Top female execs share winning leadership practices, traits

Long-stemmed roses and chocolates were not evident on Valentine's Day at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business. Instead, the day's focus was the heart-felt sharing of proven leadership principles and practices by female executives at the top of their game.

Hosted by the Rice chapter of the National Association of Women MBAs (NAWMBA), the 14th annual Women in Leadership Conference, titled “A View From the Top,” sold out with 260 registrants. The conference was co-chaired by Krishna Desai ’14 and Sima Jani ’14 and featured two keynote addresses, an opening panel session on visionary leadership and four breakout panels.

Sima Jani ’14 moderates the Visionary Leadership panel
at the Women in Leadership conference at the Jones School

The annual event aims to educate, empower and connect MBA students with women who have demonstrated success in their industries, professions and personal lives. It also provides a forum for the exchange of ideas amongst attendees, panelists and speakers.

“We could see how excited people were to be at the conference,” said Jani, who applied to co-chair the event with Desai and began work on it late last June. “We've received positive feedback from attendees and even from the panelists, who have said this was the most organized conference of its kind.”

Desai added that “all of the speakers and panelists graciously accepted our requests to participate without hesitation. These women are all very successful in their respective industries. I firmly believe that the most successful women in business are the most willing to share their experiences and empower young women to achieve their full potential.”

‘Figure-it-out’ leadership

Delivering the morning keynote address, Angela Blanchard, president and CEO of Neighborhood Centers, Inc., shared the principles of what she calls “figure-it-out” leadership.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are right now,” she advised. “Approach a project as if it were a blank sheet of paper. Challenge yourself to do something you've never done before. Own your emotions around what you've built, and maintain the heart of an explorer by being willing to adapt to change.”

A native Cajun from Louisiana, Blanchard added that “true leadership has nothing to do with position; it's at every level of position.”

Tips from the top

Visionary Leadership was the opening panel discussion and was moderated by Jani, who posed questions approved in advance by the NAWMBA board. Along with covering issues of working relationships, climbing the corporate ladder, mentorship, volunteering and not micro managing, the high-level panelists responded to other pressing subjects.

On leadership: Kim Ruth, Central Region Commercial Banking executive, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said that everyone has a different leadership style and advised, “Be genuine to yours.” She added, “Be flexible and honest, offer feedback on issues and then move on.”

On making it to the C-Suite: Elizabeth Killinger, president, NRG Texas Retail and Reliant, advised attendees to be patient and fully experience each opportunity that presents itself. If you fear you'll miss an opportunity, her experience is “you will get it again.”

On managing people and departments: Dorothy M. Ables, CAO, Spectra Energy Corp., said, Surround yourself with good people and delegate. Know enough to ask the questions that need to be asked. Keep an open door, and communicate bad news as soon as possible as it gets worse the longer you wait to tell it.”

On discovering your passion: Frances M. Vallejo, vice president and treasurer, ConocoPhillips, recommended, “Follow your gut instincts and pay attention to what comes easily to you and what you like to do. Take time for some self-reflection, and don't be afraid to take a risk.”

On promoting collaboration: Catherine Clark Mosbacher, CEO, Center for Houston's Future, Inc., advised valuing people, their job function and each person's contribution because “the sum of everyone's efforts is greater than the parts. Always focus on 'how can we get it right?' And don't underestimate the power of face-to-face communications.”

Following a networking break and silent auction of items donated by 23 businesses, the exchange of information and inspiration continued in four panel sessions: Leading a Team to the Top: Women in Management; Managing Across Mountains: Women with Global Careers; Expedition Everest: Women Entrepreneurs; and Communicating Along the Climb: Women on Effective Leadership. All panels were repeated in the afternoon with a different set of unique questions.

Key takeaways included:

  • When working in a foreign market, know your audience and understand the market's motivating forces, including the type of government and its ambitions, nationalities, political instabilities, language and cultural biases — your own and others.
  • Entrepreneurship is something people are drawn to. It takes being able to set a vision, overcome obstacles, efficiently delegate and boldly go.
  • Balancing work and your personal life is a juggling act. Balls are going to drop. Just make sure they bounce.
  • It's OK to say no, and it's OK to ask – and pay – for help.
  • Choose your spouse wisely. If your personal life is in order, your professional side will fall into place.
  • Dress how you want to be perceived and body language matters. Stand tall, even for a phone interview.
  • Find and use mentors.
  • It's OK to fail, but be really good at it. Learn to be OK with imperfection as it breeds creativity.
  • Delegation is key.
  • When starting a business, shop your ideas and know your numbers.
  • The fear of cash flow never goes away, but that fear is good.
  • Don't allow rejections to spoil your spirit.
  • Be selective about your clients, advisers, accountants and employees. Surround yourself with people who share your values and goals.
  • Prepare yourself for what it will be like when you are in a leadership position.
  • Don't stay in your comfort zone. Be bold!

Your personal brand

In the closing keynote address, Jo Miller, CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching, Inc., urged attendees to define their brand and make it visible. “Figure out what your one powerhouse strength is” and “take charge of how you are perceived. Communicate your brand as a rising woman leader.”

Miller offered three steps to increase brand visibility: work less (maybe five percent); make something great happen; and promote your accomplishments.

Valentine's toast

The conference closed with a champagne toast given by Emily Collins, Rice NAWMBA president, and keen insights from Desai, “With the theme this year,‘A View from the Top,’ we targeted women in high-level positions. We had a total of 21 panelists for our five panel sessions, and seven were Rice MBA alumnae. The Jones School is a hidden gem in the Houston economy; it is a road for growing professionals to become emerging leaders.”

The board and event co-chairs were assisted by the Jones School's Jody Sommer, associate director of Alumni & Corporate Relations, and Janet Moore, lecturer in management-communication.

— Kyle W. Fake