Aspiring female leader? Learn from the best!

05/22/2017 01:56 pm ET
Left to right: Esther Morales, Stephanie Bush,  Lori George Billingsley, Becky Huling
Left to right: Esther Morales, Stephanie Bush, Lori George Billingsley, Becky Huling

I have had the privilege of working with inspiring female entrepreneurs and leaders throughout my career, and these women have been instrumental in my own growth as a professional and as a person. I recently asked a group of accomplished leaders to share their advice for women who aspire to lead an organization or start their own businesses. I hope you gain as much inspiration from their insights as I have.

Who inspires you and why?

Esther Morales, Executive Director of the National Women’s Business Council: I have the honor of meeting and supporting women in business, and women in pursuit of business, every single day. I am continually motivated by the creative, visionary women that I meet, as well as the 15 Council Members who direct our research and engagement work. They volunteer their time on top of their day-jobs to improve the business climate for women in our country. They inspire me not only because of their humor, kindness, and intention to empower other women in leadership, but also because they are committed to something bigger than themselves.

Stephanie Bush, Executive Vice President, The Hartford’s Small Commercial Insurance Business: My younger daughter, Caroline, is a daily inspiration. She was diagnosed on the autism spectrum when she was only 20 months old. We were told that she may never speak and may likely live in an institution. We immediately sought experts and engaged in an intensive therapy regime for several years. Today, Caroline is a very happy and sassy teenager. Not only did she learn to speak but she acts in a local children’s theater program, plays piano, takes archery lessons and earns grades that put her on her school’s honor roll. What she has overcome and what she manages every day inspires me, grounds me, and fills me with gratitude.

Lori George Billingsley, Vice President, Public Affairs and Communications, Coca Cola North America: Growing up, I was inspired by Harriet Tubman and Helen Keller. I looked towards these two because of their leadership, courage and tenacity to overcome all odds. My parents are my inspiration as well. They instilled the discipline of hard-work, family first and the importance of bringing different people together to build community and work towards a common goal.

Becky Huling, Vice President, Customer Engagement Marketing, FedEx: The people who inspire me most are the female entrepreneurs I see every day in my role at FedEx. My team works closely with our small business customers to help them take their businesses to the next level and, over the years, I have seen women from all walks of life – from single mothers to immigrants from less developed countries to military Veterans – turn their passions into viable, profit-turning businesses. They have new and innovative ways of solving problems and stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

What are three words that you live by and that summarize your approach to work and life?

Esther Morales: Teamwork acknowledges that we are all interdependent, and that we each bring different strengths to a situation. Positivity must prevail. When I choose positivity over negativity, then all things are possible. Persistence, because failures are inevitable in work and life. I take every time that I’ve failed as a learning moment to grow.

Stephanie Bush: Conviction means having confidence in yourself and your abilities, focusing on excellence, and setting goals. Integrity means pursuing your goals the right way – no shortcuts, no easy answers. Curiosity means asking questions, learning from mistakes, taking feedback, and continuing to improve. I have the opportunity to work with small business owners who are living examples of how these three points come together. That’s inspiring to me.

Lori George Billingsley: I’m a Christian so I approach work and life through the lens of my faith. I try to organize my work and my life around my purpose and it’s how I filter any opportunities. I also try to inspire, be a cheerleader and encourager to everyone that I come in contact with. Helping others fulfill what’s important to them, fills me up.

Becky Huling: From challenging myself with new subject matter to being on the cutting edge of business opportunities, courage is key to pushing the status quo. Integrity is all about being authentic and always bringing your best self. And for me, setting and reaching goals is key. As a leader, helping others find their full potential, and reach and exceed their goals is what gives me the most joy in my role.

What is the biggest challenge you see facing aspiring women leaders, and how can they overcome that challenge?

Esther Morales: Access to capital remains one of the greatest barriers for women trying to launch, scale and grow businesses. Our research confirms this, and we hear it directly from women entrepreneurs and leaders. Men start their businesses, on average, with nearly twice as much capital as women ($135,000 vs. $75,000). However, there are many resources available to women entrepreneurs. For example, Grow Her Business is a searchable repository of nearly 200 growth-oriented programs for women, organized by four growth stages.

Stephanie Bush: Some aspiring leaders are challenged with finding their professional voice. By that I mean finding the confidence to speak up, as well as communicating in a commanding, effective way. The way to do that is to listen first. Observe your working environment – your boss and other leaders. How are they engaging? Where are they focused? What’s the mood and tone? Then consider how you can fit into that. If you are speaking in an important meeting, plan what you’ll say, as well as the questions that you may receive. Know the impression you want to make and do the preparation required to make that impression.

Lori George Billingsley: I think women overall should share their inside voice, outside. Too often I see aspiring women leaders sit silent through meetings and then after the fact, reveal really good ideas. In that same vein, they hesitate to take on roles that might be a stretch or considered high-risk. A way to build that confidence is to leverage your network of mentors and sponsors. These are women (and men) who have been there before you and can share tips. It’s only through these uncomfortable opportunities that you truly grow as a leader.

Becky Huling: Women often strive for perfection before pursuing that next step in their careers. They feel they need to have 100% of the qualifications before even attempting to move to that next level. To overcome that challenge, I encourage women to seek mentors that provide honest feedback. One of my greatest mentors was Bill Logue, former CEO of FedEx Freight. He was an incredible coach and continually provided me with the straight talk I needed to become a better leader. His coaching helped me significantly improve my performance at the executive level and I will always be very grateful to him for that.

What advice do you have for women starting out in their careers?

Esther Morales: I recommend that women business owners get to know the overall environment within which they establish and grow their businesses, and the distinct players within their particular region’s ecosystem. Which relationships do they have and which relationships do they need to develop? Local resources, like regional Small Business Administration (SBA) offices and Women’s Business Centers (WBC), are important parts of this ecosystem. And, don’t forget to keep in touch with the National Women’s Business Council at www.nwbc.gov.

Stephanie Bush: Don’t rush your career by setting artificial deadlines, such as obtaining a certain title before you are 30 years old. Put the work in. Each role and each experience is prepping you for the next situation, next job, next level of leadership. If you try to rush it, you won’t have instincts or skills to be a success. My career has spanned a variety of roles, locations and lines of business. Each step has provided me with lessons and experiences to get me to where I am today – leading a line of business that protects more than one million small businesses across the U.S.

Lori George Billingsley: Do not hesitate in pursuing roles that might be a stretch. Be open to taking risks. An example from my life would be when I transitioned from Regional Communications to Issues Management at The Coca-Cola Company. It was a global role that stretched my strategic thinking and functional capabilities – but the one that I learned the most from. Also, save more of your time, talent and treasures. Protect your time, since you can never get time back. You should go where your talent is celebrated, not tolerated. And with all of your treasures, you should save early and often.

Becky Huling: Don’t wait for the “perfect time” to pursue your dreams of growth and success – because there is never going to be a perfect time. As part of my role as the executive sponsor of our Women in Leadership program at FedEx, I make it my mission to show our up-and-coming women leaders that they can advance their careers and home lives at the same time. My 25 year-old daughter recently shared with me that she never felt she missed out on anything by having an “executive-mom.” In fact, she said it helped her realize that there is no limit to what she could achieve in life. That makes me very proud.

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