Understanding the important role of women in business is a necessity for any company today.
Financial conglomerate Citi has placed a big impetus on empowering women in the workplace. At the very helm of this movement: three female executives. In an exclusive interview with CMO.com, Citi’s Jennifer Breithaupt, global consumer CMO; Molly McCombe, CMO of Citi Retail Services; and Mary Hines, global head of rewards, talk about the role of women and also provide advice for all business leaders–future and present.
CMO.com: How can business leaders become advocates for change within their organizations?
Hines: Use your voice to inspire the change you want to see. Determine the issues that are important for you, and align with like-minded colleagues and/or groups and organizations to champion conversation and action. To quote Madeleine Albright, “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.” As female leaders, let’s ensure that women don’t have to wait so long to develop a voice and make their voices heard.
McCombe: I think it’s important that we take risks and be patient yet consistent. Often, leaders see opportunities to improve their organizations but get frustrated when change doesn’t happen quickly enough. By consistently pushing an organization to think and act differently, often by taking and building upon small steps, you can effect change. Also, it’s very important to “walk the talk.” If you are not willing to change yourself, it will be hard to get others to follow.
Breithaupt: As female leaders, we need to pay forward the mentoring we received. The landscape is shifting for women in business, but it’s not moving fast enough. We owe it to one another to help pull each other up and share our secrets to success in competitive environments. For women in leadership roles, make yourself available to rising female talent and provide mentorship to those you lead and influence daily. For women rising through the ranks, seek out a mentor who can help you navigate your career path. Finding the right mentor to encourage and help you take chances on the way is vital. I’m fortunate to have had strong women and men in my life who have guided me both personally and professionally.
CMO.com: What do you think organizations can do to empower women in the workplace?
McCombe: While many organizations have made great strides during the 30 years that I have been in the corporate world, barriers still exist. Women make the majority of household financial decisions–it makes sense for them to play increasing roles in the consumer finance industry. Yet women are often pigeonholed into specific types of work and not provided a breadth of management experiences. I think organizations should provide women with well-rounded, quantitative, and qualitative assignments so they can develop into strong general managers. I would love to see more women in my industry at every level and in every discipline.
Breithaupt: A significant challenge yet to be effectively tackled is the underrepresentation of women across many industries–especially at the most senior levels. Last year, only about 5% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies were women. This isn’t close to good enough. This barrier needs to be eradicated, and the rationale is clear: Research confirms that when companies effectively embrace diversity and inclusion of all, not only is the quality of their employee base stronger, but talent retention is extended and their employees remain more committed. Companies need to increasingly foster high-potential female talent with a pathway to the C-suite and create a climate wherein women are seen as peers and treated as such in every regard.
Hines: All too often, women in the workforce feel as if they need to choose between having a successful career or having a family. It doesn’t have to be an either/or; it can be both. It’s possible to grow your career while raising a family, and while it’s not easy, it’s immensely rewarding. For the past few years, I’ve led the expansion of Citi’s ThankYou Rewards program into global markets while raising two toddlers, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
When my team sees me taking time off for my kids’ camp shows and parent-teacher conferences, they feel empowered to do the same. I encourage my team to take the time they need to strike a balance, whether that means attending a child’s class performance or a dog’s veterinary appointment. As a leader, I’m very aware of the shadow I cast and intentional about setting the right example.
From an organizational standpoint, it’s important for employers to increasingly acknowledge that there are challenges for women–and men–who are juggling work and family and offer a range of flexible work arrangements and paid-work leaves.
If employees and organizations can work together to foster an open dialogue about the challenges associated with straddling work and family life and find ways to resolve them, it will signal to women that they don’t have to make a choice and that it’s indeed possible to achieve a work-life balance that enables them to fulfill all of their goals.
CMO.com: What advice would you give to your younger self?
Breithaupt: In every industry, not just financial services, women can benefit immensely by proactively taking control of their professional identity and nurturing their individual brand. Hard work is a necessary building block to a successful career, but hard work on its own isn’t always enough. Be proactive and fearless in creating your own opportunities and opening doors that might not always naturally open for you. Find your voice, articulate your accomplishments and ambitions, and advocate for yourself and your professional goals. Own your career.
Hines: The landscape is ever-changing, and the ability to be nimble is a must. For example, within the marketing industry, the landscape is evolving at a rapid pace: A core competency in digital isn’t just a “nice-to-have” skill anymore; it’s a “must-have” as technology transforms our world at a rapid pace. In order to grow in your career and take on expanding responsibilities, it’s key to prove that you can adapt, stay ahead of the curve, and anticipate what’s next.
McCombe: The advice I’d give women is to execute your job to the highest level of quality and integrity, develop strong professional networks in your company and industry, seek out projects that add disproportionate value to the organization, and listen to your gut. If a situation doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not. Also, don’t be afraid to take on work that seems hard. From my own experience, I’ve learned that even if you aren’t successful, you will learn so much. If you can learn from your missteps, you are a much more grounded and credible leader.