Sister Cities

Fast Company visits Houston, San Francisco, and Boston in search of female leaders with smart advice for tough times. Here, a dozen powerful women (and a few men) share their thoughts on leadership, crisis, and mentoring.

In this age of economic distress and emotional despair, leaders need to demonstrate more strength and compassion than ever before. As company executives work to balance hard-line authority with softer initiatives, women are rising to the top as humane bosses with winning principles.


In conjunction with Neuberger Berman LLC, Fast Company sought out several powerful female leaders for our recent Women in Charge events in Houston, San Francisco, and Boston. In three roundtable forums, we asked women ranging from author, professor, and political commentator Susan Estrich to astronaut, doctor, and chemical engineer Mae C. Jemison to share their thoughts on leadership, crisis, and mentoring.

Here, our distinguished panel answers questions about compassionate leadership for merciless times. Read their thoughts below, then add your own impressions to Sound Off below.

What is the best thing about exercising power? The worst?


Heidi Schneider: The best thing about power is the ability to institute change. The problem with power is being accessible to more and more people but having less and less time to spend with each one. That’s the challenge of having power: How do I spread myself among all those people and make them feel like I’m paying attention to them and understanding what they need?

Susan Estrich: For me, the best thing about having power is standing up to make something happen. You can literally raise your voice, rope in a couple of friends, and make a difference.

That’s the approach I took toward Al Gore during his presidential campaign. I decided to confront him because he had no women working on the campaign.


The minute I realized that I had the stomach to do it, I got results: a half-dozen women were hired inside of a week. I love power. I like making a difference. But power often involves conflict. And conflict, for me, often involves a stomachache. The first lesson I learned as a leader was that I must be willing to let people be mad at me. It was an incredibly important decision to not care whether they liked me anymore.

Bobbi Silten: The best thing about power is that when you know that you have it, you can use it when you need to. You don’t need to fight if you’re in a position of power.

Unfortunately, some people become addicted to power and think it is going to last forever. I see too many people using their title to wield influence because their box is above someone else’s box on the org chart. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about demonstrating leadership so that no matter where you go, people will want to follow.


Chip Conley: One of the few things that’s portable in life is your integrity. Your spot on the organizational chart isn’t necessarily portable. Your paycheck isn’t portable. But your character is.

So my favorite thing about power is that you have a bully pulpit you can use to enforce your values. Leaders can embrace their values in the workplace and make a difference. And that’s new. Twenty or 30 years ago, you checked your personality and your values at the door.

Liz Dolan: I was a little intimidated when I first got the job as global marketing director at Nike because, all of a sudden, I was leading a department with a $400 million budget. I almost didn’t want to be in charge of such an astounding amount of money. But then I realized the very powerful link between money and influence. And I really got to like the idea that I could carve out relatively small amounts of money in order to do things that I personally believed in.


I decided to start a flurry of advertising emphasizing women’s sports. That was just me deciding what I wanted to do with my own damn money. And I really loved that. When I was new on the job, I would look over my shoulder and wonder, “Who do I have to ask about this?” Then I realized, nobody! The part of my job I liked the least was falling into a power stalemate where, at a certain point in a business discussion, you’ve talked and talked and talked, and somebody just has to make the call.

Once, I had a difference of opinion about Nike’s strategy for a particular project with the employee who headed that project. And at the end of our tenth conversation, he finally said, “Well, Liz, I guess you and I just disagree.”

That was the moment of truth for me as his boss because I thought, “Okay, we just disagree. Does that mean I fold? Or do I just say my vote counts more than yours?” Ultimately, I did say, “You’re right, we disagree, and so here’s the way we’re going to do it.”


It was one of the hardest things that I ever did. As women, we are raised to be the peacemakers. Our instinct is to find common ground. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. And those are the ugly moments.

The Boston panel: Mike Abrashoff, Harriet Rubin, Kathy Biro, and Heidi Schneider.

How does leadership change in times of uncertainty and crisis?


Kathy Biro: Following the September attacks, our office in Boston’s Prudential Center was evacuated five times a day for weeks. We obviously weren’t making our numbers. We’re a public company now, so that’s a big issue. Some of our leaders were wandering around saying, “If you don’t go back to work, we’re going to go out of business.” That is a perfect example of how not to lead during crisis.

You have to recognize that we’re going through a national grieving process. The hard part is leading with confidence when you don’t feel at all confident personally. I’ve always felt that leadership is performance art. It’s not truth or consequences. It’s doing what’s needed to help people feel powerful and productive. And I think confidence is the big missing ingredient now. The country is at risk of losing a sense of confidence, and that’s why leaders need to move forward.

Fran Keeth: I became president of Shell Chemicals on July 1. September 11 was the first time my awesome responsibility really dawned on me. People were looking to me to help them understand what we had to do, when we had to do it, and how we were going to do it. In tough times, people need leaders. And now I realize that I have the ability to provide that leadership.


