The Collective Mindset
"I recognize the important role others play in my career (and the influence I have on the careers of others). No woman is an island. Our connectivity and relationships are critical to our successes."
The Collective Mindset
Walk into Kristen Robinson's office at Fidelity and the first thing you will notice are colorful scarves hanging on the wall. "I keep my office door open and my team flies in and out all the time. I have my wall of pashminas for my team to use because it's freezing in here," she says with a laugh.
In this borderless world where everything is changing so fast, the ability to connect is crucial. High-powered women have a deep passion for people. They recognize the contributions of those who have contributed to where they are and enjoy paying it forward, watching others succeed, and creating a roadmap for their team's success. "I find deep meaning in creating an infrastructure of individuals underneath me that are the next successors within the organization. I make it happen by inspiring people and touching people's lives," says Julie Hauser-Blanner, President, Brioche Dorée.
Our executives emphasized the importance of working with other people, building relationships and consensus, seeking input from experts, co-creating, and creating partnerships. The women we met emphasize the importance of having people around you whom you can trust.
They stressed that a benefit of collaborating with people across and outside your organization is that as others get to know you, opportunities will present themselves. It takes a village to raise a leader.
Collective Approaches & Actions for Aspiring Leaders
Schedule Time with Influencers.
Many of the women we met said that they schedule connectivity into their daily agendas. They consider 'what am I going to do today that will advance my connections? What investment am I going to make in my relationships that will drive the success of my career going forward?' For example, several executives mentioned the importance of setting up a lunch or a meeting with someone who can positively impact your professional destiny. For example, this could be your supervisor or the head of your practice group. In this conversation, ask them what you are doing well, how you can enhance your efforts, and what you can help them with. They also suggest that it is most productive to hold this meeting outside of the office in an informal setting.
One woman mentioned that she did this when she was about to be up for Partner at her firm. She did not know where she stood on the partnership track so she reached out to the head of her group and asked him to meet over lunch. They had an open discussion about the partnership path and fostered a relationship that aided her in getting nominated to Partner the following year. What is important to note is that the group head said that no other associates did this. For her, reaching out to cultivate this relationship made an essential difference in her career. Be deliberate and proactive in cultivating your network. In particular, consider if there is a person who could help advance your career and schedule a time to meet with him or her. Taking this small step could make a big difference in accelerating you to new heights.
Surround Yourself with Positive Advocates Who Challenge You.
When Baker McKenzie's Anna Maloney climbed Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia with her husband and three young children, she was struck by the strength that comes from being surrounded by good people. "What stood out to me on the hike was the power of the group. Everybody worked together to support everybody up the mountain, from an 80-year-old lady to our eight-year-old son. At one point our daughter became light headed due to the altitude and a few 20-something guys swooped in to entertain our sons so that we could focus on our daughter. This group culture where everybody supported each other to get up (and down) the mountain was a beautiful thing to watch," she says.
High-powered women build ties with those who help them climb mountains and endure trying conditions.
"Surround yourself with good people who want to lift you up, help you, and encourage you. Don't let the turkeys get you down. You're worth more than that."
- Susie Flook
Consider the story of how Cathy Minehan rose to be the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. In 1994, Minehan was Chief Operating Officer of the Boston Fed. It was a job she loved and a role she had trained 24 years to do. Then, by virtue of the Federal Reserve Act, she became Interim President of the Boston Fed when the former President left to become the President of the American Stock Exchange. The President role was not a job she had ever thought about. Clearly, she had a deep understanding of monetary policy but she was not a PhD economist, which is the typical background of a Fed President. When the search for the President of the Boston Fed began, Minehan was not planning on putting herself forward. This is the moment when her community lifted her up.
Minehan had gotten involved in the Massachusetts Women's Forum, which is a group of senior-level women executives from around Boston. "From the moment the President left, my friends from the Mass Women's Forum were calling me on the phone saying 'of course you are going to put your hat in the ring. You are going for this job.'" Minehan was still hesitant but her friends pressed on.
