Lee Anne Nance of Stewart: “Hard work does get noticed”

Hard work does get noticed. One factor that I credit for my path so far is not focusing on getting credit for my accomplishments. At work, ego is the enemy. Credit takes care of itself. People notice hard work and meaningful outcomes. Instead, focus on leaving things better than you found them. As a part of […]

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Hard work does get noticed. One factor that I credit for my path so far is not focusing on getting credit for my accomplishments. At work, ego is the enemy. Credit takes care of itself. People notice hard work and meaningful outcomes. Instead, focus on leaving things better than you found them.


As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lee Anne Nance.

Building on her years of experience as an executive in marketing, business consulting and economic development roles, Lee Anne Nance was the first woman to serve on the executive team at Stewart, an interdisciplinary design, engineering and planning firm with more than 200 employees.

As Chief Operations Officer (COO), Lee Anne plays an essential role in the company’s concerted commitment to diversity and inclusion. The effort is a vital part of the company’s core values and opens doors for opportunity, innovation and creative collaboration.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Prior to Stewart I was an economic developer for sixteen years — where I was able to combine my skills in economics with my experience in marketing and communications to create jobs and tax base for a state I love, work with amazing companies and travel the world to exciting places in China, Israel and throughout Europe. This included as COO of a regional economic development organization, Research Triangle Regional Partnership (RTRP), and before that economic developer in the county where we lived — Harnett County, North Carolina

It was at my first job after graduate school that I realized my love for applying the principles of economics to communications and marketing and it has led my career ever since. After that first job, I took a chance accepting a position as Director of Marketing and Communications at a Fortune 500 radiation chemistry company, a job for which I was not qualified — and they took a chance on me. After more than five years, I decided to make a huge career change and start my own consulting practice from home, which was quite revolutionary in 1995. This decision helped me to keep my career viable and our bills paid while enabling my husband and I to parent in a way that truly worked for us until I was ready to return to a team-based, mission-driven organization.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I first joined Stewart our executive leadership team was preparing to launch a company culture initiative, outlining the values of the firm as it continued to grow. Like most companies, we struggled to articulate our company culture in a way that employees remember our values and weave them throughout the culture of our organization.

The foundational values were built out of our guiding principles, strong and well thought out. Enthusiasm and a desire to roll them out quickly was well founded. Still, I felt that in order to make a real cultural shift and embed those values in the way we do business day in and day out, we needed to deliver the message in an authentic way that would hold weight with employees.

The first step in creating change from the top down would be for the executive team to walk the walk. I received a lot of push back initially. My plan involved pushing pause on rolling out the initiative and first looking internally at ourselves as members of the executive team to ensure we were living and demonstrating these values in our daily interactions and decision-making processes.

Now, with a full year under our belt after rolling out the initiative to all employees, the executives that pushed back tell the story of how this pause was paramount in the success of making a fundamental cultural shift. And it could not have come at a better time.

For me, this reinforced the importance of having courageous conversations and standing up for ideas you believe in.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Throughout my career, there has been a recurring situation where a woman is asked or assumed to take on a responsibility outside of her role based on gender stereotypes or implicit bias.

One of the first times it happened I was the only woman participating in a meeting and was asked to get everyone coffee. As a servant leader, it is my instinct to help in any way and do whatever it takes to help my team. I said yes.

Moments later the meeting planner stepped in and said she would get the coffee. Later, she told me how disappointed she was that my natural reaction was to be courteous. As one of the few women leaders at the company, I was paving the way and setting expectations for how the company would treat her and other women.

Later, I was again the only woman on my team and our manager consistently asked me to take minutes during our meetings. This time I asked my male mentor for advice on how to handle the situation and I took it. I pulled my manager aside and explained that I really can’t focus and participate in the meetings the way I would like to because I am attentively taking notes and asked if we could instead take turns. He agreed.

I continued to learn from these situations, each time finding an appropriate way to speak up with the voice I had at the time. Everyone has a voice. Some voices are louder and stronger than others, and that changes throughout your career. Now I have a larger voice with a different seat at the table and I feel compelled to speak up for others and make change. As an executive, I can call people up.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I was fortunate to find a mentor at my first job after earning my master’s degree — a woman named Melody. This was at Citicorp, now known as Citigroup. There were not many women in the Fortune 100 financial world in the mid-80s, and Melody was a great role model and guide. She cared enough about me to provide both constructive and positive feedback.

She did not have time to invest in me with courageous conversations, but she did anyway. It’s easy for a mentor to tell you what you’re doing right, but a strong mentor relationship is really about helping you grow and learn from their experiences so you do not have to go through them or, if you do, you can navigate them more smoothly.

I cried at work one time in my career and she showed me tough love. She told me she worked her entire life to break the stereotype that I was displaying at that moment and to go outside or do what I needed to do to gain back control. She said it does not matter what happened to make you lose control, people will only remember the reaction and that can follow you through your career. Later, she told me a story from her own personal experience to help me more fully understand her advice.