Sarah Weddington: Leadership is easiest in a crisis. There’s an old proverb that says, “Not finding heroes, we find fault.” In a crisis, we rally around our leaders. A crisis makes it easier to lead because people allow you to take charge. We’re not seeing divisiveness between the Democratic and Republican parties right now, for example, because we all have to pull together.

That brings me to my next point: heroes and heroines. Who are they? What makes them special? How do I find within myself the courage and conviction to become a hero or heroine during a real crisis? Like leaders, heroes and heroines emphasize the best qualities in the people around them.

D. Michael Abrashoff: When I didn’t get the results I was looking for on the USS Benfold, I looked inward and asked myself three questions: Did I clearly articulate the goals I was looking for? Did I give my crew enough resources to get the job done? And did I give them enough training to get the job done? Now, more than ever, we’re going to have to put ourselves in the shoes of our people to find out what they need.


The leaders who succeed in getting past this slump are going to say, “Hey, we’re in new, uncharted territory and we’ve got to figure out a new way to do this. I don’t have every answer, but here’s where I think we need to go. What do you think?” If your people see you step up to the plate with honesty and authenticity, they’re going to feel more confident and comfortable during a crisis.

Do women make betters leaders in times of crisis?

Mae C. Jemison: Since September 11, several interesting men have stepped forward with compassionate responses, demonstrating the kind of leaders that they can be. This suggests that the profile of an ideal and effective CEO must include compassion now. And compassion is where women really excel. We offer a fresh perspective, which opens up the possibility for new, humane solutions.


Silten: Women really excel at being able to sense when someone who is saying yes really means no. Rather than allowing everyone to shake their heads and go out in the hallway to complain, women have the courage to use their intuition, to challenge people and say, “You’re saying yes. You really mean no, and let’s talk about it now.”

Schneider: The model of CEO is going to change. In the ’90s, very smart, very efficient men ran their companies like tight ships, but they were often not very nice people. These days, employees are really looking at their bosses as disingenuous. Employees think their bosses don’t really care about them as people; they only care about the bottom line.

People are starting to see through that and say, “Hey, wait a minute. I don’t mind commuting for two hours if my boss appreciates that I’m there.” So the people who are going to be effective leaders are going to really value the unique contributions that people make — and will tell them so.


Abrashoff: As a result of September 11, male leaders are going to start taking a stronger look at their lives as well as their leadership. We have already started asking, “What am I all about? What’s really important in my life? Is it making $1 million or is it creating a legacy? Spending more time with my family? Participating in more community activities?” I think that you will see the model of male leadership change a lot in the months and years to come.

As leaders, how do you galvanize the team that may be put together by accident, or by some cutback, realignment, or reorganization?

Conley: When it comes to motivating individuals, you’ve got to look at the base level of survival: compensation. Money is recognition and meaning, but at the base level, it’s the compensation package. If you don’t get that right, everything else falls apart. In an environment where people are full of fear, you have to create a sense of security.


But as you move up the pyramid, it’s about recognition. If you recognize your people well, they won’t leave you. This is something most U.S. corporations don’t get and most leaders forget. Every employee asks, “Why am I doing this job? What impact does it have on the world? What difference do I make? How is this company making the world a better place?” If you can motivate your people on the three levels: compensation, recognition, and meaning, you’re going to keep people and you’re going to keep people happy.

Silten: People say a team is a group of people who have been brought together by circumstance. Actually, it’s not. A team is a group of people who share a common goal. So a leader must first connect with each team member and facilitate conversations and connections.

Leaders must also clearly explain who does what, and who’s accountable for what. A lot of teams are weighed down by bickering and finger pointing. Everyone stands around looking at the crack that a goal or project fell through. That’s how discord begins. But if you’re really clear about accountability, you can start the team off functioning right.

Rubin: No matter the circumstances, a strong leader must have the courage to act on her beliefs. She must trust that little voice that pipes up at 2 AM and that, regardless of the headlines or the news reports, isn’t swayed by anything. If you follow that voice, you will galvanize people around your vision of the future. It isn’t about meetings or process or how much money you make. Leadership is about standing behind a vision and trusting the courage of your convictions when no one else will.

Why do only three of the world’s Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs? Why aren’t there more women at the top?

Biro: I find it shocking that female business-school enrollment is declining. I think women are deciding, either consciously or unconsciously, that they can’t get there, so they’re dropping out before it gets very, very hot in the kitchen. It’s simply ridiculous that we have so few women leaders in this country. We should be ashamed of that.

The technology arena has been particularly egregious because it was supposed to be the great equalizer. We had a terrible talent drain. We were desperate for people. But very few women were applying for our jobs because they had been told all their lives that they weren’t cut out to run technology companies, which is why there are no women in the industry.

