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Blogging Live From Denver Day 3: Socially Speaking

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November 19, 2008

What does Nina Smith, president of Sage's business management division, think the new generation's major challenge in the workplace will be?

Social skills.

"They do everything either on a computer screen or on a telephone and you can just see, I have a 6-year-old grandson and I literally have to monitor the amount of time he spends on a computer," she said. "If we are riding in a car he asks me if he can use my phone to play games on. It's just a different world. Clearly, when I first started working, we didn't have computers. We didn't have things like virtual offices. They are going to work in a more virtual world, and socially, I think it's going to be a bit of a challenge for them."

Earlier today, I sat down with Smith and Sue Swenson, chief executive of Sage. Both women have spent multiple decades in executive positions of predominantly male industries. What has helped them thrive? This is what they told me:

"Produce good results, first and foremost, and don't think about your gender," Swenson said. "I've seen too many people actually think they should be given a special consideration. One of my [former] colleagues said, 'I just want you to know that we're not going to give you any slack and you've got to carry the load of poles just like the rest of us.' And I said, 'great, that's fine by me.' That's how I grew up so I don't expect any considerations.

She continued:

"I did work in a very unusual situation at a technical job where I was one female out of like eight males with similar type like jobs. And one of my colleagues used to call me 'the skirt' when he first met me. He said, 'oh the skirt's here I guess we can get started now' and I'd just ignore him because why play into that? Why bother having the discussion, it's just useless. So my results, in the district I was in, [were] terrible. We were at the bottom of the company, out of like 30 districts. Rock bottom. We clawed our way up every quarter. We kept getting better, better, better, to the point where we were ahead of the guy that called me 'the skirt.' And he quit calling me 'the skirt' when I passed him on results. It's all about the results, that's what it is. At the end of the day, that's what you have to focus on. So that's what I've done."

I asked Smith what men could do to help push the doors open for women - even though both of us acknowledged women have to push the door open themselves.

"I don't know that men have to do anything other than just be aware," she said. "They are going to look for the best talent and I would say when you are looking for the best talent, look at all of the best talent. I think that's the way to do it. This is the first time ever in our country where there is such an awareness. I think there is not only an awareness but there's an openness to it. Of course, this is a new generation. The new generation is totally different and I just don't feel they are going to have a lot of the issues I had when I started in business, 35 years ago. I was often the only female sitting around the table. That doesn't exist anymore. This generation is going to be very, very different."

Comments (2)
What an excellent point about just doing a good job. As an educator and trainer, I tell my students this all the time. Having had the same situation with all male colleagues, the one other suggestion I would have is not compromise yourself to be "one of the guys". Part of the reason I succeeded was sometimes my approach was uniquely feminine. Knowing yourself and your strenghs and weaknesses are the key, whether male or female.
Posted by Angie m | Thursday, November 20 2008 at 12:13PM ET
I would add that the comment "be aware" also applies to race, religion, age and other attibutes as well. "Best talent" produces best results - regardless.
Posted by Chris S | Wednesday, November 19 2008 at 8:09PM ET
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