10/06/2014 08:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

Women in Business: Nichole Lecher, Director of Strategic Philanthropy and Community Relations at Northwestern Mutual

Nichole Lecher is director of strategic philanthropy and community relations at Northwestern Mutual. She has held this position since January 2012. In this role, she sets the Northwestern Mutual Foundation's strategic direction and oversees its operations, resources, and budget. She leads the Foundation's national philanthropic programs, including the company's Childhood Cancer Program. She also partners with the Communications and Marketing departments to engage financial representatives and staff and build the company's brand through strategic philanthropy.

Lecher joined the company in January 2005. She started as a business improvement consultant where she implemented numerous process improvements to reduce operating expenses across the company. In 2008, she served as a strategy consultant and supported the company's efforts to cascade its strategy throughout the organization. In 2010, she was promoted to assistant director of strategic planning and assumed responsibility for the company's strategy performance reporting, consulting, and special projects.

Prior to joining Northwestern Mutual, Lecher was a consultant with Accenture - a global management consulting and technology company that serves the insurance industry.

Lecher received a bachelor of business administration degree from St. Norbert College in 2001 and a M.B.A. from Marquette University in 2007.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I chuckled when I read this question! My life experiences feel like a jigsaw puzzle: lots of pieces have contributed to my leadership journey and shaped my current success. There were a number of obstacles that shaped part of my life and taught me that perseverance and attitude are everything. I'm grateful for the people in my life who show me the power of positivity. It sounds contrived, but I try to embrace the positives in my life all the time - even the most negative experience can provide a learning opportunity. Looking back, these experiences have made me an incredibly strong, resilient person. I've learned to be true to myself and keep things in perspective.

My leadership journey would not be complete without my amazing father - he showed me the value of integrity, and the importance of being genuine and having a strong work ethic. My grandmother was also an influential and positive role model - she was a very independent, driven, entrepreneurial, and successful woman. My husband and children have helped me become a much more patient and understanding leader, and I've had incredible mentors who have guided my professional growth.

I'm grateful for my international travel experiences at a young age. Each adventure gave me humility and a broader understanding of people and culture. These experiences influence my decision-making process as a leader.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Northwestern Mutual?
I couldn't have predicted 15 years ago that I'd be where I am today. I started my career with Accenture as a process consultant, learning my client's business processes and translating their business needs into technical solutions to advance their company's objectives. This experience provided me with strong business architecture, change management and strategy skills. Those foundational skills, coupled with strong interpersonal skills, have been instrumental to my career -- know the business and translate the needs to achieve long-term goals. I joined Northwestern Mutual in 2005 as a Business Improvement Consultant and quickly added value to improve Northwestern Mutual's operations, and evolved into strategy consulting and development roles. In 2012, I joined the Northwestern Mutual Foundation to re-define the giving strategy and launch a national cause branding program, which is now the Childhood Cancer Program. The Foundation role has been the most rewarding part of my professional journey thus far.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Northwestern Mutual?
All of my roles at Northwestern Mutual have been very interesting. However, the most rewarding experience was learning that a child whom we funded through our sponsorship of Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation Family Travel Fund was in remission from a clinical trial he received because we paid for his and his family's transportation to the treatment facility. This news came on the first anniversary of our program launch and it was tremendous affirmation that we are doing the right thing. Our investments - through Alex's Lemonade Stand - are making a significant difference in the lives of thousands of children. It's rewarding to know that your day-to-day work can truly make a difference in the lives of so many.

I've had the privilege of being part of a number of "start ups" within Northwestern Mutual -new initiatives, divisions, and departments that were charged with bringing thought leadership into the company. As with anything new, there is a healthy dose of cynicism before you can prove the value of an effort. Bringing an organization along the change continuum, in most organizations, can take a long time and can be frustrating. While Northwestern Mutual has always been committed to doing the right thing and being a model corporate citizen, the Childhood Cancer Program was a start-up that has shown broader value for many areas of the business. The program's success has exceeded our expectations and has offered a number of fun, strategic challenges. The most significant being the integration of the messaging through all the appropriate areas of the company to all of our key stakeholders - internal partners, our financial representatives, our clients, prospective clients, and employees.

Why is it so important that businesses support social issues?
Successful businesses have the resources, reach and responsibility to move the needle on critical social issues that affect our communities, and consumers now more than ever expect companies to give back and to be socially responsible.

