Women Business Leaders Encourage Diverse Workforce

By Andy Meek

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg is regarded as one of the country’s most accomplished and high-profile women in business, and she has a new book coming out later this month on issues women face in the workplace.

It’s called “Lean In,” and Independent Bank co-founder Susan Stephenson acknowledged the book’s impending release during her keynote presentation at The Daily News’ “Women and Business” seminar Thursday, Feb. 28, at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

That’s because Stephenson has five copies of reviews “slamming” the still-unreleased book – and they’re all from women.

In a world in which women make up a large part of the population but still don’t earn as much as their male counterparts in the workplace for doing the same job, women need to especially make a point of encouraging other women, Stephenson said.

“Support our sisters” was among a list of short, memorable rules she presented to an audience of about 200 people at the newspaper’s seminar, which took a broad look at the topic of women in the business world.

CBIZ MHM Thompson Dunavant, Mid-South Drug Testing and Jackson Lewis LLP were the three companies sponsoring the event. Besides Stephenson as the keynote, panelists were Jackson Lewis attorney Pamela Irons, CBIZ Women’s Advantage national leader Nancy Mellard and Success Unlimited CEO Natasha Donerson.

Stephenson was introduced with a mention of her banking credentials, but she backed that up and reintroduced herself in a more personal way to the crowd.

“I am a mother of three, I’m the wife of Tom and I’m the co-founder, co-chair and president of Independent Bank, which is actually my fourth child,” Stephenson said.

She talked about the twists and turns her career has taken, the element of luck she’s encountered and of being at the right place at the right time. Also, about how she’s been shaped by her eagerness to learn, to challenge herself and to not hesitate to walk through open doors of opportunity when they presented themselves.

Stephenson didn’t have a business or finance background, initially, yet she ended up spending almost a decade with First Tennessee Bank, then almost a decade with Boatmen’s Bank. And she’s now been at Independent Bank for 15 years.

Some of the takeaways she offered:

Men are often promoted on their potential alone, Stephenson said, while women are promoted based on performance. Women don’t speak up enough and don’t assert themselves enough toward career advancement, perhaps afraid of being seen as too aggressive.

“But that’s not a bad thing. A woman being aggressive is not a pejorative,” Stephenson said.

She presented a list of statistics to the crowd: 14 of 193 nations currently have female heads of state; 3 percent of Fortune 500 leaders are women and 16 percent of c-suite executives and board members are women.

Ironically, Stephenson recently presented those to a group of men whose response was positive.

But this isn’t positive, she told the audience, saying, “We need to do better.”

CBIZ relatively recently launched its own professional development and networking program for women executives in the firm’s Memphis office. Megan Murdock, client development manager at CBIZ, told The Daily News 50 percent of the firm’s office is comprised of women, and plenty of up-and-comers are women, too.

That program lets them know there’s a network for them within the firm and that there’s a support system for them.

Mellard stressed to the crowd that supporting more women in the workplace at all levels is “not a gender issue. This is a business issue.”

She, and the rest of the panelists, kept returning to a few basic themes, one of which was, in Stephenson’s words, the need for building a life rich in choices.

“I am my best and my own advocate,” Mellard said. “You own your future, and you have to make your own decisions.”