Women Who Lead: Unleashing The Tools Of Balance by Valerie M. Porfano

How do women in major executive positions balance demanding careers with busy family lives, while maintaining the corporate status quo and handling business challenges? DMBA Magazine recently spoke with three successful women executives who were participants in a roundtable discussion at the DMBA Leadership Conference on September, and asked them to share some of their insights. The result was not only good business information, but practical, beneficial advice. Some common themes that ran throughout their comments were stepping out of comfort zones, taking risks, setting up healthy networking and support systems, preparation, attention to detail, being honest with others and oneself, giving back, enjoying what you do every day, respect, managing periods of imbalance, and scheduling personal downtime.

While reviewing their insights, you might be quick to notice how much of it may relate to your own situation; you may have experienced similar situations or tried some of the same approaches. But although some of the commonalities may jump out, there is also a good chance that you will encounter things that differ from your own style., and this is the core of what we’re attempting to bring to readers —  What simple, practical new ideas or approaches might you implement to further unleash the true leader in yourself? Is there anything you can do, but differently that may produce better results and further solidify successes in your current role?


Maribel V. Gerstner
President/Chief Operating Officer
Allstate Financial Services LLC

DMBA: Describe some of your work experiences and challenges, and explain how you have learned to use them to your advantage in your career. 

Gerstner: I’ve been very fortunate to have had a wide variety of work experiences in my career. That alone has been a big advantage. I have worked as a financial planning consultant to high net-worth individuals in an environment that demanded long hours and a high degree of professionalism and precision. That helped me learn to manage my time efficiently and meet high customer expectations, which has served me well throughout my career. I have also worked in a role where I had to help insurance agents understand complex planning techniques and motivate them to step out of their comfort zones and approach customers they may have felt were out of their league. I have given hundreds of presentations to both large and small groups, sometimes with very little notice. The skills I learned about how to explain complex topics in an easy-to-understand way, and how to feel comfortable giving dynamic presentations, have also been invaluable. But most importantly, learning how to motivate people to do that which does not come naturally has been a very valuable element in building my leadership skills.

I have also, twice in my career, taken on roles that were very different from what I had been doing previously. This was tremendously valuable in that it showed my company’s leadership that I was a versatile executive with the ability to take on different challenges.


DMBA: What methods and practices do you use to maintain a healthy work/family balance? 

Gerstner: I don’t think that there is any true balance. Balance implies 50-50, and the reality is that there are times when work demands 110% of your time, and there are other times that your family needs your undivided attention.  I think this is even more of a challenge today when the boundaries between work time and personal time are so blurred. I’m fortunate that I had my children early in my career, so at this point in my life my family demands are much more flexible than when I had children at home. I was lucky that my husband always thought of our work and family lives as a partnership that needed to be shared and supported by whomever was most able to take care of the matter at hand. We have always been very supportive of each other’s careers.  I was also very fortunate that I had tremendous support from my parents when my children were young.  Anything that you can do to establish a back-up network of family, friends, neighbors, babysitters, etc. is critical.

I work long hours in my current role, but not day after day or week after week. I try to focus on accomplishing whatever must be finished early in my day, so that if I have the energy and desire to stay late and work on something that isn’t critical, I can choose to do so. But if I’m spent, I can head home and work on that non-critical matter another time. I also make sure I plan vacation days randomly throughout the year, as well as longer vacations where I can really get away. Those single days off are really helpful for getting caught up on all the miscellaneous personal things that often get put off. Or, they can be a great way to schedule an outing with a spouse, child, or friend. I also schedule “me” time to do things I like or need to do to take care of myself, such as taking a yoga class. I find if I’ve got it on my calendar, I’m more likely to keep that appointment for me time. I also love to travel, and I always need to have my next vacation on my calendar, so I know when my next big break is coming.


DMBA: What advice would you give to other women seeking or currently in leadership roles?

