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Chamber Executive Article Archive

Many Paths to Leadership:
Conversations with Women Leaders

by Susan McGuire

Women have been active in the chamber industry since at least the early part of the 20th century. The first woman chamber executive may have been Fannie Reese Pugh, who worked for the Yuma, Ariz. chamber beginning in 1909, continuing in the chamber industry until her retirement in 19231. According to ACCE survey data, women make up fully half of the chamber CEO positions today, with many more women in other senior leadership positions. The percentage of women leading the largest chambers, while still relatively small, is growing. Women CEOs in ACCE’s Metro Cities Council — representing the largest metropolitan areas in the country — doubled over the first decade of the 2000s, growing from about 10 percent in 2002 to almost 20 percent in 2016.

Women leaders hold positions of influence at chambers of all sizes and in all geographic areas. Their career paths are as varied as their personalities: some gaining early experience in public sector or corporate roles, some with backgrounds in education or nonprofits, and others committing early to a chamber career and then working their way to the top.

Chamber Executive talked recently to six of these leaders, who shared advice and stories about their professional development and the skills, characteristics, and grit necessary to thrive in the chamber world.


 

Kelly Brough
President and CEO,
Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce

It’s hard not to be awed by the wealth of experience and energy Brough brings to her role. She was previously chief of staff for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper and director of human resources for the City of Denver. As she describes it, she “crossed the street” to the chamber in 2009, but stayed at the intersection of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors where she felt her "most meaningful work was happening.” The first woman CEO in the organization’s 152-year history, Kelly is an avid cyclist, enthusiastic proponent of Denver’s vibrant culture and natural environment, and a parent of two college-aged children.

How different is the chamber as compared to the public sector?
The amount of time spent on long-term strategic implementation versus short term crisis management is vastly different. In the chamber world you have a group of people who are completely dedicated and, if you do it right, aligned with a long-term vision for the region. Much less time is spent managing the operation. The energy is extremely high in the public sector, and I loved that. But it’s not always positive energy rolling in. At the chamber, even though our work is long-term strategic, the energy and sense of urgency are extremely high. I was surprised by that, and I love it.

What advice would you give to women who want to reach the top rung of the chamber leadership ladder?
My advice to women, whether they’re in a chamber or not, is that it is much easier to deal with a loss than to deal with regret. Even when it’s a public loss, where the world knows you went for something and didn’t get it. The only way you get anything is to go for it. So go for it. If you don’t make it, be open to feedback and figure out how to improve your skills for the next shot.

What mistakes have you seen women make when attempting to reach their career goals?
We’re really good at assessing ourselves, maybe too good. We know where we’re weak. I think that in third grade every boy got taken aside and told, “you can do anything you want in this life.” And as girls we were told, “you’re going to be okay, try hard, work hard.” I think that message has played against us to some degree, whether it’s going for the job or asking for the salary. Sometimes we don’t even know what we should ask for.

My advice is to surround yourself with people who can help you figure it out; the kind of people who will support you fully even after advising you otherwise. I say when you’re in, be all in. If you’re going to go for something, really go for it.

Do you think there will be more women leading large chambers in the future?
Yes! I absolutely think it will continue to change over time, both for women and people of color. We got a little bit of a late start in business leadership. We’re in a catch up period, and we’re catching up really fast. As our businesses get more diverse — as our world gets more diverse — the value of diversity in all areas of our organizations will continue to increase.

How have you balanced the demands of your career and family?
Serving as the mayor’s chief of staff was probably the hardest on my family time-wise. My daughter was in middle school then and I did a full career day. My daughter once told a friend, “My mom is on her phone all the time; she’s on her phone at my soccer games. In the middle of the night she gets a call and has to go to work. I do miss her.” I’m standing there feeling awful. And then she continued, “But here’s the truth: I’m so proud of my mom, I wouldn’t want her to do anything else.” You don’t get that as a parent very often; your kids don’t think to tell you how they feel. I was very lucky to get that reminder that there’s a lot of ways we communicate with our kids. One way is to show them that whatever you do, you try to do well. At the end of the day they see me be able to be a mom and have a career that I absolutely love.


