Women Leaders Share What They Learned on the Journey to the Top

Women in senior management, VP and C-suite positions share their biggest career lessons and advice for the next generation of women leaders.

Written by Michael Hines
Published on Mar. 08, 2023
Women Leaders Share What They Learned on the Journey to the Top
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Statistically speaking, it’s not likely other women will achieve the career heights of Liyan Shen, the chief financial officer at e-commerce company Birdy Grey. Women face an uphill battle joining Shen in the C-suite, with a 2022 McKinsey and LeanIn.org report finding that just 26 percent of all C-level roles were held by women, with women of color holding just 5 percent total. 

Things look a little better on the career ladder rungs below, though there’s still work to be done. Women make up 32 percent of all corporate vice presidents and 36 percent of senior management. 

If there is good news to be gleaned here it’s that maintenance on the glass ceiling appears to have ceased. From 2017 to 2022, the percentage of women in the C-suite, VP positions and senior manager roles increased by 6 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

While things are improving, the slow shattering of the glass ceiling shows that it was built to last. Women who aspire to high-level leadership positions can’t wait around for the corporate world to change — and fortunately they don’t have to. Women in leadership are ready and willing to share their experiences and advice with the next generation.

 

Michelle Greene
Sr. Manager, IT Operations • Metagenics

Metagenics is a health supplement company whose products are sold both online and in-person through healthcare providers.

 

What’s the most important lesson you learned as you grew your career?

As a female in tech, some routine lessons I have learned are to speak up when you want to be heard or included, as sometimes people won’t wait for your input. Also, develop good people skills, as technology is mostly about people, even if the fun part of the job is getting to dig into technical issues or finding technical solutions.

If you aspire to grow into a leadership role, learning how to communicate and work with people is critical. Most of my day is spent explaining a technical topic to an executive or other team members. In this role, I need to be able to cover the details without too much technical jargon, which is essential to being a technical manager. As you continue to develop your leadership skills and interact with more stakeholders across an organization, you have to understand and learn how to navigate both ends of the technology and people spectrums.

Speak up when you want to be heard or included, as sometimes people won’t wait for your input.”


How do you stay motivated and inspired as a leader, and how do you try to motivate and inspire other women at Metagenics?

My motivation comes from knowing that as a single parent to a daughter, my performance directly impacts how she sees her future potential. I also make deliberate attempts to remind myself during each workday what I have accomplished so I don’t let myself get overwhelmed with the pile of undone work that is still waiting for me. At the end of each day, I make a list of priorities for the next day to avoid losing sight of the work. 

I also take a moment to make a mental list of the stuff I checked off that day, which provides me the motivation to keep attacking the pile. Motivating others is similar, reminding them that they are getting things accomplished even if they don’t notice it right away.

 

What advice do you have for the next generation of women in tech, and why is this advice important?

If technology is your passion, there is a place for you! So many women’s innate skill sets lend themselves to the troubleshooting and multi-tasking necessary for a career in tech. Take the time to give yourself credit for your hard work and thoughtful efforts as technical work is extremely complex and it can be challenging to feel confident in your own skill set at times. Always remember that your input could solve a problem no one else has been able to or answer a question no one could. Never forget to speak up.

 

 

Liyan Shen
Chief Financial Officer • Birdy Grey

Birdy Grey is a direct-to-consumer formalwear company offering bridesmaid dresses for under $100.

 

What’s the most important lesson you learned as you grew your career? 

Be a lifelong learner. Learn from the things you read, classes you take and also learn from the people around you. I definitely got this from an old boss who was insatiable in his drive to become a better person and leader. He was super direct about learning from everyone around him, and it was inspiring. The business necessity is quite obvious: staying ahead of trends and keeping up with technology. Sometimes, even the smallest things make a huge difference. 

For example, at a previous company, someone on my team frequently replied to chats or emails with lots of exclamation marks, unless she was asking a question, of course. I always found her messages to be engaging and could sense her excited demeanor. So I started doing it. It sounds trivial and maybe it makes no difference, but then again, maybe it does.

Be a lifelong learner. Learn from the things you read, classes you take and also learn from the people around you.


How do you stay motivated and inspired as a leader, and how do you try to motivate and inspire other women at Birdy Grey?

One thing I try my best to do is be upbeat. The business climate these days can sometimes be tough and it may feel like there are headwinds everywhere. Regardless, it’s important for me to show up optimistic and upbeat. This can be as simple as a smile, making a silly joke or telling a goofy story at the beginning of a meeting. This makes a huge difference in setting the mood and getting teams engaged to brainstorm different ways to problem-solve. Everyone wants to be around people who are hopeful for the future and relentless in pursuing that hopeful future, especially in uncertain times.

 

What advice do you have for the next generation of women in tech, and why is this advice important?