Gerstner: The most important advice I would give is speak for yourself. No one can advocate for you better than you. Don’t wait for others to put in a good word for you. Make your boss, your boss’ boss, etc., aware of your career aspirations, the types of roles you’d like to be considered for, etc. It’s amazing how often leaders are unaware of what their people are interested in trying. Opportunities may arise for them to put someone’s hat in the ring, and they pass it by because they didn’t know someone on their staff would have liked that chance. This is particularly true in large organizations that tend to form silos. Your boss may not imagine that someone that works in their silo would want to go work in another area. Sometimes, just expressing that desire to move up and be given more responsibility will make your boss think about you in a different light.

I think it’s also important to seek out multiple mentors and sponsors and take the time to work on your network. But most importantly, take the time to be a mentor as well. That’s a true sign of leadership in action.

Karen Roberts
Executive Vice President/President
Walmart Realty

DMBA: Describe some of your work experiences and challenges, and explain how you have learned to use them to your advantage in your career. 

Roberts: I began my career at Walmart in 1995 on the real estate team, selecting sites for distribution centers and, eventually, stores. The role taught me a lot about how to build relationships internally and externally, how to think on my feet and the importance of choosing your words wisely. In 2005, I joined our legal department and served as general counsel for real estate. In 2008, I became chief compliance officer and in July of this year, was promoted to executive vice president of real estate. My story at Walmart isn’t unique. A surprising number of our executives started as store associates or entry-level managers in a corporate role. It’s not something many know, but nearly 75% of the managers you see in our stores started in an hourly position and used their training and experience to move up.

As I look back on my Walmart career, it’s clear that what I learned in my early positions prepared me well for the job I have today. Respecting clients and colleagues, working collaboratively, and paying attention to detail are among the many values the company expects us to exhibit and promote. Another key to my development was having great mentors and team leaders that gave me learning opportunities, special projects ,and stretch assignments that enabled me to grow and develop. Paying this forward is a big focus of mine and a big part of our culture.

Our CEO likes to say “retail is detail.” It’s a reminder to all of us that preparation is critical to what we do here. When I think of overcoming challenges, the first example that comes to mind is my very first trip as a real estate manager, to Birmingham, Alabama. My senior management team was expecting a comprehensive report on our interests there and, frankly, I had underestimated the level of detail that I was required to know about our prospective markets. The truth is, I did a terrible job that day and I remember thinking, “If I don’t do better, this isn’t going to work for me.” It was a valuable lesson in true preparation and what it means to strive for the very best. My next trip, and every trip after, I knew every excruciating detail about the site we were considering.


DMBA: What methods and practices do you use to maintain a healthy work/family balance?

Roberts: You have to determine what is important to you, because the truth is, you’re not going to be able to do it all. I think we fool ourselves into thinking that work/life balance should be a perfect 50/-0 deal, but the reality is some days it is 60% work and 40% personal life and others days, it’s the opposite. One practice I have that helps a lot is the fact I keep all my appointments, both work and home, on the same calendar.

At Walmart, I’ve been fortunate to work for people that encouraged their teams to stay involved in the things that matter most, like coaching, volunteering, or attending their children’s functions. I’ve embraced that approach with my teams and try to lead by example. In a couple of weeks my daughter is going to be principal for the day at her school, and I’m going to be there to support her.

I also believe it’s important to be open with people about what you’re doing. I don’t say I’m going to a meeting when I’m really going to my kid’s school program. I say, “I’m going to my daughter’s school program.” Some people have this idea that if they unplug from the office, bad things will happen, but it’s just not true. I try to make sure people feel comfortable following my lead because, if they don’t unplug, eventually they’ll burn out.


DMBA: What advice would you give to other women seeking or currently in leadership roles?

