“Set expectations with your colleagues – and your family.”
“Forget politics. Focus on doing what’s right for the company, and success will follow.”
Six senior leaders at ProQuest, with titles ranging from Director to Chief Operating Officer, offered their guidance on career advancement in a panel discussion at the company’s Ann Arbor, Michigan headquarters last week. What made this discussion unique? All the panelists were women.
“This is a very important topic for us at ProQuest,” said CEO Matti Shem-Tov, who introduced the latest in a series of company events celebrating Women’s History Month. “We must provide an environment that allows each one of us to exercise and utilize our full potential.”
Each of the speakers answered questions about career advancement submitted by ProQuest employees (both women and men). Here’s what they said.
How has being a leader come naturally to you? How has it challenged you?
“Leadership skills are gender-neutral,” said Marcus. “We are all – both men and women – coming to the table with a blind spot or gaps in our abilities. As individuals, we each need to identify what ours are, and pick just one or two to focus on. Talk to peers, managers, and mentors to help identify the areas that might make you more successful.”
Rosenhan agreed, admitting that she was reluctant at first when taking on leadership opportunities. “What’s helped me the most has been overcoming those blind spots – particularly understanding the way I was seeing the world. I learned that there were ways to be successful with my analytical brain, even though many of the leaders I knew were extremely decisive and always seemed to know exactly what to do.”
What behaviors have you observed that can be career-limiting?
“Below-the-line thinking – in other words, ‘it’s them, not me,’ or ‘this is unfair,’” said Marcus. “A leader will come to the table seeing a challenge with open eyes, and an understanding of how to attack it.”
She also said that not speaking up can be limiting. “It’s crucial to develop the confidence to share feedback, ask questions, take a stand, and suggest a solution,” she said.
How do you assess whether a career opportunity is right for you – or not?
Gilchrist has turned down roles in the past – even though they were promotions – because she didn’t feel passionate about them. “I don’t assess roles on salary, title, or size of the team, but instead, what motivates me and makes me excited to come to work every day,” she said. “A lot of the opportunities I’ve seized have allowed me to learn new things.”
Eastman-Mullins said that many women she knows don’t feel “ready” for the next step, but that if they want to advance, they should put that thinking aside. “You’ll never be fully ready. Sometimes you need to do something that scares you a bit,” she said. “When I’m not scared anymore, it means I’m probably bored, and it’s time to move on.”
How do you balance work and family life?
When LaPeer started at ProQuest, she had two young children, aged 3 and 6. She said that finding a job and a schedule that fit her life was key in developing her career. “I need my work to be flexible and I need my family to be flexible,” she said. “When I need to leave early or work from home, it has to be seamless.”
LaPeer said her husband – raised by a single mother who also had a demanding career – has been key in helping her achieve this flexibility. “We set expectations about schedules and responsibilities up front, and it’s helped us juggle our home life,” she said.
Banda said that with a “type A” personality like hers, developing work-life balance was very challenging. When her kids were young, she worked so many late nights that her children would hold competitions to see who could remember more of her coworkers’ names.
“I had to develop the discipline to let go and trust my team, and to work with my leaders, managers and stakeholders to prioritize projects,” she said. “Now, when I work late nights, it’s because I want to, not that I have to. It’s up to us to achieve the balance that works.”
How do you bounce back after maternity leave?
“Most people know it’s emotionally hard to come back from maternity leave, but it’s also physically hard,” said Eastman-Mullins. “I had to become a better planner.” She shared the story of having to organize a large company meeting shortly after she came back from leave from her first child – and strategically planning the meeting’s breaks around her pumping schedule. “These things are the reality, and exposing it and talking about it really helps.”
Eastman-Mullins also assured women that having young children is a temporary phase – and that once kids get older, it becomes easier. “If a woman wants to advance her career, I encourage her to not let maternity leave hold her back,” she said.
Marcus, who got promoted to Vice President while on maternity leave three years ago, stressed that the cliché “work smarter, not harder” is absolutely true for working parents. “You have a limited amount of time, but you still have to deliver,” she said. “You must learn how to be as effective as possible.” She said that finding a mentor who has young children can be helpful, too.
What types of mentors have helped you advance your career?
All panelists agreed that mentorship is gender-neutral, and they’ve all had both men and women mentors over the years, often having to go outside their immediate group to find a mentor they connected with. “If there’s a leader whose approach I like and respect, that’s who I want to foster a relationship with,” LaPeer said.
Rosenhan recalled a time in her career when a manager of hers – who happened to be a man – offered some advice on confidence that she wouldn’t otherwise have considered, and said that it’s a good experience to have a mentor with a different perspective on the world. “Getting those insights from someone can be very freeing,” she said.
What are some common misconceptions that you wish people would stop making?
LaPeer said she wishes people wouldn’t assume that because her job is demanding, she’s picking work over family. “I don’t like the perception that because you’re a mother, you’re sacrificing time with your kids,” she said. “It’s about valuing the time you have with them, making the most of it.” LaPeer said that she makes it a point to re-arrange her schedule so she leaves early on Fridays so she can be home to spend time with her children.
Gilchrist, whose father always expected she’d be just as successful (if not more so) than her brothers, said it’s important to have the same expectations of all employees. “Don’t assume women can’t travel and don’t assume men can, for instance,” she said. “Hold all of your colleagues in high regard, and give them all opportunities to grow.”
When it comes to advancing your career, what’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Banda: “Stay focused on customers and deliver for them. When you deliver a product that makes customers’ lives easier, you will build a trusted network.”
Gilchrist: “Have the confidence to speak when you passionately believe in something, and have the data and experience to back it up.”
LaPeer: “Learn to check your emotions at the door.”
Marcus: “Identify blind spots and be open to them. Don’t let that destroy your confidence – instead, focus on how you can develop and evolve them.”
Rosenhan: “Forget politics. Focus on doing what’s right for the company, and success will follow.”
Eastman-Mullins: “Be better at self-promotion. I started to look at the language of leadership: instead of saying ‘I’ve worked with development in the past’, say ‘I led a team of 30 people globally to deliver the first academic video platform.’”
Fitzpatrick: “While it’s important to know what you want, it’s equally important to know what you don’t want, and to not let others push you in a direction that you don’t want to go in. Some of you may not want to be in a leadership position, and that’s okay. Figure out what it is you want, and make that decision for yourself.”