"My memory is that three or four of them caught up with me, forced me into a room, and yelled at me," she explains with a smile. Minehan went for the job and got it. "I never thanked my friends enough for encouraging me to put myself forward for the role. Becoming President of the Boston Fed was an amazing experience. I would have lost an incredible opportunity had I not put my hat in the ring and jumped in with both feet," she says.
Once Minehan became President, her community continued to help her, and the Boston Fed, rise. Her initial fear that people would not take her seriously in Boston – the home of Harvard, MIT, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and so much expertise on monetary policy – quickly faded. Just about every premier economist at the time wanted to help. They wanted to help the Boston Fed be the best Federal Reserve Bank. They wanted to help monitor the policy in the US to be the best that it could be. They were part of Minehan's economic advisory council. They met with her quarterly. She went to dinner with them.
"It was amazing. I know most of the senior people in the economics world who are making a difference because they reached out to me and I reached out to them. They saw me as someone they could talk to and persuade. In some ways, perhaps it was better that I was not a PhD economist because I did not come with a lot of preconceptions other than I knew what a central bank should do and I knew what monetary policies should do."
- Cathy Minehan
No person is an island, and these high-powered women believe they owe a debt of gratitude to those that helped them to succeed. They have climbed the ranks thanks, in part, to the help and support of others. The advice from high-powered women leaders is clear. Surround yourself with people who make you better.
Don't Go at it Alone: Seek Out Support in Challenging Times.
The women we met emphasize the importance of being humble and vulnerable enough to reach out to others and ask for help. For example, when Esquel Group's Queenie Huang was 29 years old, she was given the assignment of building Esquel's latest, modern garment factory in Foshan, China. It was Huang's first major project of her career and she found herself in the middle of a chaotic situation. The general manager of the factory had been fired and had left a large, semi-completed construction project behind, the team was young and inexperienced, and the rainy season had led to construction delays. With a long list of tasks ahead of her – worker recruitment and training, machine selection and procurement, production planning, and more – Huang realized she needed help. Rather than try to go at it alone, Huang reported the challenge to Esquel's Chairman, Margie Yang.
Yang assigned two other young women leaders to the project, so that Huang and two teammates could work on building a state-of-the-art factory together. The three-person cross-functional team reworked the project plan and built a world-class garment factory. "When a situation is out of one person's control, you have to be honest and admit that a single person cannot fix all the issues. You have to find support and resources," advises Huang, who has been with Esquel for more than twenty years.
When determining whom to ask for help, Megan Costello, Executive Director, Women's Advancement for the City of Boston, suggests reaching out to people who are your truth tellers. "Some mentors will sugarcoat advice. The most helpful people to me have been the ones who will tell me straight out, 'this is what you are doing wrong or this is what you need to do differently,'" Costello says. She pays it forward by helping other women.
"We have to amplify other women's voices. If I am in a meeting and I see a female colleague struggling to make a point, sometimes I stop the meeting and say, 'I think Jane wants to say something. Jane, what were you just saying?"
- Megan Costello
The notion of one person having all the answers is implausible, hence the need for lots of consultation, communication, and collaboration. High-powered women assemble teams that fill gaps in their skill sets so they can win as a team. They reach out to experts, colleagues, mentors, and senior-leaders for advice and assistance. Their message is consistent: Reach out and ask for help when you are struggling. People will be honored to be solicited for input. Ask, 'what am I doing wrong? What could I do differently?' If you are willing to ask for help, you will likely find more than enough people who will offer advice, support, and resources.
Go Beyond Traditional Networking: Connect on Passion.
Many of the women we met emphasize that building a network should be a top priority, but admit that networking does not come naturally to them. They highlight that meeting new people has long term benefits so it is tempting to skip an event to meet a pressing deadline. What's more, attending networking dinners often means missing valuable family time – a trade-off that left many of the women we interviewed rethinking how to build their network in better ways. Plus, these driven leaders often cite that they need a reason to be at a networking event beyond idle social chatter.
