Businesswomen Discuss Career Changes, Global Management, Skills to Reach Top
STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—Whether choosing to break through a glass ceiling or follow their passions on a path less traveled, today's women in business must first know what they want. That was the message at the seventh annual Women in Business Conference, Feb. 3, tri-sponsored for the first time by the Graduate School of Business, the student-led organization Stanford Women in Management, and The Committee of 200, an international organization of preeminent businesswomen.
Women in the school's MBA program as well as alumnae of the school attended panel discussions that covered such topics as working in careers that are not traditional for MBAs and in countries where women are not generally in business leadership roles. Two keynote speakers also gave views of the so-called glass-ceiling from their positions above it.
Advice on corporate advancement
The current and future internet-driven economy provides fertile ground for women to succeed in business, said both keynote speakers—M. Hancock, chairman and CEO of Exodus Communications, and Radha R. Basu, CEO, president and director of Support.com, both internet infrastructure service companies. "It brings out and leverages a lot of women's innate qualities," Basu said.
"The work force is becoming more teamwork-oriented," Hancock said, and women have the required skills to get ahead, namely, "intuition and the ability to communicate, work with others, and nurture others in positive ways that encourage growth."
Hancock outlined four lessons learned in her glass-shattering career path through IBM, National Semiconductor and Apple Computer:
1) Women must work harder to get ahead. Because they are still in the minority, women's missteps stand out. On the bright side, their contributions are also more conspicuous.
2) Stereotypes do exist. Women will be scrutinized in ways men have never imagined. For example, "Men don't think about balance. They're not balanced. And they're not even on high heels," Hancock said. "But you have to first be invited to the club before you try to change the rules."
3) Seek out difficult assignments and seize them. Women who perceive they are held back by the "old-boys network" are more often held back by lack of line-management positions, Hancock cautioned.
4) Seek out influential mentors who care about you. And conversely, Hancock encouraged women in positions of leadership to help others.
Basu, who spent her formative career at Hewlett Packard, is not deterred by glass ceilings. "I can't recognize it most of the time," she said. She offered three observations on leadership:
1) Be able to distinguish between a height problem or color-of-hair problem. "You can't change a height problem," she said.
2) Hire wisely. A leader must be supported by the right people with the right attitude, who share a commitment to the results.
3) A leader must have the convictions to make some tough decisions and stick to them.
Perspectives on Global Management
With the increasingly free flow of communication and commerce across national boundaries in a global economy, American-raised women are finding opportunities to live and work around the world. However, they have discovered that American feminism sometimes collides with foreign cultures in unexpected ways.
In a panel on global management, Deborah S. Wolter, MBA 1992, vice president, AT&T Strategic Ventures, recalled a business meeting in India where questions about her presentation were directed toward her male boss. Her boss repeatedly deferred to her so that eventually, the men directly interacted with her. After the presentation, she was shocked to find that there was no ladies' bathroom because no women worked there.
Jae So, MBA 1988, works for the World Bank on privatization and financial restructuring of state-owned companies and utilities in developing countries and currently holds the powerful position of assistant to the managing director. Despite her credentials, she said she has learned to take a deferential tone when addressing executives because "people don't expect Asian women to advise men in senior levels." No one would listen to her until one day, upon the recommendation of an advisor, she prefaced her comments with the apology, "I'm new to the World Bank." The men were suddenly disarmed and open to her comments. "You want people to understand you and how people relate best to you."
Often, the actions are not meant to be malicious. Monica Brand, MBA 1997, is senior director of research and development at ACCION International, which lends money to entrepreneurs in developing countries. Lighten up a bit, she suggested. "One of the lessons from abroad is not to assume it's paternalistic and sexist," she said of seemingly offensive treatment. "It's about the attitude you take to them, and being lighthearted despite strong feminism."
The tradeoff in working globally is the difficulty in maintaining personal relationships. One third of Brand's time is spent traveling to South America. "Making time for relationships is what suffers," she said.
Likewise with So, who travels two to three days a week. "They say it's natural for women to do multi-tasking," she said. "I don't think I'm that good at balancing. I can focus on one thing at a time, and I've focused on my career the past 15 years."
Taking the Non-traditional Route
"A peacock that sits on his tail feathers is just a turkey," said Sharon Whitely, CEO of Whitely & Co. a consulting firm, and CMO of Giftcorp Inc., a company that offers gourmet foods and other gift items for corporate and personal giving.
Speaking on a panel about changing career paths, she described "job nirvana" as the convergence of four factors: what you do well, what someone will pay you for, what you are passionate about, and what you can you grow with.
Given that today's graduates will switch careers several times in their lifetime, women must find the courage to follow their dreams, Whitely said. For women who have decided to veer off a chosen path or follow an unconventional one, it is important to do due diligence inwardly as well as outwardly.
"Really get to know yourself and what makes you happy," said Charlene Miller, founder of Global Associates and innovator of the private label concept for women's wear in department and specialty stores. "Sometimes we're just too busy to look inside and be honest with ourselves."
"Don't ask yourself what do I like about my job," observed Lauren Auerbach, MBA 1998, who swung from journalism to financial information careers before finding her niche as a fourth grade teacher. "Ask yourself what do I want in my life."
Along the way, be careful of information poisoning, Whitely said. "If I knew more then about what I was getting into with my business, I would have never gotten it off the ground. So it helps to be mildly naive."
In this and another panel discussion of non-traditional MBA careers, audience members asked the speakers to provide more information about the uncertainty and lack of confidence they may have faced in pursuing their passions.
"What you care about in your 20s may be very different in your 40s," said Marie Danielle Beaudry, SEP 1992. After a long career in technology, including a Stanford doctorate in computer reliability, she became a high school math teacher. "There wasn't just one passion in my career; there were several."
Fellow panelist Julia Usher, MBA 1992, jumped from mechanical engineering to management consulting, eventually landing in St. Louis, Missouri, where she launched a bakery business that allowed her to pursue her passion for creating handcrafted desserts. "I'm a really risk-adverse person," she asserted. "Yet, the thought that my passions change is not a fear; it's a hope."