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Leaning in, without fear: Book inspires conversation about women at work

By Celeste Smith
cesmith@charlotteobserver.com

Five months after its debut, Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” still sits at the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

And it’s still inspiring a national conversation about female leaders and the upper ranks of business.

Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook since 2008, writes about the dearth of female leaders in corporate America. She talks about the lingering perception that women cannot be committed to both their families and careers.

She encourages women to speak up and “lean in” to their professional ambitions – without hesitation, and without worrying about what their peers think.

“Without fear,” she writes, “women can pursue professional success and personal fulfillment – and freely choose one, or the other, or both.”

Using the book as a launching point, the Observer asked Charlotte-area female business leaders to write about a time in their experience when they had to make a tough choice that involved balancing personal goals and career goals. We also asked for their best advice to an aspiring leader who wants to excel both professionally and personally.

Here are their edited comments.

Cathy Bessant

Bank of America global technology and operations executive and member of the executive management team

For any mom – or any parent for that matter – who is a professional and works outside the home, one of the most important things we learn is that there is no such thing as a seat of judgment. What works for one family and one professional woman may not work for another family and another professional woman. There are people who would say I kept my kids up too late at night when they were little. I did that so that we could have more time together.

Last year, I was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a large conference in Japan. It required me to travel over the weekend of my daughter’s field hockey state championship, yet I had committed to the speech a year earlier and enlisting a substitute was not an option. I was going to miss seeing my daughter in the finals. Instead, I sat in the airport in San Francisco on a layover, listening on the phone to my husband describe the action.

They lost the game in double overtime. It was hard not being there to help her cope with that loss.

I called my girlfriends, enlisted them as “stand-in Mommies” and they rallied with doughnuts and support for my daughter… so much so that my husband said, “Don’t call any more friends.”

I had committed to a business function that was important to the company, and that was a choice I needed to make. But there are certain times in a career when you know you pushed your choices too far. And I would never again miss a moment like that. I’m fortunate to work for a company that understands and values that.

If you’re smart, you craft yourself a village. That’s not always easy, because it can be difficult to understand the life of a professional mom, or the life of a professional worker. Everyone works very hard, but our lives are different. So be deliberate about crafting your village: Know what helps you, what makes things more complicated, where you’re comfortable with other people stepping in. Then own your choices, and trust your family, your company and your village to support you and help make it all work.


Amy Burkett

WTVI (PBS Charlotte) general manager

My first “real” leadership job in public television back in 1999 taught me very quickly just how much I needed to learn, and I set out on a voyage of discovery. I worked hard to uncover what made the people I needed to lead tick. I went to many seminars and read dozens of books, all of which I soaked up like a sponge. When I’d learn a new technique, I couldn’t wait to implement it.

Leadership isn’t for the faint of heart. The most important thing from my perspective is to check your motives as to why you want to lead. Is it about power and prestige or is it about making a difference in others and in your community? For me it’s the latter. I love casting a vision and working to develop a team that can turn the dream into reality. No leader can get there alone. It takes a team to implement change, but it takes a leader to chart the course.

Is leadership harder for women than for men? From my perspective I wouldn’t call it harder, just different. Yes, assertive women aren’t always viewed the same way as assertive men. Men often move their families to different states for better job opportunities. You don’t hear about that as often in women, but I’ve just done exactly that. It raised a lot of eyebrows when I announced we’d be moving from Pennsylvania to Charlotte. After 14 years of hard work, I left a community that I adored for the opportunity I’ve dreamed of…leading a public television station.

Granted, I’m incredibly lucky to have a supportive husband who works for himself as a still photographer and has now moved three times for my jobs. He’s watched me work incredibly hard over our 22-year marriage. He’s been there for me every step of the way through the blood, sweat and, yes, tears.

My advice to other aspiring leaders who want to excel both professionally and personally is this: Choose your spouse wisely. I think it’s the most important decision you’ll ever make.

Here’s another piece of advice for young people: I think life is about the three P’s… passion, perseverance and possibilities. Find what you’re most talented at and passionate about. Perseverance means never giving up, even when things look bad.

Finally, when you have passion and perseverance, that, my friends, leads to possibilities that are endless and exciting.


Laura Schulte

Wells Fargo’s East Coast community banking president

I can’t think of one particular time (about making a tough choice balancing personal and career goals) because it’s really a balancing act you have to manage every day. And sometimes the scale is tilted more toward work and on other occasions it’s your personal life. I’ve been fortunate to work for a company that has always supported me when I had a personal conflict, but I’ve still had to be accountable for my own balance and think hard about what’s critical for me to meet my responsibilities. Sometimes that meant saying “no” to very worthy causes like a community event.

