Persistence: I don’t give up — especially when things get difficult. Although impatient by nature, I am working on taking the longer view. If I commit to something, I get it done. I just finished writing a book that was percolating for eight years!
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Susan S. Freeman.
Susan S. Freeman, MBA, PCC, NCC is an ICF and EMCC0 accredited Executive and Team Coach, leadership development consultant, speaker and author of “Step Up Now: 21 Powerful Principles for People Who Influence Others”. Her passion is working with senior entrepreneurial leaders and teams by helping them lay the critical foundations required for scale. She writes on humanistic leadership based on her unique system blending Western strategy and Eastern wisdom to activate the Guru Leader Within™. Visit her at www.susansfreeman.com and www.guruleaderwithin.com.
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 childhood “backstory”?
I came from a family with many strong women. I am the oldest of three children and am quite a bit older than my siblings. As an oldest and “only” child for my formative years, I believe birth order impacted me significantly. I naturally gravitated towards taking on responsibility; it was easy and natural for me. I spent a lot of time around adults and took on leadership roles in my family. Consistent with the era in which I was raised, I now see that they were more traditional “female” roles, primarily helping care for my younger sibs. I was naturally entrepreneurial, having experienced it first-hand from both sets of grandparents who operated thriving retail businesses in Topeka, KS. I saw my grandmother work as an equal business partner in their store, and learned much about business, creating relationships with valued customers, and work ethic. My first entrepreneurial venture was the creation of a small day camp for a few kids in our neighborhood around age 11. It always seemed natural to me to see opportunities and possibilities and to step into them with gusto.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
The decision to become an executive coach fell on the heels of a mid-life transition. I had been a Vice-President in a retained executive search firm, enjoying the work immensely when I received a call from a headhunter in Chicago inviting me to consider a position as head of Business Development for the state of Florida. As a recruiter myself, I knew the value in listening and learning, even when not “interested,” so I continued to explore. Seven interviews and an international flight later, I was offered the position, but declined. I intuitively knew that I was to be doing something else, but didn’t know what exactly. The business model didn’t suit my way of working with clients nor did it optimize my experience. When told by the EVP upon receiving the offer “I need to know today; I’ve got numbers to make” I gulped. I don’t know exactly how the words “in that case I will need to decline the offer” came out of my mouth, but they did. Suddenly I realized “if not this, then what?” What was it that I really wanted, if not this next logical step in my career? I turned down a great opportunity not knowing what I really wanted — -I just knew what I didn’t want. This set me out on my journey to figure out my next step. I had learned to become comfortable with career transitions, as I have evolved into a new area almost every seven years! I knew this time would be different — this one was really about creating my legacy, and for that I needed to do some real soul-searching. After researching, reading, and meditating on my own for almost six months, I interviewed three coaches and selected one. Through that process, I discovered that I wanted to become a professional coach. I would likely not have figured it out on my own, or if I did, I would have taken a lot longer to do so. As it turns out, coaching was exactly what I was looking for. I saw the power of the process to offer transformation and committed myself to this path.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most interesting story that has happened to me since I began my current career was discovering that what I had been “soft-pedalling” around early on in my coaching career offered something unique for my clients and myself. I had been engaged in learning not only yogic practice, but also yogic philosophy for a number of years. Early in my coaching career, I began to see opportunities to build bridges between yoga and leadership. I experimented with a few clients who were open to something “out of the box” and where there was a lot of trust between us. Soon, some of them began asking for more of this type of work which I couldn’t really describe but I knew it had impact. Eventually, I saw the need to create a simple system to educate and inform leaders about how to transform their leadership by becoming connected within themselves. I believe this upcoming work will be my career legacy.
You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Self-motivation: I’ve founded or helped found 3 organizations in my career — a non-profit, a boutique retained executive search firm, and my current coaching and consulting company. No story?
- Persistence: I don’t give up — especially when things get difficult. Although impatient by nature, I am working on taking the longer view. If I commit to something, I get it done. I just finished writing a book that was percolating for eight years!
- Visionary, integrative thinking: I enjoy seeing possibilities that others don’t always see and taking the steps to bring them about. When I served as Founding Executive Director of the Tampa Bay Business Committee for the Arts, I was invited into the offices of CEOs in Tampa to share the organizations’ vision — to promote business investment in arts and culture in creative ways. Many of them told me “You’re going to do what?” I did not give up from what I saw was an important vision for Tampa, a community I had just moved to from New York City. We started with eleven member companies at founding, and when I left seven years later there were eighty.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
At a macro level western culture was shaped through the lens of patriarchy. I was raised at a time when women mostly took a second seat to men. There were few women in professional positions in law, medicine and business. The women I saw early on in my life who worked outside the home were teachers, nurses or social workers. I do think my formative years were shaped by having attended an all-female high school and to attend college at Wellesley, one of the few remaining all-women’s colleges. It was in these educational environments that I had exposure to women who were successful in their own right as thinkers and doers. As we can see from recent events, even though we have come a long way since our foremothers struggled for equal rights, including the right to vote, there are still many areas of society where women who are strong are treated differently because they aren’t men. Dismantling the strong patriarchal structure will take all of us — -men and women — because we all deserve to have share and participate fully in society. I take advantage of every opportunity I have to mentor and assist emerging women leaders, and have done so formally and informally. Most often I am asked to review resumes, mock interview, and offer career coaching. At a global level, I have had a decade-long deep relationship Davis College/Akilah Institute for Women, www.akilahinstitute.org, an amazing higher educational institution for women in Rwanda. I have had the privilege of working with these young women as a mentor to young entrepreneurial students and as a teacher of leadership while visiting Rwanda. Part of their leadership curriculum includes a hands-on project in which each of them discovers and activates her own leadership skills to affect a positive change in her community. Students learn to create productive, paying work for themselves so they didn’t depend on others to hire them. They shared a few of their top leadership lessons with me:
- Set clear intention on your goal, including writing it down
- Learn leadership by acting on your intentions
- Confidence comes from doing!
