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Women & Power | Magazine

Secrets of the top women execs

Some of Greater Boston’s most accomplished women share their strategies for success.

Hye Jin Chung for The Boston Globe

Helen Gurley Brown — the Cosmopolitan editor whose 1982 book introduced women to the concept of Having It All — wrote that if you aren’t overbooked or overcommitted, “there’s a very good chance you aren’t getting half enough out of life or out of you.” But that was a simpler time, before layoffs had one person doing the job of two at every level; before having a baby meant lining up child care and getting back behind a desk as soon as possible; before 8-year-olds were expected to ace standardized tests while participating in 35 extracurricular activities; before helicopter parenting made cheering at every soccer game a moral responsibility for busy moms and dads. Perhaps most important, it was before technology made us accessible to everyone at all hours of the day and night and distracted us to the point where a 2015 Microsoft study found that the average attention span had fallen by a third, from 12 seconds in 2000 to just 8 seconds. It was a time when we felt in control of our own calendars and could fill them as much or as little as we wanted.

As a baby boomer, former lieutenant governor Kerry Healey says women of her generation who moved up in the working world were often ascending into positions previously held only by men. “So we found ourselves trying to juggle or seeking an ideal where everyone could perform all the duties they had at home and at work and do it flawlessly,” says Healey, now president of Babson College. “We moved from how to have it all to how to do it all, and the fact is, you can’t.”

But some women, including Healey, seem to. We asked her and other women in top positions to share some of their tested strategies for maximizing productivity and minimizing that overwhelmed feeling.

THEY’RE EARLY RISERS

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Not all high-powered executives get up with the sun — or before it — but making sure they have a few hours to themselves before the world starts crashing in was a consistent pattern among the women we spoke with. Many use the wee hours to work out, so they can “start the day with a bunch of endorphins and adrenaline,” says Elaine Herrmann Blais, a partner in the Boston law firm Goodwin Procter. But others use the time to get ahead of the day. “It’s quiet, so you can think clearly,” says Carla Harris, vice chairman of wealth management and a senior client adviser at Morgan Stanley in New York and a keynote speaker at the Massachusetts Conference for Women, taking place December 8. “There are not a lot of interruptions, with people walking into your office, the phone ringing, e-mail getting populated. So even if I’ve made a list of tasks the day before, I have the opportunity to think about it and maybe change my priorities for the day.”

THEY PRIORITIZE

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Setting priorities is, well, a priority with busy execs. Prioritizing both short- and long-term goals, says Julie Turpin, “saves a lot of mental anguish.” Every year, Turpin, CEO of the Advocator Group, which helps individuals obtain Social Security Disability Insurance benefits and is headquartered in Wakefield, sets three organizational goals that she clearly articulates to everyone in the company. With these as a starting point, she determines her MITs, or “most important tasks” for each day, week, month, and quarter, and she makes sure they remain on track.

Framingham-based Staples president and CEO Shira Goodman keeps her weekly priorities at the forefront by sticking two Post-it notes in a paper notebook. “They’re 3 by 3 [inches], so there’s a limit to what you can write on them,” she says. On the top Post-it she records her key objectives for the week and on the bottom one, for the month. “So I come in Monday knowing these are the three things I absolutely have to get done this week. It keeps me focused.”

Healey maintains a list with the dates she last saw each of her friends. “I make sure I don’t let time slip away without seeing the people I care most about,” she says. Goodman started a book group with friends so she could indulge her passion to read while making sure to see several friends at the same time. “It’s all about efficiency,” she says. “If I can get together once a month with eight people I hold dear, that’s a real win to me.”

The takeaway: Apply organizing principles across the board so you  control your schedule.

THEY HAVE SUPPORT

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Scheduling their personal lives can come back to top executives in ways that might be unexpected. When Healey’s children were young and she and her husband both had demanding jobs, they created a network of support that included the very friends she makes sure to keep track of, as well as employees, teachers, and her live-in mother-in-law. “You have to build in every possible route of redundancy so that in that moment when a child becomes ill or you do,” she says, “there’s someone there to pick up the slack immediately. Oftentimes I found the safety net needed to be two- and three-people deep.” Over the years, Healey and her close-knit group of North Shore mothers have not only pitched in with child care but also provided meals when someone was ill and counseled one another’s children about jobs and school. And she’s not the only one who mentioned her support system of friends.

