication. Additionally, Constantin encouraged women to learn to brag on themselves. She suggested that they learn the art of storytelling and use this as a vehicle to highlight their achievements.
Succeeding in negotiations
During the conference’s last session, participants heard hard-won pointers on negotiations from Shantera Chatman ’98. She told the story of a point when she was negotiating in her early career when a boss told her, “You are too smart, too loud, and you need to know your place.” Chatman decided to find another employer where her professional approach was more aligned and where she would not feel intimidated.
Chatman, who is he managing partner of C+A Global Group, learned that negotiation is a tool to change the status quo and can help others feel an individual’s value. The goal of a negotiation is to listen, share a point of view, and try to come to a reasonable solution. “We do it in our regular life but not in our professional life,” she said.
Chatman offered statistics that suggest that women do not engage in negotiations. She pointed to studies that found that more women say they feel apprehension about negotiations than men. Women will pay as much as $1,400 more for a car to avoid negotiating. About 20 percent of women say they will never negotiate. In comparison, men initiate negotiations four times more often than women because men typpically believe in their self-worth. Men also are four times more likely to negotiate a starting salary, which results in their earning an additional $500,000 by the age of 60.
Chatman said women often don’t negotiate because they fear rejection and do not understand their worth. Instead, she encourages women to say, “I’m worth the conversation and I’m worth losing.” She added that women tend to tie themselves to a company and are more loyal than men to a position. Finding this to be the case at one point in her own career, she realized, “Even though I liked my client, I didn’t like how I was when I was there.”
The founder of Chatman Women’s Foundation encouraged the audience members to take control of their own career, to know their value, and to be unafraid to ask for what they want. “You need to bring the essence of who you are (into negotiations),” Chatman said. She suggested that women need to set a goal and determine the least they would be willing to accept, and what would be a suitable compromise.
The negotiation process is one of give and take in which women need to listen, be willing to discuss and be flexible, and be willing to walk away. “Know your worth and don’t sell yourself short,” Chatman said, adding that this is a personal decision that should not be aired on social media. “You can always accept the offer on the table. No one needs to know that you need this job. People don’t need to know your business.”
(Read a man’s perspective of the conference).