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Women & Power | Magazine

Advice from 7 female leaders charting the future of our economy

Voices from the Top 100 Women-Led Businesses in Massachusetts on fostering diversity, coping with crisis, and more.

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Dr. Elizabeth G. Nabel.

DR. ELIZABETH G. NABEL

President, Brigham and Women’s Health Care

Boston is unusual among US cities for having so many female medical chiefs. Is getting more women into top positions in the field a priority for you, and what’s the best way to go about it?

I asked my mentor for some words of wisdom when I first became president of the Brigham six years ago. He said that the most important part of my job was to recruit outstanding leaders, so I’ve invested a lot of energy and effort in this, and I’m proud that we’ve hired the first female department chairs in the history of the hospital. But I didn’t hire them because they were female — I hired them because they were preeminent in their respective fields.

The best way to go about getting more women into top positions is complicated, especially in medicine and science, where the pathway for promotion was established many years ago. Gender roles were very different and hadn’t evolved to fit the current ambitions of aspiring female physicians and scientists. Creating opportunity along that pathway is a priority for me.

What do all women stand to gain from women in leadership roles in medicine and at hospitals?

I think both men and women stand to gain from having diverse leadership in medicine and science. And by diverse, I certainly mean gender, but also race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, and so many other factors. One of the realities of health care is that every one of us will need it — and when we do, we want the best possible care. To get the best possible care, we need the best possible person in every role — both in medicine and science — so we must have systems in place that enable us to identify and hire the best, then provide an environment where they feel welcomed and respected. We need people with diverse backgrounds and opinions working together to solve the big challenges we face in medicine and science. That will lead to better care for all of us.

More women are entering medicine than ever before. What would you say to those who aspire to executive positions — and to encourage more women to pursue those positions?

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It’s important to be comfortable taking risks and getting outside your comfort zone. I’ve noticed many women sit on the sidelines, waiting to be picked for a leadership position. Don’t be afraid to throw your name in the mix and go after an open position. I’d also suggest taking advantage of leadership courses, coaching, and professional development activities that will help you understand your leadership style and gain the skills you need to grow professionally.

You did an internship and residency at Brigham early in your career. What is different today?

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There weren’t many women when I did my medical training, and we relied on each other for guidance and support. I had my son Chris during my cardiology fellowship at the Brigham, and there wasn’t a formal maternity policy in place, so I took a short leave and then came back to work, feeling guilty about further burdening my colleagues covering for me while I was out. That has certainly changed.

It’s wonderful to see so many talented, driven female trainees in medicine and science today. What’s different for them is the mind-set of their teachers (for the most part) and their male peers. Gone are the stereotypes that were so pervasive when I was training. And thank goodness for that!

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Judy Habib.

JUDY HABIB

CEO and President, KHJ Brand Activation, Boston

How can women future-proof their resumes for a constantly changing employment and economic picture?

You have to go to what your passions are in different areas of competency — because people will be hiring you based on who you are, what you’ve done, and what you love.

 In a crisis, how do you cope?

You have to be very controlled in a hyper-aware, hyper-focused way, knowing you don’t know exactly the outcome but that you have a steady hand in what you’re committed to. And then just take one step at a time.

How do you achieve balance in your life?  

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“Find what you love, and then it’s not work” sounds hackneyed, but it’s what’s happening in the world economy. We’re going from a world where the outside defined us to one where individuals and the collective are defining the outside.

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Marianne Lancaster.

MARIANNE LANCASTER

President, Lancaster Packaging, Hudson

 What learning experience or professional development most helped prepare you for leadership?

I’ve had a lot of classes, but being able to observe in the field helped me more. I saw how some business cultures had their thumb on the employees and others were more open and let the employees be part of the solution. When you build an environment of employee trust, you get the best bang for the buck.

 What do you advise young women just starting out?

Not to take their male counterparts personally. No matter how far we’ve come, young females really are looked at with a lack of respect. And I hate to say you don’t want to demand respect, because you do, but you have to analyze the person or situation and really take a step back and see what you want from the encounter and be objective.

How can women future-proof their resumes?

So many women know their jobs inside and out, but you also have to know a lot outside just your world. You’ll be more valuable when you monitor trends and can speak on them. Watch not only your industry but others related to it.

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Lori Abrams Berry.

LORI ABRAMS BERRY

CEO, Lynn Community Health Center, Lynn

What can our new political leaders do to increase equality in the workplace?

A lot of it has to do with who is appointed for visible positions. Barack Obama has done a good job with this by appointing women in a variety of leadership positions, so we can see women exercising power and listening and engaging others.

 How do you cope in a crisis?

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Find the humor in the situation. Figure out what parts you can control and do something about — and the things you can’t, you just have to kind of laugh at them.

 Do you ever truly unplug from work?

The temptation is great to make sure that things are OK. It’s really hard to unplug entirely. The devices — I’m sort of a gadget person. I’ve got [an Apple watch]. The last time I went on vacation, I left it at home.

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Elyse Cherry.

ELYSE CHERRY

CEO and President, Boston Community Capital, Boston 

What can our political leaders do to increase equality in the workplace?

Focus on passing mandatory paid family leave. The US right now is the only advanced country in the world that doesn’t have it. We need to create a circumstance where we do not force women to choose between their families and their careers. And we could get around to passing the Equal Rights Amendment.

 What do you advise young women just starting out?

It can be easy for employers to outsource particular skill sets. But it’s much harder to outsource judgment, so if you focus on developing wisdom and critical thinking, you’ll have a set of real strengths.

 Do you ever truly unplug from work?

I don’t really have any interest in shutting off, but downtime is really important. Without it, we keep our minds in straitjackets and miss opportunities for creativity. Creativity is core to everyone’s success. Without it, you can’t let your mind flow to new solutions and new approaches to old problems.

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Mary G. Puma.

MARY G. PUMA

President and CEO, Axcelis Technologies, Beverly 

What learning experience or professional development most helped prepare you for leadership?

I’ve been in marketing, IT, business development, HR. So I’ve had a lot of exposure to how businesses operate and how to work well with people. It’s not just the business piece but also the people piece.

 What do you advise young women just starting out?

There’s nothing magical about it; it’s about hard work and personal sacrifice, about taking opportunities and creating opportunities, and then just going for it. I’ve had many, many obstacles throughout my career, but you just never give up. Keep going, keep moving yourself forward.

 How do you cope with crisis?

We had a board member with the sage advice: Never waste a good crisis. If you just push ahead and do the right things, you should come out a stronger company.

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Pamela Goodman.

PAMELA GOODMAN

CEO, Beacon Communities, Boston

What do you advise women just starting out?

To not be afraid to ask questions and to engage with people. When I moved to Boston, I would read an article and see someone I wanted to talk to, and I’d call. For the most part, people talked to me. People are impressed that you went to the effort.

How do you cope with crisis?

I have found that usually crises aren’t a matter of life and death, and if you stay focused and maintain perspective and really try to peel the onion and figure out how to address the problem, you can make it through. And communicate. If it’s a crisis that involves the public, keep people informed.

 How do you set priorities?

I’m very good at delegating, which I think is important to be an effective leader. If you’re not good at managing your time, it can become a real problem. I’m always checking e-mails, but I try to be sensitive to when I send them, so people don’t think they’ve got to respond immediately.        

Interviews have been edited and condensed. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.