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VOL. 10 | NO. 8 | Saturday, February 18, 2017

Having It Their Way

Women blazing their own corporate trails

By Don Wade

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She was working for a major petroleum company and had just been transferred to Cody, Wyoming. She was relatively new to the industry and certainly to the boots-on-the-ground oil field where on Day One she got out of her SUV wearing a long skirt and flats.

It was less than Susan Hunsberger’s best decision. It was zero degrees outside. She also discovered she had a flat tire. She was supposed to learn the operation, get to know the men working in the field, find out what the challenges were and if there were any problems bubbling up that the company might need to address.

SUSAN HUNSBERGER
Senior Vice President of Human Resources at ServiceMaster

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

And her hopes of a good first impression were dead on arrival.

“When I show up on my first day, there are two things I want to accomplish,” Hunsberger says now, decades later and as senior vice president, chief human resources officer for ServiceMaster. “I want to be strong and knowledgeable and, yeah, I want to look good. I get out of the car in this skirt and I realize I really needed jeans, my steel-toed boots and a hard hat. I’m driving a big Bronco and I can’t change that tire.”

In that red-faced moment, she had a choice: try to fake her way through it or admit she was out of her depth. She came clean, told those rough-edged men she didn’t plan very well for this, asked if someone could please get her a sweatshirt and some overalls and, well, would anyone be willing to help her with changing that tire?

“I look back on that, that incident got me off to a great start with that team,” she said. “They saw a genuine person they felt they could trust. From that moment on, I’d go out there – and they’d make fun of me, `Hey, do you need a sweater today? Did you check your tires?’ – and I’d ride along in the trucks and learn about the challenges.

“I wore steel-toed shoes, jeans, and I left the skirts (behind).”

NO LIMITS TO DREAMS

But she carried the lesson forward, through stops at Johnson & Johnson, GE Aviation and Nielsen, a $5.4 billion global information and measurement company. She believes everyone – not just women – can learn from an experience like this.

“It’s OK to a show a side of you that’s vulnerable and not in control,” she said. “Because when you’re genuine people believe in you a lot more than when you’re trying to be something that you’re not.”

KERI WRIGHT

MEG CROSBY

LORI SPICER ROBERTSON

Hunsberger will be the keynote speaker at The Daily News Publishing Co.’s “Women in Business” seminar on Feb. 23 at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. The event will begin at 3:30 p.m. and include a discussion and Q&A. Serving as panelists: Keri Wright, chairman and CEO of Universal Asset Management Inc.; Meg Crosby, principal at PeopleCap Advisors; and Lori Spicer Robertson, chief communications & engagement officer at United Way of the Mid-South.

A wine-and-cheese reception will follow the event. Seating is limited; register online at seminars.memphisdailynews.com.

Hunsberger’s dreams as a girl did not point to the career she ended up having. She didn’t dream of working in finance – her first job – or riding around oil fields or of working in human resources departments.

“I grew up in the era of ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ Angie Dickinson in ‘Police Woman,’ and ‘Mary Tyler Moore,’” she said of the popular 1970s television shows. “Strong female role models. I did my fair share of community theater and high school plays, but I was too short on talent to make it to the big leagues.”

In retrospect, though, she was built for the life she has led. She grew up in Pittsburgh. Her grandfather had worked in the coal mines and her father in the steel industry, advancing through the ranks after he went to night school to earn a college degree.

What she liked about those fictional characters on TV, even the cheesecake actresses of Charlie’s Angels, wasn’t so much their clothes, makeup or hair, but their attitude.

“They were fearless and that was appealing to me” Hunsberger said. “They didn’t always get it right, but learned from that and moved on.”

And so it is in real life, where sometimes great opportunities come early and it is easier to ignore them than embrace them.

“Leadership isn’t only for extroverts,” said Wright, 34. “Success comes from being willing to be on the edge … shaking and uncertain of what is to come, insecure about whether you have what it takes and instead of backing away from it, you take one step forward and just try.

“If you ask the top 100 most successful people in the world why they are successful, they’ll tell you, ‘I failed more than the next person and learned from it every time.’”

There’s also nothing wrong with a dream changing.

Robertson, 34, was in pre-med at the University of Tennessee doing an OB-GYN internship when “I learned quickly I didn’t like needles or blood.”

Or consider Jen Andrews, 32, executive director of Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. Although her family had a modest income, she says her parents didn’t believe in setting limitations tied to socioeconomic class or gender.

In other words, dream big and bold.

“The first job I wanted when I was little was captain of the Starship Enterprise,” said Andrews, who admits this while drinking from a coffee mug bearing the likeness of Prince Leia and the words “A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance.”

Her second career choice was Supreme Court justice. Not surprisingly, when she speaks to community groups she gets Leslie Knope questions, is told she is much like the fictional character from the TV sitcom “Parks & Recreation.”

She gets it, too, even if she doesn’t claim a crush on former Vice President Joe Biden or have a waffle fetish.

“She and I are not so different, we really aren’t,” Andrews said, adding, “Women are no less capable than men to do any job.”

PLAYING THE GAME

Hunsberger’s first corporate job, in finance, came with explicit instructions before she even started.

“Before I showed up for work they told me the gentleman that runs that office expects women to wear dresses,” she said. “And I thought, `That’s OK.’ But what was interesting was, you had to wear pantyhose. He didn’t like to see women in dresses without pantyhose. There was nothing about being professional and showing up on time, ready to put in a good eight hours of work. Nothing around work expectations other than appearance requirements to fit in.”

