As one of the staffing industry’s most successful female executives, Loretta Penn brought gender and racial diversity to Spherion’s senior leadership team during a period of exceptional growth. Even she admits that she was somewhat of an “anomaly,” and as such she is a strong advocate for increasing diversity at executive levels. Now an executive coach and strategic consultant, Penn shares strategies and skills women can develop to prepare themselves for leadership opportunities.
Q. Why is gender diversity so important at the executive level in the staffing and recruitment industry?
A. As many of us know, staffing has always been an industry made up of a large percentage of women. The irony is that only a small percentage of women are represented in the C-suite, or even in the ranks who directly report up to the C-suite.
There’s ample research—from McKinsey and Harvard Business Review, among others—that shows a positive correlation between gender diversity within senior leadership and a company’s financial performance. In fact, one study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) found that this positive association is “significantly stronger” in sectors that employ more women in the labor force—like staffing.
But even without this empirical evidence, why wouldn’t you want gender diversity at the top levels? Any CEO should think accessing a group of incredibly intelligent women is a great business decision. There’s an increased awareness of the need to tap into emotional IQ and not just intellectual IQ. Opening doors for women opens the possibility of introducing more “EQ” skills, such as team building and effective listening, at the executive level.
Q. What’s the maturity of the staffing industry in gender equality compared to other industries?
A. I’m seeing a nice level of movement of women into leadership positions within staffing. As President of Spherion’s largest division, I was somewhat of an anomaly as a female executive. Now, we’re seeing women moving into leadership roles, particularly within regional and divisional levels, and in some cases President and CEO roles. I’m very encouraged, but do we need to have more women in leadership? Absolutely. But we don’t just need more women promoted, we need more women who are prepared to be promoted.
Q. How can women prepare themselves for leadership roles in staffing? Is it incumbent upon individual effort or should they count on institutional advances?
A. Many women tell themselves that if they are doing a good job, “opportunity will come to me.” No, it won’t. You must be prepared when opportunity knocks. From my experience, there are four rules to get there: #1 Constant learning. Knowledge is power. You must always challenge yourself to work on your own skills and knowledge base. #2 Don’t be afraid of math. You have to be comfortable running a business financially. It’s paramount to your success. #3 Don’t be afraid to ask. For more responsibility, for an opportunity, and for a promotion—if you’re prepared. #4 Be prepared to sacrifice. Leadership requires tough conversations, unpleasant tasks, and cultural shifts. As you climb the ladder, you must be prepared to handle everything that comes with the job.
I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “work/life balance.” Can you have it all? No, you can’t. But if you first define and then do what matters most and brings you happiness, you’ll have balance. You’ll achieve what’s most important personally and professionally.
Q. How did the dynamic of being prepared for leadership play out in your own life and career?
A. I’ve never been afraid to ask a question or for a resource. My career started at IBM, that was my foundation where I learned to sell, market, and lead. When I joined the staffing industry in 1982, it was still largely regionally focused and very ‘mom and pop’ oriented. I had to learn by doing, whether it was creating ads, opening an office, or putting in a performance planning system.
That’s why I emphasize constant learning: you surround yourself with great talent, put in a plan, test it, get input, and then you improve. That’s what I had a chance to do in the staffing industry, as I progressed from regional manager to President of legal staffing and then running multinational accounts. I realize I have so much to learn but I’m highly confident and never had any hesitancy that I could be an effective leader. Of course, I am most grateful to have had exceptional people working for me, well-trained people who were intentional about being the best we could be.
Q. How important is having a mentor? If your organization doesn’t have a formal mentorship program, how should you go about getting what you need?
A. I see evidence of more informal and formal mentorships within staffing, but if they’re limited to things like giving feedback on a presentation, they’re about as helpful as a snowball. An ideal mentor relationship should be formalized and individualized around goals, objectives, and specific outcomes.
At the executive level, you need a coach, not a mentor. At Spherion, I was one of those people who didn’t think I needed a coach… so it’s ironic that I became one! I thought that was the CEO’s job. But the higher up you go, the lonelier it gets. There are few people you feel comfortable opening up to and sharing vulnerabilities. An executive coach has no bias, so you can debate ideas, share knowledge, and practice your skills, without judgment.
You also get time to talk only about you, something most leaders don’t get a chance to do often. Coaching is not therapy, though. It shouldn’t go on for years, unless an individual is constantly moving up the ladder with different initiatives and newly defined outcomes. Rather, it should be structured around a development plan with specific areas to work on improving.
Q. As an executive coach, you have an unfiltered view into what’s holding women back—both perceived and actual challenges. What can you share?
A. When it comes to female executives, there are some consistent areas where I provide coaching. First, is exuding executive presence. That could be as tactical as ‘how do I dress for success’ to ‘how do I present myself when I’m talking to the board or senior executive team.’ That goes hand in hand with leading courageously by evaluating which leadership factors are critical to the job and which you specifically need to develop.
One specific skill gap that comes up frequently is financial management. In addition to management of day-to-day operations, new leaders often need financial aptitude to make better strategic business decisions.
Another area is how to earn the right to sit at the executive table, and then how to sustain that right. You can’t just wake up one day and go from working at the tactical level—being a “doer”—to being a strategic leader. It’s a process to move that needle and realize what you must give up to focus on the long-term vision and financial impact of your decisions.
Q. Can you sum up your personal philosophy around “failing forward?”
A. When I think of my own personal and professional path, “fail” doesn’t mean anything bad. It means I’m gaining experience from all I’ve learned. I like to sum it up this way: “To succeed, you must first improve. To improve you must first practice. To practice, you must first learn. To learn, you must first fail.”
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