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Dialogue with Leadership: Top Executives Get Candid about Strengths, Power, and Resilience

The “Dialogue with Leadership” panel once again proved to be a signature session at the 2015 Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference on June 19 in Washington, D.C.

Historically, it’s convened some of today’s most powerful female executives for a candid conversation about careers and business leadership, exploring the confidence, challenges, and critical success factors propelling them to where they are today. This year, Deloitte Senior Partner Jocelyn Cunningham and Walmart Executive Vice President Gisel Ruiz participated in the dialogue moderated by Dr. Catherine Tinsley, Professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School and Director of the Georgetown Women’s Leadership Institute. The session was sponsored by DaVita for the second year, with its Regional Operations Director Elisabeth Wright introducing the dialogue with the advice: “Find a career that makes your heart sing.”

Finding—and Leveraging—Strengths

Since both women climbed the ranks within their respective organizations, Dr. Tinsley set the stage by asking how they identified their strengths and put them to use in these journeys.

Gisel Ruiz, who joined Walmart as a store management trainee immediately after earning her undergraduate degree, continues to rise there 23 years later. She’s held a variety of store operations, labor relations, and human resources leadership positions, including previously overseeing more than 4,100 stores as Walmart U.S. Chief Operating Officer. In these diverse roles, she discovered she was naturally the person in the room trying to settle the egos down in moments of conflict. She honed a powerful skill in moving the team forward, and began to leverage this as a strength as she led people to bring out their best. She’s now responsible for driving the human resources strategy and priorities for one of the fastest growing divisions of the company, and FORTUNE has recognized her among the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business.

Similarly, Jocelyn Cunningham has commanded a tremendous career while ascending to become a senior partner in Deloitte’s Financial Services Industry practice. Over the years, she has held many industry and practice leadership roles. Jocelyn also serves the firm’s largest Capital Markets clients, including Goldman Sachs, New York Stock Exchange, UBS, Deutsche Bank, and JPMorgan Chase. In gaining this experience, Jocelyn also found some of her strengths in navigating messy situations and giving others a voice. Additionally, as her career progressed, it was especially important to build a personal brand for competencies beyond soft skills. The world runs on synthetic financial services, she explained, and she gained credibility by understanding the instruments and the technology to trade them. She made a powerful observation as one of the few women standing out for her technical skills in this space: “If the marketplace accepts you, then the guys can’t reject you.”

Owning Power—Without the Ego

dwl2Dr. Tinsley also asked about a concept that seems to trouble some students: how to embrace and manage power, without crossing the notorious likability line.

Jocelyn Cunningham has found that owning her power is really about empowering others. Ultimately, her team is inspired to deliver because she’s committed to their development and well-being. This leadership style builds followership—and power.

For Gisel Ruiz, power shows up in competence, reinforcing again that both technical and soft skills are important. “You’re learning technical skills…and a baseline for why you should be invited to the dance in the first place,” she told students. “There is a ton of power in competence and knowing what you’re talking about.” Although counterintuitive, she’s also found there’s tremendous power in admitting mistakes, and that women often excel at doing so. However, as your power grows, she cautioned that you must meter it: “Make sure that ego doesn’t turn power into a negative thing.”

Remaining Resilient

On the flip side, acknowledging that every woman will face challenges in her career, Dr. Tinsley also asked panelists for their strategies for remaining resilient.

“Confidence comes really easy when the going is great,” said Jocelyn Cunningham. “When things aren’t, it’s tough to be humble…and to take the fall for yourself and your team.” As difficult as it may be to approach a client and admit an issue, she’s discovered that doing so gives her more credibility in the end.

Gisel Ruiz addressed the question from the vantage point of a human resources leader. She said an employee’s response to challenges and failures tells the organization a great deal about her confidence and capability. “Most challenges are not fatal….how you show up the next day will help build you up. Resilience can be extremely powerful and it will say a lot more about you than any resume,” she added.

Offering Advice for MBAs

dwl3In response to students’ questions, panelists advised them to find male mentors with similar values; dig deeper in job interviews by asking to speak to peers and to hear more about what the company does to empower women; and to have the courage to walk away from a company that’s not a fit.

One standout question explored the importance of international exposure to the panelists’ careers. Jocelyn Cunningham, a U.S. leader originally from Australia, believes her biggest opportunities stemmed from her ability to work comfortably cross-culturally. “The experiences I had throughout my career in many countries—and living in different countries—served me very well,” she said.

On the other hand, after being in U.S.-focused roles for 22 years, Gisel Ruiz moved into an international role just six months ago. Given how her experience thus far has challenged her to step completely outside of her comfort zone, she would’ve done it sooner. She encouraged students to work internationally at some point in their careers because they will learn a great deal “as we’re becoming more and more one world.”

Sharing More in Our Video

After the panel, Dr. Tinsley summed up a shared success factor she recognized among these women: “They know how to use their power for the greater good…to enable others to grow.”

Watch our video for more insights from this “Dialogue with Leadership” »

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