Don’t be afraid of your own voice. I’m someone who internalizes other people’s reactions. If I make a point I deem to be worthwhile but for whatever reason the audience shows no reaction, I question myself. Often, though, it has nothing to do with me. Maybe the audience was distracted or agreed with me but forgot afterward. Don’t be afraid to say it again and even a third time, if needed. Don’t question yourself.

 

 

Sandra Fawaz
VP of Activation • OpenX Technologies

OpenX is a programmatic advertising company that also operates an omnichannel ad exchange network.

 

What’s the most important lesson you learned as you grew your career?

I learned two fundamental lessons early on in my career. The first was to embrace feedback and the second was learning not to feel defeated when I failed. I had an amazing woman mentor who was an expert at delivering feedback and would always tell me “feedback is a gift.” Through her patience and leadership I learned to embrace it and seek it proactively. Though the lesson was challenging, it has served as a guiding light that has helped me to grow, learn, evolve and as she would say, level up. 

Failing has never been an option for me. I’m the daughter of two immigrant parents who fled poverty and a war-torn country, and they instilled discipline and hard work in me. They believed in me and always pushed me to do better no matter how well I was already doing. The first time I made a mistake at work was a humbling experience. I now know the value of failing fast and failing hard. The learnings from failing are something that success can’t teach. These lessons have helped me become a better leader and allowed me to grow in ways I never imagined I could.

Be confident in your value and don’t shy away from sharing your ideas.


How do you stay motivated and inspired as a leader, and how do you try to motivate and inspire other women at OpenX?

Staying motivated is easy when you genuinely love what you do. As a leader, setting clear goals, having meaningful team conversations, staying updated on the ever-changing industry and, most importantly, serving and supporting my clients motivates me to do my best every day. Taking the time to step away and recharge is also essential to show up as your best self. In addition, it’s necessary to take the time to focus on your physical and mental health daily to have the energy to lead effectively. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

Inspiring and motivating women at OpenX is one of the best parts of my job. Some key ways I support my colleagues are by celebrating their successes and acknowledging their hard work. I also support them in finding new challenges that align with their career goals to help expand their skill set. Finally, I try to foster a positive and inclusive culture that allows anyone to knock on my virtual door for advice and support.

 

What advice do you have for the next generation of women in tech, and why is this advice important?

My advice is to take every opportunity to learn and grow your skills. Staying up-to-date on new technologies and attending conferences and networking events will help you remain competitive and increase your chances of success. Be proactive, ask questions and find mentors within and outside your organization. Find support from other women in tech to help you navigate your career path early on. Finally, be confident in your value and don’t shy away from sharing your ideas. You don’t have to be the loudest person in the room; you just need to use your voice.

 

 

Yvette Gonzalez
VP of Customer Success • MFour Mobile

MFour is a research company that gathers customer data via mobile surveys. Companies like Microsoft, Samsung and Disney use that data for refining mobile marketing messages, testing ad creative, understanding product perception and more.  

 

What’s the most important lesson you learned as you grew your career?

Anything is possible if you believe in yourself and believe in your team. It’s amazing what a confident and motivated team can accomplish! As my career has grown at MFour, I have seen my team blow expectations out of the water because of their belief in themselves. Recently, we transitioned to a SaaS customer success team compared to a project management team and they have gone above and beyond to understand the higher-level goal by learning and executing their tasks with new tech, client personas and solutions. SaaS is the future and I am excited that we all believe in one another and are growing together and seeing the success that follows at MFour.

Understanding that it is okay for you or your team to not feel motivated every single day is the key to success.


How do you stay motivated and inspired as a leader, and how do you try to motivate and inspire other women at MFour?

Motivation doesn’t necessarily stay consistent on a day-to-day basis. Understanding that it is okay for you or your team to not feel motivated every single day is the key to success. As a leader, I stay motivated by seeing my team grow and complete challenging tasks. Seeing them succeed is my highest motivation, and I am lucky to be surrounded by intelligent, passionate and dedicated women on my team. We do a great job motivating each other and tackling challenges together. 

It is important to set my team up for success by challenging them to solve problems that are right outside of their comfort zone so that they are constantly growing. It’s important to create an environment of acknowledgment and validation throughout my team, and it’s essential that my team takes time to reflect on how far they have grown in the last year and the impact they have made on the company. That reflection helps show them that they can accomplish anything they put their minds to. 

 

What advice do you have for the next generation of women in tech, and why is this advice important?

Feel comfortable being uncomfortable! Learning new tech is the future and we have to keep growing our skill sets and challenging ourselves. Also, I have been so lucky to have strong women support and help me along the way but have also had great men support my growth, too. The best thing you can do as you are growing in your career is to recognize opportunities to build a strong relationship with someone more experienced and become a sponge. Soak in as much knowledge as you can from everyone so you become a versatile, experienced team member and are able to build your own brand. All you need is one person to believe and you will see the magic happen.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Photos via featured companies and Shutterstock.

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