 

Jane Clark
President,
Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce

Jane Clark exudes confident professionalism. In the chamber business since 1990, she managed the successful merger of two chambers in 2012. Within two years of the merger, the Michigan West Coast Chamber received a 5-star accreditation from the U.S. Chamber. Yet Jane’s manner is unassuming; she consistently points to the accomplishments of others on her staff and in her community. “It’s not all about me, it’s not all about any one personality,” she notes. “Admittedly, I am very competitive, but I don’t need to be in the limelight.”

What is the biggest reward in your work at the chamber?
I think it’s that chambers make a difference in the community. Our bottom line is to ensure we have successful businesses so that we are a thriving community. The role we play in helping our businesses succeed helps everybody who lives here. It’s very fulfilling to be making that difference.

When you started, were there other women in leadership positions at your chamber?
No. I worked for a legend in the chamber world, Lou Hallacy, who had been a former mayor in our community. We had seven or eight employees, so it was a pretty lean structure. There weren’t any particular female role models on staff, but of course that’s the beauty of working at the chamber, you have access to all your community business leaders, so I have had lots and lots of role models, both male and female, through the years.

Tell me a little bit more about Hallacy. What did he teach you?
So many things. One was that many hands make light work. That applies to working collaboratively with your staff but also with your volunteers in the community. Another thing he taught me early on is stay out of money trouble. Taking that advice to heart, I’ve made sure we are financially healthy, squeaky clean with our bookkeeping, and very transparent. When you don’t have money troubles, you have the flexibility to do a lot of really neat things. Another lesson from Lou that I cling to is that nothing ever happens until somebody sells something. You always have to be out selling the chamber, selling the community.

How would you advise women starting out in the chamber world to increase their impact?
My advice is be true to yourself. You have to be your authentic self. You can’t be something you’re not. Figure out what works for you and for your family at this particular point in time. Each stage is special. Enjoy the time in each one of those different life stages.

What about a woman who aspires to reach that top rung on the ladder?
What has worked for me is just being consistent — staying focused and always doing excellent work. Also being flexible. You don’t want to burn any bridges along the way.

What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t at work?
For me it’s important to have a life, to the extent you can, outside of work. When you work at a chamber, it’s certainly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but for about the last five years I’ve become a runner and I have participated in five marathons. I run almost exclusively with a running group and some of my very best friends are fellow runners. We’re not fast, but it’s healthy and it’s just been a really fun journey.


 

Kit Cramer, CCE
President and CEO,
Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce

Kit Cramer has been at the helm of the Ashville Area Chamber since 2010, where she has emphasized the importance of growing jobs, being the voice for business, and helping members thrive. Before moving to Asheville, she worked in public relations, downtown development, and public education during her 17-year career at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. While in Charlotte, she was also elected as an at-large member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education and served as vice-chair for three years. A Florida native with a keen sense of humor and can-do attitude, Kit has been guided by gifted mentors and peers, including Carroll Gray, CCE, Bob Morgan, CCE, and Natalie English, CCE.

Did you feel you were faced with any particular challenges because you were a woman making your way to the top of a chamber?
When I first started at the Charlotte Chamber I was the only woman on the senior leadership team. I took golf lessons before I had my children, but quickly abandoned the sport because my husband would tell me how to play the whole time. I don’t like being told what to do any time, and especially when I’m on my own time. But I quickly learned that if I didn’t golf at retreats, I’d be left out in the cold. Not intentionally, it’s just the way it was because everybody else played. I learned that they liked to play poker so I started playing poker and would smoke a cigar and have fun with it.

Do you believe leadership is a learned skill or natural characteristic?
I believe that leadership ability is innate but quality leadership can be cultivated. When I was in seventh grade I was a guidance counselor’s aide, and of course I pulled my own file. In the space where my social security number should have been was printed the word “leader.” I asked the guidance counselor about it and she said, “Obviously your teacher thinks you are leader.” That really struck me. While I think leadership is innate, I also think that role models recognizing and nurturing leadership ability plays a huge role.

