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Women in Leadership

Women in Leadership

How to manage post-pandemic challenges on your journey to the C-suite.

The pandemic dramatically impacted women in the workforce. While a hybrid and remote world alleviates some of the pressures that caused many women to leave the workforce, it also raises new concerns. As female leaders reshape the workplace to be more inclusive of female realities, they are resetting the working paradigm to ensure they can be seen and heard along their career journey.

At a recent Campaign US roundtable, hosted by Tag, editor Alison Weissbrot led a discussion between Laila Mignoni, creative director at Bacardi; Melissa Wildermuth, brand experience director of culture at General Mills; Meghan Finn, chief communications and engagement officer at the Breast Cancer Research Foundation; Stacy DeRiso, U.S. CEO at Initiative; Shayne Millington, co-CEO at McCann New York; Deepti Velury, COO, chief people officer and global head of technology at Tag; Lauren Heinemann, independent organizational and talent adviser; Rebecca Chen, head of growth and marketing at Actionable; and Paula Goldner, VP, global agency partnerships at Shutterstock, about how women can navigate current workforce challenges while trying to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Back to the office

With more than 40 offices around the globe, Tag opted to personalize the return-to-the-office for each region and individual rather than adopt a universal policy. “You need to make it specific to the person,” Velury said. “Everybody has different needs — man, woman, childcare, no childcare, caretaker of a parent, career flexibility, part-time worker.”

When employees feel seen and heard for who they are as well as what they contribute, they are much more loyal, committed and engaged. That’s why “servant leadership has never been more important in terms of understanding what your team needs,” Wildermuth said. General Mills created a “Work with Heart” framework that prioritizes personal and team flexibility and meaningful in-person moments so that people can create what works best for them and their team. The focus is on how work gets done, not where.

For leaders working with hybrid teams across diverse schedules, creating a sense of belonging can be a challenging yet crucial aspect of the culture. At Shutterstock, Goldner sets aside time for morning meetings to give everyone an opportunity to catch up, ask questions or touch base. “l want to be present and help them especially when we have new hires coming on board,” she said. 

The virtual office has made it difficult for new hires to understand how an organization works, Mignoni agreed. “It’s about the relationships,” particularly within larger companies such as Bacardi where she works. “Otherwise, it’s transactional.” Providing opportunities to develop those connections is especially important for new hires.

One of the biggest barriers to returning to work, DeRiso noted, is the language of how it’s discussed. It is true that a lot of people don’t want to return to the old model of work; however, face-to-face interactions can make work more meaningful. That’s why Initiative prefers a return to people or being together approach and encourages employees to “come in for the moments that matter.” 

McCann has also “been trying to reframe the conversation,” Millington added. “Let's talk about making the work better, making it more collaborative.” To foster more in-person collaboration, the company has created “moments where we put down the computer, where we create more meaningful conversations and people meet.”

Building a safe place

Change often comes by leading by example. Everyday actions give employees a clearer picture of what is possible. Millington admitted during the pandemic was the first time she successfully juggled her job and family. Now, she “personally tries not to come in as much to show that it’s OK to be flexible.” 

While Velury prefers to work in the office four days a week, she also makes a point of sharing why that works for her. “I need to come into a different place, dress up a different way, step out and do the work, and then take a break while traveling on the train to read a book,” she said, noting she doesn’t expect others to have the same schedule.

The reality is people need plenty of choice about where, when and how to work. Creating that flexibility requires a great deal of communication and transparency. There is no one-size-fits-all solution and employees “need to learn to cut the noise, to not worry about what others are doing,” Velury said. “You have more onus as a leader to make sure you’re bringing that change.”

Everyone has different work styles and personalities. For self-described introverts, heading back to the office may prove particularly difficult. The truth is it “takes massive courage to identify yourself and identify where you do your best,” said Wildermuth, noting the “Work with Heart” framework allows for just that. The beauty of the hybrid work environment is that “we’ve opened up the doors of talent, because we are giving that flexibility of being your true authentic self,” Velury said.

“When a team member shares their needs with the leader, it is on the leader to respect that need, even if they can't directly empathize with it. I’m particularly conscious of people who have needs and interests that aren’t as widely discussed in corporate America. For instance, what about single individuals who don’t have kids or elderly parents to tend to, but their own mental health to tend to? Can we really listen to each employee’s needs and give them the same consideration and care?” Chen said.

“Being vulnerable because you believe that I will take that vulnerability but not judge you for who you are” helps build a bond over time, Velury added. For Goldner, it’s important to “lead with visibility.” That sense of openness encourages others to do the same.

When Wildermuth took time to care for her daughter, she was surprised by how much her team members patted her on the back for “doing what any mother would do.” To them, she was “prioritizing the right way” and the company supported her decision. “Some women really struggle with self assurance to know that they can take a leave and be relevant,” Velury explained.  Especially in the corporate environment, Millington added, “being the person to say, I’m not going to put this as my top priority right now is almost impossible.”

It is not just about people speaking up. Just as important is for organizations to recognize their work and value their contributions. When Initiative realized its team was breaking under the pressures of a new project, the company took steps to prioritize its employees’ needs. “We don’t just have a client,” DeRiso explained. They created an empathy charter to “put guard rails around what we’re willing to do and not do.” The result was not only a happier, more productive team but an inquiry from the client’s procurement team about how they set it up. In addition, the company participates in Walk a Mile, during which employees trade jobs with clients in order to “have empathy for the pressure your clients are under and for the work they’re doing.”

The good news is leaders, especially in the marketing and advertising industry, have the ability to create a new culture of work, reflective of who employees are and what they need. “Advertising is a core influence of everything consumers and the world sees,” concluded Velury. “Kindness and empathy, personalized situations, a safe place and building a bond with your team is the only way forward. We have the power to change, therefore we are responsible.”

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