Top women executives participated in dynamic, thought-provoking Business Panels at the 2023 Simmons Leadership Conference and shared stories of how — through life circumstances or by choice — they have reinvented and renewed themselves and innovatively reimagined how they lead.
Kerry Seitz, Vice President of Women’s Leadership at the Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership, moderated the sessions, posing compelling questions to the panelists.
Relationship-Building Fosters Success at All Levels
Drawing on similar experiences, each of the three panelists in the morning session, Leading Through Change, agreed that organizations that put people first, offer flexibility, encourage self-care, and cultivate relationships yield the best performance from their team members.
According to Kavitha Imani, Vice President, IT, Dell Technologies, establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships is necessary at all levels to foster individual and organizational success. “What we do is a team sport. We do it well together. We are successful together, and in the process we find success individually. Make relationships not transactional but thoughtful, authentic, and then you’ll find a lot of meaning in the relationships you build.”
Saidah Grayson Dill, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Cisco, spoke of taking a “day in the background,” when team members need to hit pause to tend to personal or mental-health needs. Rather than take a PTO day, the team member will check in occasionally throughout the day, and colleagues will cover for them. “Understanding each team member’s needs and vulnerabilities has been instrumental in understanding how to allow people to have a sense of well-being and renewal and innovation, and it’s worked really well.”
Likewise, Jen Petersen, Vice President, Human Resources, Air Power, Raytheon Technologies, sees organizations as a force for good in people’s lives. “Organizations have a chance to put people in the center and invest in things that make their lives easier. It’s also critical on an individual level to empower your leaders and managers to put people first and help them make the right decisions.”
Reflecting on Their Leadership Journeys
In our second Business Panel, Renewal and Innovation as a Leader, moderator Kerry Seitz asked panelists Joanne Stephane, Principal, at Deloitte Consulting LLP and Executive Director of the DEI Institute, and Ann Stanberry, Executive Vice President, Chief Strategy Officer at Liberty Mutual Insurance, to plot their leadership journey, including both the positive and challenge experiences they faced along the way. Joanne and Ann reflected on how they approached the activity — and how it affected their thinking about the intersection of one’s personal and professional life.
For Ann, the exercise helped her to take the time to reflect on her career. “I found that it’s really important to surround yourself with a support network. I had some really strong senior leader mentors and a really close friend groups that supported me and helped me understand new experiences throughout my career. A sense of community really shaped me as a leader,” she said.
It also helped Ann to realize the importance of defining her own success. “To me, success is about the broader balance, being able to have a family, being challenged, excited about working, enjoying who I’m working with, and feeling like I’m having an impact.”
Joanne echoed Ann’s sentiment about surrounding oneself with a supportive community. “Always have a hype team. At home, at work your team helps you get out of a funk.”
Showing Up as Their Authentic Selves
Kerry asked Ann and Joanne about their thoughts on sharing their vulnerabilities as leaders.
“As leaders, there’s a lot of pressure to open yourself up because you’re trying to create an inclusive environment, trying to bring your whole self to work, and promote inclusivity within your organization,” Ann said. “For me that was very difficult. I’m Asian, and growing up, we never really showed emotion. I had to go through my own journey to be both comfortable and vulnerable. For me, it’s about creating a supportive environment where people feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work and opening up about the challenges they’ve gone through.”
Joanne shared that early in her career, she felt compelled to fit into a box, so she “covered.”
“I thought there was a box and I had to fit into it if I was going to be successful. That meant I hid myself. I covered,” she said. As her leadership journey continued, Joanne, who came out in 2020, said she felt more comfortable showing up as her authentic self. “I had to be more of myself and stand up for what I believe in. I want to behave and be authentic in a way so people can look at me say, ‘She can do that, then I can be myself.'”
Take a Risk — But Don’t Go It Alone
Asked about how they think risk opens doors for innovation, Joanne said collaboration is vital. “Innovation and risk go hand in hand. If I’m going to take a risk, I’m not going to take by myself. I want to bring people along with me, have people support me or believe in me, and have the outcome be worth the risk. If you’re not in the arena, you don’t get to criticize.”
Ann offered that leaders should look at other industries and trends internally and externally when considering where to innovate. “Be comfortable taking the risk, but also be comfortable with experimentation. Try, try, fail fast, pivot, and try again. I think that aspect of innovation and experimentation really helps people in a way that actually de-risks some of the jumps and steps you worry about as a professional.”
This year’s Business Panelists shared highly personal stories about how they have experienced Renewal and Innovation in ways that exposed their vulnerabilities and highlighted their strengths, as well as how they creatively reimagined how they lead. They left us with practical and actionable strategies to implement in any organization or industry.