Melinda Koski, Jennifer Hirsch, Kate Bushnell, Julie Well, Meg Breslin.
A lot has changed for women in business in recent decades: more women in leadership roles than ever before, and more equity and progress being made to close the pay gap. Even so, there is still much more to be done to create a fair, diverse and equal opportunity environment for women in the workplace.
In the midst of all this ongoing change and reform, Women’s History Month is the perfect time to honor the progress made to level the playing field and share terrific stories and insights from women leaders at The Grossman Group.
We asked our female colleagues for their perspectives on how the business environment has evolved throughout their careers, their advice for women who want to establish themselves in leadership roles, who inspires them most, and what moment in time has had the biggest impact on how they lead today.
Their insights reinforce the progress that’s been made and highlight important changes we need to see. Others offer personal advice for women looking to find their voice as leaders.
A Q&A with Women Leaders at The Grossman Group
Q: How have you seen the business environment change for women throughout your career and what does that mean for the workplace?
- In the 20+ years I’ve worked in communications, I’ve had the opportunity to see the industry transform in many ways—from the technology we use to the teams who breathe life into our work every day. One of the most marked changes I’ve witnessed is the leadership role that women hold in the workplace. When I started my career, I was one of two women in a non-secretarial position within my organization and was told by my boss at the time to always wear pants suits to encourage the men in the office to take me seriously (since clothes, not skill, were the measure of respect!). Two decades later, I am proud to say that I am part of a team led by a mix of inspiring, skilled, and brilliant men AND women who each bring diverse perspectives and expertise that elevate our work to new heights every day. While our team isn’t necessarily representative of all workplaces, there are more and more examples like ours that young women entering the workforce can look to as they plan their professional futures. There are still glass ceilings left to shatter, but I’m excited to say that the cracks are evident and we’re breaking through without concern for attire. —Debbie Field, Vice President
- I’m lucky to have always worked with women in leadership roles since the beginning of my career, although not always in an equal proportion to men. I’m proud to say that’s not the case in my current working environment, but there’s still work to be done in many other companies in the U.S. and throughout the world. Four years ago, during Women’s History Month in 2017, the Fearless Girl statue by sculptor, Kristen Visbal, commissioned by State Street Global Advisors (SSGA), was placed facing the Charging Bull statue in New York City (it’s now located facing the New York Stock Exchange). The purpose of Fearless Girl was to advertise an index fund that comprises gender-diverse companies whose senior leadership is made up of a high percentage of women, but also to encourage gender diversity in the workplace and specifically for companies to recruit women to their boards. I found the statue’s symbolism of the resiliency of women empowering and inspirational—I like to think its message resonated globally, because there’s good news: the percentage of women on corporate boards is increasing in all regions around the world. —Lana Dewit, Marketing ThoughtPartner
- We’ve come a long way but we still have a looong way to go. I see greater numbers of women leaders and I’m inspired by the strength and abilities of the young female colleagues I have the privilege of working with every day. But, when we look at the big picture, women are, on average, still paid less than men for similar or the same work. Sadly, the number of women CEOs, governors and other top leaders is ridiculously small. Lots of work left to do to make sure future generations of women are recognized for their contributions at work and rewarded with the top jobs when they earn them. —Linda Kingman, Senior Vice President
Q: What advice do you have for women who are looking to establish themselves as business leaders?
- Be the leader you always needed. Forget the rules—many of them weren’t made with women in mind. (Or, with you in mind, for that matter.) Make your own rules, and be as creative as you can possibly imagine—despite the overwhelming fears that are continuously instigated by systems of white male dominance. For Black and Brown women in particular, I’d add: your voice is powerful, and it’s needed more than ever. Be you, even when you feel alone or are told that your cultural expression is a distraction. Reject the discrimination attached to your intersectionality, and embrace the opportunities that your dimensions of difference bring to the table. —Brienna LaCoste, Senior Account Manager
- You are your own biggest advocate. Employers and managers are there to support your development, but it’s up to you determine the direction you want your career to take and what you need to get there. Then, enlist the support of your manager and help them know the best ways they can support that development. I was once told to think ahead to later in my career, and ask myself, "What do I want my lasting impact to be?" Take that answer and work back from there. —Kayla Ellsworth, Director of Business Development & Marketing
- Be confident in yourself and in your work. If you don’t know, ask. Being confident doesn’t mean knowing everything and always getting it right. Among many things, it means being willing to lean on others for guidance and direction when you need help, professionally and personally. —Melinda Koski, Vice President
Q: Is there a woman you admire most who has influenced how you lead? If so, who and why?
