Two of the most accomplished executives you’ll ever meet, Marian Heard and Margaret McKenna aren’t just founts of business and management wisdom. As female trailblazers who were often the only woman in the room, they are also experts at handling workplace-culture and gender-bias issues. Over the years they’ve shared their experience and advice as mentors to women, and at the most recent Conferences, they fielded questions from attendees in breakout sessions that really got people buzzing.
What attendees especially appreciated were the candor as well as the humor of Heard, former president and CEO of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and CEO of United Ways of New England, and McKenna, former president of Walmart Foundation and president emeritus of Lesley University. Listen for yourself to the podcasts from Philadelphia, Austin and Boston, or read a sampling of their answers, edited for clarity and brevity, below. Afterward, please submit your burning career questions to [email protected]. We’ll be publishing answers from Heard, McKenna and other women leaders in future newsletters.
How do you handle a sexist remark?
Heard: “Ask if you heard it correctly—and make him repeat it and acknowledge it. You can also use humor. That said, we are surrounded by sexism, and you have to pick your battles.”
McKenna: “Yes, you have to know when to speak up and when to bite your tongue. It’s amazing I don’t have a hole in mine. Ask yourself, will it make a difference if I say something or will it just make me feel better? Of course, if it’s egregious, you have to call it out.”
How do you get credit for your ideas?
McKenna: “Make sure your name is on them, and be part of the team when they’re brought forward. Being in the room when they’re being presented is so critical, in fact, that I would recommend going to the meeting even if you aren’t invited. You can apologize later if necessary.”
How do you leave a meeting and not feel like you were overly aggressive?
McKenna: “There are still times when I walk out of the room and wonder, did I go too far? I’m not 1,000 percent confident all the time. We are human. You keep learning. You never get to a point where you think, I was perfect. It’s important to be honest with yourself.”
Heard: “We’re all self-aware. That doesn’t stop as you rise to the top. There have been times when I think someone is saying something stupid, but I don’t say so. We’re not rude. You have to evaluate the situation and react accordingly. Remember: while people aren’t always going to remember what you said, they will remember how you made them feel.”
What’s your advice for entering a male-dominated field?
McKenna: “Some organizations have more of a male culture than others, so you need to pick the right company. Talk to people, especially those who have worked before at the companies you’re considering—they are most likely to tell you the truth.”
How do you find people to talk to, about a company, if you don’t know anyone there?
Heard: “Find restaurants near the company. This is where they hang out.”
What’s your advice for women leaders?
McKenna: “When I became a college president, someone told me that if you want to be loved, get a dog. I got two. Some of the jobs we take on are really hard. If you’re determined to create change, and you’re full of integrity, you are not going to be loved. You are going to be respected. Get love from somewhere else—your family, friends and dogs.”