If leadership is innate, should women’s leadership even be a topic anymore?
My thinking on this was shaped by a leadership program from the early 2000s I participated in called The White House Project. It was designed to help women advance in elected office. The program researched the differences between men and women in the decision to run for office. Essentially, they found that women feel like they need to feel fully prepared before they would decide to run for office. That was me exactly when running for school board. Whereas men will say, “I’m a good leader. I’m going to run.” Whether or not they had the necessary background for service. That was a wakeup call for me. So women do approach things differently, at least that’s what that research said then. Whether that holds true for women today or not, I don’t know.

Do young women who want to be leaders need a different message?
When I was growing up, girls didn’t play sports the way girls do today. Team analogies were different. The whole “put me in, coach” concept was not something that I learned in the in Girl Scouts or in choir or in dance. Boys who were on sports teams would learn that “put me in, coach” kind of thing. I think that is a message that every woman needs to hear. If they sit around and wait for someone to recognize their genius and bestow career opportunities upon them, then they are going to have a long wait. Salary increases, for example, you have to ask. You can’t show them all the great things you’re doing and assume they’re just going to offer you money. On occasion that happens, and it’s delightful when it does, but in my experience that’s a rare occurrence. You have to ask.


 

Sherry Menor-McNamara
President and CEO,
Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii

When she took the reins in 2013, Sherry became the youngest, first Japanese-Filipino, and first female president and CEO in the Hawaii Chamber’s 165-year history. She previously worked at the chamber as its chief operating officer and in government affairs positions. She holds JD and MBA degrees, and before joining the chamber of commerce she worked all over the world for organizations including ESPN, Sony, Estee Lauder, and Elton John Productions. Sherry found her passion in a position that requires listening, collaboration, and building connections between public and private sector stakeholders. Her work in a diverse community and inclusive organization make those connections key. As she notes, “We have an Aloha Spirit — the spirit of supporting and respecting each other.”

What accomplishment are you proudest of during your tenure at the Hawaii Chamber?
In my prior roles it has to be strengthening our advocacy program; really building credibility and respect for the chamber’s public policy voice. We did that through member engagement in the advocacy process, as well as establishing and maintaining our relationships in the legislature. In this chamber we’re representing, not only the membership, but the whole business community; essentially being the voice for business.

As CEO, I’m most proud of the great team we’ve put together. Without a great team we can’t do anything. And we’re very diverse at the staff and board levels: different ethnic backgrounds, different ages. I am very proud that we have such a diverse group of people working together.

What one personal characteristic is most critical to leading a chamber of commerce?
There are so many. I guess trust is the most important. We need our members’ trust in order to do our work. We need the legislature’s trust, our board’s trust; building and preserving trust is key to fulfilling our mission.

How would you advise women starting out in their chamber career?
I’d say believe in yourself and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call someone you want to meet. It’s really important to take the initiative, to learn as much as you can, talk with the right people and start building those relationships. It’s not only starting but maintaining relationships that is the key to success.

What mistakes have you seen women make when attempting to reach their career goals?
I think we sometimes hold back too much. Sometimes I sense a hesitancy to speak up. We often don’t have the confidence to go after what we want. My advice is to have confidence that the different perspectives we bring add value. Whether it’s at work, or just in a conversation.

In what way do women bring a “different perspective?”
Women tend to be more collaborative, I think, more conscious of bringing other people along. I think we are also more action oriented. We bring a different perspective to the conversation that’s really important in getting things done.

Who are the leaders who’ve inspired you?
One particular person that I always look up to is our past board chair, Dr. Ginny Pressler. She was with Hawaii Pacific Health, but now she’s the director of the Hawaii Department of Health. I really looked up to her because of her leadership style. She was a quiet leader, not always talking but always collaborative, always listening, and always very supportive.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
Find your passion. For me, it took about 20 years to find what I really enjoyed. So I think finding your passion is the best career advice because when you enjoy your work, you look forward to going to work. As native Hawaiians say, “work is medicine.”


