Career advice from three successful women leaders

Frustration over the persistent gender wage gap and how to fix it have followed women in the workforce for decades. From Sheryl Sandberg’s early days of “Lean In” to her subsequent acknowledgement that it’s not always that simple, the conversation about how to change the lack of women in the C-suite and what to do about maternity leave and the years that follow continue unabated.

But before women workers decide the glass ceiling on their career trajectory is unbreakable, consider these three women with inspiring careers that seem to defy the dire predictions.

Ford’s Futurist

Sheryl Connelly has been serving as the in-house Futurist for Ford Motor Company for over a decade. She told Ladders her path to this job was a circuitous one.

“I never expected to become a futurist, I didn’t even know what it was. I stumbled into it. I’m a Gen Xer. That means (the few, the proud, the cynical) I came of age during a recession. I was basically trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t come to it from a place of passion, but more – are you sure that you will be employable?”

Connelly studied finance “that did not land me a job.” She also went to law school and practiced law for “a little bit of time,” but wasn’t passionate about it. Next up, Connelly went for an MBA because she was curious to see “if the business degree could take me someplace.” It took her to tax compliance, which she said couldn’t be more dry. But Connelly spotted something, she saw intersectionality there and thought that with her law degree and finance degree should could create something, so she wrote to Ford. “My resume got kicked over to sales and marketing. A scary undertaking for me. What young person wants to go into sales, it’s so intimidating? And for a car company, I’m not as well versed.” But Connelly grew up in metro Detroit and really admired the brand, and to be honest – she thought it would be temporary.

Connelly began by answering the 1-800 line and for a year answered questions ranging from who’s my local dealer to my car’s making this noise (Connelly grunts) what does it mean? Connelly learned to be a good listener, and to think in a consistent way. She was then relocated to Pittsburgh and was selling cars to dealers. “I thought they’d see through me and know I was a fraud- and of course they did. They were so patient in terms of their generosity with me. I credit them with giving me my education. Our dealers are one of the greatest strengths we have.” Connelly did that for a while, but like other Gen Xers she had a crisis of confidence and worried since she didn’t love cars. She spoke to her colleagues about it and concluded that “you don’t have to love the product as long as you love the people,” which clearly she does.

“Twenty years later, I’m still here.” When she needed a change, she joined the Global Consumer Trends and Futuring Team – “When I joined the team it was relatively new. It was a push organization. They had to knock on doors and tell people what they do.” Thirteen years later, Connelly is the one remaining member of the team.

These are some of the lessons Connelly learned over the past two decades:

  1. Explain, then find ways to collaborate: “The message we have is so important, but we can’t tell people how to use it. We tell people- these are the trends, this is how people are responding to it. Hospitality, trends.
  2. Provide something people can use: “I’m not telling people how to do their jobs,” Connelly says “I’m bringing them information they didn’t have the time or luxury to find on their own.”
  3. Combine your talents: Connelly says her MBA taught her how to apply insights, while her law degree taught her how to research, and build a logical, persuasive narrative behind her view. She hooks people with her point of view backed by sources.
  4. Change doesn’t happen overnight: Connelly explained that most trends can take years to take flight. “A big part of my responsibility is to separate a trend from a fad. It takes us 3-5 years to take an idea and execute it through the workplace. So we do long term trends and we look at micro trends. If a macro trend will be relevant for 2-4 decades, a macro trend will be relevant for 2-4 years.
  5. Compassion and dignity matter: One of Connelly’s newer projects includes finding ways to help an aging population. So self-driving cars may sound like the stuff of The Jetsons, but the notion was born of helping senior citizens live better more mobile lives.

Connelly is one of the clearest thinkers we’ve ever encountered, most especially because she makes what can seem like an intimidating concept accessible. When asked about her favorite trend, she declares Mindfulness to be the one she thinks will stick around. “I obviously cannot predict the future, sadly, no one can. By exploring the things you can’t control, helps give you a better grounding of what’s happening around and why it’s happening. The goals of Ford is to make people’s lives better. We’ve changed the dynamic. Not just individuals as our customers, but our cities. We think we can do it.” Based on her vision and explanations, we think she can too.

The Female Fisherman

Julie Decker is a commercial fisherman & executive director of Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. She has what many would see as an incredibly unusual if not bold career for a woman, but she doesn’t quite see it that way

“I don’t really think of myself that way. I think that I mostly want to do cool stuff – things like traveling to Alaska, being outdoors in highly remote areas, seeing parts of nature that many don’t get to experience (e.g. commercial diving), having a job that is interesting and challenging, etc.  I think keeping focused on what you want to accomplish rather than the challenges helps get you were you want to go.”