Melody believed in me enough to invest in me and be vulnerable. She was not afraid of having uncomfortable conversations with me, including ones where it took me years to understand the value of those conversations. To this day when I face tough situations, I still think about how she would handle it.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Preparation is key. I try to go into the meeting as prepared as possible, whether that’s conversations ahead of time or reading up on the topic. As an economic developer, I would often enter meetings where I would know the industry a company was in but for confidentially reasons, not the company itself. For these meetings, I would read up on the industry to the point where I could customize my talking points and conversations.

I also prepare by centering myself. For me, that means a devotional every morning. Before a recent woman in business event I spoke at, I prayed that at least one person listening would be impacted by something I said. I center myself around my spiritual connection. Find what works for you.

When it comes down to it, it can help to realize the more you do it, the less stressful it will be. I used to not be able to breathe when I spoke in front of people, now I speak to more than 900 people. I would not be able to do that if I had not put myself out there. Get yourself out there and raise your hand. Advocate for yourself and have that hard conversation, knowing that it is going to be stressful. In that discomfort, that is where you grow.

It can also help to be authentic and share your nervousness. I have started conversations before with, “I’m sorry if I come across nervous, but this is very important to me and I just really want to get this right.” You leave an authentic impression that you are passionate about the topic and it is worth hearing. Your audience has been there, they will boost you up and you will get the support of the room.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Having a diverse executive team is more than just about doing the right thing, it’s smart business. If it was not good for the bottom line, it would not last. Our CEO at Stewart, Willy Stewart, surrounds himself with a diverse set of leaders with very different experiences, values and strengths. The friction that is present in decision making and strategic conversations is a healthy asset to the company. If you have people that all look and think alike in the room, then you are going to get one path towards decision making. When you have a diverse group, you create very healthy friction in the conversation. The important piece is everyone in that group must really have a voice.

You know immediately if you are at the table because they need a woman, someone of a different race or another diversifier. But if you authentically put people at the table because you value their opinion, you value their voice and let them advocate for their perspective, you are going to get a better business outcome, period. I have lived it over and over.

I have been at the table where I did not have a voice, and at the table where I did, and I have seen the outcomes dramatically improve. You know immediately which table you are at.

I think about Amazon who has as one of its leadership principles, “Disagree and Commit.” Really great leaders understand friction, how to make it productive and that in the end a decision must be made. Those great leaders, after having the ability to use their own voice, will support the decision.

Additionally, having a diverse leadership team is a huge talent recruitment, retention and development tool. If an employee can look at the leadership team and see someone who is like them in some way, they can see themselves in the future of the company. Women can watch others ahead of them on their journey and learn from their experiences.

People need to see themselves in the leadership of a company to see they have a place there and feel like they belong. Not belonging is one of the worst feelings in the workplace.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Culture exists in a company regardless of whether a company realizes it. It is an intangible framework that runs parallel to the visible infrastructure of an organization and is as powerful as infrastructure in its ability to support goals or thwart them.

Creating an inclusive, representative and equitable workplace starts with culture.

In 2019 all 200+ employees at Stewart graduated from THREAD Institute, a multi-day curriculum highlighting the values that govern our employees and how we work with each other, clients, partners and our community.

The concept of THREAD began several years ago out of our guiding principles, combining values of a culture of inclusion and belonging (Trust, Humility, Respect) with those of business intelligence (Excellence, Accountability, Discipline).

Our executive leadership team first ensured we were living and demonstrating these values in our daily interactions and decision-making processes. We then collaborated to develop the curriculum and took shifts teaching employees.

THREAD Institute will continue to be taught to all future employees. Its values play a significant role in making Stewart a great place to work and partner to do business with.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

A key differentiator of an executive is that you must play forward the experiences of being both strategic and tactical. You must be willing to be a ground trooper and be able to fly 10,000 feet above to make decisions. It is a constant balance between thinking strategically and understanding the tactics that need to be in place to implement. You need to be able to think three to five years out, while managing what is happening today. This is why it takes a while to develop your executive skills. They are refined on your journey.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

That executives are all confidence and we never question ourselves. That we never wonder if we are doing the right thing. To me, the weight of the position is that your decisions and actions have far reaching impacts. I say all the time, there are 200 families at Stewart that are counting on us to make the right decision.

To me, that is where you need that trusted diverse leadership team. The way we can combat the heaviness of the position is by surrounding ourselves with a trusted leadership team. This allows us to challenge each other in a safe environment and walk out of that room knowing we processed the decision to the best of our ability and that we are not alone in the decision we made.

At Stewart, we call that a THREAD group of leaders.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

It is not specific to women, but anyone who is different from the majority has the challenge of being your authentic self. Over the course of my career, I have had the challenge of not only being a woman in a male-dominated field, but also being a southern woman.

Raleigh and North Carolina did not always have the amazing external brand that it does now so being a southern woman, there were a lot of stereotypes that came with both of those in that industry. I looked at it as an opportunity to educate people about women in business and about North Carolina one person at a time.

Our CEO Willy Stewart went through a period where, in the 90’s, he avoided mentioning his Columbian heritage because many people would associate him with the drug lord Pablo Escobar. It was not until he heard a recording of his voice two years later where he realized he has an accent and was only deceiving himself. He credits that moment of realization and embracing his identify with giving him renewed confidence as an individual.