Rubin: But as the number of women CEOs has stagnated, the number of women entrepreneurs has grown phenomenally, which suggests that women do want power, but they don’t want to play the old-boys’ game. They want to use their talents differently.

Schneider: Yes, but women don’t want to be in the game because they feel that they can’t win. That’s really the issue.

Kathy Biro and Heidi Schneider

Biro: I think most women are uncomfortable with power. But there isn’t anything wrong with wanting power. It’s really Okay to be powerful and to be female. Women need to learn that it’s Okay to want to be in charge, to set the agenda of these big corporations. I think women drop out because it’s not fun, and because it is very, very hard to win against these guys. We are not trained to be assertive enough to win and when we are assertive, we feel masculine as opposed to successful corporate leaders. That’s why it’s a double-edged sword: You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.

To what do you attribute your success as a female leader?

Weddington: Many leaders achieve greatness because they have great timing. They’re in the right place at the right time. That was not the case for me. I entered the workforce at a time when women were treated unequally and unfairly. It was difficult to become a female leader. So, for me, visibility became very important. There’s a saying that goes, “It’s not what you know that counts, it’s who knows that you know.”

Keeth: Visibility definitely helped me, but I don’t think that I realized it at the time. There were several times, early in my career, when a colleague had to leave the office at a crucial time. Under deadline pressure, I stepped in and did the job. That put the spotlight on me. I saw what needed to be done and noticed that nobody else seemed to be doing it, so I just did it. Even failure is better than doing nothing at all.

Rubin: Women don’t take themselves seriously enough. We don’t realize that we can change the world. We see bosses execute a task and think that we can’t do it. I try to be very serious about who I am and what I can and want to do. And then I never back down from that, ever.

Silten: I make sure that I value good work, regardless of whether it comes from a man or a woman. As a leader, it’s important that you value all of your team members for what they bring to the party as individuals. Value the strengths of each individual, and make sure that each person on your team feels that you value him or her.

At the same time, if I see a female colleague doing something that I think is detrimental to her career, I’ll pull her aside and say, “Hey, here’s something that I’ve observed, and here’s something that I think you can learn.” If I see a woman making a mistake that I made for many years, I’ll tell her about it and suggest a change.

It’s hard. But I don’t think anything about leadership is easy. Sometimes as leaders, you have to create harmony. You have to be the intuitive person.

What would you like your legacy to be?

Silten: When I leave my organization, I hope to leave behind a great group of women leaders.

Conley: Our managers do an exercise called “pass the photos.” We have 850 employees in the company including housekeepers, bartenders, and a collection of hourly employees. We each take a photo out of a collection of the line-level people and pass it around the circle of senior managers. When the music stops, each manager has to look at the photo and ask, “What’s the most important thing to this person in his or her job today? How could I be a better leader of this person? How can I help them be more effective and satisfied?”

I’d like to leave behind a level of empathy that will allow leaders to get under the surface — to get inside the heads and hearts of their people.

Estrich: I’d like to leave people feeling that they have the power to make a difference. I’d like other women to know that exercising power is meaningful and satisfying. I’d also like them to know the great pleasures of working collaboratively.

The things I’ve done best in my life, I’ve done with one or more people. There’s not an institution in America that can’t be changed by three women who are willing to work together and risk it all to make a difference.

I want to be one of those three. I’m in. Now, who else has the guts and the spirit to make change — together?

Biro: Women need to get more hysterical. We need to be our own advocates, because it’s hard to fight tradition. And we drop out too often when we don’t think we can win. Women have incredible attributes that make them quite unique and quite charismatic. But women absolutely need special advocacy, or they will not advance, because business unconsciously discriminates. I hope I can contribute to the solution, not the problem, of discrimination against women leaders.

Mary Lou Quinlan interviews a participant at Boston’s Women in Charge event. Photos by Rebecca Rees

What advice would you pass on to women leaders starting out today?

Abrashoff: Five months ago, I traveled to Aberdeen, Scotland to do some work with British Petroleum. I worked with one of the most senior women at the company. She had a job no woman had ever had before: She was in charge of all the pipelines for all of British Petroleum and she called herself the “Pipeline Princess.” When they gave her this job, they gave her a coach who told her how she was supposed to act. And she was absolutely miserable: She was making all the wrong decisions; she hated herself. After three months, she fired her coach and said, “I’m going to be the person that I want to be, instead of the person that British Petroleum says I should be.”

It struck me that for my first 16 years in the Navy, I was relatively successful, but I didn’t enjoy being who I was. That’s because I was the person the organization told me I should be, not the person I am. I think that the most important leadership characteristic is authenticity. Because you all know the score, and you know a fraud when you see one. If you’re trying to be somebody you’re not, your people will notice, and you will lose all credibility with them.

Jemison: Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, creativity, or curiosity. If you’re just like all the rest of them, what’s the point of being there?