As one executive said, "The problem with me is I am never comfortable doing nothing. I am not comfortable going to the networking events. If I am running the networking event, that is okay. But, I don't like to just hang out. I have never had that capability."
Linda Hill, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School offers a helpful viewpoint on how to build a network in a meaningful way. "My advice is to build a network around a passion," Hill says. For example, when a young professor Hill sat on the board of the Boston Children's Museum, which has enabled her to meet people from a wide variety of backgrounds— including a senior executive who made possible her first global consulting assignment.
"The key is to follow your passion first, and view the networking benefits as secondary. Think about what you would do if you did not get paid for it because that is your true passion."
- Linda Hill
This philosophy has also served Minehan well. A lifelong education advocate, she used her vacation time to volunteer to organize programs for her children's school when they were young. When she first arrived in Boston as Chief Operating Officer of the Boston Fed, she led many of the discussions that the Fed was having around education reform. "Participating in discussions about how money was being budgeted for education in Massachusetts paid off. By digging in on that, I got a role at the table," Minehan says. As a result, the Mayor called on her to chair the search committee for the new public school superintendent in Boston. "I got to know a lot of people by leading that search," she explains.
Take the time to reflect on what you enjoy doing. Then, seek out networks that align with and further your interests. For instance, search for an upcoming event where the topic genuinely interests you. Have you always wanted to learn how to code or train for a marathon? Passionate about mentoring girls in your community? Register for an event or get a group together regularly that aligns with your natural passions, feels distinctly "you", and is not a logistical challenge to attend.
More connections and chances to build upon your interests will naturally follow. You will be more likely to fuel your network and tap into your authentic passions if you seek out opportunities that you are truly interested in. This sense of community is deeply important as it provides a sense of camaraderie that adds richness and meaning to your life and a valuable sounding board for the variety of challenges you face, including balancing work and family, career switches, difficult projects, and more.
Build Relationships Outside of Your Area of Expertise.
When Linda Hill was a junior faculty member at Harvard Business School, there was a lunch table in the school's faculty lounge that many people 'just knew' was only for senior member faculty. Hill was not aware of the senior status 'required' to sit at this lunch table. From her earliest days at HBS, Hill would happily each lunch at the table, befriending many senior faculty members from across disciplines.
As a result, she built strong relationships with older, more senior faculty with varied expertise from marketing to finance to operations. This also enabled her to build ties across generations. "In later years, this helped me get things done as I had broad networks across the school. My advice is to build networks where you might be a bit uncomfortable at first," Hill says. This philosophy has continued to guide her. Several years ago, she had an opportunity to be on the board of a New York based company where she knew the industry well. Instead, she opted to be on the board of an oil and gas company in Texas; one to which she thought she could make a contribution, but was in many ways outside of her comfort zone.
Pursue networks that are a bit 'out of the box' for you. Take advantage of events or meeting people that pique your interest, yet are outside of your industry, even if they do not directly relate to your current job. Doing so will broaden your perspective and your ability to get things done.
Meet with Your Predecessors.
"Jobs are about your relationships with people."
- Betsy Myers
When Myers was about to take her first job in Washington running the Office for Women Business Owners, she took an important step before she started the role. "I called every single woman who had been the leader of that office. There were ten of them. Those women became my anchors," Myers says.
She organized a half-day gathering and asked them: 'What were the initiatives that you championed? What worked? What did not work? Who were the members of Congress that were your allies?' She has taken the same approach before starting each new role in her career. "I never understood why when people take a job, they do not spend time with the person who had the job before them. If you go to those people, they will save you months of figuring it out on your own," she says.
Before starting a new position, Myers also takes the time to meet with current executives. When she first started working at the White House, she met with current leaders before she started. She asked them: 'What are your ideas? What do you think the President needs to do? What are the three issues I should take on in my first six months?'
"I never think I know everything. I go to people who know more than me and ask for help. That way, I put together allies around me that will support me."