I have a young son and while I haven’t always been perfect, I’m proud to say that I’ve attended most of his extracurricular activities.

Ultimately, balance is about personal responsibility. You can’t give in to victim mentality. It’s important to think about career aspirations long term. When I was pregnant with my son, I received one of my biggest promotions. I learned that what’s most important is happiness. That’s when great things happen.

Don’t be afraid to speak up. When I look back on my own career, there are times when I wish I had spoken up sooner and asked more questions. Throughout my career, I’ve learned that smart people speak up and ask good questions. My final word of advice is be confident and play an active role in life – whether it’s for business or your personal life.


Linda Lockman-Brooks

Principal, Lockman-Brooks Marketing Services

My husband is a Southerner, I’m from the Midwest, and we met in New York City. We got married and were living in suburban New Jersey.

My husband was in corporate life and had the opportunity to move to Charlotte to advance his career.

That came at a time when I was, frankly, in my dream job: leading a marketing group for American Express, a fabulous company where the marketing professionals are valued and respected. I was thriving, managing two small children, making the commute to Manhattan. While my career was important, I had to think about what was going to be best for my family over the next few years. We would move; the new job was a great opportunity for him.

When I talked to the president of the division I worked for, I decided to open up a dialogue instead saying, ‘My husband is taking a job in North Carolina, and we’re moving.’ And as it turned out, the president of the division valued me, thankfully, and we had a discussion about what kind of work I could do for the company in North Carolina.

At the time, the regional banks were growing rapidly. A sales executive role would fit me. I ended up being able to stay with American Express and move here as a vice president of sales, responsible for managing the relationships with the regional banks in Charlotte.

I know that it took some gumption, thinking ‘How do we deal with this?’ rather than going in and quitting. That experience helped me realize that sometimes things are not exactly what you think at your workplace.

If you’re valued in an organization, some things can be worked out. In today’s work world, 20 years later, that might sound dated. People telecommute, work from home. But back then, it really wasn’t done.

So the advice from me is: Have a conversation. Be open, and sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised that things can work out for you.


Rebecca Anderson

Queens University of Charlotte vice president for marketing and community relations

When it comes to balancing the personal and the professional, it’s not the big dilemmas that give me trouble.

Far more vexing are the dozens of small choices I make each and every week … the decisions I make without any due diligence. Can I shuffle my schedule at the last minute to make it to the school talent show? Should I call into a conference call while my family’s on vacation? If I wake up early, will I exercise or take that time to prepare for a critical meeting? Will we have a healthy, homemade dinner tonight or will we be eating at Brixx (again)?

These types of dilemmas – and the trade-offs that go with them – seem trivial enough. It’s just Brixx after all! But the mini-decisions become patterns, and it’s the patterns that matter. Unless you pay attention it’s easy to wake up one day and realize you’re out of whack. Worse yet, you realize you got there by accident.

Here’s my big aha: To everything there is a season. Sometimes I tilt toward career and sometimes toward home. Sometimes I tilt inward and that’s OK, too. In May I finished my MBA at the McColl School of Business at Queens. For two years, class time, homework and study group added 25 hours to my weekly schedule. I had to ask for help from my colleagues. Our friends didn’t get holiday cards. My house wasn’t spotless. But where it really counted – the parenting of our son – my husband stepped in and cheerfully took the lead. Despite my having to let a few things go, the earth did not stop turning.

I came to realize giving 125 percent to everything all the time just isn’t practical. So when it comes to work-life balance, I play the long game. I look for the patterns. I take some time each week to consider if and why I’m tilting. If I am, I make sure it’s intentional. And then I ask myself when and how I’ll tilt back toward the middle.


Hilda Gurdian

Publisher, La Noticia, the Spanish-language newspaper

My first advice would be to think and define exactly what it is that you would like to excel on. This is a very important step as you will find many obstacles on your way to success that might distract you or discourage you. Knowing what you want will give you the discipline to stay focused.

Second: Be passionate and intense. Visualize how you want your finished product to look. Write down every step that you will need to take to complete it and perform every step to the best of your ability.

Third: Persevere. Redo your steps or complete projects as many times as you have to until you get it right.

Fourth: Learn from your mistakes. On your quest to success, you are going to fail many times and you are going to make many mistakes. Learn from them. Analyze what went wrong; write those lessons down and promise yourself you will never go that route again.

Fifth: Be a fighter. In your daily work, do not accept no for an answer. Do not waste time thinking that you have too much to do. Just do the items on your list. Later you will realize that it was not that much after all.

Sixth: Work hard. I get up at 5 every morning and stay in action for 16 to 18 hours a day, six days a week. There is no way that you are going to achieve success without working hard for it. But if you are working toward that specific goal, work will not bother you. While doing it you will feel like there is no place in the world where you would rather be than right there working on your goals.

