Women of LeadHERship – Interview SeriesMHS Talent Development
A Conversation with Executive Coach, Director, & Associate Professor, Claudia Fernandez
How many of your organization’s leaders are women? Have you ever worked for a female CEO? Have you ever stopped to think about female representation in leadership positions? According to a study we conducted with HR.com, the Women in Leadership Survey 2020, women are not only under-represented in the leadership ranks but gender diversity in leadership positions is not a priority for most organizations.
At MHS, we take pride in the progress we have made in providing equitable opportunities and gender diversity amongst leadership ranks. In 2020, we are proud to say females comprise of 48% of our leadership team, 60% of our executive team, and we are led by an incredible female CEO, Hazel Wheldon.
We connected with Hazel and our Chief Product Officer (CPO) Jenni Pitkanen, as well as several other inspiring women across various industries who have made the climb up the corporate ladder. Each of these women has taken risks in environments that didn’t always feel safe to do so. They looked at barriers as new challenges to overcome while building their resilience and gumption along the way. They shared their stories, their advice, and took this chance to empower each reader – no matter their age, gender, or career path – to take the risk, harness their internal power, and aim for the top.
The following is a snippet of the “Women of LeadHERship” interview, featuring the responses Claudia Fernandez.
IS THERE STILL A GLASS CEILING?
WHAT WAS YOUR “GLASS CEILING MOMENT”?
HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED A BARRIER AS A RESULT OF STEREOTYPES OR LINGERING STIGMAS, MAKING YOU WORK HARDER OR DIFFERENTLY THAN A MAN WOULD FOR THOSE POSITIONS?
My career has unfolded in two phases: I spent nearly 20 years as a health professional working at academic medical centers and then I earned my doctorate in Public Health Leadership. I’ve spent my last 17 years since then at a University. Both healthcare and public health are female-dominated professions, so I’ve “grown-up” professionally surrounded by women. However, that has not been who has shown up for my leadership development programs. For the past 17 years, I have taught leadership to physicians, academic leaders, and a wide range of other health professionals including public health. When I started, these programs for high potential and established leaders typically enrolled cohorts made up of 75% men and 25% women at best. It was an incredible contrast to my career where nearly all the teachers I’d had and at least half of the leaders I’d worked with were women. I realized how special my path had been and what a privilege it was that I’d experienced such a diversity of leaders that “gender” was never an obstacle, frustration or even something we talked about in the office. But this was not the case for those who had been identified and sent to my national-in-scope leadership programs. It took a concerted effort on the parts of many people to change the profile of who was selected for inclusion in these programs. Now, I see is a complete flip! It is common for my healthcare programs to enroll 75-85% women now and for the academic-based programs to be 40-50% women.
THERE IS A LOT OF WORK BEING DONE TO ENCOURAGE AND HELP WOMEN SUPPORT ONE ANOTHER. HAVE YOU BEEN MENTORED BY A FELLOW FEMALE IN YOUR PERSONAL OR PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT?
HOW WERE THESE MENTORSHIPS ESTABLISHED AND FOSTERED?
WHAT ARE THE 3 MOST INSPIRING QUALITIES OR COMPETENCIES YOU SEE IN OTHER FEMALE LEADERS?
Mentoring is an important part of anyone’s career development. Mentors can show you the ropes, open doors, make connections, and explain the difference between doors and walls. While I had a variety of informal mentors early on in my career, my most productive experience with mentoring happened when I took a job in an organization with a formal and organized program.
When I accepted my current faculty post 13 years ago, I was immediately connected with two mentors in my department (one male, one female) who worked as a team. We met regularly (at least twice a year), set achievable goals, and had clear targets that helped me measure my progress and accomplishments. It was and continues to be a strong and supportive working relationship. My mentors helped me see when the time was ripe for me to pursue promotions and new opportunities and encouraged me every step of the way.
