Lead Loudly: Female Leaders in the Workplace

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – News 2 has teamed up with March of Dimes – Tennessee to release a special series, “It Starts With Mom.”

In addition to moderating each panel of experts, News 2’s Nikki Burdine discusses her experience with her own preemie daughter, who was born at 28 weeks in 2019.

“Lead Loudly: Female Leaders in the Workplace” features community leaders discussing their roles as women and moms in the workplace and how they navigate motherhood while succeeding in work.

Lead Loudly: Female Leaders in the Workplace – Panelists

  • Maneet Chauhan: Founding partner & president of Morph Hospitality Group
  • Amy Tanksley: Owner & founder of Uncle Classic Barbershop
  • Gina Waters-Miller: SVP & general manager of Entertainment One
  • Jen Robinson: Office managing shareholder of Littler

Working Mothers

“I think it’s a journey that starts pretty much from the time that you’re born, right? It is, from being in the playground, to being in class, to being in school, to being in college, where each and every step I think pushes you towards a leadership role,” said Maneet Chauhan.

“And be it in a small way or a big, you know, a big way. And I do think that education is very important, because, to be a leader, one of the most important things is that you need to be informed, you need to be informed about what you’re saying, how you are guiding your entire team. I did my undergrad in hotel administration in India, which was amazing because I could get all aspects of this hospitality industry. And then I came here to go to the CIA, which is the Culinary Institute of America before you guys think I’m anything more exciting than a chef. And then, you know, I worked in a lot of different restaurants, got a lot of experience. And then finally was the Executive Chef and a General Manager of a restaurant and I’m like, you don’t have time to open my own. So that has pretty much been a 44-year journey in a nutshell.”

Chauhan said being a mom, however, is the biggest leadership role she has ever had, specifically leading her 9-year-old daughter.

“This morning, I think I showed a great layer of leadership, just dragging her out of bed and getting her ready to go to school, which is like, I don’t want to go to school, it’s Monday, but you’ve got to why, you know, and always be ready with answers as to why do I have to go to school? My son, on the other hand, he was a preemie and he was born at 26 weeks, so he spent three months in the NICU. And I think that also was a very valuable lesson for us, where we realize that, you know, even though we are leaders, there are so many situations which are not in our control,” said Chauhan.

“I do think that that parenthood is probably one of the biggest leadership roles that we can ever be conferred with.”

“To be a leader, one of the most important things is that you need to be informed.”

Maneet Chauhan

Amy Tanksley said she is an accidental entrepreneur. “I went to school at the University of Texas and studied finance, and thought I would climb the corporate ladder, that was always my dream. I moved to Nashville in 2003, for a job crunching numbers at a startup. And I met my husband there and along the journey, he started talking about this barbershop. And I thought he was crazy because I really didn’t want to be married. And I didn’t want to have children and I had had things to do. But you know, chatting about entrepreneurship and chatting about flexibility. At that point, to be honest with you, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted children. But you know, silly how things all sort of come together in your life. And I started my business at 28 years old, we opened our first barbershop, I didn’t have any children at the time. I worked all the time. I’m sure everyone on this call, can agree with that, you know, you put in the long hours. And at that point, I wasn’t really sure how motherhood would combine with being an entrepreneur or a business owner. But you know, ultimately, we decided to have children, I have two little boys who are five and a half and now seven,” said Tanksley.

She said she has had a second act of owning a business and being a mom, which changed her for the better in business.

“I can tell you motherhood, like everyone on the call will tell you, changes your life. But for me, I think it’s really made me a better entrepreneur, a better business owner, I’m a better boss. I’m so much more empathetic, I laugh more I cry more. I’m now a hugger. I wasn’t a hugger before all of this, and now I hug everyone.”

“I think it’s really made me a better entrepreneur, a better business owner, I’m a better boss.”

Amy Tanksley on Motherhood

Jen Robinson’s leadership path began at a later age when she was 46 years old. “I was asked to leave my prior firm and open Littler Nashville office. I had no prior management experience. I had no clients of my own whatsoever, and I needed to sink or swim and I had to swim. So my role really started with networking and meeting other women,” said Robinson.

Robinson got involved with March of Dimes and other networking events to connect. She also became a mother later in life.

