By Adam Bryant

Executive Women, Finding (and Owning) Their Voice

Clockwise from above left are the chief executives Dara Richardson-Heron of the Y.W.C.A. USA.; Sharon Napier of Partners + Napier; Jenny Ming of Charlotte Russe; and Jody Greenstone Miller of the Business Talent Group.

Four chief executives describe the importance of taking stands, and of making sure they’re heard.

What does it mean for women to have a “voice” in meetings? How can they navigate perceptions around assertiveness, particularly when they are often judged more harshly than men? And is much of the conversation around women and leadership really just about power?

These are just a few of the themes that arose during interviews with four executives about the challenges they have faced at work over the years and the advice they would give to other women about surviving and thriving in the workplace.

These conversations are a departure from my usual Corner Office interviews. Over the years, I have sat down with more than 125 women to discuss leadership, but have generally avoided any gender-related questions. Not that I considered those questions taboo. My goal from the start was to interview many leaders who happened to be women, rather than interviewing them as “women leaders.”

But women and leadership remains a topic of intense interest, and a year ago I went back to four women I had interviewed previously, to conduct a second conversation about the headwinds they have faced in the context of work and the pointers they’d offer to other women. Given the overwhelming reaction to the interviews last year, I sat down for a second conversation with four more women. Their stories, insights and advice have been lightly edited and condensed.

executive-women-dara-richardson-portrait-master180Dara Richardson-Heron, M.D.
Chief executive of the Y.W.C.A. USA

Career highlights: Chief executive of the Greater New York City affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Chief medical officer of United Cerebral Palsy. Had several roles at Consolidated Edison, including special assistant to the chairman and chief executive.

Women who are leaders need to advocate for themselves, says Dara Richardson-Heron, C.E.O. of Y.W.C.A. USA. That means communicating goals, but also setting the expectation that they will lead.

Q. What were some headwinds you encountered in your career? And were there tailwinds that helped you through them?

A. The tailwind was my parents. From as early as I can remember, they told us never to be limited by your race or your gender. That’s my lens. So when you begin to encounter headwinds, you almost have a denial mechanism.

The earliest headwind in my career that I can remember happened in the middle of a performance review. It was a stellar performance review, but then the manager said that he did have some feedback for me — that I was always so buttoned up in terms of the way I dressed, and that it was making other people uncomfortable. I’ve always paid a lot of attention to how I present myself and how I dress. I think presentation matters.

I was incensed. It was a defining moment for me, because I could either let it pass or make it clear that it was unacceptable.

four women ceosMs. Richardson-Heron discovered that because there are so few women in leadership, they are expected to be everything to everybody.

I said to him, “From this point on, I want you to judge me on my performance, not my appearance.” I said it in a very respectful, very clear way, but I think he was shocked. He knew not to cross that line again.

Ms. Richardson-Heron discovered that because there are so few women in leadership, they are expected to be everything to everybody. CreditDaniel Rosenbaum for The New York Times
Q. Other examples of headwinds?

A. Another is what I call “a wealth of unsolicited advisers.” Any leader wants to have their own personal board of directors, the people you can call on to ask if you’re off base or headed in the right direction.

But in my leadership roles, I’ve found that people are very comfortable coming up to me and giving me unsolicited advice — “You should say this. You should do this.” I don’t think they would be comfortable doing the same thing with men. I like to get constructive feedback, but it’s not always constructive.

And when the feedback is unsolicited, there is a line that people need to understand. You’re put in a leadership role because you’re deemed to have the skills, the experience and the expertise to do the job. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to others, but it does mean that there should be a certain respect for the role. I find, as a woman leader, that people cross those boundaries a lot, and they try to guide and direct you in ways that I just don’t think they would do with a man.

Q. And why is that?

A. I hate to use broad generalizations, but by and large people find women to be more approachable, and also there is some internalized sexism. I think that women sometimes discredit other women leaders and think that they need more guidance.

