Great Leadership In Action: 10 Lessons From Iconic Women Leaders

Where do million-dollar ideas come from? How do you navigate an organization entering untested, emerging domains? What are effective ways to deal with being the first woman at the table?

Women looking to advance their careers recently gathered at Nasdaq’s MarketSite to learn what good leadership looks like in action.  The “Advancing Women Leaders: What You Need to Lead” event co-sponsored by Nasdaq and ICR featured a diverse slate of women leaders, from former CEOs and notable board members to an executive leadership consultant and a lieutenant general in the United States Marine Corps:

  • PEGGY ALFORD Board Member, Facebook (Nasdaq: FB), Macerich (NYSE: MAC); Senior Vice President of Core Markets at PayPal (Nasdaq: PYPL)
  • BETSY ATKINS Board Member, Covetrus (Nasdaq: CVET), Wynn Resorts (Nasdaq: WYNN), SL Green Realty (NYSE: SLG)
  • CONTESSA BREWER CNBC Correspondent
  • MARY DAVIS HOLT Board Member, Washington Mutual Investors Fund; Senior Consultant at Flynn Heath Holt Leadership
  • LT GENERAL LORETTA “LORI” REYNOLDS Deputy Commandant for Information, U.S. Marine Corps
  • MAGGIE WILDEROTTER Chairman of the Board, DocuSign (Nasdaq: DOCU); Board Member, Cadence Design Systems (Nasdaq: CDNS), Costco (Nasdaq: COST), Lyft (Nasdaq: LYFT), Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. (NYSE: HPE); Retired Chairman and CEO of Frontier Communications (Nasdaq: FTR)
  • DAWN ZIER Board Member, Tivity Health (Nasdaq: TVTY), Hain Celestial Group (Nasdaq: HAIN), Spirit Airlines (NYSE: SAVE); President and COO Tivity Health

These iconic leaders discussed what it takes to lead in the C-suite and boardroom, highlighting these ten key leadership lessons they learned during their careers:

1. Bring all hands on deck when entering uncharted waters.

As commander of the newly established Marine Corps Cyberspace Command, Lt. General Reynolds was tasked with developing a new domain of warfare – one she says she didn’t know much about.

“I was commander of our cyber space force for three years, and it was very new and I was trying to understand how to fight in the cyber domain. Not cyber security, but how do we use cyber as a weapon?  How do we mature that capability? For the first time in my career we had this new domain of warfare.

The Secretary of Defense said ‘you have two months to deliver an effect’ which is a particular target.  I was new, I didn’t know very much about cyber space. What it forced me to do is to think differently about how to lead in that environment, because the marines knew that I didn’t know what I was talking about.  They’d come talk to me and I’d say ‘I got nothing.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing you are telling me?’

So I had to bring them all to the table – from the youngest marine to the oldest marine – and we just had to problem-solve together in a way that we probably wouldn’t have done in any other domain where experience and routine ruled the day.  It really democratized leadership in a way that was incredibly powerful, and it also worked. I learned, they saw me learn, and it really brought the team together in a pretty good way.”

2. Hire cultural enhancers.

“Culture is so important,” said Dawn Zier, who sits on three corporate boards. “When you’re thinking about culture, accountability comes really strongly into play. Another reason why I see companies fail or get in a confused state is when the leader doesn’t set clear goals or expectations.”

To strengthen governance practices, leaders should hire cultural enhancers, not cultural fits.

“Don’t hire the people that are just like you; hire the people that are going to challenge you, that are not going to be ‘yes’ people, that might make some of your days tough,” said Zier. “I think that’s what good leaders do, they surround themselves with the best, and then they bring them to higher levels.”

3. Build an entire network of mentors. 

When questioned about the role of mentors and sponsors in her career trajectory, Maggie Wilderotter, former CEO and Chairman of Frontier Communications, advised the audience to think beyond sponsors and mentors.

“Back when I was growing up in my career we didn’t have mentors or sponsors,” shared Wilderotter.  “The people that ran businesses were men, so I built relationships with different men I admired for what they did and how they did it.  They never knew that they were mentoring or sponsoring me.

Through those relationships I had a lot of different people I could talk to, based upon certain things that might be going on in my life, whether it was career choices or strategic moves or beneficial things I could do for the companies I worked for or industry changes.  I’ve got 20 or 30 men today that I can still pick up the phone on a dime and have a conversation with them about something and they’ll give me insights I wouldn’t have thought of.  And that for me is what mentorship and sponsorship is, it’s really relationships.”

For more on how Maggie built those valuable relationships during her career, watch a video of her fireside chat.

4. Leverage non-linear career moves.

All of the speakers had a story to tell about the benefits of non-linear career moves, which as Maggie Wilderotter put it can “maximize your return on luck.”

“The day I really feel like I started to become a better leader was the day that I learned to listen to understand, as opposed to listening to respond,” said Lt. General Reynolds, who is only the third woman to earn that rank in the U.S. Marine Corps. “That was a game-changer for relationships, for my ability to lead.

I was assigned to recruiting duty.  Nobody wants to do recruiting duty.  So for three years I managed the recruiting service in eastern Pennsylvania.  What I learned on that tour was that you have to be professionally curious, you have to ask the next question of your Marines.  Your Marines will tell you only what they want you to know so you have to keep digging.”

Peggy Alford, a board member of Facebook, shared how an opportunity to be CFO of a small company that eBay had acquired gave her invaluable experience.

“It was a small company with 100 people.  I really got to see how product interacts with marketing interacts with sales, and how you need to bring them all together to further a strategy,” said Alford.  “And while ultimately [this company] wasn’t going to be material to the overall eBay results, that was the time in my career where I learned how all of the various aspects of a company need to come together to execute a strategy.  All of those skills that helped me so much in my career going forward as I had roles that were at much broader scales, I learned within this little company that was part of a much larger company.”