There is a calibration that everyone makes about how much of your authentic self to share at any point in time. All workplaces have a standard of behavior and it is about calibrating your authentic self in a way that is appropriate to those standards in order to be heard, respected and make an impact.

Now within that, there is a double standard that is very real and hard for women to calibrate. If you are a kind, empathetic leader some people may find that as weakness in a woman, where in a man they find it as sensitive. Likewise, if a woman is to the point and doesn’t share a lot of herself at work, she can be seen as cold, distant and uncaring, whereas a man is considered productive and understanding of how to get straight to work.

I have tried to refine that over the years. I went through a period of my career where I did not talk about my personal life at all with anyone because it always came back to haunt me. Sharing a story about my son being up all night would translate to not being put on a project because I had young kids at home. I left my personal experiences at the door. Whereas a man telling similar stories would be seen as an involved father.

With any differentiator you have, you have to realize you are being held to a different standard and respond with a balance of authenticity and being impactful in the environment you have chosen to be in.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I knew I had a lot to learn when I transitioned into this role last January, but had no idea I would be doing it during a pandemic. No one has had this job before me. I needed to figure out first what the job was and how to do it, while also learning eight individual businesses within our firm. On the job training would typically be walking the journey with people, such as sitting in on meetings and asking questions in the hall. Instead, they were done while finding our footing in a remote environment, under the stress of the added, unplanned for challenges of a pandemic.

It was difficult to find my sea legs a bit in the middle of that, but I leveled through and think we all handled it well. The pandemic was an additional adjustment that I did not plan for in the transition and had to figure out how to navigate.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

There is a balance of empathy and courage that I believe an excellent executive must walk.

An excellent executive puts themselves in the position of the people they are responsible for, because they have been there, or they can imagine having been there. But at the same time, that empathy cannot drive their decision making. You must be able to separate your personal and professional feelings to do what is best for the company — your employees are trusting you to do that.

An excellent executive can do research and make a great decision for the company, be transparent and empathic in implementing the decision and overall be genuinely kind.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Treat anyone and everyone with respect — and insist it is reciprocated, not just for you but for all. I believe mutual respect and a willingness to achieve the best possible outcome, combined with open and honest communication, can overcome nearly any obstacle, challenge or misconception and can make a team thrive.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

What I am most proud of over the course of my career is that I have truly lived my life philosophy of, “Leave it better than I found it.” In all of my leadership roles, beginning with working the McDonalds drive-up window at 17, my time in economic development, roles at the Research Triangle Park Regional Partnership, or in private industry, I have found ways to improve the environment around me.

At Stewart, I get to use the strategic framework I learned as an economist combined with what I have learned about communication and promoting ideas, to contribute to change, continuous improvement and planning for the future.

In five years, I hope I will have continued to make improvements not only at Stewart, but also in the industry and for the Carolinas.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Don’t give yourself such a hard time. Don’t be so critical of the mistakes or of things you felt you should do better. Instead, see each of these as opportunities to learn and grow.
  2. Be yourself. I think that is hard. But if you have the right calibration of being your authentic self in a way that is appropriate to the standards of the workplace so that you are heard and respected, that’s really where your happiness and success will grow. Embrace who you are confidently, and trust what you are bringing to the table is of value; others will follow suit.
  3. Hard work does get noticed. One factor that I credit for my path so far is not focusing on getting credit for my accomplishments. At work, ego is the enemy. Credit takes care of itself. People notice hard work and meaningful outcomes. Instead, focus on leaving things better than you found them.
  4. Step out of your comfort zone. Get yourself out there and raise your hand. Advocate for yourself and have that hard conversation, knowing that it is going to be stressful. In that discomfort, that is where you grow.
  5. Be courageous. As an executive you will need to make hard decisions. You must be able to separate your personal and professional feelings to do what is best for the company — your employees are trusting you to do that.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would inspire a movement to make your character your legacy. People will probably forget what you did on certain projects, but they will remember your character. The Maya Angelou quote, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” really supports that.

Character is something you need to check in on every day because it really breaks through on the bad days. At Stewart, we have our THREAD culture to ladder up to. Did you treat people with trust, respect and empathy today? Maybe you did and maybe you did not. We are human, we are going to make mistakes.

What you do about it is where character comes in. Give yourself and others grace. Learn from it, make it right if possible, then apply that lesson and move on.

If your character is your legacy, others will give you grace in return because they know inside you are a person of character.

This is the foundation of all relationships, inside and outside of work.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Seek patience and passion in equal amounts. Patience alone will not build the temple. Passion alone will destroy its walls.” — Maya Angelou

When I see something that could be made better, I want to make it happen immediately. Often in life, things do not change overnight. I continuously work on having the patience to celebrate the small wins along the way and work toward the long-term victory.

My desire to improve what is around me has often led me to take on too much. I am constantly working on balancing my personal and professional passions and silencing my inner critic when I cannot do it all.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I would love to have a private lunch with Brené Brown. As she says, “I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage, or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.”

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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