Seventh: Balance work and family. When scheduling activities with your family, be as passionate and intense as you are with work. To help you manage your home, get the help and support of your husband, other family members and paid helpers.


Venessa Harrison

President, AT&T-North Carolina

In 30 years of raising two children while moving from an entry-level, non-management position to my job of AT&T’s North Carolina president, my life has been about finding balance. That’s not always easy. Some days, my focus and energy may be more toward something going on at the office, while other days tilt toward meeting a personal goal.

I’ve found the support, encouragement and understanding of my family essential. Several years ago, I was offered a promotion that required relocating to Charlotte from Raleigh, my hometown. Our children were young and my whole family support system was in Raleigh. My husband said he would resign his job so we could relocate and my late mother encouraged me to take advantage of the opportunity. I was a nervous wreck but it turned out to be the best career move for both of us.

I’m fortunate to work for a company with a strong commitment to supporting employees who want to move ahead professionally. And I’ve been blessed with exceptional mentors who believed in me, encouraged me, and helped me capitalize on opportunities.

Mentors also can help you stay true to the personal values and beliefs that form your view of success. That’s one reason I always tell aspiring leaders to remember they will not be successful alone. Many people, including their team members and their bosses, will play a part.

I also remind young leaders that every decision has personal and professional consequences. So evaluate your options very carefully. Whatever goals you set in life, you will give up something to reach them. Make sure that the loss of whatever you sacrifice won’t come back to haunt you later. And that’s why strong family support and solid spiritual beliefs are essential.


Sara Garces Roselli

Co-founder of the local startup hub Packard Place

Can women really do it all and have it all? That is a question often asked of women of all generations. When I first started my career in corporate America after graduate school, I listened to a senior leader in the company I worked for state, “It is impossible for women to be successful at work and be mothers.”

Because she really believed that, she chose her career and avoided motherhood. Hearing that presentation really impacted my own thinking about career and family and made me question whether I would be able to have both.

Over time, I have come to believe that this concept is untrue. You can have it all, but you can’t always have it on your own terms. As I was climbing the corporate ladder, I was faced with a life-hanging challenge that many people in today’s stressful world face: infertility. This came as a shock and a huge disappointment. Would I ever be able to have the career success I was working toward and have the family that I so desired? At that point, I made a difficult choice that I was fortunate to be able to afford, and I “retired” temporarily from the workforce in order to focus on building a family.

Once I reduced my stress level, doctors were convinced that I would be able to have a child. True to their word, one year later, I became the proud mother of my first set of twins! Motherhood has been the most rewarding experience for me, but something was missing after awhile, the feeling of contributing to the workforce. I realized that I wasn’t willing to go back to the 80-hour work week so I took on the challenge of entrepreneurship. I have thrived in an environment that I have worked to create, which allows all people to have the flexibility they need to lead their lives and focus on building a successful career. In doing so, I believe that I am setting an example for women in the workplace by integrating what I love most about work and being a mom at the same time. In life we all are faced with challenges like these along the way, but if you take the time to assess what is most important to you and draw upon your support network, you will be able to “have it all” on your terms most of the time.


Debra Plousha Moore

Chief human resources officer and executive vice president at Carolinas HealthCare System

When piloting a kayak through potentially dangerous rapids, one quickly learns you must lean in to be successful. If you lean back, you run the risk of capsizing the craft, losing control, and ending up in the water. In her best-selling book, Sheryl Sandberg expands the “lean in” concept into a metaphor for life. She advises women to “lean in” to their lives.

Ms. Sandberg opened a conversation worthy of consideration by every man and woman. Why, she asks, when 50 percent of all college graduates are women, do men still command most leadership positions in business and government? I often see women make self-limiting decisions and fail to seize opportunity. Successful women take charge. We create our own profile. We recognize our competition is seldom another woman. We do not ask to join; we make ourselves available.

Successful women share their experiences. To lean in involves mentorship, role modeling and competency. I recall how a mentor of mine responded when I asked how I could repay her: “Pass it on.” Part of leaning in means women must prepare the next generation for success. We should embrace those coming up, share our knowledge and welcome them into our networks.

My life provides me the chance to interpret daily experiences through a full prism, not just a slice. While I certainly appreciate the opportunity and influence that comes with being a successful health care executive, my strength comes from several sources: my 39-year partnership with my husband, John; being a mother of two grown sons, a grandmother, and a proud woman of color. This is my foundation, and from it I feel a responsibility I do not take lightly.

Women face gender-specific challenges as we seek balance between our lives and careers. We may not have it all in equal parts, or at the same time, but we can have it all. Lean in to every aspect of your life; and when you do, the chances are good you will sail through the rapids as you rise toward success.


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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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