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Women leaders urged to 'build your own possibilities'

Wednesday, July 29, 2015  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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Debra Sandler, Board director of Gannett Co., delivered the opening keynote address at the NEW Executive Leaders Forum outside Los Angeles.

"When driving your career, don’t be trapped into behaving a certain way. Do some introspection, know what is right for you and when it is right for you,” Debra Sandler, Board director of Gannett Co. and past chief health and wellbeing officer for Mars Inc., advised the nearly 350 industry leaders at the NEW Executive Leaders Forum, July 29, 2015, outside Los Angeles.

Sandler urged NEW members to "Build Your Own Work of Limitless Possibilities” in her opening keynote. "With belief in yourself, hard work, focus and dedication, your opportunities are limitless,” she said. "You have to be realistic, of course, but if you don’t believe your opportunities are limitless, you won’t live it. "

As a Latina, African-American woman who was born in Venezuela and grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, the past president of Mars Chocolate acknowledges she is an anomaly. "People don’t expect someone [like me] to be president or a worldwide president of many things. And while I’ve taken great pleasure in being ‘the first’, after a while that gets old. Why, after 30 years, am I still the ‘first’ or ‘only’ in the room?”

Sandler shared how a Jamaican man she hired recently to repair her pool asked her what she did for a living. Learning about her career, he said, "Wow, I’m so proud of you, up there with all the white people.” While he meant it as a compliment, she said, "I don’t want it to be unusual – it gets depressing.”

As a young professional at PepsiCo, she was offered a number of jobs that required a move across the country. Pregnant and burned out after a decade of being "up and coming in roles that required 80 percent of her time traveling” she took an extended maternity break and decided not to return to work.

"I knew what I wanted to do, but didn’t know if I had the courage to do it. People said I would kill my career and never get the momentum back. But leaving is what I needed to do at the time – for me. Now it’s called off-ramping, but I didn’t know what I was doing then. There were folks who made me feel I was crazy.”

Two years later, when she wanted to return to work, recruiters "treated me like I had forgotten everything and was bathing in applesauce [while I was on leave]. They asked me if I could read a P&L. I said, ‘Did you read my resume?’”

Her professional network became invaluable and she accepted a leading role with Johnson & Johnson, working on the launch of Splenda.

Today, women are graduating college at a greater rate than men and the wage gap has lessened a bit. Other good news: of the 1,000 CEO changeovers last year, 15 percent of the top jobs went to women.

Still the wage gap is still an issue – an $11,000 difference in median income between men and women working full time. And high-potential women in middle management are stuck in the pipeline or giving up on corporate careers. In the S&P 500, 36 percent of first level management is women. That drops to 20 percent of executive level positions and less than 5 percent of CEOs.

Exacerbating the achievement gap: Multicultural women as a group are not included in the strides women are making. "Multicultural women are leaving and doing their own thing,” Sandler said. "And entrepreneurship is fine, but how do we create an environment to keep these women and still grow their careers and a place where everyone succeeds?”

Sandler shared several principles she’s used when driving her career:

1. Belief in yourself. If you lack confidence, your possibilities are limited. "You will get knocked down and you won’t get every promotion,” she said. "But how do you not stay down? How do you build that resilience in yourself and our young people? When your business gets stuck, you find a way to make the numbers. We must use that type of attitude on ourselves. When I was passed over for a promotion, when my comments were ignored, belief in myself got me through."

2. A support network — both professional and personal. "It took me forever to hire someone to clean my house every other week,” Sandler shared. "It made me feel like I was a bad mother or wife. I had in my head I was supposed to be able to run to work, get every promotion, run home, have the clean house and cook the food.”

3. Career planning and risk-taking. "Nothing will happen if you don’t take that leap of faith," Sandler said. "So many women have no five-year plan. But if you don’t have one, they will create one for you. It may be absolutely not what you want. But if you haven’t articulated a plan, then you have no one else to blame." 

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