By my second year in my current job (over a decade ago now) a senior female leader gently pushed me with “stretch” assignments, helping me to challenge the way I thought about how I did my job. While she was in a very different area of practice from my work, her tutelage helped me to grow in unexpected ways. I took on the stretch assignment and was suddenly connected to professionals nation-wide. My ability as an executive coach and a teacher expanded greatly. I am so grateful for the mentors who saw such potential in me, and I try to pass that on to the young women I am mentoring as well.
HOW CAN WOMEN LEVERAGE ASSERTIVENESS WHEN BATTLING CLICHÉS AROUND BEING BOSSY?
HAVE YOU EVER HAD TO JUSTIFY YOUR DIRECTNESS?
DO PEOPLE ASSUME YOU WILL BE MORE LENIENT, KIND, AND PASSIVE RATHER THAN A FIERCE, ASSERTIVE LEADER? DO YOU BELIEVE WE HAVE OVERCOME THIS STEREOTYPE ALREADY?
I am a naturally assertive person–a “thinking type” is a descriptor that fits well. I have no hesitation to speak up for myself or for others, a tendency that has created some challenges since I was a child. It came as a surprise to me early in my career that being direct could be anything other than desirable.
Being direct worked well in health care, an often fast-paced, high-pressure environment that requires efficiency. However, my greatest learning about assertiveness came when I started to study how people influence others. Telling is very different from convincing. I learned that if I wanted to change someone else’s behavior, whether that was around their health practices (such as diet or exercise) or if I wanted to impact more workplace type of behaviors, such as their communication, their productivity, or even influence what they believe or what motivates them, assertiveness was usually a path of frustration on everybody’s part. My natural proclivity for being assertive, for speaking up, for defending the rights of others, the truth of science, the body of knowledge accumulated in an area… still didn’t always get people to change. They might agree but they would just do the same old thing that continued to plague them (and sometimes the organization) with problems.
I learned that influence was about listening, asking the right kinds of questions, and allowing people the space to come to their own decisions, which amazingly were very similar to my goals for them once they didn’t feel like they were fighting me. I have found great leverage in nurturing both my “feeling” side as well as my “thinking” side and I now see that there are many ways to be “assertive”.
WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR PROFESSIONAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY BE?
Real Life Leadership: lessons along the path of a semi-balanced life
IF YOU COULD GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING OF YOUR CAREER, OR EVEN JUST 5 YEARS AGO, WHAT CAREER OR EVEN PERSONAL ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOURSELF?
Do something that you love. Do something that makes the world a better place. Do something that requires you to constantly grow. Do something that connects you to others in meaningful ways. And do something that pays the bills.
While most of us have to be practical when it comes to working life because there are bills to pay and life comes with real costs, it is no kind of life to work solely for a pay cheque at a job or profession that you don’t enjoy.
Choose something that thrills your heart. While I don’t recommend routinely working on weekends, it’s wonderful to be in a field that is so engaging that you find it crosses your mind when you’re out exercising, shopping or having dinner. A career that inspires you with innovating ideas out of blue. It’s important to have a career that serves others, and not just yourself or your ego. Egos are insatiable creatures and over-feeding them leads to undesirable outcomes. Build others at every opportunity. Knowing that your work benefited someone or something other than yourself is a true path to fulfillment.
The best kind of career has no “arrival” point, no “destination”, no “finish line”. The best kind of career is like an upward spiral with always more to learn, more to give, more to create, more to share, more to impact. Your career should expand your mind and your heart, as well as help, support you and your family. After all, the time you devote to your career takes you away from the other equally important aspects of your life, so make that time that you invest in your career something that you don’t regret.
WHAT’S ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE?
But one word is never enough. Impassioned. Empathetic. Direct. Supportive. Impactful. Innovative. Equitable.
Leaders should not be limited by one style because the challenges we navigate require us to bring our whole selves to the table.
THE WAY FORWARD
Each of the women we interviewed has been supported by colleagues, friends, and family, but most importantly, they have supported themselves. It is vital that we celebrate the triumphs of female leaders but also to work towards a future where:
“There will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”
-Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook
Read the full report on The State of Women in Leadership 2020 here. Help prioritize the development of women leaders and shatter the glass ceiling once and for all.