At my company, it is imperative to who we are to uphold our values and make a meaningful impact on social issues that will improve the lives of children and families in need. Our efforts are focused nationally on finding cures for childhood cancer, and locally on education, neighborhoods and making our hometown of Milwaukee a great city to live, work and play. My work at the Foundation aligns with the company's deeper purpose to help individuals and families achieve their life goals, and it allows our employees and financial representatives to feel a deep sense of connection and pride for Northwestern Mutual.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in business strategy?
The essence of business strategy is simple: it's about clearly articulating what your organization's objectives are (what do you want to achieve?), establishing your guiding principles (how you're going to deliver your strategy?) and what you need (what are your core capabilities?) to get there. Strategy is a decision-making framework that allows you to make decisions to achieve your outcomes. Although it is simple in theory, strategy execution requires a deep understanding of how the organization's people, processes, and technology support the end of objectives in a competitive landscape, ensuring that your organization is delivering unique stakeholder value. My advice to women seeking careers in strategy: always keep in mind that successful strategy development requires broad perspective - you need to know your external environment - know the trends, the opportunities/threats the organization faces and the internal environment - how the organization works - where's the data, who are the experts, influencers, etc.. Strategy work is fulfilling for individuals who are highly analytical, collaborative, detail-oriented and systems thinkers; if you like this type of work, go for it!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Is there such a thing as balance when you are a working mom??! My life is in a constant state of prioritization between what my family needs and my needs at work. Thankfully, I have an amazing husband who helps keep "life" in balance when I'm traveling or my work schedule gets out of balance, and vice versa for him. At work, I have an incredible team that I trust and rely on to deliver our objectives.

Balance is important; however, it's always been an area I've struggled with and requires more improvement. My children have helped me realize what truly is important and they have made it much easier for me to say no to things. However, I recently experienced a major "aha" moment that forced me to re-think what "balance" means to me. I realized, probably like most working moms, that I've been so focused on delivering at work and at home that I've forgotten to take care of myself. My never ending to-do list became more important than finding the time to do the things I enjoy. I've recently made a concerted effort to work less at night and on the weekends, making time to exercise - which has always been a great stress relief, and trying new things. Although I'll admit it's been uncomfortable and that some things have had to give, it's worth it; I'm much happier. Finding "balance" makes me better all around and probably much more interesting to talk to. My conversation topics now extend beyond my work and family!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
As a working mom, I think the biggest issue for working women is feeling guilty for not spending enough time with their children. The issues that my male and female peers in and outside the company face are very different. While both genders can engage equally in the merits and challenges of their work and career progression, women seem to struggle more with the guilt of not having enough time with their children. When great opportunities are presented, I think women tend to make their decision first and foremost on the impact to the family, followed by the opportunity for advancement. Whereas, men traditionally would seize the opportunity for advancement first and then figure out how to deal with the impact on the family later. Sadly, I've seen a number of incredible women leave their roles to focus on their family, which is great for them, but a huge loss for the organization. Thankfully, I work for a leader who appreciates work-life balance and the contributions that I make - as a mom and as a female. He recognizes that I can deliver on my objectives, even if I need to have flexibility in my schedule to drop off my children at school and be home for dinner. I also am very purposeful about my business trips, late/early meetings or events that take me away from important family time; it's a conscious trade-off to advance my professional objectives. My loyalty and engagement are strong because I love what I do and that my work makes a difference to society. Plus, I feel I am a better and more engaged mom because I work.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentors provide an objective perspective, a person to be vulnerable with and talk through challenges and someone you can learn from who has "been there." My mentors have always been a valuable part of my development. The roles that mentors play in your life evolves over time. Admittedly, early in my career, I was seeking mentors who could help direct my career, help me figure out how to navigate in a large organization and build my confidence. Now, I'm more focused on growing into a great leader and having meaning in my work. Today, I seek mentors whom I truly admire because of their authentic leadership style. When I retire, I want to be known as a great leader who made a difference, not just one of the females who made it into the executive ranks. Thankfully, I have a few mentors to help me achieve my goals.

Which female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire any woman who has achieved a senior executive role at any organization and has helped prove that women are just as valuable as men in the professional world. However, I have even greater admiration for women who have achieved a senior executive rank as a working mom. I respect and appreciate working mothers at any level because I know the sacrifices they make in exchange for their professional contributions.

Liz Scott, Co-Executive Director of Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, is a female leader whom I truly admire because she is unbelievably strong and successful. She is the mother of four and lost her daughter, Alex, to pediatric cancer. Alex was the inspiration behind the nonprofit Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation. Liz has such tremendous character and inner strength: she overcame the loss of a child and is carrying her legacy forward through the Foundation, her passion for her children, her commitment to fighting pediatric cancer through research and family support, and her authenticity is remarkable. Liz (and her husband Jay), through the Foundation they built together, have transformed the world of pediatric cancer in the last ten years; had it not been for their strength and business savvy, thousands of children would not have the access to better treatment. Not only does Liz do a remarkable job leading the Foundation, she's a very engaged mom and raising three incredible boys. She's truly an inspiring woman!

What do you want Northwestern Mutual to accomplish in the next year?
As part of our Childhood Cancer Program, I hope that we will significantly increase awareness of the need to fund pediatric cancer research, that more children will have access to clinical trials that will remove evidence of their disease, that we fund research that leads to better protocols for these children and ultimately, we help provide them with a brighter and healthier future.