Women: Want to Advance? Take on a Challenge

When Meredith Stevens, currently chief supply chain officer at Newell Rubbermaid, came out of school, she had multiple degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering as well as a master's in industrial management. She said there were clear opportunities for anyone with a technical degree. She went to work for GE right after graduation at a time when the company was pushing diversity in the workplace, which gave her an advantage.

But she said her biggest challenge as she's climbed the career ladder has not necessarily been being female, it's been finding points of connection in a workplace where people like to work with others who are similar to themselves. She gave Diversity Executive insight into how women can achieve her same level of success.

What have been the top barriers for you as you ascended the corporate ladder, and how did you overcome them?

For me, coming through the workforce, working in operations in a predominantly male-oriented environment for a very long time, it really is about finding those points of connection as opposed to finding points of differentiation. It's the same as building any relationship. The biggest challenge for anyone coming into a new workforce or a pretty homogeneous environment is to drive those points of communication, of similarity, points where you're driving toward objectives as opposed to focusing on things that are different about your approach, your personality, about who you are.

That's true on any team. To create a high-performing team, you really want to be able to get everyone focused on the goal. People would look at me, and I'm, you know, not very tall, I'm not very big, I'm a girl, but I had a strong engineering background, I was very technically focused, I really love to build things. What are the similarities in where you're driving toward objectives and less on what's different in your personality, approach or the different elements of who you are.

What other barriers did you have to overcome to get to where you are?

I think the barriers for everyone are the same in trying to move up the ladder. It's a pyramid. There's a huge population of people, and it narrows as it goes toward the top, so the competition is very challenging. You have to deliver all the time. As a woman coming into the workplace, you have to deliver on many fronts. I have three children. At some point along the line I was pregnant; at some point along the line I had to take some time off. Making sure that as you balance the demands of home with the demands of work and still produce at a high enough level so that you win the competitive advantage and go up the pyramid is more challenging. There's no way around that. Society is changing, but it's not changing rapidly.

If you make choices, and you have a family and other commitments, those choices take time and energy. You have to realize those choices can't impact your outcome in the workplace if you want to be successful. At the end of the day it is a competition. You have to be able to produce, and you have to be able to drive results. You have to be able to achieve high-performing teams in the workplace, and you have to be able to balance everything else going on in your life. For women our choices tend to be harder because family life pulls on you, but there are still choices that you make in order to be successful. That becomes harder as you progress up the pyramid and demands on your time and flexibility become more challenging.

How can women seek out those experiences that will give them more responsibility as they attempt to grow into senior-level positions?

At Newell Rubbermaid our growth game plan is opening up opportunity for people of all types to be successful in our company because there is just so much change going on. We're refining and looking at folks from a business perspective and a functional perspective to make the highest-performing team in our industry. As we think about what's going on in our industry, which is not dissimilar to what's going on in other industries, two things are really going to make people successful.

One is the ability to drive execution. Take on those opportunities that are sometimes ugly, that are challenging, they're not high performing and come with a lot of risk, and turn them around. If you're willing to take them on, you get much more reward for high-risk situations. The second thing is bringing expertise that other people don't have. It's about building on skill sets that you can deliver on and taking on those challenging opportunities that are sometimes a little messier but where you can really demonstrate results and the acceleration of performance that allow you to excel. Those things yield results as far as being promoted and recognized.

You have to find your source of passion. What really gets you excited when you come to work in the morning? If you're not excited about what you're doing you need to find something else because passion shows through in everything we do. If you're passionate and excited about what you're working on you're going to perform at a higher level than if you're unhappy and bored. If you can find those things, those choices that I talked about earlier come a lot clearer because you're excited, involved and engaged. If you're not, those choices become a lot more challenging because they weigh on you so much hard

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