“I didn’t have my first child until I was almost 40. And then my second one at 41. And by then I was already a partner in a law firm. And suddenly, I had to put the brakes on a 15-year career and sort of stopped and smelled the roses a little bit. I hauled my baby out to California, I commuted the first six weeks after I ended my maternity leave a baby in tow back and forth. Because that’s what you do. And I practice law in California as well. But what I have learned is…you suddenly want to lead by example and be a strong role model. I want to embrace and demonstrate integrity, community service, working hard. And those are the values that I’ve really strive to provide to my children. Also, I have really had to embrace as part of motherhood, that I am not a picture-perfect Mom, I’m not a picture-perfect family. And embracing that you can’t control everything and you’re doing the best you can, has really been an invaluable lesson for me as well.”

“Embracing that you can’t control everything and you’re doing the best you can, has really been an invaluable lesson for me…”

Jen Robinson

Gina Waters-Miller’s journey to leadership started as a child.

“My parents were instrumental in making sure that I understood, if I was a leader, no one could tell me that I wasn’t, I wasn’t leader, and really just showed me how to lead where I was. And I still believe that everyone has the ability and the power to lead wherever they are. So for my mom, who’s an educator, and my father, who’s a serial entrepreneur, at a very early age, he started a company for my sister and myself. And we were children in that company working. And so that probably started the beginning of when I can really go back, in a very tangible way, in remembering steps that I had to take to work that business, to retain customers in that business, to you know, to do all of those steps,” she said.

When her professional career collided with motherhood, Waters-Miller took a non-traditional route to get what she wanted.

“Every time I walked into that company, I asked them about being an intern. And I was not a college student. I was a very nontraditional intern. I was married at the time, I had two young sons. But I walked in understanding that I was probably on my way to divorce I needed to change careers and just needed to figure out and discover what this journey was going to be for this new life that I knew was inevitably ahead of me,” she said.

Waters-Miller said she didn’t tell them about her young kids, because she didn’t feel the need to. She simply worked hard and told them she was a person who was fanatical about music and got the internship.

“I walked in the door that day. And quite frankly, I’ve never walked out. I’ve been in every role that we have in our company and I can tell you having children A lot of people ask that question, how did I do it? How did I do it? And usually, in these moments, I know I’m the only one, I’m typically the only one who did not make a lot of the same decisions. And I think that that’s the lesson to learn is that you have to make the decisions for your family that best define where you want to go, regardless of who else did not do something, or they do something that you’re choosing either the same path or the opposite path.”

“I still believe that everyone has the ability and the power to lead wherever they are.”

Gina Waters-Miller

How companies are supporting working moms

Chauhan said being a mom herself helps her to be more empathetic to other moms.

“There have been days that I’ve shown up at work with both the kids…They don’t have school, and that’s fine. And they are restaurant babies, they’re so comfortable with being in the restaurant being in the environment. And, and that is something which I have pretty much told everybody,” said Chauhan. “I’ve always said that family is first. And not only your own family, but our work, family is a family. And to me, I want people to grow along with us. And not only in terms of career, but in terms of family, because your family is a very important part of who you are, and how you grow. And how you nourish yourselves because a lot of us push ourselves for our family.”

Tanksley said she feels there is a before and after motherhood in her world.

“I’d come from a corporate environment where it was expected to be all work, and then all family and there wasn’t really the integration of work and family in the corporate environment from which I had come. And when I started Uncle, that was my experience. And I would tell you, you know, pre-having children myself, I had a lot more roles. I was a lot more inflexible. And then when you have your own family, you realize all that goes out the window…I would tell you, the number one thing that we’ve been working on at Uncle, for many years now, is that flexibility. Many of my employees are working moms, working parents, breadwinners with small children. And so that F word, flexibility, comes up all the time. And thank God, we had been working on that for the last couple years, because this year that’s been the core of our success, meeting people where they are with what they have,” she said.

Tanksley believes the ability to be flexible is more important now than it has ever been.

“In our world right now that changes, weekly, monthly, depending on where we are with the news or the numbers are the lockdowns, we’ve had to really think outside of the box. And specifically, with parents, we were actually having that conversation this morning. If schools are going to get shut down again, what are we going to do? I think our secret during all of this and previously has just been learning to go with the flow more. And I’ve had to learn some tough lessons with that.”

