Women of LeadHERship – Interview SeriesMHS Talent Development
A Conversation with CEO & Founder of Brancu & Associates, PLLC, Mira Brancu
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 Mira Brancu, CEO & Founder of Brancu & Associates, PLLC.
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?
Yes, though there are differences in industries (and of course there is more of a concrete ceiling for women of color). I’d like to reconsider the term “glass ceiling.” The term often refers to positions in a very specific type of hierarchical structure and organizational charts that are fairly rigid in the types of positions available. So if the organization has let’s say three VP positions, then of course, if there is a “broken rung” ladder situation (per the recent McKinsey report), more men than women end up reaching higher levels faster and thus are more often in line for those few higher-level positions due to inequitable practices at lower levels. That is the case in which the glass ceiling applies.
However, I have also been fortunate over the past 10+ years to work within a more flexible organizational structure (some might be shocked to hear that since it’s within one of the largest bureaucratic and hierarchical systems in the US). However, as in many situations, it often comes down to leadership decisions. Leaders can choose whether they hold on to a rigid system or not. They can choose to make changes that create more opportunities for more people in more creative ways that serve both their employees and the organization.
I have been incredibly fortunate to have such forward-thinking supportive leadership (and as a result have also tried my best to continue paying it forward as I moved up into leadership roles). I’ve been promoted several times, and there is no one leadership role I’ve had in the past 10 years that existed in the org chart before then. I have had amazing opportunities to contribute my talents and be appreciated for them as a result of such openness by my supervisor and other leaders to consider how to best use the strengths of their employees rather than how to squeeze employees into positions regardless of fit.
But looking back at my full professional life, this was not always the case. I didn’t always have supervisors like these, and a “servant”, “transformational” or “situational” leadership style isn’t present in all organizations. Most of my life I was a square peg, and rarely did I fit into round holes (or even tried to fit in). Organizations with very rigid organizational rules and structures, that also have leaders who only adhere to those and don’t have an innovation mindset, are most likely the ones to create the greatest glass ceiling problems, because guess who is going to fit best into the existing “round hole” positions? “Round pegged” people. People who have always fit in traditional ways – those who speak and look the same. As an immigrant, a woman, and even being Jewish, I certainly didn’t always meet that criteria.
We all have these intersecting identities we come with. Sometimes the barriers were related to working differently from a man, but sometimes that gender identity didn’t come to play. Sometimes it was the immigrant side and missing very subtle communication and cultural cues. There were times I worked just as hard as I did in my current roles but still screwed up or wasn’t accepted as a result of these cultural differences I was missing.
I am a women’s leadership development consultant and very passionate about supporting women as leaders, but I also think it’s important we don’t miss all the other parts of their identity that may affect them in one position and not another because gender is only one piece of it.
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?
I have been mentored by both men and women. I’d like to first make a very important distinction between mentorship and supervision. I have been supervised by women who were not good mentors. I have also been supervised by women who tried to be good mentors but were not great supervisors. Supervision requires a certain kind of administrative skill and we often expect that if someone is a supervisor, they (a) must be good at being a supervisor and (b) they must also want and like to mentor others, and specifically you as their employee. But that isn’t always the case and sometimes problems occur from making those assumptions.
Mentors become mentors because they feel called to it or experience a personal benefit to helping others in that way, even if they have no supervisory relationship. And if they are providing mentorship as a supervisor, it’s a second hat they are putting on.
So, all that said, yes, I have received great mentorship when mentorship was offered, regardless of whether there was a supervisory relationship. And I think that’s because mentorship is a mutually determined relationship, as compared to supervision where there are specific power dynamics and job performance expectations already established that might cause complications in that relationship. In each case, the mentoring relationship was often established as a result of either (a) me reaching out and asking for advice or feedback which eventually led to the development of a longer-term relationship, or (b) me being first supervised in some way or having another peer/colleague relationship and then it developing into mentorship also. I have never had a formal mentor assigned to me. They have always been informal and grow out of a mutual relationship, respect, and support and honest desire to help.
Three inspiring qualities or competencies I have seen in other female leaders are:
- The courage to speak truth to power. This is extraordinarily hard when women are often put in positions of less power, so speaking up takes incredible courage and personal and emotional strength.
- The ability to not be fazed when insulted or demeaned and then to speak back with feedback about its inappropriateness. Women are more often in situations where there are invalidated, insulted, demeaned, etc. and it can easily lead to learned helplessness or anger. It takes such strength to dismiss the content and acknowledge the process and tone as inappropriate.
- Boundaries – Women are often asked, or even just expected, to provide a lot of emotional and invisible labor (such as doing all the “household” work at a company such as taking notes, serving or cleaning up after a retreat, remembering birthdays and holding celebrations). When asked we just agree to it (and sometimes we even volunteer because no one else will do it). While everyone must contribute, I do admire when women are clear about their boundaries (in a professional way of course) around this.
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?
As someone who grew up in New York, directness was valued. When I moved further and further south, I learned that level of directness was not always appreciated, and I had to work on toning it down. Part of me feels a loss for not being able to be that direct; on the other hand, I have also learned as I have moved into higher leadership roles that there is a time and a place for certain kinds of directness. Sometimes being tactful and diplomatic can go a long way to helping people feel heard and validated, and that there are ways to be both direct and also thoughtful in how I approach managing one conflict or problem vs another. It’s more important to have a toolbox full of different tools than one large hammer for every job.
However, I have also experienced times when I was called “intimidating” even though I am quite warm, engaging, and supportive. Or called “ambitious” as a euphemism for caring about my career enough to try and do my best instead of just average, understated work. These terms, like bossy, are often labels placed by people who may be uncomfortable with confident women who know their strengths and want to do their best, or who don’t always “put their nose down and do their work” but instead take career risks.
I have handled each case differently. For some, the comments came when I was being promoted into a much higher-level position as a very junior person. I assumed that people were scared I wasn’t ready and was pushing my career faster than I should or that I should respect the slow career progression via long-term experience gathering that many others had gone through. I understand these perspectives, they make sense. And most of the time, it does come more out of fear. So, my goal in those situations is to gain the trust and credibility of my staff, as any leader should. Other times, when people just assumed about my personality that was not based at all on knowing me, I called them out on it: “Why would you think that? What led you to believe this was the case? Is there something I did that caused you to feel intimidated?”
So, at this stage in my career, people assume I will be fierce more than they assume I’ll be lenient. And often they are pleasantly surprised on either side of that coin! However, I too still struggle and fall into the trap of being much more lenient and passive than I want to be because it’s what’s expected. I practice every day on finding and voicing my boundaries – it’s a work in progress. However, I never think anyone can be too kind. Kindness is something I think every leader should practice.
WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR PROFESSIONAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY BE?
How I Learned to Finally Fit in While Still Standing Out
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?
- You don’t know everything. But you also don’t know nothing.
- Lean heavily on mentors. They are the key to helping you figure out where you are going right and where you are going wrong, which is hard to assess on your own early in your career.
- Never make assumptions.
- Stop selling yourself short.
- Practice more patience and self-compassion.
WHAT’S ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE?
Situational (but leaning heavily on servant and transformational)
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.