Another phenomenon I’ve seen is paternalistic micromanagement. There have been men who feel that they can put you in a leadership role and then tell you exactly what you have to do. Not only do they give you the goal line, but they tell you how to get there. And that doesn’t work for me. If I’m going to lead, tell me the goal line and I’ll figure out how to get there. Even worse, I’ve had men question my judgment who really didn’t have the qualifications to do that.

Q. Any advice you’d give to young women?

A. One of the things I see sometimes is that women mistake words for voice. They feel that because they have a seat at the table and they say something, that’s good. But it’s important for women to know that having a voice really means having a track record of success and accomplishments, so that people want to listen to what you have to say, because you’re saying something of value. So use your voice, but use it strategically.

It’s important for women to know that having a voice really means having a track record of success and accomplishments, so that people want to listen to what you have to say, because you’re saying something of value. So use your voice, but use it strategically.

Another piece of advice is to stand up for what you believe in. As I did with the person who spoke to me about how I dress, you have to take a stand. You have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say: “This aligns with my values. This aligns with my opinion of who I want to be, and my personal legacy.” A lot of women allow things to happen because they worry that if they take a stand, it’s going to derail them. But if you don’t take a stand, it is going to derail you personally, because you’re not going to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, “This is who I am.” I think it impacts your authenticity.

Q. Other thoughts on the topic of women and leadership?

A. There are so few women in leadership, and the burden on women who are leaders is so high, because you’re expected to be everything to everybody, and to pave the way and bring more women in, and root out all the bad stuff. And all the while, you’re not given support, and by that I don’t mean remedial support. You need people to block and tackle, and to say: “You know what? You’re not giving her the benefit of the doubt. You’re treating her differently than you would a man. You really have not given her enough resources in order to do the job. You haven’t given her enough praise for the work she is doing.” These are small things that can go a long way.

sharon napier, executive womenSharon Napier
Chief executive, Partners + Napier, an ad agency

Career highlights: Led management buyout in 2004 of the Rochester office of the Wolf Group, a communications company, and renamed it Partners + Napier. The agency has expanded to New York City and San Francisco, and was acquired by Project WorldWide, a holding company, in 2011. That year, Ms. Napier joined Project WorldWide’s global strategic leadership team.

Ms. Napier found that it’s necessary in leadership roles to own one’s accomplishments rather than play them down.
Ms. Napier found that it’s necessary in leadership roles to own one’s accomplishments rather than play them down. CreditFred R. Conrad/The New York Times.

four women ceos sharon napier
Q. What were some moments when you felt treated differently because you’re a woman?

A. I grew up in a big Italian family. My father owned a business and we would talk about work all the time. We would have passionate debates, but when you left the dinner table, it was over.

And if I have a debate at work now, it’s because I’m really trying to get everyone’s opinions around the table. And once a decision is made, it’s done. Let’s move on. I never take it personally or make it about me. But I would hear sometimes, after the fact, that somebody had said, “Boy, Sharon was really hard on me.” And I would think: “Really? I was just having a conversation. And if I were a male, would they say that?”

I still wonder whether having a pointed and hard conversation is something that women get judged on more than men. And I do think women get judged more.

Q. In what ways?

A. What you’re wearing, your weight, your hair. You’re supposed to be like this or that. In the early years, you start to edit yourself. Maybe I should straighten my hair. Maybe I should wear a dark suit and look more serious. But then you get to a point where you start to say: “It’s better if I’m just me. It’s better if I’m just authentically who I am.”

I also think that as women, when we’re in a larger group in a social setting, we will often play down our successes or not claim our seat at the table. I think naturally women want to fit in. I played high school and college sports. They say that girls like to just be part of the team and they don’t like to really stand out, whereas the guys will be the stars and they’ll let you know they’re the stars all day long.

As a leader, especially as a woman leader, you have to be comfortable owning your successes. I think humility is a really good trait, but I also think that owning who you are and owning it big are important. Women should have their elevator speech. We should be able to say in a couple of sentences who we are, what we’ve done, and then move on.

