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Women Leaders Talk About Adventure, Authenticity, and How to Get to The Top

The Dialogue with Leadership is the heart of the MBA Women’s Leadership Conference — a rare opportunity for MBA women to hear from and talk with senior women business leaders. Hosted in 2014 in Los Angeles, Dean Judy Olian of UCLA Anderson School of Management facilitated a conversation with Barbara Hulit, Senior VP and Group Executive at Danaher Corporation; Christine McCarthy, Treasurer at Disney, and Barbara Desoer, CEO of Citibank, N.A.

You might imagine that women in such lofty positions must have carefully charted every twist and turn of their careers. Not so; in fact, Barbara Desoer, who received her MBA from UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, came back into the working world first as COO and then CEO at Citibank, N.A. after retiring for a year. She thought she was out of the working world for good, until she realized that she craved involvement and missed her career, and found herself jumping back in after being tapped for top executive positions.

Barbara Hulit, a graduate of Kellogg, admitted that for much of her career, she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do, which gave her a restless appetite for a broad range of experiences that later added up to a breadth of knowledge that made her eligible for top leadership positions. And Christine McCarthy, a UCLA MBA, majored in biology, joined up in banking, then survived both a hostile takeover and a brief stint at a job she knew wasn’t right for her before finding her fit at Disney.

None of the panelists shied away from frank talk about past failures. In fact, Barbara Desoer recalled a brutal moment early in her career when, after a long period of receiving no feedback from her manager, a new manager came into her organization and gave her overdue, highly critical feedback about her management style.

2014-dialogue3“I was stunned,” she recalls. “And I had to recover. The lesson I learned is this: no feedback is not good news. Chances are, there is room for improvement. Be aware of those opportunities and invest in a plan to turn it around.” She did, and her career continued to open doors she never even knew existed.

The conversation also turned to what it’s like to be in the minority, as a woman in a male-dominated business world. Barbara Desoer recalled a time when her company had a client in France who refused to accept a woman as the client manager. “The company didn’t let that happen,” she said. “They said, this is who we are assigning and these are the reasons why, and we’d like you to give it a chance.”

She learned in that moment that the values and the commitments that her company had expressed were real, that they were willing to stand up to a client for what they believed in—and what they believed in at that moment was her. She went on to win the client over. “In our first phone call, I spoke with him in fluent French,” she says. “That was all it took.”

Christine had a meeting at the California Club in downtown Los Angeles early in her career at which she was advised to enter through a side door, the front door being for male members. She refused, and she says to this day, they remember her. “As a woman, you’re in the spotlight sometimes,” she says. “If you turn that spotlight into an asset, it can help you a lot.”

In a similar vein, Barbara Hulit recounted an experience she had when her group was looking to acquire another company. They were at dinner, when she found herself left alone at the table with the CFO of the target company. In a moment of inexplicable candor, he confessed that they had taken out insurance because they believed they were likely to sell the company below the stock price.

“And I sat there and thought, why would he tell me that he thinks it’s going to trade at less than stock price?” she said. “He probably wouldn’t have told the men that. I probably didn’t seem dangerous. So I just said “Tell me more?” There are many situations like that, situations you don’t architect, where you can turn a disadvantage into an advantage.”

The group addressed our audience of MBA women directly, sharing wide-ranging advice. Barbara Desoer emphasized authenticity. “I always stayed true to myself. I did not change my behavior because of who was in the room with me,” she counseled. “That was recognized. I was very clear always about who I was and what I valued.”

Christine McCarthy talked about looking beyond job descriptions and titles to ascertain the more elusive chemistry between yourself and a potential employer. “When you think about careers, you have to think about your style and the people you’re going to be with. You’ll spend more time with them than with anyone else in your life. If you feel like it’s not going to work, trust that voice.”

If you find the right fit, she advises taking advantage of every opportunity, even if it’s not one you necessarily imagined for yourself. “Even if you don’t think you want to do something, if a mentor who thinks you have a capability asks you to do something, go ahead and go for it.” In fact, ever one of the panelists echoed this same advice, looking at a career as an unpredictable adventure, rather than a roadmap laid out in advance.

For a firsthand sense of the Dialogue, don’t miss our video highlighting the event. Watch Business 360º for more interviews with top women in business as they share the ups and downs on their own road to success.

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