 

Sherry Taylor
President and CEO,
Mason Deerfield Chamber of Commerce

When she took the reins in 2013, Sherry became the youngest, first Japanese-Filipino, and first female president and CEO in the Hawaii Chamber’s 165-year history. She previously worked at the chamber as its chief operating officer and in government affairs positions. She holds JD and MBA degrees, and before joining the chamber of commerce she worked all over the world for organizations including ESPN, Sony, Estee Lauder, and Elton John Productions. Sherry found her passion in a position that requires listening, collaboration, and building connections between public and private sector stakeholders. Her work in a diverse community and inclusive organization make those connections key. As she notes, “We have an Aloha Spirit — the spirit of supporting and respecting each other.”

How did you get that first job as executive director at the Carbondale Chamber?
When I learned that I got an interview, I was floored. I called to someone who is very important in my life and told her that I’d applied to the chamber, gotten an interview and was really excited. Interestingly, she told me that I shouldn’t get my hopes up because I would never get the job. She said, “The chamber industry is led by older white males.”

I decided to let her perspective encourage, not discourage, me. I had taken time to really research what the chamber industry is all about and I was motivated. Even though I had no real experience, I think I earned the confidence of the interview committee because I took a risk. Ignoring that status quo is one of my biggest career successes. If I had listened to the advice and not taken a chance, I might not be in the greatest industry imaginable.

It sounds like you’re a risk taker. Has that always been the case?
I don’t know if I’m a risk taker as much as I think I’ve always had courage. I was always told to have the courage to fail because you can get back up. I was taught to have the courage to lead, the courage to win, the courage to be vulnerable. To me, having courage leads naturally to risk taking.

Do you think women face any different career challenges than their male counterparts?
It’s interesting you ask that because our chamber is building a women’s leadership program right now, and I’m kind of the outsider. I believe women shouldn’t feel that they need some additional coaching or additional training because they’re women. Sometimes I wonder if the biggest challenge we face is getting over where we’ve come from.

Growing up I never felt there was anything I couldn’t do just because I am a woman. I think that could potentially be a generational shift. In my opinion the focus needs to be on leadership development and skills training with everyone at the table. We have a big constituency that feels women’s leadership is extremely important. And while we’re going to host a women’s leadership event on workplace communication styles, the panel discussion will include men and women on the panel. It’s not going to be just women. To me, pulling men into the dialogue is the only way you’re going to close that leadership parity gap.

What is the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
I was told you should find a way to not let your work take over you. I’ve reached a point in my career where I think the goal needs to be strive for excellence and not perfection. If you’re always focused on doing things exactly right, you’ll end up putting more time in than is necessary to do an excellent job. I read in the last Chamber Executive magazine that running a chamber is kind of like spinning plates. That analogy rings true for me. So I tell people to find a way to achieve some balance, and make sure you are doing something that you love.


 

Marla Akridge
Executive Director, Alleghany Highlands Economic Development Corporation

Marla Akridge has a passion for promoting change and solving community and economic development challenges. Before becoming head of the Alleghany Highlands Economic Development Corporation in November 2015, she led chambers in Tennessee, Alabama, Ohio, and most recently Wake Forest, N.C. A voracious reader and lifelong learner, she has also worked in community college and university systems over the course of her career. “Challenge yourself constantly,” she advises, in all aspects of life: “at work, with your family, exercising, in your nonprofits — ‘no’ is not in the vocabulary.”

You’ve worked in several organizations in different states, why all the moves?
The biggest reason is I’m a change agent. I have the most fun in my career when I’m embracing change. I need that next quest that will challenge my crazy mind. I’ve been asked if I’m a job hopper. I say it’s like a being minister, you preach your sermons until your sermons are complete, then it’s time to move on. You have to know when that time comes. That’s one of the things that’s difficult for a female in this occupation, especially if you have family and kids because you might need to move.

Do you think that you could have satisfied your need for new challenges by staying in the same community?
I think I absolutely could have. I joke about it, but it’s like a seven-year itch. I’ve had that feeling a couple of times in my career, and end up just taking the plunge. We don’t have kids so making a move is a little easier. One thing that I learned is work-life balance is critical in this occupation, no matter who you are. You have to set boundaries because you could work 90 hours every week. You could just work crazy hours and a lot of us do, but knowing when to say no and to realize that you need that work-life balance is critical.