Blais has a friend who comes to Massachusetts to manage certain projects for her, such as a recent home renovation. “She’s got an artistic eye I don’t have,” says Blais, as well as a work schedule that lets her help out when needed, knowing Blais will return the favor in other ways.

The village it takes to support a successful woman — or man, for that matter — extends to work, of course, with most execs crediting their crack team of employees with shoring them up when needed. Kendra Thomas, vice president and global head of diversity and inclusion for Pearson Education, has only one “direct report” at work, but he and she have built a network of almost 5,000 Pearson employees worldwide who help advance their agenda of diversity in various ways. “It comes back to building and nurturing your network so you can do the things you’re good at and passionate about,” she says. “When I need something from the network, I have dozens of people I can go to.”

Thomas also enlists her network to keep herself on course: “I tell everyone I work with ‘Give me a timeline for responding.’ I say ‘Manage up,’ because if you are a leader and you don’t say that, people are afraid to do it. I’m human. I lose things. I need you to help me not lose things.”

THEY TIME-BLOCK

“I live and die by my calendar,” says Thomas, echoing the sentiment of nearly every executive we spoke with. Most use electronic calendars, color-coding various areas of their lives, though Thomas doesn’t believe in color-coding personal events differently. “I would think I don’t really have to do those things,” she explains.

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Allison Cole Philbert, vice president of field operations for Verizon New England, carries a paper notebook at work to jot down “action items” and adjust priorities for the week, depending on the company’s productivity. She also uses a whiteboard at home to track kids’ activities.

One of the things Morgan Stanley’s Harris sometimes does during her quiet time in the morning is block out her day, planning to do task X between, say, 9 and 10 a.m. before moving onto task Y. “It creates the challenge and the focus,” she says. “If you know you have 45 minutes to get something done, you don’t allow your mind to wander and can stay right on that thing. Then when that time comes, I’m stopping, whether I’m done or not.” This helps her make deadlines — which are also time-blocked, but not quite accurately. “If my deadline is Thursday at 5,” she says, “I tell myself it’s Thursday at noon,” giving her a cushion in case of an emergency.

THEY LOVE THEIR LISTS

“I am a list girl,” Harris admits. “I make a to-do list the night before, so when I come in, I just need to ask myself one question: What does success look like today?”

The Advocator Group’s Turpin has a list-making system that sounds complicated, but  it keeps her life running smoothly both at home and at work. It’s based on productivity consultant David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, which she learned at a seminar, then tweaked for herself. “Find the recipe and then make it work for you,” she says. “Tailor it.”

What works for Turpin is to go through her work and home in-boxes once a week and put everything in them — along with any other important things as they arise — into file folders or corresponding e-mail boxes called @action,@waitingfor,and @research. Every weekend she spends an hour blocking time on her calendar, looking at her action items first and prioritizing based on deadlines; @waitingforand @research remind her to get updates from teammates and follow up on longer-term projects. She also keeps a running list of anything having to do with each of her direct-reports, which serves as a diary of their meetings, goals, and the employee’s projects. “I categorize it as it comes in,” she says, “so I’m already prepped whenever I meet with them. It even helps me down the road, since performance reviews take 45 minutes to an hour based on my notes, rather than the two or three hours they used to take.”

THEY MINIMIZE MEETINGS

Everyone who’s ever worked in an office has languished in meetings that felt like a waste of their time. Verizon’s Philbert has found it possible to say no to some meetings, even those called by higher-ups. “Whether it’s your boss or your boss’s peer,” she says, “find out their agenda. If you understand their agenda, you can articulate to them your engagement or lack thereof.” You must be smart about it, though — for example, by explaining why your time might be better spent on another task that’s also a high priority for them. You’re giving bosses the chance to see that “if you devote your time to this instead of that, it will help them in the end,” Philbert says. “You have to do this in a very diplomatic way, of course.”