In terms of feeling confident about taking on new roles, the Lt. General shared “I approach it by asking if not me, then who?  If I’m there, if I have the opportunity, if not me then who? Why would I pass up an opportunity?  If you’ll acquire these stackable skills, you’ve just got to go with it.”

5. Stay closely connected to employees on the front lines.

Dawn Zier shared an anecdote from her early days as CEO of Nutrisystem about the importance of being closely connected to the front lines of customer contact.

“As a weight loss company, January is really an important time of year for us,” began Zier.  “Back in 2013, I went down to the Contact Center because the phones weren’t ringing to the extent that we needed them to.

They [the Call Center staff] said ‘Nobody has ever really come down here from marketing or the organization before.  And by the way, if marketing had actually come down here we could have told them why their commercials don’t work.’  I asked them ‘Why didn’t you go upstairs and tell them?’  They said ‘Well we don’t really talk to each other.’

I immediately got an impression of the silos.  And I began thinking, ‘These are the people who are hearing the things first from our customers.  They are our first line, they hear on a day to day basis what’s happening and nobody’s talking to them.’  The [Contact Center] was viewed as second class, not really part of the company.

We quickly established rules that everybody has to go listen to the Contact Center.  I started inviting the Contact Center whenever we were having ideation sessions, and asking them ‘Tell me what you hear, you are my focus group, you hear what’s going on.’

And then a beautiful thing began to happen. They began coming to my office and sharing things with me, and as I was having conversations with them, one sentence would be the spark for a $10 million idea, a $15 million idea, a $40 million dollar shake business.

When we launched the South Beach Diet, we didn’t get it right initially, because nothing ever goes perfect.  But within two weeks, because we were talking to the Contact Center, they said ‘Hey the food is great, but you’ve got a little problem–the food isn’t fitting in the freezer.’

Do you know how long it would have taken to figure that out?  That we were shipping too much to the home and it wasn’t all fitting in the freezer?  Nutrisystem [meals] all fit in the freezer but the [South Beach] packaging was different.”

6. Learn the art of course correction.

“Failure for me is an opportunity to figure out how to get it done,” shared Wilderotter.

“If you make a mistake, course correct fast. We have a tendency as women to fix things; sometimes, you just need to move on, including people,” said Wilderotter. “In business, we’re not paid to fix people; we’re paid to deliver results, and we’re paid to get the right people in the right seats on the bus, and, sometimes, that’s a painful decision.”

“I also think the biggest gift you can give to other women is to let them make mistakes and let them course correct and move on,” Wilderotter continued.

7. Practice servant leadership.

For Peggy Alford, the “servant leadership” style has resonated with her throughout her career.

“The leaders that I’ve been most attracted to have been those that have been really focused on clearing the way for the team, looking to make the team successful, saw themselves as someone whose job it was to add context to a situation,” said Alford. “[Leaders should] know that the information [they] have, everyone might not have, so how do you share information to point the team in the right direction and help them be successful.”

8. Bring value when you are the only woman in the room.

Wilderotter had a lot of experience being the first woman in the room, both in the companies she worked for and as a veteran of over 36 public boards.  She shared her secrets for being confident no matter what:  “I would do my homework.  I think the most important thing we have to do is be prepared—it gives us confidence individually.  So when I would go in the boardroom, I would go in with knowledge and thoughts and points of view.

I also think that when you interact with other board members and with your leaders of companies, it’s about the respect of how you deliver information or ask questions.  I didn’t make a lot of declaratory statements but I would ask a lot of questions to get clarity on where people stood on specific issues or what the management team was thinking about or what other board members were thinking about.

What board members see when you are the only woman in the room is ‘Wow this is good, she’s adding value, maybe we should have more of that versus just her.’”

Maggie also shared her secret for dealing with men who repeat and appropriate ideas proposed by women during meetings.

9. Bring other women with you.

Wilderotter shared her passion for helping other women succeed.  “I believe [women] do bring great things to the table.  I believe that diversity is good business and helps us make better decisions. It gives companies opportunity to hear different points of view.  That’s very important for corporate America.  I’ve run big companies, I’ve run small companies, I’ve been successful in my career.  Giving back is something I have a responsibility to do, especially because I have a network that’s very large and I can open those doors.

I always weaseled my way on the Nominating and Governance Committee, of every board I joined.  God made us with two hands, one to push ourselves forward and one to yank another women right behind us.  I’ve probably placed between 30—40 members on boards today.  I get a lot of calls and I want to see women fill those slots.”

10. Evolve your personal brand throughout your career.

“A personal brand is not generic – it differentiates you,” according to Mary Davis Holt, a senior consultant at Flynn Health Holt, whose goal is to move women leaders forward, faster.

“You’re always learning and evolving, and so is your brand,” said Davis Holt. “What do you want somebody to remember about you? Your business results and impact? Your great leadership style and what you’ve done on teams or in an organization? Being memorable is what the brand is all about.”

According to Davis Holt, storytelling is an effective way for a person to demonstrate his or her personal brand.  “Stories are the language of leaders; that’s how leaders get your attention,” shared Davis Holt. “Think about a story – it’s not just a narrative; it’s got an arc, a little drama to it perhaps … so think about how to pull in those stories and make sure they show your value and show you at your best.” Watch a video of Mary Davis Holt’s presentation to learn more.


ICR is a leading strategic communications and advisory firm with offices in New York, Norwalk, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco and Beijing.  The firm pairs capital markets veterans with senior communications professionals, bringing deep sector knowledge and relationships to more than 500 clients in 20 industries.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

  • PRINT: