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Career women face 'tough personal choices,' execs say

Tuesday, October 6, 2015  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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Ellen Junger of Hallmark, Suzan Kereere of American Express and Kathy Russello of Ahold USA shared their personal career stories at the NEW Summit 2015 in Dallas. 

Women make tough choices as their responsibilities — and power — grow in the workplace, according to female senior executives from American Express, Ahold USA and Hallmark Cards Inc., offered their personal career stories to a sold-out crowd of 1,200 industry leaders at the NEW Leadership Summit, Oct. 2, in Dallas.

Suzan Kereere, senior vice president and general manager, global merchant services at American Express; Ellen Junger, Hallmark's senior vice president, corporate brand development; and Kathy Russello, Ahold USA's executive vice president, human resources shared their experiences as women on the rise in corporate America.

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Success is a series of trade-offs, according Kereere, who moderated the panel discussion. "Career is a freakin' jungle, not a ladder," she said.

Advancing a career often means stepping outside your comfort zone and accepting stretch assignments, the women agreed. For Junger, taking on a stretch assignment means jumping in without knowing exactly what you are doing. "I've wanted to be known for my knowledge and expertise and the skills I've built throughout my career," she said. "But I learned the most when I've thought, 'I really don't know if I can do this.' Don't let the butterflies in your stomach hold you back."

Many women think, "I need to know what I’m doing before I step out," she added. "If you say, 'I'm 50-percent confident and I'm going to conquer it anyway,' that is when you grow."

Women often have a conflicted relationship with power, she added. "You are powerful when you create value, have a voice and have influence. I had to grow more comfortable with having power and developing a voice to move the needle. Power comes from understanding how to lead from a place of authenticity and being yourself."

Russello shared how, earlier in her career, she took on a new role that called for her to take on responsibility for labor relations strategy, which included negotiating with men representing labor unions. "I loved human resources -- I didn't want to just focus on labor relations -- I went into that role with a great deal of concern. I wasn't sure I could do it," she said.

But the experience proved valuable. "It’s the role I learned the most from," she said. "I think that the unions were as nervous dealing with me as I was dealing with them, because labor is historically a male-dominated field. During my time, the company made some significant changes regarding how we go to business from a labor perspective. My expertise in labor relations is what differentiates me from some of my peers today."

She defines "power" as the ability to impact and influence the direction of an organization. "I am able to accomplish things and move the organization forward by being honest and true to what I stand for,” Russello said. "I identify what the gaps or needs are and then I establish a plan to solve those issues. I may step out of my specific job responsibilities, at times, but if I think I have the answer, I'll take a few risks."

As Kereere rose to positions of greater responsibility and power, she has relied on a network of personal "board members" who are honest with her about the business and workplace dynamics. "It's so easy to get disconnected," she warned.

When faced with challenging workplace politics, Kereere said, "The easy part is going along. The hard part is being willing to say, 'Hang on, I'm not sure that makes sense.' When you say, 'No,' that's when the politics begin. You have to have allies to carry you through that turn."


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