- Support yourself with trusted advisers and friends who give constructive feedback
- Flexibility allows you to modify your thinking and plans
- Public speaking activates leadership for you and others
- Listening to others makes everything possible
They represent the next generation of powerful multicultural women of tomorrow in one of the planets’ fastest growing economies.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
I feel fortunate to be able to say that I don’t have an illustration from my own work experience in which I felt others were uncomfortable with me because I am strong woman. Early in my career I worked in fields with many strong and successful women in advertising on Madison Avenue and in London, as a non-profit founder, and in retained executive search.
I believe I am unusual in that regard, as I have many friends and colleagues who have had this experience professionally. In my personal life, that’s another story, as I am the mother of three young men, and we certainly had our share of power struggles when they were younger.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
I believe one of the gifts a truly powerful woman has is the ability to listen empathically to others. If people are uneasy around her, all she has to do is become even more curious, listen deeply, and find a point of connection where she hears and is heard. If she lets go of having an agenda, the lack of ease around her will dissipate.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
I believe we need to consciously choose to do so. My good friend and colleague, Rania Anderson has dedicated her work in the world to helping create balanced workplaces in which the needs of men and women thrive. Her book, We: Men, Women and the Decisive Formula for Winning at Work is creating a movement. (https://thewaywomenwork.com/rania-anderson-books/). We are the ones we have been waiting for.
As a society, we need to level the playing field and not require women to surpass men in order to be given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. I believe this is part of a larger need for us look beyond gender, as well as race, religion and other factors to instead focus on the whole human being.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
Fortunately, the only story that comes to mind for me was my very first job out of college. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, and got a job as a paralegal working for a prominent attorney.
Not only did I not enjoy the work, I especially did not enjoy how his gaze always fell on my chest.
I had the good sense to quit after just two weeks — -and obviously never became a lawyer!
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think the biggest challenges that women leaders face that are different than those faced by men are the challenges around blending family and work responsibilities. My female CEO clients not only run organizations; they worry about a whole array of other things including making it to their kids’ after-school activities, worrying about what’s for dinner and getting new towels into the bathrooms. Typically, men have not oriented themselves around these concerns, although thankfully with the millennial generation this is clearly changing.
The other consideration faced by women leaders is that their appearance can be a bigger factor than that of men in how they are perceived and treated by others. I believe that other than in fields where appearance is the qualifier, such as in modelling and fashion, we ought to do a better job of looking beyond “looks.”
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
My answer to that question is that it was not difficult because early on I made a choice. I am married to a man with a high-powered career that required long hours and a lot of away time from the family. We knew that with no family in town, so as a result one of my biggest challenges was quality childcare. I feel fortunate to have been able to have the option to choose what worked best for me and for our family. I also realize that it is a luxury, and hope that will change in this generation.
Once I had children, I was one of the early adopters of “flexible” work arrangements. This was in the late 1980’s and very few people were open to the idea. I was able to work flexibly and take care of my child at a time when few women had that option. Once I got hooked into that way of working, I just kept it going until they were grown. I was able to “stay in the game” by being effective and efficient, as most women are!
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
As I stated above, the tipping point for me was having children and seeing that I couldn’t have it all at the same time, but maybe I could have it all if I was willing to stretch it out over a longer time horizon. I feel grateful to have had and to have created all the opportunities to contribute my best throughout my life. Now that my children are grown, I have the ultimate flexibility to dive into work, writing, speaking and other activities as at no time since my twenties.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
I do think that is important that as part of executive presence we present ourselves as attractively as possible. This doesn’t mean external beauty only; it means how we dress, groom ourselves and speak. It’s important to make the most of what we have. This comes from radiating inner joy and self-confidence to show up as our best self. Although we can’t change our facial or body structures, but we can present ourselves in an optimal way. This is what I think all leaders should do, irrespective of gender or gender preference.
How is this similar or different for men?
Unfortunately, I think women are unfairly judged more on appearance than men are. There are similar biases for height and weight too, irrespective of gender. I think we should all work to clear our tendency to judge others. That is what it really comes down to. Everyone is a human being deserving of our respect just because they are human, irrespective of how they look physically.
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 like to have a private breakfast or lunch with Michelle Obama because she is a woman whose vision and accomplishments set the example for so many girls and young women. She shows us valor, authenticity, accomplishment, compassion, strength, intelligence, wit and vulnerability.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.