Waters-Miller echoed flexibility as key. “My experience has probably brought that F word to play more than ever before. Being flexible with others in their abilities or their means or their desires to want to be where their children are, for whatever reason, that’s none of my business, it’s not my decision to make, why you need to be where you want to be with your family. The other side of that is I’m really excited about the fact that we I have watched us corporately really redefine who needs to support.”

Coming from corporate America, Robinson has a different perspective. “Our firm has been very female forward and compassionate about women and moms elevating them to partner, full equity partner, etc. But some very specific things we offer, four months of paid maternity leave. We also offer paid maternity leave, we allow an additional two months of unpaid maternity leave. So, for example, one of my associates had her first child just three weeks ago. And she is going to take off six months for which will be paid. We also offer the opportunity for all lawyers, male or female, to be on a reduced time schedule.”

Robinson said leading by example is key, she sometimes leaves in the middle of the day for her children. “My colleagues know they are entitled to do the same thing.”

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Robinson specifically works with her firm on a variety of diversity initiatives. “We have many female and minority full Equity Partners, which is unusual in the legal profession. I am a mentor through the CAP program, Career Advocacy Program., so I advocate for five diverse superstar attorneys all across the country, two of whom have been recently promoted to shareholder. And we talk about all those issues.”

Robinson said 2020 has been an eye-opening year in many ways.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t say 2020 has really placed a spotlight on diversity and inclusion issues. And although I thought that I was well educated on that, I learned I absolutely was not. I did something called the 21 Day Challenge through the American Bar Association and read wonderful articles, listen to podcasts on life as a black person. I’m proud to be affiliated with such a company. But even more proud perhaps of my own personal journey, and how much farther I have to go on that, and to be able to be a role model for my children as well,” said Robinson.

Waters-Miller said it’s important to capitalize on this movement. “One of the things about this moment that I think is so critical, because everyone’s also asking the question, ‘what can I do? What should we be doing? How can I be an ally?’ I think that for every one of us, no matter what race you are, no matter what your experience has been unconscious bias training, implicit bias training, is probably the most important and critical first step that you can take.”

Tanksley said this has been very humbling for her business. “I own barbershops. Barbershops are a lot about community, right. And each of our communities are very different.”

“We have no control over who walks in at any given time, and we are adjusting on a regular basis. And it’s been really difficult. I mean, there have been some very interesting conversations at the barbershops, about diversity, about inclusion, about mask-wearing or not mask-wearing. And it has been humbling for me to really realize that we have so many people who are on so many different pages, and how do you continue to run a business and keep everyone together? For us…listening to what’s being said…we’ve done a lot of listening. We can’t solve everything, but as a company, we have continued to prioritize that.”

As a restaurant owner, Chauhan said this has always been on the forefront for her.

“One of the biggest things that that I have come to come to term with is that, to make a change, it has to start at a microlevel. So how does it start? To me, the first thing was, it starts at home. Right? I had a very interesting conversation with my daughter when she was in first grade. When she was six years old, she came back from school, and she told me she’s like one of her friends. They called her black. Right? And I’m like, I said, did you turn and say thank you…because it’s a beautiful color,” remembered Chauhan.

“To me, the first step was to celebrate that at home to celebrate that we are different. That’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s nothing to hide. On national television, I’m wearing the most brightest of Indian clothes, the most brightest of earrings, and my accent and I’m celebrating it, I’m not hiding behind it. And that’s what it starts and that’s, you know, starting at home…then at work. Let’s celebrate different festivals. Let’s celebrate different cultures. Let’s celebrate different people. And I’m hoping that if everybody does this at a micro level, slowly, slowly it all expands.”

Working while pregnant

Chauhan remembered that feeling well. She has two children and worked through both pregnancies. “It’s been really interesting because, to me, I have never ever thought that the fact that I am pregnant is something that should stop me from doing what I am doing.”

She said it’s also made her a better boss. “Because I have been through it, it is so important…I can empathize with people who are who are expecting.”

Chauhan said they make the necessary accommodations. “If it’s a chef who needs to be moved into, let’s say, accounting or marketing, to get them off their feet, because it is a physically very hard job. We’ve done it, we’ve absolutely, we’re like, okay, for a couple of months, come on over, and then we’ll work with you and figure out your career path based on what you want to do and how you want to allocate your time. And that is something that we’ve done on a case-to-case basis.”

Tanksley’s employees are constantly on their feet, which presents its own set of challenges for expecting moms, which she welcomes conversations about their plans.

