Women in Business: Driving Innovation in Senior Leadership

I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion at the recent PegaWorld event, on the topic of how women in business are driving innovation in senior leadership. PegaWorld, an annual event put on by software company Pega, is designed to bring together business and technical visionaries from the world’s leading companies. My panelists certainly represented the best and brightest in the world of business and technology and we’ll take a look here at the panelists themselves, along with the topics we covered during our discussion.

Women in Tech Panelists: Their Back Stories

Women in Tech Panelists PegaWorldThe panelists for this discussion included Julie Pingree, a senior vice president of underwriting for commercial lines with Northbridge Financial, a Canadian commercial property and casualty insurance group. Julie has spent her career in the insurance industry, focused almost exclusively on underwriting. Flavia da Hora, joined our panel at the last minute, flying in from Paris on a moment’s notice. As a senior executive and managing director with AccentureFlavia is the most senior Accenture woman in Brazil and her leadership and expertise is without question leaving a mark on this multinational corporation. Last, but never least, is the inimitable Sharon Rowlands, the CEO of ReachLocal. With expertise in both media and information markets and extensive expertise in SMB, corporate, and financial sector segments, it’s no wonder Sharon is widely considered masterful when it comes to leadership—and especially adept at companies who need to reinvent themselves.

Success Secrets of Successful Women Leaders

One of the questions I posed to each of my panelists centered around their thoughts on success, and what they felt had been their personal secret weapons when it came to business success.

Flavia shared that her secret to success revolved around a dual focus on being both selfish, combined with serving others. And that first part—the being selfish thing? That’s something that far too few women are able to master. Flavia has built a career on being known as a person who understands the broad perspective and overarching goals in a business situation, and she’s an expert at solving problems. But she doesn’t solve problems for others at the expense of leaving her own self, or what’s important to her in life, behind.

Sharon’s secret to success revolves around two things: an innate ability to understand customers and being a fantastic leader. When you put those things together, you’ve got someone who excels at digital transformation, which is what companies of all sizes are focused on accomplishing today. These abilities also explain Sharon’s success as someone who is an expert at turning around companies who are in challenging situations. She can quickly assess challenges, understand what a customer base needs, and build and lead teams who can address those needs.

Julie’s secret to success has been a simple, but important one—she’s someone who never says no to learning something new and often the first in line when it comes to taking on new challenges. In fact, it’s not been unusual for her to be the person who can be counted on to take on a challenge that no one else in the organization wants to tackle—which has stood her in good stead.

The message from these three for leaders and aspiring leaders: Foster a culture of learning and experimentation within your organizations; make sure everything you do is with a customer-first mindset and that you really understand the needs of your customers and prospects, find people who can build and inspire strong teams and get out of their way; find and nurture the problem solvers within your organization, and create a culture that embraces work-life balance and make sure your leaders and employees know that it’s alright to be selfish. Taking care of self makes it possible to take care of customers, provide strong leadership, and do your very best work.

How Do You Get to a Senior Level in a Company?

When I posed this question: How do you get to a senior level in a company? Julie’s answer represents great advice for leaders and future leaders:

  • Embrace change.
  • Make a commitment to always be learning.
  • Ask for what you want. Women in particular often don’t do this well, so asking for what you want, being clear about that right from the start, is sage advice.
  • Understand what opportunities different roles present from a broad career perspective. This advice stems from Julie’s experience in taking on challenges that others eschewed, but which gave her a depth of experience in her knowledge base that ultimately proved invaluable.

On that same topic, Sharon shared that her ability to climb the corporate ladder quickly at some very large corporations was due to her ability to be extremely good at “executive-ing.” What does it take to “executive” — here’s her advice:

  • Commit to being a great leader (and this can’t be faked).
  • Be client-focused, not company-focused. When everything you do is driven by what’s best for the client, you’re going to be successful.
  • Get stuff done. Having a reputation for being able to deliver, in every instance, is the best resume-builder there is.

Flavia’s comments on success at a senior level and being innovative when it comes to charting a career path and growth includes:

  • Embracing constant and regular reinvention.
  • Regularly facing new challenges.
  • Being open to, and intent on, learning.
  • Making a commitment to understand changes in the market, trends in the industry, and the influence they do and will have, on your company, on your clients, and on you personally.
  • Get out of your comfort zone, regularly.

