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Don’t Be Afraid to Bring Your Authentic Self to Your Job

Women are encouraged to push for more money, responsibility, and respect. But as workplace culture evolves, learning to lean out is just as important as learning to lean in.

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Heather Dixon recalls being in an interview when her phone started ringing. “I was smart enough to have my children’s phone numbers bypass do not disturb,” she explained.  “I’m sitting in the room with the CFO of a Fortune 50 company and I just pulled my phone out and said ‘You’re going to learn a lot about my home life, my personal life, how I prioritize them.’” Dixon answered the call from her son and carried on the interview from there. “It turned out to be a fruitful relationship but it was one of those moments where 10 years earlier I would have been mortified and I probably would have thrown my phone out the window.”

Today, after many moves and many roles at companies like American Express, PepsiCo, and Aetna, Dixon is the SVP, Global Controller and CAO for Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc. Reflecting on her career during a recent Financial Executives International Women’s event, Dixon shared that one of the biggest lessons she’s learned is to be unapologetically, authentically herself. “In the early part of my career, when I would interview, I would think, ‘How should I answer? What do they want me to say? What's the right answer?’ I’ve learned, instead, to answer in the way that I want to answer because they need to know me.”

Sitting in the audience, I tried to reconcile this attitude with my professional training. It seemed to go against almost everything that had been drilled into my mind as a woman in business. Lean in. Take risks. Be strong. Aren’t these the things women have to do to compete with our male peers?

“I think it’s very important for women to have someone to help them navigate and sometimes just to have somebody to cry to,” PwC Partner Jill Niland told the audience. There’s no crying in business! I thought. How can I expect to be seen as an equal if anyone sees me crying at the office?

Niland went on. “For our partner candidates this year, I looked at the list and I have recurring meetings with five or six of them every month where they can just say whatever it is they need to say and we can talk through it and I can send them on their way. Having that outlet is very important and it’s like a relief valve that allows you to continue to succeed. Supporting women in a different way is actually very important.”

This idea of supporting women “in a different way” was jarring. Should I expect to be supported in a different way because I’m a woman? But as the conference continued, I slowly began to understand something that I had truly never considered before: being yourself isn’t a weakness in business. As trite as it sounds, it might, in fact, be your biggest strength.

“Be true to yourself” may feel like just another refrain in a sea of social media advice, like Instagram’s ever-popular “She believed she could, so she did.” or Oscar Wilde’s “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” I myself am guilty of scrolling past these mantras with an eye roll. Aren’t we all just trying to get through our day in one piece?

But on this day at Cipriani Wall Street, authenticity took on an entirely different meaning, even to the most cynical of listeners. Speaker after speaker shared stories of being the least popular mom at their child’s school, wearing sneakers to a presentation in a new role, moving themselves and their husbands overseas, taking a reduced schedule after their first child. The variances in their stories is what united them: each woman had found themselves at the top of their company (Partner, CAO, EVP, CFO) while being incredibly true to themselves.

For many of the women in the room, motherhood was unquestionably their biggest priority. As a soon-to-be-first-time mom, this alone was startling. I had trained myself to exhibit a job-first attitude, one that told others I may be pregnant, but work is still my top priority. Now, among all of these incredibly successful women sharing stories of reduced and flexible work schedules, taking calls from their children during interviews, and prioritizing life outside of work, I was forced to consider if this mentality was really serving me.

Earlier in her career and after her first child, Deloitte Partner Dipti Gulati went to the Partner in charge at the time and said, “I really want to come back to work, but I can't work the way I used to work.” She asked for a reduced schedule and for a flexible work arrangement. When asked “What do you need?” Gulati replied “I want to work as little as possible.”

This blew my mind. But Gulati wasn’t alone. Nearly every speaker had, at one time, requested a reduced or flexible schedule with the births of their children.

“The family infrastructure has to be on solid ground,” said Mary Hoeltzel, SVP of Tax and Global Chief Accounting Officer at Cigna. “There are several paths one can take here and there’s no one size that fits all, but it has to be squared off.”

 “What matters to me the most is my family and my life outside of work,” said Gulati. “Those five years on a reduced schedule allowed me that time to learn to be a mom, to learn to navigate working and being at home, and learn what was most important to me, which is my family, and also building a network of friends that I had outside of the office.”

This unapologetic “mom-ness” as a working woman was totally new to me. Why did I feel such a strong instinct to hide my imminent motherhood? These women had been climbing the corporate ladder, all along doing the things I had long considered taboo. The key, it seemed, was to first be authentically “you” (mom or not) and, then, to find a culture that embraces the “you” you are.

“You have to love what you do and where you work needs to enable you to manage your personal needs,” said Hoeltzel. “Cigna has been a wonderful place for me. The culture, the values it upholds all mesh with mine. If you are in an environment that does not complement your views, it will be difficult to thrive.
Before I joined Cigna over ten years ago, I left a great job because I could not relocate as frequently as I was being asked. It was a non-starter for me. They offered me more money, and an officer’s package and I turned it down. I have no regrets.”

Gulati feels similarly about Deloitte. “Ensuring what I do at work is also in constant harmony with what I want to accomplish outside of work has been really important too,” she said. “I feel very fortunate that I've been able to work at Deloitte because it is really an organization that is supporting of inclusion and diversity.”

Unfortunately, though pro-parent perks like flexible work schedules certainly aren’t cutting edge anymore, there remains an underlying fear that we might never recover professionally.

“There were so many people that tried to give me advice,” shared Dixon. “‘You’ll never recover.’ ‘You might as well resign yourself to not climbing the career ladder anymore because, once you take that step back, you’re out of the game.’ It took me a long time to overcome that and ask for that opportunity. I took that chance, I worked an 80% work schedule when I had my first child. I took a 60% work schedule when I had two children. And then I worked a compressed schedule- which means that I worked a full time job but I worked it in a flexible space.

For me, that was a really scary time. I had to take a risk in the other direction. Usually, when you hear ‘take a risk with your career, it’s push forward, take on more, lean in, do what you think you can’t do and I really did the opposite and I would encourage you to do the same.”

This idea of risk-taking “in the other direction” was a common theme for other speakers as well.

“We’re on the cusp of fearlessness as women,” said Niland. “It’s not just about taking an incremental risk. It’s about putting yourself out there to show what makes you unique and being fearless in your choices. And that’ll change the prototype.”

“I think it's important for us to use the flexibility that we have because we are the role models for the individuals that are below us,” said Gulati.

“Everyone in this room has the opportunity and the responsibility to reach down and pull that next group of rising stars up,” said Dana Bober, Partner at EY. “To help them understand that perception can be stronger than reality, help push them outside their comfort zone, encourage them to take risks, applaud them when they succeed, and hold them steady when they falter.”

I may not yet know the kind of mom I'll be, or who my authentic self is for that matter. What I do know is that, whatever "me" I am, is allowed. We're allowed to lean in and we're allowed to lean out. And the organizations we join should support us.

“Sometimes you need to take the opportunity and, to use Sheryl Sandberg’s phrase, ‘lean in’ and really go for it,” says Dixon. “And sometimes it’s okay to do the opposite. But the important part is to know the difference. It’s not always time to really go hard and sometimes it’s time to take a break. Be open and flexible whenever those opportunities come along and then, when it’s time, be deliberate and seek out what’s best for you.”