Roberts: Before you think about what you have to do to become a leader at your company, I would first make sure the place you choose to work reflects your values and is making a difference. Our company has a core set of beliefs that includes keeping our customer at the center of everything we do, but we also maintain a focus on making a positive difference on issues like women’s empowerment, sustainability, and hunger. I’m proud to work here because of our culture and contributions; it inspires me to give my very best each day.

On a personal level, I think there are some critical traits and behaviors you have to have in order to lead. You have to be able to network and build relationships, be known as a collaborator, and be someone that is trusted, not just by your boss, but by your peers. Also, make sure your customer is getting your best every day and be excellent in the job that you’re in now. Good performance gets noticed and rewarded.


Kim Harris-Jones
Senior Vice President/Corporate Controller
Kraft Foods, Inc.

DMBA: Describe some of your work experiences and challenges, and explain how you have learned to use them to your advantage in your career. 

Harris-Jones: I’ve spent the majority of my finance career in the automotive industry which I think presented at least two significant challenges. First, the industry is very much male dominated, and second, it’s a tough, volatile business, which ultimately resulted in me going through bankruptcy at Chrysler. Being a finance professional in numerous leadership roles under these circumstances taught me a lot that I have used throughout my career. Working in a male-dominated environment, I learned how one has to demonstrate her capabilities and make herself stand out without making it a male/female issue. I also learned that I must not think of my competition as only other females or minorities. Going through bankruptcy and other very tough times at Chrysler taught me the value of strong leadership and teamwork during difficult circumstances. I learned that when a team feels motivated and needed, they can get through almost anything. I believe these experiences have shaped who I have become as a leader and the basis for the five rules which I delineate below.


DMBA: What methods and practices do you use to maintain a healthy work/family balance?

Harris-Jones: I can’t say that I’ve always maintained a healthy balance between my work and family life. There have been times when work was very demanding, and I have relied on my husband and other family members to help out at home. On the other hand, because I have always gone above and beyond at the office, I don’t feel guilty when there are family circumstances that require me to be away from the office. With everything in life, you have to prioritize. Sometimes works takes precedence, sometimes the family. What I have tried to do is to make decisions I won’t regret later in life, like not being at a school or sporting event that’s important to one of my sons. Those things you can’t live over.  On a more personal side, I try to go on a spa trip every year with close friends — no husband or kids — that’s just for me.


DMBA: What advice would you give to other women seeking or currently in leadership roles? 

Harris-Jones: First and foremost, make sure you’re doing something that you enjoy. It’s hard to excel and be dedicated if you don’t have passion for what you do.  Second, recognize that you can’t do it alone and you can’t do everything perfectly.  You need mentors, sponsors, family, and friends. These are the people who can give you good advice and honest feedback, support you when times are tough, and will celebrate your successes with you, because, surprisingly, not everyone will want to celebrate your successes.

Finally there are several rules that I try to live by. First, treat everyone, from the janitor to the CEO,  the way you want to be treated. Second,  the best way to get promoted is to do the job that you’re in exceptionally well, and never get too consumed with what the next job is, ignoring your current job. Third, always remain calm, even in very difficult situations. Others around you will appreciate that. Fourth, give back to others at the job; be a mentor to others and to the community. And finally, remain humble. In the words of Beyonce, “Don’t get to thinking that you’re irreplaceable”.



But these are only three examples. For senior executive-level women in fast-paced, technologically-frenzied, and demanding careers, with often-conflicting and overlapping work and family obligations, it seems as if almost all can benefit from some simple, practical, tried and true advice. Some, naturally, will be more difficult to implement than others, but with a realistic approach and some careful  planning, it’s perhaps challenging, but certainly not impossible.

By taking some time to consider a few changes you can make in your current role and what steps you can take towards unleashing your own, full leadership potential, you can indeed expand your potential. Keep doing what’s working, but  try to implement some fresh new ideas and approaches into your workday whenever possible. It’s a formula that, when correctly applied, rarely fails.


Valerie Porfano is a freelance writer based in central New Jersey.

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