Are you seeing a trend in these insights from three smart senior leaders? Change, challenge, and being customer-centric are the key themes.

Leaders’ Thoughts on Innovation

Flavia touched on innovation in a career path, which is an important component of personal success. Equally as important to me, is conversation around the rapid pace of innovation today and what we need to do (regardless of gender) to understand innovation and how it impacts all of us and the businesses we’re in, and to get people aligned and embracing digital transformation. Sharon has much expertise on this front, and I asked her to share how “innovation” in part, and digital transformation as a whole, is challenging companies today and her suggestions on navigating through that. Her advice was:

  • Don’t innovate simply for the sake of innovation.
  • Focus on what customers want and need, not what you think is cool.
  • Embracing and effecting digital transformation is critical to business success, longevity, and business survival.

What I most enjoyed from Sharing on this topic was this: Innovation is as much about how to get people aligned behind a new future as anything. Reflect on that for a moment, and consider how technology is changing everything about our lives—both on a personal standpoint and a business one. For business leaders, corporate culture has never been more important. Getting people, processes, communication, collaboration aligned behind that new future is the key to success, no matter the size of your organization. That new future isn’t a decade away, it’s happening as we speak. The most successful leaders, and the most successful companies, focus here first.

How Do Women in Tech—or in Business in General—Ensure Their Voices Are Heard?

The business world in general is dominated by men, and the tech world in particular. Sometimes tenacity is required, and a strong, confident personality helps. My success in that regard has been to be the one who brings the best ideas or solutions to the fore, and also possess the ability to execute. It’s hard to ignore a woman who brings the ideas and gets the things done and, as Sharon mentioned earlier, that’s all part of “executive-ing.”

Sometimes we hear from women in business that it’s often difficult for them to have their voices heard and further, that getting a seat at the management table is no easy undertaking. I asked Julie Pingee to share her advice on that front and here’s what she suggests:

  • Actively work to build credibility within the organization, and know that this doesn’t just happen organically—you have to work for it.
  • Don’t blaze in with guns ready to fire. Make sure you first understand the dynamic around the boardroom table, then make your case.
  • If at first you don’t succeed when you’re trying to sell an idea or solution, reiterate, reword. Sometimes it takes more than one shot for other leaders to grasp what you’re suggesting, so don’t give up after the first try.
  • Develop allies amongst other senior leaders. Don’t underestimate the benefit of follow-up and 1:1 conversations after the fact when you’re trying to get buy in for something you want to do.

Leaders on the Importance of Mentors

For both men and women, mentors can play a big role in career success. I asked our panel about the role mentors have played in their careers and and what advice they have for women executives on that front, as well as to men who want to play a role in their success. All panelists have had mentors throughout their careers, and in many instances those mentors were men. My own career experience mirrors that—the vast majority of my mentors have been men who were excited by, and invested in helping me reach my career goals. Women need that today more than ever. All the women in this discussion also make time in their busy lives to act as mentors to others—both women and men. Bottom line: If you don’t have at least one mentor, actively seek one out. And for business leaders out there reading this, if you’re not making time to mentor someone, know that it can make a huge difference, both in their lives and in yours.

Thoughts on What Men Leaders Need to be More Effective  

Sharon Rowlands, who has built and led teams for most of her career, shared thoughts on what men in leadership roles need in order to more effectively instill gender equality and diversity in the workplace. Her advice is to not assume that men in leadership roles instinctively know what to do when it comes to instilling gender equality and diversity in the workplace. They need development and training in order to understand what’s involved and how to create environments that foster and support gender equality and diversity. Equally as important, men need to be called out when it’s not happening. The more we collectively (men and women leaders) keep quiet about this, the longer it’s going to take to effect change.

Sharon’s last bit of advice is incredibly salient: When fostering gender equality and diversity in the workplace, men need to learn to step aside. Until men learn to do that, and that stepping aside isn’t a negative in any way, the path to gender equality and diversity will continue to be a slow one.

