Women execs discuss leadership amid changing demographics, technology

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 173 views 

Some of the top female executives in Northwest Arkansas shared laughter and wisdom Wednesday (Oct. 8) morning at the Sunny Side of Leadership breakfast held at the Doubletree Suites in Bentonville.

The event was a fundraiser for Havenwood, which has worked to provide services to single parent families for 20 years in Northwest Arkansas. Havenwood held a similar event in May.

The panel of executives represented some of Northwest Arkansas’ largest, most influential companies:
• Karen Armstrong, VP Diversity and Leadership Development at Tyson Foods, Inc.;
• Racquel Harris, SVP of Marketing, Membership Strategy, & Insights at Sam’s Club;
• Sharon Orlopp, Global Chief Diversity Officer, SVP Corporate People at Wal-Mart Stores; and
• Shelley Simpson, Chief Marketing Officer, EVP, President of ICS and Truck at J.B. Hunt.

The panel moderator was Cindi Nance, dean emeritus and Nathan G. Gordon Professor of Law at University of Arkansas Law.

The panelists were first asked to discuss their thoughts on the positive aspects they see they may bring to their leadership roles as women. Simpson said she is often one of the only women in the room during meetings and she finds she can bring skill sets that others can’t, including a high level of organization. She also talked about servant leadership and how women often bring their natural nurturing role into their job while men often bring their “provider” role into the workplace.

Armstrong said she has the opportunity to bring her “whole self” to work and foster an environment where her employees can do the same.

“Everyone has a life outside of work,” she said. “I’ve learned that it’s about work/life blend. There’s never going to be a balance.”

Harris worked at Kraft Foods before her role at Sam’s Club where she had the opportunity to learn from other female leaders about how to break down barriers and demonstrate empathy.  For Orlopp, the answer was the “power of storytelling” and the ability to connect to people at al levels.

The rest of the discussion explored a variety of leadership topics including social media/technology and successes in their respective companies with respect to leadership of a generationally diverse workforce.

Armstrong said a big learning moment for her was when she realized how people are motivated differently and work differently. For example, younger generations work better when they are multi-tasking, such as listening to music while working, whereas older generations often view that practice as distracting and “goofing off.”

She continued to say that Tyson developed a young professionals group, which received some pushback initially because some people thought the younger workers should just be blended into the other groups. They soon realized, however, that the demographic needs a different kind of development and that they can thrive if those development opportunities are presented. On the other side of the coin, the older, more long-time employees are the stewards of Tyson’s history, she said.

Another aspect of the discussion evolved around how social media and technology has affected their organizations and leadership. Harris said technology has made it easier to more quickly communicate, but one must also be careful to make sure to have in-person time with their employees and to also watch their tone in electronic communication.

“You don’t want to lose that personal interaction,” she said.

Nance said she tells law students that all firms look at social media profiles during the hiring process.

“Social media can affect their careers for good or bad,” she said.

Simpson said J.B. Hunt chose to open up the social channels because they realized it’s how their younger workers multitask and can be most effective. The company has embraced social media to the point that it uses internal platforms to connect employees across the organization.

The panel concluded the latter portion of the program by discussing how some people had a great influence on them and some of the challenges of advancing up in leadership roles.
Ideas such as constructive feedback and having a mentor and employer who cares about their employees as people were shared throughout the group.

Armstrong said something that always stuck with her that she now passes on to other rising leaders and employees is the idea that they will be famous for something and what do they want to be famous for?

“Are they different?,” she said.

Other leadership advice included:
• It’s important to appreciate diversity of race, backgrounds, talents (Harris)
• Always work to make a person’s situation better. Just because you had it hard doesn’t mean you should give others a hard time (Armstrong)
• Leaders often don’t know how to talk about diversity so they just don’t and this is a mistake (Simpson)
• Humor always helps (Orlopp).