Last week I was in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, where I moderated the Network of Executive Women’s 10th Annual Executive Leaders Forum: Driving Equality. The Network of Executive Women is the consumer goods and retail industry’s largest learning and leadership community, representing 10,000 members, 750 companies, 105 national partners and 20 regions in the U.S. and Canada.
The Executive Leaders Forum (ELF) is the network’s flagship event, attended by approximately three hundred high-ranking female and male executives from the world’s largest and most respected retailers and consumer products companies, including Hallmark – a Ruby sponsor, and the place I recently celebrated twenty years of enriching lives.
It was a profound time to be at a women’s conference themed “Driving Equality.” We were gathered to address topics ranging from engagement to negotiation to women supporting women – all in the name of gender parity – just as the highest and hardest glass ceiling in the nation shattered into a million pieces at Philadelphia’s Democratic National Convention. I, like most women in the room, found myself transfixed by the gravity of the moment – acutely aware of both the tensions and the triumphs of the day.
I’ve attended many women-centric events the last few years, and each held unique meaning. This year’s ELF, however, was more than an event. The women and men in attendance were leaders whose work touches hundreds of millions of people per week – in stores, with products, and through experiences. Their reach is wide, and their influence is great. For the companies represented, bold action toward gender parity has the power to transform not only businesses and employees, but also the very communities we serve. This was the context within which we realized, together, both the immediate opportunities and the long-range responsibility in front of us.
While there were many inspiring moments, I thought I’d share the ones that won’t let me go. Read on for 5 ideas from the 10th annual Executive Leaders Forum that further ignited my passion for progress.
1. We are our greatest – but not our only – allies.
This year’s ELF enjoyed the highest attendance of men in its 10-year existence. Many reinforced – as colleagues and leaders and fathers and husbands – the importance of a level playing field. They vowed to use their influence to shape business cultures where women’s leadership is not only valued, but also unleashed. Their assured response to the experience encouraged me. We often talk about needing male allies, but to be honest, I also want men in our corner. Additionally, we discussed how important it is that white men and women advocate for deserving women of color. While the road to parity can be lonely at times, it doesn’t have to be.
2. Women DO support women. And we can do more.
It’s one thing to be kind to other women…to take someone’s call, or agree to have coffee when asked. It’s another to use your professional capital to provide opportunities for other women. We should be a voice for high-potential women when they’re not in the room. We should provide perception feedback so they know where they stand. And we should celebrate them when they win, in public. During a panel on healthcare and the female shopper, the idea of “credentialing” was referenced by Ashley McEvoy, Company Group Chairman for Johnson & Johnson Diabetes Care Companies and Vision Care. She cited a study highlighting how when men are introduced, people automatically assume they’re qualified. When women are introduced, however, we are still being evaluated.
When you introduce other women, do you “credential” them? Next time you find yourself in this situation, be mindful of how you introduce your female colleagues. We can do more to better position other women for success. Let’s raise our consciousness, and create opportunities for others where and when we can.
3. Play Big.
Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big and expert on women’s leadership and well-being, opened Day 2 of the Executive Leaders Forum with a thought-provoking talk on managing our inner critic, unhooking from praise and criticism, and pursuing big dreams. One of Tara’s most poignant quotes was “brilliant women create brilliant inner critics.” High-powered women know from experience that extraordinary success provides fertile soil for extraordinary self-doubt. But while we won’t ever totally eliminate our inner critics, Tara says, “we can prevent them from directing us.” Tara shared practical advice for how to channel our thinking and behavior toward purpose and power. It was an appropriate start to the day, setting the stage for possibility thinking.
4. Set ambitious goals.
High-stakes negotation expert Dr. Victoria Medvec closed Day 2 of the forum with a condensed course on how to negotiate like a pro. Most enlightening for me was the research referenced on how differently women and men view points of negotiation. Women see fewer points as truly negotiable than men, and often interpret “no” as the end of a negotiation. Conversely, men see very little as fixed, and perceive “no” as just the start. Dr. Medvec also debunked the myth that one should never make the first offer. “Always go first when you can, and anchor high.” Her session was incredibly useful. I’m still thinking about it – reflecting on missed opportunities, and preparing to do things differently in the future.
5. Our diversity is our strength.
We closed the last day of the forum with a fireside chat between me and Ava DuVernay – marketer, writer, director, and distributor of independent films. Ava is best known as the award-winning director of Selma – the critically-acclaimed 2014 film about the 1965 voting rights movement led by Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr. Ava and I talked about her childhood – a haven of family love and support; her evolution – a blend of creativity and business savvy turned professional freedom; and the window of opportunity she now has to shine a light on our humanity, and to tell stories that have yet to be fully told. Ava’s first major television project, Queen Sugar, debuts September 6th on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, and this fall, her documentary “The 13th” will kick off the New York Film Festival, becoming the first nonfiction film to receive this honor.
Ava’s world-view embraces the best kind of inclusion, where differences enhance ideas, relationships, and individuals. “The idea of representation is very provocative, which is unfortunate,” she said as our conversation came to a close. “If you have the opportunity to have a person who is different than you in the room and you don’t take it, shame on you.”
As we reminded each other at the forum, talking about gender equality while simultaneously failing to accomplish it is no longer acceptable. Talented women are ready and willing to lead. Those with influence can help clear the way, open doors, and make space for new voices and new solutions.
Like many of you who’ve been engaged in the gender equality conversation for years, I’m anxious to move from ideas to action. If enough of us – women and men – do just that, we won’t still be breaking ground ten years from now…we’ll be harvesting.
We’ve planted countless seeds. I’m ready to reap. That’s my ambitious goal.
Tara Jaye Frank is CEO of TJF Career Modeling, Corporate Culture Advisor for Hallmark Cards, Inc., and the author of Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose, written to help women from all cultural backgrounds chart a career course they can believe in and achieve. Tara consults and speaks on women’s leadership and diversity and inclusion. Follow her on Twitter @tarajfrank, Instagram @tarajayefrank, Facebook at Facebook/tarajayefrank, or visit her at tarajayefrank.com.