- Betsy Myers
Once Myers assumed her first role in the White House, she assembled a committee from federal agencies that were working on women's issues that met bi-weekly. The group discussed such questions as: 'What are you doing in your agency on women? What should the President know about? What could we work with you on?' "That's where I got all my ideas," explains Myers.
When you take on a new position, knowing what has been done before and what the major strategic issues are is critical to your success. Take the time to meet with your predecessors and current leaders before you start. Once you assume the role, continue to tap into the expertise of others who are working on similar issues. Doing so, will give you valuable ideas and will save you precious time.
Leverage Your Humanity as a Point of Connectivity.
Each year, Unilever's Leena Nair sets a goal for herself to learn something new. Next year, she will take a Spanish course. In the past, she has learned how to play an instrument or has signed up for a digital class. One thing that she has repeatedly tried to learn but cannot is driving. "Every three or four years, I say 'I have to master this driving thing' but I fail," she says.
Learning how to drive is on her list for two years now. "I want to show my children that I can fail badly at something and still succeed," she explains. Her sons' response? "They say, 'Don't make a life philosophy out of everything, mom. Just chill. It's okay. You can't drive,'" she says with a laugh. Nair's sons keep her grounded. This sense of humanity is what enables Nair to connect with people at Unilever's offices globally. "Being more human is a big part of what I always say. I want HR to be more human. I want organizations to be more human," she says.
Senior executives often have to make difficult decisions. They recognize that the actions they take impact people's lives. As one interviewee said, "I take action with conscience and with full consideration of the consequences my decisions have on individuals, as well as the business." Several leaders mentioned that their least favorite aspect of any role is when they need to downsize a function or let go of an employee with whom they have a strong relationship. Several mentioned that they regretted times when they emphasized process and protocol over humanity when firing an employee. During these challenging times, they say it is more important than ever to approach conversations and decisions with a softer, human touch. Many of the women we met described themselves as authentic. 'What you see is what you get' is a phrase we often heard. They mentioned that they do not check their personalities at the door upon entering the office. For some, this has not always come naturally.
"Early in my career, I had this life of church and state, where my team never knew who I was as a person. They did not even know that I had siblings. As I matured, I learned that it was not to my advantage to take this approach."
- Karen Brown
Early in her career, Brown received harsh 360-degree feedback in her performance review that encouraged her to change. She started actively observing how other leaders she admired connected with their teams. "What I have done over the years is to simply be myself. I share who I am and when I am happy or sad. Because I open myself up to others, it gives my team permission to open up. I ask my colleagues, 'what's going on with you?' I allow others to share where they are personally but I do not push them," she says. Baker McKenzie's Peerapan Tungsuwan, who is based in Thailand, echoes this sentiment.
"You have to be true to yourself. Don't let others expectations define who you are. Believe in your own character and continue to be yourself."
- Peerapan Tungsuwan
Baker McKenzie's Claudia Prado also makes an effort to show her authentic self to others.
"It is very important to show that you are a real person.
Some women think that in order to succeed, they need to be
tough and they can't show their emotions. I have found that
this is not the case. Most of the time I am happy, but if I have to cry,
I will cry. When my sons were young, I would bring them to the office.
It is about having this humanity that people need so much."
- Claudia Prado
One way that Prado demonstrates her humanity is to reach out to her junior colleagues at Baker McKenzie when they are wrestling with how to juggle work and family. She strongly believes that women can combine work and family and not have one exclude the other. On several occasions, she has visited junior-level women at their homes soon after they have had a baby. "I go and talk with them and show them that I have gone through this as well and I have a balanced, happy life. I have saved a lot of them in their careers. It is rewarding for me to see them flourishing at the firm. They needed that comfort at a time when they thought their whole world was falling apart," Prado explains.
It is to your advantage to bring a sense of humanity to the office as this will enable you to build stronger connections with others. Open up about what is going on in your personal life, to your level of comfort. When you make difficult decisions, consider the impact that your choices will have on people's lives. Reach out to colleagues when they are struggling. Our executives note that people are looking for leaders to be more human so any steps you can take to bring a sense of humanity to the office will pay dividends.