When asked for tips or advice for women and men to be bolder in the workplace, Decker answered “I don’t approach situations by thinking of myself as a woman. I think of myself as a human being. What is important to me is doing a good job wild at what I’m doing – whether that is catching as much wild Alaska salmon as possible, or being a supportive wife and mother.”

Decker shared some lessons she’s learned in her atypical career:

  1. The jerks are truly the minority: “We will always run into people who try to cut us down or who don’t welcome a woman in a field that is traditionally men; there are always those jerks. However, they are the minority. In my experience, the majority of people are good.  They care more about what you produce and how you handle yourself.”
  2. Surround yourself with a strong support network: Decker says when she has to deal with “the occasional jerk or other type of obstacle in the workplace, I surround myself with friends and family who are supporters.  For instance, my husband is my biggest cheerleader.  He encourages me and believes in my abilities even when I question them myself.  My closest friends are similarly supportive.  These are the types of healthy relationships that will help you deal with challenges or be bold by taking a risk on believing in yourself – even when it’s scary.”
  3. Create your own role models: Decker says many of her friends are her role models. “I have a girlfriend who plays in a rock band in San Francisco, another who took a career risk to start her own economics analysis business (and now she has more work that she can handle,) and another who integrates her commercial fishing knowledge and passion for thriving coastal communities to creatively develop solutions around resource management, which allows for positive development of Alaska’s fishery resources and environmental protection.”
  4. Don’t sacrifice your values: Decker says “A person doesn’t have to sacrifice her values or certain personality traits.  Be yourself, but be the best yourself that you can be.”

The Music Row Exec

If you’re at all familiar with the Nashville music scene, you’ll know how unusual it is to encounter a woman on the C level. Beth Laird, Co-Owner & CEO of Creative Nation Music, began her career as a college student when her mother ran into her old babysitter, Capitol Records head of publicity Regina Stuve, who suggested Laird come in as a summer intern. Laird knew nothing about country music, but drove to Nashville 3 days a week that summer from her home in Winchester, Tenessee and interned for free for the summer.

“It changed my life because I fell in love with the music business and knew that is exactly what I wanted to do,” which included another internship the following year, she says. After graduating, Laird worked at BMG Music Publishing as receptionist.

“It was the break I needed and I didn’t take it for granted. I worked really hard to make a great impression and build relationships. That job gave me the relationships and knowledge I needed to do what I do now and I am forever grateful.”

Laird also offered some insights to inspire others trying to find their way in a traditionally male-dominated industry:

  1. Keep it in the family: Laird and her husband Luke Laird, a songwriter and producer run the company together. “We really wanted to try doing publishing our way.  So, we took a big risk by jumping out and funding the company ourselves so we could do it the way we wanted.”
  2. Evolve as a leader: Even if you’re learning as you go, you can evolve to become a stronger professional. Laird says “We are over five years in and my role continues to change.  I love songwriters and the creative process and have a heart for helping them achieve their dreams so that goal has stayed the same.  I don’t think I ever could have anticipated the challenges of being a boss and business owner, but I love that role as well and think I am always evolving as a leader.”
  3. Keep your blinders on: Laird says “Don’t compare yourself to others.  It’s hard not to and we all do it at times but if you can figure out what your unique talents and strengths are and play to those, then I think you can make a name for yourself.  There will always be someone you can compare yourself to that seems to be doing it better or more successfully than you but you can’t focus on that. You just have to keep your blinders on and be your best self.  That way you will always do what you love and be proud of the work you are doing.”
  4. The female advantage: Laird says she’s always viewed being a woman as an advantage in the music business. “I realize some men feel more comfortable working with other men but women like having a female point of view on their team and some men enjoy that too. We just see the world differently.  If someone doesn’t want to work with me because I am a woman, I don’t worry about that.  I just look for the clients that see it as a strength and then try to build the best team around them to accomplish their goals.  Sometimes being a woman in a male dominated industry can feel overwhelming but I’m always up for the challenge!  It makes me want to work harder and smarter.”
  5. Dealing with criticism: Laird advises not taking it personally. “You have to take the criticism and let it make you better or use it as a catalyst to prove them wrong.  If you let it get to you, they win and you won’t pursue your dreams based on other people’s fear.”
  6. Embrace change: Laird says “I think the biggest challenge of running any business in the music industry is change. You can’t always project what your earnings will be or control the outcome of your work so you have to be crazy enough to go for it and believe in yourself.  I love being a small independent company because we can quickly adapt to change and that is why we have evolved over time. I am constantly trying to gather as much information as possible and stay up to date on the evolving music trends, technology and legislation, but I also have to remember that it all comes back to a great song.  If we can work with the best clients, focus on their individual goals and keep them in their most productive space, then the rest will fall into place and take care of itself.”