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
The 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 Accenture, Flavia 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.
Shelly Kramer is a Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. A serial entrepreneur with a technology centric focus, she has worked alongside some of the world’s largest brands to embrace disruption and spur innovation, understand and address the realities of the connected customer, and help navigate the process of digital transformation. She brings 20 years' experience as a brand strategist to her work at Futurum, and has deep experience helping global companies with marketing challenges, GTM strategies, messaging development, and driving strategy and digital transformation for B2B brands across multiple verticals. Shelly's coverage areas include Collaboration/CX/SaaS, platforms, ESG, and Cybersecurity, as well as topics and trends related to the Future of Work, the transformation of the workplace and how people and technology are driving that transformation. A transplanted New Yorker, she has learned to love life in the Midwest, and has firsthand experience that some of the most innovative minds and most successful companies in the world also happen to live in “flyover country.”