Andrews feels fortunate to have avoided that era of the corporate world. Still, she recalls an older man who was upset about trash being on a park trail referring to her as a “little girl.” More often today, she says, if women meet resistance – whether armed with a Princess Leia mug or not – it is “generally a series of small, subtle, unnoticed injustices.”

Hunsberger grew up in the glory days of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Steel Curtain and she knew football well enough to at least interject a casual comment about the last game. That traveled in a mostly man’s world. Although she wasn’t a big golfer, she also made sure to make the important corporate golf outings.

“I’d be like, `Hey, I can drive the cart and give you some tips.’ I’d make a joke,” she said, “make sure the drinks stay cold.”

She wasn’t giving in, she was making sure she stayed in the loop the best way she could.

“Conversations meander all over the place,” she said. “Business gets talked about, families are going to be talked about. But where I felt you’d be left out most is just getting to know that person on a different level.”

Twenty years ago, Crosby was getting her start in the male-dominated investment bank business. Women, she says, were “less respected” back then, but she also doesn’t recall encountering any major barriers because she was a woman.

And when she worked at Google, gender and race never crossed her mind.

“Google was fantastic, very diverse, people from all over the world working together,” she said.

In that environment if there was any questioning, it was of oneself and more primal: “Am I smart enough to be here? The Imposter Syndrome,” Crosby said.

That said, Susan Packard, co-founder of Scripps Interactive and author of “New Rules of the Game: 10 Strategies for Women in the Workplace,” says women still need to be mindful of non-verbal cues in the office.

“Men don’t show those as openly as women do,” said Packard, who enjoys a good competitive card game. “So women sort of show their hand.”

BALANCING ACT

Crosby graduated from the University of Richmond. She had a roommate who was so successful in college and then in her early working life that she fit the “superstar” label. But that woman later decided to stay home with her children.

At least by Crosby’s own description, she had been an ordinary student and young professional in comparison to her old roommate. Crosby saw her again when she returned to give a speech and the friend had a question.

“No offense, but why are you coming back to speak at graduation?”

Crosby took it well, telling her friend that it would have been her had she remained in the corporate world.

Balancing work and home is hard. Maybe in some cases, almost impossible.

The Family and Medical Leave Act mandates employers provide unpaid, job-protected leave of 12 weeks in a 12-month period for the birth and care of the child within one year of the birth. Some companies offer more leave than that, but it may not always come without strings attached.

Packard says it’s not uncommon that when a woman begins indicating she will take her full maternity leave, “She starts getting signals from a supervisor that it’s not a good idea. Once that happens, you’re done.”

Robertson has one child and another on the way. Her ultimate career goal has not been scaled down. She wants to run a nonprofit of her own someday.

“I’m a working mom and not a day goes by that my heartstrings are not tugged,” said Crosby.

Jennifer Webber, a mother of three – the youngest is a sixth-grader and the oldest is a college freshman – spent 22 years working for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Memphis. Today, she is vice president of advancement at Harding Academy.

“I was in court almost daily and I loved it,” Webber said. “I was proud of what we did and it directly impacted crime in Memphis. But when you’re trying cases, you’re tied to a judge’s calendar and courtroom. I probably take more work home now, but it’s flexible and that’s a positive.”

“I’m a better mom because I work,” adds Jennie Robbins, senior director of finance and performance at Church Health. “Some days I’m probably not a better wife because I work – I don’t know, you’d have to ask my husband – but I’m setting a good example for my daughter and doing something rewarding that fulfills my calling as a working mom.”

MAKE THE MOST OF OPPORTUNITIES

Hunsberger, too, was a working mom. But first she had looked up to those larger-than-life women on TV and, yes, there was an illusion of perfection.

“I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore,” she said of the famed actress who portrayed a single woman working as a producer at a Minneapolis TV station. “I wanted to throw that hat up in the air and catch it.”

That opening scene to the weekly TV show was the have-it-all symbol for a generation of women. But as Hunsberger learned early, “Not having all the answers is OK. The world’s too complex now. You can’t know everything about everything.”

But opportunity? That should be a level playing field. It’s also just a starting point.

“Success for women is 50 percent opportunity and 50 percent persistence,” Wright said.

Said Andrews: “I’ve seen a lot of strong, competent and deserving women (in Memphis) step up to positions of influence. I’ve also seen other women not get the opportunities they should.”

Which is why all of these successful women welcome younger women – and men – seeking their career guidance. And recall fondly those who have influenced them.

“I don’t have just a couple of role models,” Wright said. “I have benchmarks. `If she can do it, why can’t I?’ I admire the tenacity and sacrifice of my mom, the persistence and generosity of my dad, the courage of Mariam Al Mansouri (the first female fighter pilot of the United Arab Emirates and who led an air strike against ISIS).”

Andrews, though just 32, already has young women seeking her counsel.

“It’s so fulfilling to be able to share experiences with anyone walking that path,” she said.

The so-called glass ceiling still exists in some places, but one sign of progress is that new opportunities also have been forged. Crosby serves on a half-dozen different boards of directors, most of them nonprofit and including boards for the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis and the new Crosstown High School.

“One thing I’d say is I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to sit on those boards because I’m a woman,” Crosby said. “Boards are looking to diversify. It’s great for network building, and the people you get to meet.

“But the best thing is you’re getting to do meaningful work with them and not just go to coffee with them.”

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