Reflections on Women’s Leadership

October 14, 2015

Barri and Kim

Barri Rafferty & Kim Essex at the Women in Agribusiness Summit

In its fourth year, the Women in Agribusiness Summit draws women who have “shattered the ceiling” or plan to be knocking on it in the not too distant future. 

Barri Rafferty, Ketchum Senior Partner and CEO North America, joined me this year for the Summit in Minneapolis and presented her unique and compelling perspective on what it takes to succeed as a female leader in business.

Following the presentation, I had the opportunity to sit down with Barri to discuss the summit and drill down into a few of the points she discussed:

What most surprised you about the meeting?
First, the diversity. And that might sound strange to say about a meeting that draws nearly 600 professionals, 99 percent who are women.

But by diversity, I mean the types of professions represented in the room. There were scientists and supply chain specialists, financial officers and sales directors, engineers and marketing specialists, human resource and public affairs vice presidents, business unit leaders and owners, attorneys, bankers and economists.

And, yet, they came to network with professionals like them. Other women in agribusiness, an industry in which men outnumber women more than 30 to 1.

A little different than public relations where the male:female ratio is 1:2.  Was it difficult to find the right words for this audience?
Not at all.  While the ratio between our industries is different, our experience is pretty similar when it comes to leadership. Despite our significant female numbers, leadership roles are still male dominated in all marketing and communications services firms. It’s one of the reasons I champion women’s leadership at Ketchum and within the PR industry.

I was fortunate enough to be one of the representatives Ketchum sent to the World Economic Forum several years ago. After being mistaken for a ‘wife’ at several functions, I was compelled to write a blog titled “Are you a spouse?  No, I’m a CEO.”  The feedback and media attention from this blog surprised me. It said to me, there’s a need for more people to be champions in this space.

What was your message to the women in attendance?
Our own Ketchum Leadership Communications Monitor shows today’s most desired leadership traits are in women’s favor. By that, I mean people most value leaders who:

  • Lead by example
  • Communicate openly and transparently
  • Admit mistakes
  • Bring out the best in others

Women are viewed as excelling at these attributes more than our male counterparts. We just need to be confident and lead.

How can women convey confidence?
Well, we covered a lot of ground at the meeting, but I think these ideas particularly resonated.

  • Leave the apologies behind.  Women are inclined to apologize for myriad of things that don’t require an apology, particularly in a business setting.
  • Bring your swagger.  You know that person that walks into a room and owns it. We all need to find our inner swagger and feel more comfortable owning the room.
  • Be clear and concise.  We waste a lot of time composing the perfect email or scripting (in our heads) the perfect delivery when a simple directive would demonstrate confidence.
  • Don’t label other women.  Instead, support their ambition.

Pattie Sellers recently wrote a great piece in Fortune based on an exchange we both witnessed during a panel discussion at a TIME/Real Simple event. The panelists were some of the most accomplished women in their fields. They were asked: “Do you consider yourself ambitious?” To my surprise, there was a great deal of discomfort with the word, ambition.

What I told the Women in Agribusiness was this: Ambition is not a dirty word. When we bring our ambition to our jobs, our companies benefit (click to tweet).

Kim is a partner and managing director of Ketchum’s Food Agriculture & Ingredient practice. She loves all things food – from the farms it is grown or raised on to her favorite spot, her kitchen. She has helped food producers and food makers tell their stories for a better part of her 25-year career. She really should have been a scientist, and is grateful to food for filling her scientific curiosity – biology, sociology, political science, food technology, behavioral science, economics, oh my!