Turpin streamlines by making Mondays meeting days. She  spends 90 minutes with each of her nine teammates twice a month. “Mondays are booked solid,” she says. “I rarely travel on Mondays so I can have calendar certainty and stability” that those meetings will happen.

When Turpin needs updates, she uses a technique recommended by business consultant Cameron Herald: “huddle” meetings that last just 5 to 10 minutes, with everyone standing. She also notes that group-messaging programs can take at least part of the agenda online.

THEY TAME TECHNOLOGY

According to Kerry Gleeson of Personal Efficiency Program Worldwide in Florida and an expert on getting organized, you can start taking charge of your jam-packed in-box by not opening e-mails unless you can do something about them. “Process e-mail as you look at it,” he says. “Respond, forward to the right person, or task it for later and file it away. . . . When you’re ready to actually do what’s in the e-mails, then block off the time and rat-a-tat-tat, do it, one after another.”

Also, force yourself to unplug sometimes. “My goal is a tech-free Saturday,” says Shira Goodman, a Conservative Jew who admits it’s partly for religious reasons but even more for emotional and psychological ones. “I invariably do some of my best thinking on Saturdays.”

THEY SAY NO

“I choose a lot of things not to do,” says Kerry Healey. “God forgive me, I don’t work out regularly. I don’t watch television. I don’t do social media except for Instagram, because it doesn’t require interaction. I’m not on LinkedIn.”

When Elaine Blais was going through a particularly trying time, she started declining invitations more often. “Also,” she says, “I’ve given myself the freedom to decide I shouldn’t have said yes. If it’s a big event, they don’t care if I’m there. . . . Or if I’m sitting in a meeting and I realize it’s not what I thought it would be or there’s not much upside, I’ll just get up and say I have to go. You don’t have to give an excuse.”

THEY DELEGATE

When Kendra Thomas has a task she’s not looking forward to doing, she’ll often let herself off the hook by looking for a colleague eager to show off skills he or she hasn’t highlighted before. “I’ll call them and say, ‘Is this something you’re interested in?’ ” she says.

Carla Harris has a great trick for simultaneously delegating and staying in touch: She gave her local florist a contact list and key dates, so that whenever there’s a birthday or important anniversary, a bouquet is automatically sent with her name on it. “Next thing I know,” she says, “I’m getting a call from someone saying thanks!”

THEY PAT THEIR OWN BACK

On days with so many interruptions and fires to put out that they feel they’re treading water rather than racing toward the finish line, it can be hard for high-achieving women to keep their focus on the positive. “The trick is in knowing what to drop,” says Thomas. “And also in stopping to celebrate what you have accomplished.” Thomas does that with a jar on her desk: Every time something good happens — it could be a reminder that this year, for the first time, she spent a weekend on Martha’s Vineyard recharging on her own — she adds it to the jar. At the end of the year, she’ll lay all the pieces of paper out and celebrate herself a little.

Goodman feels refreshed just by revisiting the two Post-its in her notebook. “Friday afternoons I can look and say, ‘Yep. Done, done, done.’ ”

THEY TAKE “ME” TIME

“I live on the premise that people need to invest in themselves,” says Julie Turpin. She and other executives we spoke with believe they simply can’t be at their best without making self-care a priority, whether it’s in the form of exercise, reading, meditation, a walk in the woods, or connecting with friends and family. But Turpin takes that a step further, setting aside funds to spend on personal or professional development. In her early 20s, she started with a dress-for-success class and a few books on business; last year she set herself a four-adventure goal that included a customized retreat for one in Sedona, Arizona. These experiences helped her in practical ways but, more important, they have helped boost her self- esteem and provide the kind of inner growth that she believes attracts positive energy.

“Your identity comes from within, not from a business card,” Turpin says. “If you don’t invest in yourself, no one else will.”

MORE COVERAGE:

 The 2016 top 100 women-led businesses in Massachusetts

Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine.Send comments to magazine@globe.com.