Six Leadership Lessons From Women in the C-Suite

Booth Women Connect Conference

When it comes to the C-suite, it’s still lonely for women at the top. But some female executives are pushing back against deep-rooted barriers—and seeing progress.

Women who have reached the highest rungs of an organization are starting to change company culture while candidly speaking out about ways that other women can rise to the top. At the 2018 Booth Women Connect Conference, five C-level women executives discussed this and more during the panel “Insights From the C-suite.” Participants included City of Chicago CFO Carole L. Brown; Golden State Warriors CFO Jennifer Cabalquinto; McDonald’s CMO Morgan Flatley; USG Corp. CEO Jennifer Scanlon, ’92; and former Reynolds American president and CEO Debra Crew, ’00.

The panelists spoke candidly with moderator Joycelyn Winnecke, ’05 (XP-74), chief marketing and experience officer at PCMA, about how they learned from failure, got ahead, and built credibility along the way. Here are six takeaways from their talk:

Lesson 1: Spread the responsibility for building an inclusive team.

Whether a company is trying to add more women leaders or promote inclusion within its organization, prioritizing diverse viewpoints needs to fall to everyone, said Crew, who serves on the boards of Stanley Black & Decker, Newell Brands, and Mondelēz International. “You can’t just stick [increasing diversity] on the woman on the team or on the African American on the team—they can’t be the only backstop,” Crew said. “In very large organizations it’s important that everyone takes that responsibility.”

Lesson 2: Don’t focus on just the title.

In many instances, a high-level title can help you effectively influence others on your team, Scanlon said. But instead of focusing solely on a title, remember that building your credibility through your interactions is key. "It's about the behavior and the attitude and the ability to use that [to build your role] that's important,” she explained.

Lesson 3: Stay humble as you move up the ladder.

Exercising humility as you move into more senior roles can actually help, not hurt, Brown said. “If you are humble and you exercise some self-doubt, then you are pushing yourself to be better,” she said. “If you walk in with too much arrogance and not enough humility, then you may not make the best decisions.”

Lesson 4: Make the most of your soft skills.

For Flatley, combining her soft skills, such as a strong work ethic, with a functional knowledge of marketing and her understanding of the business has been a recipe for leadership success. “For women, sometimes it’s the softer skills to help you truly influence,” she said. “Often you’re in a room full of men, and sometimes it helps to be a little bit different.”

Lesson 5: Don’t ignore the introverts.

Not everyone can shout out ideas at the weekly meeting. Making space for more introverted employees to share their thoughts during quieter moments is beneficial to the entire team. “The loudest idea isn’t always the best one,” Cabalquinto said.

Lesson 6: As a leader, speak up about inclusion.

When Cabalquinto sees informal networks pop up in male-dominated spaces, she’s quick to point out their limitations. “I talk about the boys’ club, I talk about the one female manager who never goes to lunch with them, I talk about the men’s room meeting—I’m in a position where I can,” Cabalquinto said.



Booth Women Connect Conference is organized by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The 2018 event brought together more than 1,100 professionals for an extraordinary day of bold ideas, spirited discussion, practical insights, and impactful networking. Join us for the next annual conference on November 1, 2019.


—By Alina Dizik

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