Advice for Women on Being Strong, Effective Leaders

We closed our discussion with a conversation about confidence and how women leaders can remain confident and personify an executive presence, even in tough or challenging situations. Flavia da Hora’s advice on this topic was to invest in building trusted networks. Each of these senior women leaders have spent years building networks. Those networks are comprised of trusted advisors and mentors, peers in the business world, colleagues, long-time clients, and even family and friends. Those trusted networks are your brain trust and your support group, so never underestimate, or not make time for, building trusted networks of your own. Flavia also suggested women leaders remember these things:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself.
  • Never underestimate the importance of preparation—For every presentation, discussion, debate, etc.
  • Practice goes hand in hand with preparation. When you’ve got an important conversation, presentation, or meeting ahead, good preparation and practicing in advance can make all the difference in your ability to be successful.

There you have it—some great insights from some incredibly smart, incredibly successful women, for both women and men in the workplace. Whether you’re focused on being a strong, effective, successful leader; fostering a culture of innovation, gender equality and diversity within your workplace; leading and building a stronger business by having a customer-centric focus; having your voice more effectively heard in a male-dominated workplace; or building a network of mentors, the wisdom and guidance these dynamic women offered as part of the PegaWorld event is incredibly valuable. Kudos to the team at Pega for working to foster women in leadership and, based on the audience feedback following the event, this was undoubtedly one of the most popular sessions at the PegaWorld conference.

If you’d like to know more about Pega, my partner, Daniel Newman, conducted some interviews as part of his SMACTalk podcast with some senior Pega leaders. You can find those interviews below:

The Changing Role of the Enterprise CMO, With Don Libretto
Robotics and Automation with Don Schuerman, CTO at Pegasystems
The Failures and Successes of Enterprise Software, with Alan Trefler, Pega CEO

This post has been brought to you in part by Pega and they reflect the view of the author.

Photo Credit: Strategic-Funding Flickr via Compfight cc

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Business-Savvy Tips for Female Entrepreneurs in 2017

Are you a woman in business?  If so, you’re certainly not in the minority.  According to Arizona State University, women make up 51 percent of corporate professionals in the United States, today.  However, many C-suite positions are still occupied by the opposite gender.  In fact, Jared Lindzon argues via an article in Fortune that companies with the best reputation in their respective industries have more than twice as many women in senior management; however, Lindzon also points out that “Only 10.9% of Fortune 500 senior leaders are female, while 37.6% of those companies have no women in their C-suites…”

It is perhaps no wonder, then, that many women would rather simply start their own company, rather than wait around for an executive position to open up at their company.  Entrepreneurship is an attractive option for ambitious women with a vision: not only does it provide an opportunity to lead a company as its Chief Executive Operator, but it also allows for a great deal of freedom in terms of how to manage, market, and finance a business; implicit in this freedom is the knowledge that the design or intent of the company could change at any time, if market forces dictate or encourage a different direction.

What, then, are some current and future trends for entrepreneurs who happen to be women?

Be Bold and Creative with Financing

There are a number of different possible sources of funding for your business seed money.  Fortunately, there are also a number of financial resources out there, as well.  Intuit’s Small Business Center is one resource with a number of funding ideas for all sizes and types of businesses, with different recommendations depending on whether you own a small business or a high-growth-potential idea—the amount of funding may depend, for example, on the stage of growth your company is in.

If you’re just starting out, consider friends and family, government-funded grants for small business, competitions, rewards-based crowdfunding, and loans.  If on the other hand, you’ve been in business for a while and are looking for more substantial amounts of financial backing, you should also consider equity financing, including angel investors and venture capitalists, and crowdfunding for accredited investors.  Because venture capital firms owned by women are three times more likely to invest in companies with female CEOs, consider investing the majority of your efforts into appealing to women-founded firms: here’s a list, compiled by Pitchbook.

Find a Trusted Mentor

Lest you think that independent women always go it alone, many well-known figures, including Walter Cronkite, Oprah Winfrey, and Vincent Van Gogh, have lain claim to mentors being the reason why they were inspired to pursue their goals.  There are some key questions you should ask yourself first, though, in order to assist you in finding the right person—or knowing what to ask for once you’ve found said person!

Although you’re probably already aware of your professional goals and communication style, you may have a particular skill or area of expertise that you wish to enhance.  Look for someone whose communication style and professional knowledge complement your own. You might also want different mentors for different professional areas in which you wish to grow.  Lastly, if your schedule makes it difficult to find mentors within your personal and professional network, there are professional mentorship-finding services such as Envelop, Mogul, and MentorCity that can introduce you to people you may not have found, otherwise.