- I got my start in communications at a global PR agency in China, where I had a boss from Singapore who was tough-as-nails. For the first few months we worked together, I was admittedly a bit scared of her and worried she didn’t “like” me (her no-nonsense, direct approach to team management was a steep adjustment curve for me). What I failed to see at first was that she brought the same results-driven attitude to developing her team as she did to her client service work. That meant that constructive feedback was frequent, real-time and to the point, and our check-ins were structured, efficient, and focused on progress towards goals. In turn, she was our advocate for career growth opportunities and promotions (on which she instilled in us we should be performing at the next level six months ahead of any promotion conversation so there was no doubt we were ready and deserving of it). We ended up working together closely for a few years and that time undoubtedly set the foundation for how I approach my responsibilities as a leader and work with my own manager today. —Jennifer Hirsch, Associate Vice President
- I admire and have learned from so many women for the journeys they choose and sometimes the journeys that choose them. Each has victories and challenges big and small, has moments of vulnerability and moments of being fierce, has paths they can’t wait to walk on and ones they wish they didn’t have to. I admire those who lean in and those who also say that’s not for them. I admire those who are not afraid to be real—even at the expense of coming across as imperfect. I also admire the men who see us as the equals we are and are comfortable enough in their own skin to join us on our journeys and/or get out of our way so we can make the difference we were put on this earth to do. I’m so fortunate to have had both in my professional and personal life. Those are the people who lift me up and keep me going. —Kate Bushnell, President
Q: What moment in time or life lesson has made the biggest impact on how you lead (or approach your work) today?
- When I joined Golin/Harris Communications early in my career, Tom Harris told an all-employee meeting that he wanted us to have personal interests and experiences outside of work because it helped us be better professionals at work. Having just left a non-stop, grueling and thankless role at my previous employer, his words were music to my ears. They also proved to be wisdom for the ages. The most effective leaders I’ve known or worked with are those who not only focus on the business goals at hand but the people who must bring the passion, creativity and hard work to achieve those goals. Yes, they communicate about what’s important to the organization, but they have even more impact because they know and connect with what’s important to their people.
I’ve had the privilege of working with several women leaders who have distinguished themselves by leading with heart. By showing authentic concern and compassion for their teams, they inspire people to do their best work because team members feel seen for who they are, receive clear guidance to continuously improve, and are appreciated when they perform well. With this consistent support, employees excelled, their business thrived, and leaders made a difference by bringing out the best in people and through them, the business.
My advice to women who want to become distinguished leaders is to focus on the business, of course, but do so with heart for the people who make it happen. The care and concern you show for the needs of your people will reap untold benefits in loyalty, engagement and performance. —Julie Well, Vice President
- One of the biggest things I’ve learned in my career is to be brave enough to take a stretch assignment, and pave the career and life path that best fits your individual needs. Ever since I was a middle schooler, I dreamed of working for the Chicago Tribune as a staff writer. I followed all the traditional steps to get there, yet the move up didn’t happen as fast as I had hoped. After six years and a journalism fellowship, I finally got the Tribune job offer I had been hoping for. A week later, I learned I was pregnant with my first child.
At the time, I was convinced my career was dead on arrival. The only thing I had ever known about journalism was that you worked really hard—and really long hours—to be successful. How would I do that with a baby? I didn’t see how I could manage both new jobs very well. There also weren’t many women working part-time or creating flex schedules in the newspaper industry at that time, in the late 1990s.
As it turned out, having my son put me on a path to figuring how to better balance my life and still feel fulfilled. After several months working as a general assignment reporter, the role of chief obituary writer became available. At first, it seemed like a completely dead-end job, certainly nothing I had ever aspired to do. But when I looked into it more, I realized there was a lot of promise and that I could make it my own. At the time, obits were very formulaic. Name, position, cause of death, paragraph or two of accomplishments. I wanted to take them in a whole new direction—short profiles or narratives of ordinary Chicagoans that readers couldn’t put down. The prospect of fewer deadline pressures was also appealing, with a regular schedule that could help me get home at a decent time for my newborn. That job became one of the most rewarding roles of my career. Being invited into people’s lives at such a vulnerable time and giving them the opportunity to share the story of their loved one’s life was a privilege. By the end of my first year in that position, the creative approach I had taken was recognized and rewarded, and opened up new opportunities to do a lot more narrative writing. While I ended up in the obituary role for just two years, it was a great foundation for many other reporting and editing roles that I held in my 10 years at the Tribune.
By taking on more of a leadership mentality with that first role at the Tribune, I made it my own and the job was much more interesting, while adding greater value to the paper as well. I’m convinced that constantly considering how things might be done differently—and better—is one of the best things you can do as an employee and as a leader, and for satisfaction in your career. —Meg Breslin, Senior ThoughtPartner
How might the wisdom and lessons in this post benefit you or your female colleagues?
—The Grossman Group
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