With over 150 in virtual attendance, last week’s “ASUG Women Connect: Leading Forward: A Discussion with Women Leaders” webcast provided ASUG members and nonmembers alike with a valuable opportunity to gain insights from a panel of inspiring women leaders who’ve overcome obstacles and made positive impacts on their respective fields amid economic uncertainty.

Presented as part of the ASUG Women Connect program, which “exists to help women in SAP technology visualize and inspire success,” the event (held Tuesday, March 28) was moderated by Kris Cowles, SVP of IT at Topcon Positioning Systems, also an ASUG Board member and ASUG Talks Season 2 podcast guest.

Speakers included Marlene Evans, Sr. IT Director and Solution Delivery Finance/HR/Legal at Ferrara Candy; Lisa Fay, Sr. Business Process Manager of SAP (MM/PP) and COE Program Lead at Altra Industrial Motion; and Linda Johnson, SVP of Information Technology and TECH Finance at PIMCO.

In introducing the panel, Cowles encouraged an “open and honest conversation” between guest speakers, whether discussing unexpected career trajectories or advising the next generation of women in tech, and they obliged across an hour-long dialogue in which the importance of self-belief and mentorship was a frequent topic of discussion.

Doing Things Differently

“Persistence is one of my virtues, for sure,” Fay said, addressing her journey to Altra, an American manufacturer of mechanical power transmission products. A chemical engineer before she shifted toward IT, Fay reflected that as a woman in a male-dominated field, she was “always trying to do things differently,” making established processes more efficient and identifying opportunities for innovation that her colleagues could not see.

Developing strong professional relationships and overcoming her fear of failure—sometimes manifested as “imposter syndrome”—was essential in making many of her most meaningful contributions. Fay said, adding that she has learned not to second-guess her own abilities—and to accept the credit she’s due.

“Once I came to Altra, I got a job where my management and company gave me so much freedom,” Fay added. “They empowered me. Even though I was thinking, ‘Do I belong in this job?’ I started getting feedback from others on my team, who thought I was doing a great job. It’s so important to listen to those compliments and accept them, rather than dismissing them, which is what I might have done previously.”

In addressing unique challenges for women in the workforce, Johnson shared that she’s gradually learned the value of “emotional equilibrium,” keeping the coolest head in the room throughout business challenges and reminding others of end goals. “People might expect you to respond in an emotional way, and when you don’t, you change the dynamic and take control of the narrative,” she said. This skill has allowed Johnson to lead successfully at investment advisor PIMCO and elsewhere while reminding her not to set unrealistic expectations.

“The most important part of being a leader is listening,” she said. “People don’t need you to have the answer. They just need you to hear them.” One crucial evolution in Johnson’s approach to work has been to focus more on people than problems, whether mentoring others, strengthening cross-functional communication, or mirroring the behaviors of more senior-level female managers.

Evans, who’s worked at candy manufacturer Ferrara Candy since 2003 and witnessed its growth from a family-owned business into a subsidiary of the Ferrero Group, agreed with Johnson that it’s essential to stay “grounded in what you can control” and not to fear not having all the answers. “I don’t have to be the expert, but then I listen and come back to the team and offer different solutions,” she said.

Make the Choices That Make Sense for You

Cowles posed to panelists “the million-dollar question,” asking, “How have you found the balance or prioritization between your personal commitments—parent care, childcare, other personal obligations—and your professional obligations?”

Recalling her experiences as a single mother with a daughter still living at home, and as a caretaker for her elderly mother, Fay described herself as “part of the sandwich generation,” noting that she eventually had to resist being pulled in even more directions by her professional life. Fay learned how to say “no” to employers and to establish that she couldn’t travel for work, instead leveraging project management skills to delegate and coordinate tasks that she didn’t have the bandwidth to take on personally.

“Don’t always assume everybody will expect you to do everything the previous person did,” Fay said. “If they like you and like your skills, they will work with you.” Emphasizing the value of self-care, Fay called this the single most important skill she’s developed to strike a balance between her personal and professional lives. “I know you’ll say that you are too busy, that you’re overwhelmed,” she said. “That’s the time you need self-care.”

Evans agreed that it’s crucial to “listen to your heart and listen to your body,” describing the importance of setting personal priorities. “Women can do everything, but not all at the same time,” she said. Evans once left a job to seek out a more flexible position, so she could care for her daughter; later in life, she found herself in the same position when her mother required care.

“If you’re starting to feel sick, or stressed out, you’re not going to benefit anyone,” Evans said. “The company will lose. Your family will lose. Mental health is a high priority; as with any illness or disease, it’s important to be aware of mental health and to ensure people can manage their situations.”

Johnson’s dynamic career has taken her around the world, but this type of professional life would not have been possible to pursue without a “support team” of nannies and grandparents at home. “Make the choices that make sense for you,” she said.

Amid a busy career, Cowles encouraged others to set expectations with employers around travel, adding that she at one point stepped back from work and took a year off to contemplate her personal priorities. “I was worried that might make me less relevant,” she said. “Instead, it made me more centered. I knew what I wanted.”

Find Your Passion

On the subject of uplifting the next generation of women in technology, panelists agreed that mentorship programs and internship opportunities could be effective routes into any number of industries. Fay encouraged women leaders to “share with [younger women in tech] the experiences you had and the mistakes you made,” seeing the value in sharing these personal experiences and remaining “relatable” to those newer to the field.

Addressing that next generation, Fay stressed the importance of “getting out of your comfort zone” and “finding your passion,” even at one point suggesting more introverted individuals try out improv classes or find other ways to “get comfortable in [their] own skin.” Prioritizing self-care, she said, is one way to keep from burning out and to become more resilient.

Evans added that empathy for others is an essential skill she’s learned to protect over time. “When I reflect on my journey, I see it as one of maturity, how I’ve developed over time, becoming more mature in my thoughts,” she said. “It’s been more about looking at others, not only through the work they do but also seeing them as full people with families and lives.”

Johnson advised attendees not to exclude potential career paths when navigating the workforce. “Figure out what you love,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be the same as your degree. Take chances. It’s all about having confidence and the ability to do what you find joy in. Focus on what’s going to bring you joy in the work environment. Do what means something to you. I think this new generation does that, and it’s great.”

Additional reporting by Heather Lima.

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