Four panelists and a moderator discussed what it’s like to be a woman at the top of their field, and the unique challenges and successes they’ve seen in their work life, at the Cleveland Jewish News’ “Women in Leadership: Traits of True Leaders” on Oct. 19 at Eton Chagrin Boulevard in Woodmere.
The panel consisted of Julie Gurney, director of marketing and communications at Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff LLP; Michelle Hirsch, senior vice president at Brunswick Cos.; Niki Schaefer, counsel – electrical sector at Eaton Corp.; and Laura Sheridan, founder and president of Viva La Brand.
Lauren Rich Fine, partner at Gries Financial LLC, moderated the panel, and began the evening by discussing how she somewhat inadvertently became a leader while working on Wall Street by willingly taking on tasks that others didn’t want to do.
“I don’t really think that I was a leader then, but I’m frequently told that I was because I constantly was the one jumping into the void when nobody else was going to do something,” she said. “As a result, I moved up very quickly because I was always that person saying, ‘sure, I’ll do anything.’”
Hirsch, after explaining how she worked to earn the respect of colleagues when starting out in her family’s business, received a round of applause from the audience for her answer to the common question about “work-life balance” that’s typically asked of women, but not men. Moreover, she explained how the question is outdated, especially as families today tend to value more egalitarian familial roles.
“Do men talk about work-life balance?” Hirsch asked, adding that her husband also faces scenarios where balance between family and work is tough. “I just really think that if society as a whole talked about work-life balance no matter what your gender, that it would balance out everything.”
Gurney also said in terms of “balance,” work infiltrates her life “every hour of the day, in some way,” and busy families shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. Moreover, balance at work is important too – which means giving people who aren’t yet in leadership positions more responsibility and opportunities, and to not let competitiveness prevent rising leaders from surrounding themselves with smart colleagues.
“I think it’s about giving other people on the team chances and opportunities too,” she said, adding that it’s important for leaders to point out when others on their team do well.
When asked about motivation toward work, Schaefer discussed how a career “low point” helped her decide to pivot from being a trial lawyer, which she didn’t enjoy, to her current work role. Then, in response to an audience question about whether she’s ever been confronted with the stereotype that she’s “too much” – a criticism powerful women face – Schaefer said no one has ever said it to her exactly like that, but she has been targeted with similar sentiments.
“I think I’ve always been too much – I’ve had too much jewelry on, been too forward ... I would take it as a compliment,” she said.
Sheridan answered questions about starting her own business and explained she has “never worked harder” than when she began it. Although she worked at Progressive in Mayfield Heights for years, she was not a lifelong Northeast Ohio resident and said she didn’t know many people in her industry when she started her business. Thus, forging connections was something toward which she had to work actively.
“I was blown away ... people were just unbelievably kind and willing to meet with me for a half-hour for coffee,” Sheridan said.
She added that now that she’s experienced some success on her own, she’s happy to “pass it on.” Thus, near the end of the talk, an audience member who identified herself as recently having begun her own startup and as being, “exhausted, always,” asked a question, walked up and gave Sheridan her business card, offering to take Sheridan out to coffee. She accepted.
Co-presenting sponsors were Benesch Attorneys at Law, Brunswick Cos. and Gries Financial LLC. The venue sponsor was Eton Chagrin Boulevard and production sponsor was Hughie’s event production services. Catering sponsors were Blue Star, Paladar Latin Kitchen and Rum Bar, Bravo! Cucina Italiana and Taza Lebanese Grill.
View photos from the event on Facebook.