Q. Other lessons?

A. When I was 36, I was on the board of a group of eight agencies, and I was the only woman on the board. I thought my role was to be the voice of reason and to question things. What I realized with a group of men is that they always stated things very positively. There was a sort of we-can-do-this attitude. It really helped me find my own voice and to frame things in a really positive way, and to say, “Look, this may be a challenge, but I think we can get there and this is how we can get there.”

Women might be more collaborative than men, and we can teach them a lot, but I think men can teach us a lot, too.

Q. What about people who’ve worked for you over the years? Any interesting encounters around gender?

A. Senior people, especially, will say things to a female boss that they would never say to a man. I’ve had people tell me about how hard they’re working, and they said it in a way that implied that I was not working hard. That was interesting, given that I was the majority investor in the company, I work 365 days a year, and I worry about everybody’s paycheck. I had another person say to me, “I really need a raise because I want my wife to stay home.”

Q. What career advice do you give to younger women?

A. love to see someone at a lower or a midlevel position walk into a meeting and know what their role is and have a point of view. Don’t sit quietly and think about things and maybe whisper to somebody or tell people afterward. Put yourself out there, and get involved in the conversation.

I think women sometimes use the word ‘lucky’ to diminish what they’ve accomplished. We all have this little impostor syndrome that can lead us to say: ‘I shouldn’t really be here. I was just in the right place at the right time.’ I don’t think men do that too much.

Here’s another thing I think about a lot: I came from an immigrant family, grew up in a small town and went to a small liberal arts college. I started my business in Rochester, N.Y., and for a long time I thought that in some ways that was sort of an inferior background.

I didn’t have an Ivy League education. I didn’t grow up in New York City. I didn’t work for a big holding company. But then it hit me that all that has made me who I am. You have to take your background and really own it, turn it into a positive and use it to help drive your career forward.

Q. If you were speaking to an audience of women who were M.B.A. students, what other advice would you give?

A. Three things. One is to build your own skills and talents. You may be a manager someday, but you still have to have those core skills. In today’s world, it’s “What can you do? How can you bring value to the table?”

Second, don’t ever be in a job or a place where you’re not all in. When you’re there, you’re all in.

The third is that there is a little luck in what we do. Some things just happen, and you should enjoy those moments. It’s probably because you’re doing a lot of things well. Don’t think that it was luck and downplay it. I think women sometimes use the word “lucky” to diminish what they’ve accomplished. We all have this little impostor syndrome that can lead us to say: “I shouldn’t really be here. I was just in the right place at the right time.” I don’t think men do that too much.

jody greenstoneJody Greenstone Miller
Chief executive, the Business Talent Group, which finds projects for independent professionals

Career highlights: Acting president and chief operating officer of Americast, a television programming venture. Deputy to David Gergen when he was counselor to President Bill Clinton. Investment banker at Lehman Brothers. Legal counsel to Richard W. Riley when he was governor of South Carolina.

Companies that create a flexible work environment for their employees will have a huge competitive advantage, says Jody Greenstone Miller, chief executive of the Business Talent Group.

four women ceos

Q. Any headwinds you’ve encountered in your career because you’re a woman?

A. If you just ask me about things that affected my career, being a woman would not be on the list. I really don’t think of it that way. I also don’t think the discussion is healthy about, “Here’s how women lead. Here’s how men lead.”

I believe that for two reasons. One is that I think there are lots of different kinds of women leaders and lots of different kinds of men leaders. There isn’t one type of leader who is different because of sex.

I also think, “So what?” Let’s say it’s true. Let’s stipulate that women are apples and men are pears. You still have to find a way to succeed in the world. Complaining about differences or identifying differences is not particularly constructive. I feel that what we’ve lived through the last couple of years is what I call the “women criticizing women under the guise of help” industrial complex.

If we had more female leaders, perhaps people would start to associate the sound of a woman’s voice with leadership.

There have been hundreds of articles and books telling women why they’re not succeeding, to the point where I think women — particularly young women, who may not even feel they have a problem — are looking at each other and saying, “Maybe we do have a problem.” Professional women have been put under a microscope. If you did the same thing to men, there would be a long list of things that men have to work on that’s stopping them from being successful, too.

