Leading Change as a Female CEO
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Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) is proud to support International Women’s Day (IWD), which celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political contributions of women. With robust female-focused initiatives and a longstanding history of empowering women leaders, EO upholds the mission of this global program every day.
Terry Segerberg is an EO member in Cincinnati, Ohio. As the CEO at a manufacturing company, Mesa Industries, she is often the only woman in the room.
She shares her perspective on breaking habits, women’s strengths and motivating a new generation of female professionals.
I have been the lone female in the room for my entire career. In the past two-plus decades, this was because I chose to return to my family’s business and assume the leadership role. We serve the petroleum and construction industries, neither of which have traditionally been known as places for females.
That said, as I step back and look around our offices today, we have more women than when I started.
Twenty years ago, women often were limited to being the secretary at the front desk. While women seem to be well suited for the role of greeter because they tend to relate to the people walking in the door or calling on the phone, for us, this role has evolved. It probably happened because I saw myself doing that job, and saw that secretaries could do so much more if we gave them more tools and left them to their own devices.
The role did grow and these women became people we all rely on for so much. No one is getting anyone coffee these days.
Yes, this change happened because I came along and valued a female as much as I value a male. It does take someone to lead the change.
I remember a meeting where we were setting salary guidelines. The goal was to focus on the position, rather than the person in the position. It didn’t take long for that to fail and for one of the men in the room to protest a female’s compensation because he thought it was too high—after all, she “did have a husband who had a job.” Well, after I stopped choking and was able to breathe, I reminded him that he had a wife with a job.
Old habits are hard to break, but it can be done with a conscious effort embraced by all. Today I believe the average workplace is much more sensitive and safer for women than it was 20 years ago, but it is still not perfect. Part of the problem is that many women don’t know how to advocate for themselves. Men do it and women don’t.
Women underestimate what they bring to the workplace. They are natural multi-taskers and it always amazes me how adeptly they can have a conversation with one person while continuing with a project they were working on. I watched one woman have two different conversations—one with me—while assisting another person with a transaction, only to find that in the middle of all that she had researched the name of a business I was talking about but couldn’t remember and had emailed me its name and new location. All at the same time!
Left alone, women can see the questions coming, asses the challenges and propose solutions. It is just something that comes naturally to our gender. As a mom, I knew that I had to see things coming before they arrived with my children. I do believe that women are somehow wired differently even if they choose not to have children.
In our organization, women excel in roles where details matter. They are favored by our customers. At times, our customers prefer to speak with females over their male counterparts. The women have created processes and other tools to make their tasks easier.
The tradeoff is that I am seeing our females working longer hours and perhaps dealing with more frustrations when others aren’t being supportive. I don’t think they have completely found their voice in expressing frustrations. Again, they may not know how to advocate for themselves and when they do, they can be labeled a “b*tch.”
For all of the above reasons, having females on leadership teams and as managers is a great benefit. They simply look at problems differently. They view the challenge from the solution, backwards. It’s not necessarily a better approach, but at times you need a quick solution and working backwards does that.
Recently, my human resources manager came to me with a pretty ugly situation. As soon as she finished reporting the problem, she gave me two viable solutions. She was calm (calmer than me) and prepared to take on the challenge no matter which path I chose. I think many women can see the outcome and find the path quicker than men simply because they isolate the challenge from everything around it.
Inspiring the Younger Generations
I am watchful and concerned for the younger women, especially the Generation Zers. I realize that we have a new challenge and obligation to them. They are wired so very differently—and perhaps there’s a pun intended, since they are the most connected generation. They communicate differently and, importantly, respond differently to the social interactions in the workplace.
While it was somewhat easy to assign projects to their older colleagues and check it off your list as a manager, younger women (and men) require an entirely different approach. They need frequent reassurance that they are progressing as you had anticipated. Their view of the world is not rosy and so in the workplace we need to be mindful to help them find the positive in what they give and do.
We must respect them and not measure them by our yardstick. They hear a different drummer and we must work harder to hear that drummer. Gen Z and Millennials together represent over 50 percent of the workforce. To not recognize that they tick differently and expect them to play by the old rules is foolish.
I know that these younger generations want to work for a company that truly has a social conscious and that they are very clever in utilizing technology.
Even so, we have traditional needs, as does every company. We need someone to do the bookkeeping, get invoices out and manage inventory. These are essential to any business, but I find they can be seen as “boring” by younger employees. We make an effort to make it fun by providing an upbeat work environment. We are also exploring ways to cross-train as a means of supporting coworkers and providing variety in the workday.
Our rising leaders and future entrepreneurs face a similar challenge. They, too, must find a way to engage a younger workforce to ultimately run an organization that inspires people to want to work for while simultaneously maintaining an age-old business necessity: profitability. It’s a longstanding challenge that I anticipate they’ll tackle with unique solutions.
This article was originally published on the EO Global Octane Blog.