I Am Woman, Hear Me Board

Is your name William, Robert or James? According to Gerri Elliot (Director, Whirlpool, Bed Bath & Beyond, Charlotte Russe) men with these three names hold more board positions in total than all women combined, but they were not invited to the Fortune Most Powerful Women’s Conference.

When you put 400 powerful women in the same place for two days, what happens? I labeled it the Triple “H” Threat – honesty, hugs and humanity. The sharing of best practices and lessons learned in business were honest and overt; women supported one another professionally and had conversations that blended easily from how I manage in the office to how I manage life at home.

Relationships born in one day ended with hugs at the elevator and the promise of paths crossing again.

I observed many women who had both confidence and swagger. Women confident enough to admit the pace of business change is challenging in one breath, and in the next show genuine concern for women’s rights worldwide.

Here are four key takeaways from the conference…

1. “The pace of change is the greatest challenge to all of us right now.”
– Ginni Rometty, CEO, IBM (*client)

With change comes the continual commitment to, “raise the IQ of your work force.” We focus on training and testing to make sure the knowledge is absorbed, but Rometty also spoke of a third approach she labeled “trickery.” She believes that, “growth and comfort cannot co-exist” thus reminding us all to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable, and pushing our employees continuously forward as we expand our thinking. There were also many side discussions on how to find time for the “thinking” aspect of our jobs. A place where we can explore the changing landscape, learn from niche players and discover new ways to bring innovative thinking into big companies.

2. Align the values and vision of your company
– Helena Foulkes, President, CVS/pharmacy; Executive Vice President, CVS Health

Ketchum’s CEO Rob Flaherty refers to this as the “say/do ratio” in a corporation. Companies like AT&T who took a stand on eliminating texting and driving, or CVS who made a $2 billion decision to eliminate cigarette sales to stand behind their vision of being a health company were impressive. Their leaders spoke of a surprising lift in employee pride and that externally their public value was enhanced. What impressed me about these conversations was the long-term view on reputation and not the quarter by quarter thinking we often see.

3. “Create our own rules even if they are unconventional.”
– Bridgette Heller EVP and President, Consumer Care, Merck

There was discussion of the need for relentless reinvention and debate; however once information is gathered, an opinion and plan forward must be formed. Stanford University has even added a new training program focused on teaching students how to form opinions. Conference leaders underscored the need to have a vision and drive it through the organization. They encouraged us to communicate in our own feminine style, yet made it clear you cannot over communicate, and social channels are being tapped more and more for employee communications.

4. “My son had 100 different channels he was following.”
– Susan Wojcicki, CEO, YouTube

There was acknowledgment by many that family is high on their priority list. Susan was on stage pregnant with her fifth child discussing not only what she learned from years of professional research, but what equally profound lessons she’s learned by merely observing her own children. She drew the comparison to reinforce that the multiple roles of mom, wife and business leader were truly interwoven.

I left the conference feeling energized. I had networked, engaged in interesting dialogue, learned among other things two new slang words (wasbund: ex-husband and e-sport: watching people play video games) to my vernacular, and, most importantly, felt the momentum of women moving up the ranks of corporate America.

As for William, Robert and James … look out. You won’t be alone in the boardroom for long.

Barri Rafferty is Ketchum’s former CEO and current head of communications at Wells Fargo.