I do feel that we are in a pretty unhealthy place. Even if we were to say it’s true that people don’t like women who are successful, what in the world are you going to do about it? You’ve got to find a way to navigate through it. You’re not going to say, “Oh well, I can’t be successful,” because that’s not true, and it’s not constructive.

I also think that many issues people point to as factors that hold women back, like the “unauthoritative” sound of our voices, may just be symptoms of the fact that there are not more women in leadership roles, rather than causes. If we had more female leaders, perhaps people would start to associate the sound of a woman’s voice with leadership.

The other overarching comment I’d make is that the air is thin at the top. Anytime you are progressing, it’s competitive. People will use whatever tools they have to try to prevail over you. The set of tools that is used against women is based on perceptions of their vulnerabilities. I think a lot of this, particularly when we are talking about top jobs, is really about power and not about gender. Some of the ways people fight tactically may feel gender-based, but they’re really about power.

Ms. Miller noticed that complaining about or pointing out differences in men’s and women’s leadership styles isn’t necessarily a constructive way to succeed. CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times

Q. Any examples that you’ve experienced?

A. When I worked at the White House, I would walk into meetings and I would be hazed. I would sit at a table and say something, and people would talk over me as though I had said nothing. They were playing mind games. I called my mentor — Dick Riley, whom I had worked for in South Carolina when he was governor — and I said: “It’s really hard here. People are really mean and nasty.” He said: “What do you expect? You’re at the White House. It’s the center of power in the universe. Of course it’s a snake pit.” That was a big epiphany. It’s not always about being a woman.

Q. Other observations?

A. When you are a woman — particularly a younger woman in business, and you’re in the company of a lot of men — you’re often underestimated. So, you have a choice. You can either make it clear to those around you why you’re at the table, which involves a somewhat unattractive need to wear your credentials on your sleeve, or you wait for your moment and make your comments and prove your worth.

I don’t think men face the same pressure as women in this way. There’s much more of a sense of: “He’s here. He must have done something to deserve it. What’s she got to offer?” Women don’t have as much of a cushion in terms of what they contribute. You’re not given the benefit of the doubt. So maybe you need to be a little more strategic or smarter about what you say and when you say it.

Sometimes it can be an advantage that men underestimate women. I was negotiating a major lease once, but the man I was negotiating with had no idea I was a lawyer. In the end, I got a lot of things because he didn’t have his guard up. So there are times when being underestimated is not the end of the world, but it can be frustrating. The other thing I’ve seen — including with myself — is that women are much less likely to view themselves, and to be viewed by others, as being capable of a stretch job, or doing something they’ve never done before. I’m not 100 percent sure it’s all bad that you want to be prepared and you want to know something about the job, as opposed to someone who may not be ready and is more likely to fail. Women shouldn’t wait until they have the diploma to go to the next level, but is it so bad that they want to be sure that they’re ready and they want to be successful?

Q. Yet isn’t that dynamic one reason that there aren’t more women in top jobs?

A. Yes, it’s a factor. And I think both men and women can proactively help women feel comfortable about stretching. Men also need to see that women can stretch into new roles. But my view about why there aren’t more women in top jobs has much more to do with the limited paths to leadership and less with what I would call these “softer” skills.

I think that many women, and men, just don’t like the rules of the game, where working 24/7 for the first 20 years or so of your career is the only route to leadership. There aren’t enough options and pathways to the top today for people who are not willing to play the game as it’s played today. I think that’s a far bigger obstacle.

jenny mingJenny Ming
Chief executive of Charlotte Russe, a clothing chain

Career highlights: Had several roles at Gap Inc, including member of the executive team that started the Old Navy brand, which she oversaw as president for seven years. Special adviser to the board of Barneys New York. Director at Levi Strauss.