“My business is not kind to, to the body. So being pregnant and on your feet all the time is extremely difficult.  “We come up with custom plans for each and every person with what they need, and how long they plan to be gone for maternity leave. And what that looks like. The best thing about my business is that it is it can be done with lots of flexible hours and getting really creative.”

“There is nobody more hardworking than a parent. So I think as leaders, people should understand that if you want efficiency, you want productivity. You want things done on time. I mean, come on, parents, they get things done.”

Maneet Chauhan

Waters-Miller said for her, it’s listening, especially in a male-dominated industry. “The women who work in it are women who are making choices every day…it’s so difficult. And I hear this so many different times, it’s so difficult to even foster healthy relationships in order to even think about being a mom.”

She said it’s important to make sure all her employees know, having a baby will not hurt their career.

“You can absolutely have both. And I think, as leaders, we have to continue to nurture our staffers and our young women leaders in a way so they really, really believe that if there’s a place for you, that would be protected.”

Chauhan said mothers make the best employees because they already work incredibly hard.

“There is nobody more hardworking than a parent. So I think as leaders, people should understand that if you want efficiency, you want productivity. You want things done on time. I mean, come on, parents, they get things done.”

This is a battle women are constantly fighting, said Waters-Miller. “We can multitask. We can do more than one thing at a time. I promise you…The fact that we even are still having to say that, in at this time of 2020, is just shameful. But it’s a real thing. It’s a real place and for minorities is a real thing.”

Robinson said there’s an important lesson she learned that she hopes she can pass along.

“Being confident versus being self-confident. For me, I have been a successful lawyer my entire career, I became a partner before I became a mom before I was married even. And yet, I was never brought along on a pitch with my former law firm. I never had a client of my own. And almost 10 years ago, I was approached to open Nashville Littler office and be the first Managing Partner there. And as the recruiter talked to me, I said, I think you have the wrong person. I’m not a manager, I don’t have any clients, I really am not very successful. And he said, we have the right person. And around me the whispers, you’re not going to withstand the storm, you’re not going to withstand the storm. And you know what I found out I am the storm. That’s what I learned by coming to Littler.”

Words of advice for working moms and leading in the workplace

Chauhan said it’s important to learn from each and every person you come in contact with. “You don’t realize what incredible resources they are. So when I say, you know, the people who have inspired by the people who mentor me are, they could be people who are, you know, CEOs of a company, or it could be my dishwasher. I have to be smart enough to figure out what I can learn from each and every person I come across, be it, be it work ethic, be it, a story of where they grew up, and what impacted their life.”

She said her failures have been her greatest teachers.

“My failures have taught me what not to do, and how to pivot when pivoting is required. So that is one of the biggest things that I can say, just always learn from each and every person you come across…Don’t ever think that failure is a setback, it’s not, it’s just a step forward.”

Tanksley said people always ask her what her secret it. She said you just have to show up.

“When someone asks you to do something, you say, yes, you go to the meeting, you go to the event, you go by yourself. I’m amazed at how many women I know, who won’t go to something unless they’re going with their five friends, and how many opportunities you miss out when you don’t show up.”

Waters-Miller said her best advice is to not disqualify yourself. “Men, and this is statistically proven, will say yes to things that they have no experience in.”

She said finding a mentor or someone you look up to will help you succeed. “I want to encourage you who don’t know how to get those conversations started or the person you want to mentor you doesn’t have the time or is too far away. You also don’t have to have such a personal connection with someone to be mentored by them. As much as I do a lot of hands-on mentoring, as much as I have mentors who are in my space personally and are willing to spend that time with me, I still have a lot of other people that I would call my mentor, because I glean from them. I learned from them, I have many takeaways from what they’re doing.”

Robinson said the best advice she can give, is to learn anything and everything about your business.

“Understand what Profit and Loss sheets look like, understand how to get your colleagues to turn in their time on time, so that we can build to manage their administrative tasks. Know what sort of tenant improvement you get when you negotiate a lease. I didn’t know any of these things,” she said.

“The other thing is sort of much more emotional. For me, one of my managing partners, a colleague of mine was asked to describe me. And he said, even when Jen dies, her heart will go on beating and that’s why she’s such a great manager and I thought that is the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me. And it shows that you can be an effective leader while still being empathetic.”

You can learn more from March of Dimes on their Facebook page.

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