Never ask for permission to lead. Never ask if it is okay to take a step in a new direction. Don’t try to fly below the radar screen. They know you’re there. Your decisions should not rely on other people’s comfort levels. Your decisions should emerge from your needs and judgments. Find the courage to step out, and do it your way.

Biro: The worst advice I ever got was “Stick with me, babe.” And it usually came from a male mentor who treated me like a jewel locked away in a closet. I could always feel the imprint of his foot as he stepped on my back to climb that ladder. This happens to women all the time when they think they’re being helped. My advice: Seek out mentors that motivated by your best interests, not theirs.

Keeth: Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Don’t be afraid to tell the people whom you supervise that you don’t know all there is to know. That you need them as much as they need you. And allow them to grow. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. And when you make it, admit it, learn from it, and move on.

Weddington: Leadership is about asking, “Where can I make a positive impact?” Maybe it’s something that deals with kids. Or maybe it’s something that deals with health or government issues. There are just so many things that need to be done. Leadership is a willingness to leave your thumbprint.

Schneider: If somebody won’t give you power, you just need to take it. Being a leader means nobody is going to tell you what to do. You have to tell other people what you think they should do or what you think should be done in a moment of crisis, and you just have to do it. Sometimes it’s more difficult for women to understand that it’s okay to wield power when they have it.

Panel Members

Mike Abrashoff
Grassroots Leadership

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Abrashoff has served numerous tours of duty, including Operation Desert Shield in southwest Asia. In 1997, he served as commander of the USS Benfold, which was deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of contingency operations with Iraq.

Kathy Biro
Cofounder and vice chairman

One of the most powerful women in technology, Biro rose to prominence at Strategic Interactive Group, the Internet powerhouse she cofounded in 1995. As vice chairman of Digitas, a $288.2 million marketing and technology services firm, she is a chief architect of the transformation of big business in the Internet Age.

Chip Conley
Founder, chairman, and CEO
Joie de Vivre Hospitality

Conley is the chief visionary within Joie de Vivre, which operates 27 hospitality businesses in the Bay Area, including 20 boutique hotels — which makes it northern California’s largest independent group of hotels. Conley is also the author of The Rebel Rules: Daring to Be Yourself in Business.

Liz Dolan
Satellite Sisters

Dolan is cohost with her four real-life sisters of Satellite Sisters, a public-radio talk show that is heard on 70 stations across the country. Liz in also coauthor of Satellite Sisters’ Uncommon Senses, which was published by Riverhead Press in October.

Susan Estrich
Professor, author, and legal/political commentator
University of Southern California

In 1988, Estrich became the first woman to head a national presidential campaign and was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review. Now she is a law professor at the University of Southern California, a legal and political analyst for Fox News, and a regular contributor to USA Today and the American Lawyer.

Mae C. Jemison
Astronaut, medical doctor, and chemical engineer
The Jemison Group

Jemison blasted into orbit aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on September 12, 1992 and became the first woman of color to go into space. Today, she serves as the Jemison Group’s president and is a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.

Fran Keeth
President and CEO
Shell Chemicals LP

As president and CEO of Shell Chemicals LP, the U.S. arm of London-based Shell Chemicals Ltd., Keeth oversees U.S. operations and global functions for the parent company. Keeth’s move into the top slot at the company makes her the first woman to lead a major U.S. chemical company.

Mary Lou Quinlan
Just Ask a Woman

As former CEO of N.W. Ayers & Partners, the oldest advertising agency in the United States, Quinlan helped give the world such gems as “A diamond is forever” and “Reach out and touch someone.” In 1999, Quinlan founded Just Ask a Woman, one of the country’s only marketing consultancies dedicated to helping businesses understand women.

Harriet Rubin
Senior writer
Fast Company

Rubin is a writer, consultant, and lecturer on leadership trends. She is the author of the international best-seller The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women and the founder of Currency Books, a division of Doubleday, which, under her direction, became a leading publisher of business books.

Heidi Schneider
Executive vice president
Neuberger Berman

As head of the private asset-management division at Neuberger Berman, Schneider is responsible for the firm’s marketing and Internet strategies and is a member of its five-person executive committee.

Bobbi Silten
President of the U.S. Dockers and Slates brands
Levi Strauss & Co.

In her role at Levi Strauss & Co., Silten leads the Dockers and Slates brands in the United States. She is also a member of the Americas’ Leadership Team, which sets high-level strategic direction for the company in North, Central, and South America.

Sarah Weddington
Attorney, professor, and author
The Weddington Center

Weddington is a nationally known attorney and spokesperson on public issues and leadership and has been a longtime advocate for women. Now an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin, she is working on a book about leadership and self-renewal. Her first book, A Question of Choice, deals with the landmark Roe v. Wade case, which she argued before the Supreme Court and won in 1973.