Ms. Ming realized that as a leader, she needed to be clear about her expectations, without telling people specifically what to do.
Ms. Ming realized that as a leader, she needed to be clear about her expectations, without telling people specifically what to do. CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

four women ceos

Q. Any important lessons around the topic of women and leadership for you?

A. There were two turning points for me. One came when I was 23, and I managed the linens department in a Mervyn’s store. The store director once said to me: “Jenny, you’re just too nice. You let people walk all over you.” When people say those words, they put you in a little box, and the message is that you’re not leadership material. So I realized early on that you need to let people know what your expectations are, but not tell them specifically what to do.

My second-biggest lesson came when I was a merchandise manager. I was doing very well as a buyer, but someone got a promotion over me. I was really surprised because I was never asked if I was interested in the job. When I approached my manager about it, he said, “I didn’t know you were so ambitious.” I had three young children at the time, and he said, “You have kids.” I said, “You can’t assume that just because I have kids that I don’t want to move up in my career.” He was actually very apologetic.

What I learned is that you can’t assume that people know what you’re thinking or what you want in your career. You have to speak up. So I’ve always had those conversations with people who work for me. Everybody has different timelines. I want to make sure I know what the people I work with are thinking. What do they want to do? It’s good to build that kind of relationship. It’s also better to have those conversations in the middle of the year, rather than during a review period, because then they’re more relaxed.

I also never had a timeline in my life. When I got out of school, my goal was to be a buyer, and I became a buyer when I was 27. I never thought beyond that when I was starting out. In a way, it was good that I didn’t have the pressure of thinking that if I didn’t become a vice president by the time I was 32, I would be disappointed.

What I learned is that you can’t assume that people know what you’re thinking or what you want in your career. You have to speak up.

But if I think back over my career now, I actually think there were times I waited too long, and I was a bit too patient. For a lot of women, myself included, sometimes we get to a point that we’re almost too comfortable in our position and we almost have to be doing the work of a new job before we feel we are deserving of the title. We want to play well, and it’s also about earning respect. Being patient has also served me well, though, because I was really ready to step into the role of president of Old Navy, and I knew I wanted it.

Q. Any advice for young women about work?

A. Sometimes when you’re the only woman in a meeting, or one of just a few women in the group, you can feel like you almost have to say something. I think there are women who just want to make sure that they present at a meeting and that people are hearing them. But I think it’s just as important that you listen, because when you listen you get more out of the meeting. Sometimes you’re waiting to talk, and then you’re not listening. You have to balance listening and speaking. Then it becomes more natural.

I personally am a better listener than a talker. I remember I was in a pretty large conference of C-suite executives, and I was the only woman there. It was my first time there, so I felt a little intimidated. During the entire time, I was listening and I didn’t really say anything, and then finally they called on me. When I’m in that kind of situation, I have to remind myself, “Jenny, you were invited because obviously they think you have something to say.”

I still get intimidated, and I’ll share that with my team, because I’m a pretty open book. It’s O.K. to show that you’re vulnerable, that you’re human, that you’re normal. I have no problem sharing that kind of thing.

Q. Other insights or stories?

A. I’m working in private equity now [Charlotte Russe is owned by Advent International, a private equity firm], and there tend to be more men. I remember someone said to me not long after I made some big changes to the company in my current role, “We weren’t sure that you could make the tough decisions.” I looked at him and said: “What do you mean by that? I wouldn’t be where I am today if I couldn’t make a tough decision.”

Then I said: “I don’t think of them as tough decisions. I always base my decisions on what is right for the business and the people. If I do that, those decisions become very easy because there’s nothing personal about them.” He then said: “You know what? You’re right. I never thought about it that way.”

Q. So the “too nice” question persists, even with all you’ve accomplished.

A. Exactly. But if the decision comes from the right place, you can still act on it in a nice way. Why not? I think most people underestimate that women can do that. We make decisions all the time. I actually find a lot of men have a hard time making tough decisions. They’ll say to someone else, “You do it.” They don’t want to be the bad guy, but women wouldn’t even think about it as being the bad guy. It’s just, “Of course we have to do that.”