What We Can Learn About Leadership From These Pioneering Women 

Arianna Huffington and Thrive’s Editor-at-Large Shelly Ibach celebrate the courage, compassion and well-being strategies of women leaders.

Luis Alvarez/ Getty Images
Luis Alvarez/ Getty Images

From business and technology to government and sports, female leaders are at the forefront, combining courage with compassion and empathy as agents of change. Throughout the challenges of the past two years, there is no doubt that inspiring women have also been displaying what Arianna chose as her word of 2022: “Resilience+.”

As President and CEO of Sleep Number, and Thrive’s Sleep Editor-at-Large, Shelly has made it a priority to foster diversity across the spectrum. “I’m proud to lead a company that was founded on individuality,” she says. “Our culture of individuality and innovation is a hallmark of our company and inspires diversity throughout our organization, including at our board level with over 50% women.”

There’s still a long way to go, particularly for women of color at every level of management, but representation of women in leadership positions has continued to increase steadily, according to a 2021 Women CEOs in America Report from the Women Business Collaborative. 

What’s also promising is that progress toward equity in leadership is taking place in traditionally male-dominated areas, like sports, where it was once practically impossible for women to make headway. 

Sleep Number has a flourishing partnership with the NFL. Almost 4,000 current and prior players now have 360® smart beds and are benefiting from the impacts of higher quality sleep on their performance not just on the field but in every aspect of life. 

Recently, Shelly, who is the NFL’s Official Sleep and Wellness Partner, hosted a Sleep Number panel of formidable female NFL leaders, including Renie Anderson, the NFL’s Executive Vice President and Chief Revenue Officer; Gina Scott, Vice President of the NFL Players Association; and Jennifer Prince, Chief Commercial Officer of the Los Angeles Rams; to discuss what it’s taken to become women leaders in sports and beyond — and look to the future. 

“Like the athletes they work with, these women have tremendous grit, work hard and know how to build teams. They display these qualities in their organizations and they make them better,” Shelly said.

“My sales staff are 90% women, I’m proud to say,” Gina Scott said. “And across our organization, we have a high percentage of women.” Prominent women in the NFL, she noted, include Sarah Taylor, who made history last year as the first woman to referee the Super Bowl. Scott added that she and her team are always encouraging young women through their internship program. 

Scott also uses her unique position representing NFL players to open doors for women. “We advocate for other women’s organizations and educate them on how to monetize their rights and create similar business models,” she said. What’s also crucial, Scott noted, is being a positive role model: “I want to show other women that there are leadership opportunities in this field.”

Jennifer Prince recently left a senior leadership position at Twitter for her current role at the LA Rams. For her, encouraging women — as well as fostering diversity throughout the organization — is paramount. “The Rams have a history of many firsts, whether it’s drafting the first openly gay player, Michael Sam, or having the youngest head coach, Sean McVay.” In terms of women in leadership, “we have an extremely diverse front office, with a 50/50 male-to-female ratio,” she said. “Our organization is focused on ‘we, not me,’ and it’s all about a sense of community and togetherness.” 

Prince’s comment points to a larger trend. According to a 2021 McKinsey & Company Women in the Workplace study, women in leadership roles are setting new standards. They are doing more to support their teams emotionally, while advancing diversity, equity and inclusion. All of which is good for business. As Arianna says, “Women are finally coming into their own in senior positions. And as that happens, what we’re seeing is that this isn’t just a nice benefit for women — when women lead in the workplace, the bottom line benefits as well. That’s why diversity, equality and inclusion are essential for business.” 

The issue has never been about talent. “I had three friends as a kid, all boys: Ben, Clay and Chad,” NFL executive Renie Anderson said. “I could run and climb trees as fast as them, if not faster…” The problem has been one of opportunity, not ability. “I’m from Kentucky, I grew up on a farm and didn’t know this kind of job existed. I thought working in sports was like Jerry Maguire,” she laughed, referring to the movie starring Tom Cruise and Renée Zellweger.

Now, Anderson says, leaders need to encourage young women so they develop confidence and make sure their voices are heard. “I talk to a lot of college kids and I say, ‘Make sure when you do get a chance, for example, in an internship, that you learn as much as you can, raise your hand and you’ll begin to get that confidence, and then opportunities will arise,’” said Anderson, who wrote a powerful op-ed for NFL.com on the topic of women in leadership.

Courage, said Anderson, has been a crucial factor in her own journey. “I once interviewed for a job and the headhunters said, ‘Listen, I just want you to know, if you get this job, it’s going to be with a bunch of men, and they all went to Ivy League schools.’ And I said, ‘Listen, I went to the Harvard of the South, Ole Miss! I will run circles around them!’” 

The goal is also about changing the narrative for girls at an early age, added Scott. “We need to break down the myth that certain roles and positions are strictly based on gender.”

And to do that, mentoring young women is critical. “We want to have an impact on the next generation,” said Prince. “I look back at my time at Twitter, being a female in tech at that time, and how important it was to coach women and help them develop the courage and confidence they need.”

“Courage and leaning into adversity have always been important in my career,” reflects Shelly. “I think that’s one of the most important messages I have for young women. The only way you’re going to achieve your potential is by leaning into adversity and getting through it.”  

While women are making headway, there is still much more work to be done on the journey toward gender equity. The pandemic has highlighted how tough it’s been for women everywhere, juggling careers while often taking on the lion’s share of family responsibilities, too. More women have been experiencing burnout. “Too many women,” says Arianna, “feel like they’re being forced to choose between being successful in their jobs and being successful in their roles at home. That’s part of why the pandemic has had such a disproportionate job impact on women.”

Together with courage, talent and tenacity, women in all walks of life need to prioritize their well-being as best they can. That includes making sure they get consistent quality sleep.

“I seldom compromise my sleep,” says Shelly. “Achieving deep rest, especially during tough times, has enabled me to lead with courage. Sleep Number disrupted the mattress industry and created a sleep tech category with our revolutionary 360® smart beds. Quality sleep has been essential for my clarity, decision-making, and perceptual acuity. Sleep and courage go hand in hand.”

And with growing numbers of women leading thriving teams, the future looks bright. “When you walk into a room, whether you are negotiating or conducting a partnership meeting, you are now seeing more women at the table as the norm,” said Scott. “And you can expect to see more of us in the room.”

In Shelly’s words: “We’re innovators and big thinkers. We make our organizations stronger and we are making a difference in the world.” 

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