How have you been able to achieve balance?
I don’t sign up for many extracurricular things outside of the job. I am in Rotary, but beyond that I’m not really involved in a lot of things outside, and I set aside at least an hour five days a week to exercise. That’s just a part of my life that I won’t give up. I have gone to school board meetings in my exercise clothes.

I think females specifically struggle with saying ‘no’ and setting boundaries. Many of us in the chamber or economic development profession — both men and women — are people-pleasers. We don’t do it for the money; we do it for the love of the community and helping businesses grow and create jobs. We love people so much that we give up things to help the community.

What do you look for in a job opportunity?
The thing that I look for most in a community is whether key stakeholders across all sectors — education, nonprofit, business, and government — are willing to take a calculated risk. The other thing that I look at is how community leaders embrace change. If they don’t embrace change, then at least whether or not they’ll come along with you out of curiosity.

What skills do you need to develop to advance in this industry?
Some of it is skill, some is personality, and some of it is how well you can train yourself. You have to have voracious intellectual curiosity. You must listen well and remember what you hear. You have to be like an elephant and keep a whole database in your brain. Male or female doesn’t matter, I think listening skills are one of the hardest things for humans to master and in this occupation they’re vital. Finally I’ll say that it’s necessary to be a lifelong learner and love to read.

ACCE’s Horizon Initiative report calls for catalytic leadership. Do you see creating change as a chamber executives’ role?
If we are not being that catalytic leader in our community, who in the world is going to? If we’re not in front of everything, then we’re going to be left behind. Females are good at engaging others, we can connect the dots, and we can mobilize people and bring them together.


 

In the association’s 102-year history, five women have chaired ACCE’s board of directors. Three are still directly employed at a chamber of commerce, and all continue to participate actively in the industry. Chamber Executive asked them to reflect on the biggest changes they’ve seen during their careers, the most important success factors for aspiring CEOs, and to share their ambitions for the future.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the chamber profession?

The most important and exciting change to the chamber profession in recent years is the number of new executives who have not been ‘raised in chamberdom’.They bring so many more skills and tools to an already heady profession.
Mary F. Birch, CCE
Chair, Government Relations Practice,
Lathrop & Gage, LLP
ACCE Board Chair, 1998-99

The biggest changes during my career in the chamber industry are the amazing technological advances, demographic shifts and the increased speed of the business cycles. These changes have allowed chambers to move from transactional to transformational in their communities and deliver tailored value to members.
Betty Nokes Capestany
President and CEO,
Bellevue Chamber of Commerce ACCE Board Chair, 2013-14

Financing chambers has always been a challenging part of our business, but today, it's much harder. Monetizing the good work we do isn't working perfectly under our current business model. We need to figure out what works in this new, technology driven economy.

Terri L. Cole, CCE
President and CEO,
Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce ACCE Board Chair, 1993-94

What excites you the most about the future of the chamber industry?

I am so inspired by the continuous change that provides chambers the opportunity to reinvent themselves and make an impact in new and exciting ways. From navigating through unchartered waters and persevering through obstacles to adapting to ever-changing environments – whether it is due to changes affecting the business sector or the community – there is never a dull moment.
Tammy J. Carnrike, CCE
Chief Operating Officer,
Detroit Regional Chamber ACCE Board Chair, 2004-05

The fact that there is...somewhere, right now....some smart, innovative chamber exec reading this article that very shortly will try a totally unheard of way to deliver and contribute value to the community that they love and live in while being called crazy and nonconforming by their chamber leadership...that excites the hell out of me!
Casey A. Steinbacher, CCE
Founder, Casey's Company
ACCE Board Chair, 2010-11

What is the most important success factor for an aspiring chamber CEO?

The welcoming and persistent ability to adapt to the change of players, problems, and the unexpected.
Terri Cole, CCE

Continuous curiosity that drives one to constantly seek education, information, and advice about our world and our place in it.
Mary F. Birch, CCE

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