Dream Big and Aim High

The last trend that women should embrace is having the courage to dream big and aim high.  However, this is not a feat that has to be accomplished alone. The Future of Business Tech argues that women could benefit from support in an entrepreneurship-based community as well as increased access to elected officials who have a direct connection to community-related business regulations and policies that affect their businesses.

Encouragingly, according to the 2016 BNP Paribas Global Entrepreneur Report, 90 percent of female entrepreneurs reported that they expect their businesses’ gross profits to either stay the same or grow in the coming year—and 61 percent of women who identify as entrepreneurs expect their profits to rise, compared to 58 percent of entrepreneurs, overall.

Hopefully, these findings are an indicator of times to come, since it seems that all women need (in order to achieve equal representation) is faith in their ventures—from themselves and others, yes, so it’s a two-way street, but the increased prominence of Internet-based marketing and technology will hopefully mean less of an emphasis on expensive marketing campaigns, ideally leveling the playing field a bit more with gender-neutral, digital representation putting the emphasis on the product, rather than the messenger.

What trends do you see you see coming to light in 2017 and beyond, for female entrepreneurs?  Share your thoughts in the comments section, below!


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Ways to Be More Than Just Your Average Businesswoman

What do some of the most successful business women all have in common? They are more than just your average businesswoman, some of them just have that certain je ne sais quoi factor, others may just work incredibly hard and a few do things a little differently but most of them have impact. Whatever level of business you are at there is always a way to go that extra mile that could put you head and shoulders above your peers. Whether you admire the likes of Sheryl Sandberg, Christine Lagarde, Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton or more unexpected savvy icons like Beyoncé or even more humanitarian figures like Angelina Jolie or Melinda Gates, it is more than likely they will fit into one or more of these categories.

Be a Community Leader

Managing and thriving in your own office is one thing but most business leaders have the ability to adapt those skills to an alternative stage – the community. There is no habitable place on earth where more can’t be done to help improve the quality of life which is why for hundreds of years business has been so integral to community welfare. Naomi Tarry, business owner of Best of Suffolk who specialise in letting Suffolk cottages is a well-known figure amongst her community as her business boosts the local tourism industry significantly every year. More importantly Tarry’s company buys up extremely dilapidated cottages and buildings, renovating them into beautiful properties for rental which help transform the villages and towns in which they are situated. “I don’t think we realised at the beginning the kind of difference we could have on the community, but now it’s one of the most important things we take into account,” said Tarry.

Whether it is your business or you as an individual that is able to make the impact within the community, the easiest way to work out what you have to offer is to consider what assets you have that may be able to useful or relevant to community issues. It may be that you can help the surrounding neighbourhood just as a result of the work you do, however if this is not the case, you could always team up with other businesses to see what you could do together. Alternatively, you could always consider becoming a member of the BITC (Business in the Community), who encourage businesses to take an active role in being responsible in communities.

Inspire the Next Generation

Being a thought leader is more than just about sharing knowledge and ideas, it is about imparting it to the people who will be able to continue that legacy: the next generation. Many businesses offer more sustainable and ethical internships for younger people such as paid apprenticeships and paid graduate schemes enabling them to learn and develop their skills under your wing and guidance. Similarly business leaders are regularly invited to speak at top academic institutions and even as guest lecturers in their field. Speaking to younger people about your experience and what you’ve learnt is invaluable and can often have a lasting effect on those that are interested in what you do.

Give to Charity

Philanthropy is not restricted to the rich and famous, and although the saying goes ‘charity starts at home’; you will have little impact if you are unable to scale up your ability to give, support, encourage and raise awareness for good causes. Selflessness and modesty are characteristics that not only appeal on a personable level but also attract like-minded people together, opening up the floor for collaboration. No matter what area of business you work in, you will find that there is always something you can donate and it doesn’t have to be money. ISSWWW recently donated one of their pat testers to the Benjamin Foundation in Norwich so they could check their venues and offices were electrically safe. Every little helps, as they say.

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(About the Author: Freelance journalist and writer, Katherine Ogilvie specialises in business and finance with experience working with start-up organisations, successful local businesses and expanding corporate companies, with a diverse portfolio writing for a number of publications including Time Out, the Guardian, Yahoo, Huffington Post and the Digital Journal.)


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