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Alumni, current MBA students and members of the community came together this September at the Four Seasons Miami to hear from top female executives about their own experiences reaching, and staying in, leadership positions.

The evening began with a welcome from Dean Eugene Anderson and a brief keynote address by Frances Sevilla-Sacasa (AB ‘77), CEO of Banco Itau Europa International and former interim dean of the School. Then Patricia Sanchez Abril, an associate professor of business law at the School, moderated a personal, often-funny discussion between the audience and Sevilla-Sacasa; Kim Stone (MBA ’03), executive vice president and general manager of The Heat Group and American Airlines Arena; Lucy Morillo-Agnetti, president and CEO of Miami Children’s Hospital Foundation; Marilyn Blanco-Reyes (JD ’88), vice president of legal and regulatory affairs at FedEx Express, Latin America & Caribbean; and Tere Blanca (BBA ’81, MBA ’83), president and CEO of Blanca Commercial Real Estate and a member of the School’s real estate board.

Some of their most revealing insights:
 
MOVING UP THE LADDER  

There was collective agreement that women are still struggling to achieve equality at the top echelons of business and nonprofits. And, Blanca noted, “we have not broken that glass ceiling in terms of participating in public and corporate boards.” Sevilla-Sacasa suggested that reaching this goal would require women to be a little bit more aggressive. “We need to ask for that raise if we’re not getting it and we know the guys are,” she said. Women, she noted, can be timid about taking jobs they are not prepared for while men rarely hesitate. “Women should take stretch jobs and lateral moves which move them away from their comfort zones,” she advised. “It’s worth taking some calculated risks for advancement.”

Stone pointed out that you never know when an opportunity might present itself. She recalled her own experiences in the Miami Heat locker room, where some players weren’t always respectful. Stone stayed cool and professional, and eventually the quality of her work gave her an opportunity to ensure that every player treated her with respect. Her advice: “Stay dedicated, stay professional at all times. You have to have your ethics above reproach and stay above the fray.”

While the women noted the importance of mentoring for advancement, Blanca said it is even more important to find sponsors. “Whether they are men or women, find someone that will include you in opportunities to interact at a certain level and that will allow you to grow individually, intellectually and professionally,” she said.

REFRAMING GENDER AS AN ASSET

Women in leadership positions are often still treated differently than men are, but they don’t need to accept the characterizations that may be thrust upon them, Morillo-Agnetti advised. She shared a personal example: After being told by a male board member that she was very emotional, Morillo-Agnetti came to realize, “I’m not emotional, I’m passionate.” She advised women to use their passion to set the agenda for their own careers, for a particular project or even for an individual meeting. “Never stop being passionate about anything you do,” she said, “regardless of whether that can be confused with emotion.”

Blanco-Reyes noted that women’s comfort with emotion is also a leadership asset. “We’re not self-conscious talking about things that might be a little bit emotional or embarrassing or awkward,” she said. “Whatever your role, allow yourself to teach the people around you by opening up and sharing.”

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS BALANCE

On the always-prevalent topic of work/life balance, most of the women agreed with Blanca’s assessment: “I don’t think it exists.”

Sevilla-Sacasa and Stone suggested that, rather than balance, having a successful career and a full personal life is about knowing what to focus on when. “It’s about having the right priorities at the right times,” Stone said. Sevilla-Sacasa agreed, saying, “There are times when you can be 100% dedicated to your professional life and times you can be 100% dedicated to your family.”

Of course, being able to shift priorities requires support. Sevilla-Sacasa shared that she and her husband “invested in a great nanny, and that was the salvation of my life.” Several of the panelists had done the same thing and agreed that it was crucial.

Blanco-Reyes noted that she hired a regular housekeeper very early in her career. “I always found money to pay for somebody to take care of me,” she said. “Because if I wanted to go out there and do everything I needed to do for my professional career, I needed someone to take care of my home.”

Morillo-Agnetti agreed, saying that every woman needs a “good support system that you design. It doesn’t have to be the typical support system.”

Blanca noted that women need to speak up and ask for the support they need, whether in the workplace or at home, and may often be surprised at what they can negotiate. She and Stone also noted that when those in leadership positions ask for and use flexibility at work, they help change a company’s culture. When those above and below them on the corporate ladder see that flexibility and business leadership can go hand in hand, they are more likely to ask for or grant needed changes.

SHATTERING THE GLASS CEILING

In the next decade or so, technology is likely to make workplace flexibility the rule rather than the exception, the panelists said. Blanca predicted that, “With younger people coming into the technology era of being able to work from anywhere, this will guide us into an evolution in the workplace that will allow for flexibility that I think everyone should have.”

At the same time, market demands will lead companies to seek out more women in high-ranking positions. “The more senior management teams and boards mirror their company’s employee and customer base,” Sevilla-Sacasa said, “the more success the company can achieve, as a result of having a better understanding of their shareholders’ needs and behavior.”

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