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Rally to the core

WFF conference energized 3,000 emerging and emerged leaders


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Mary Bentley, president of the Women's Foodservice Forum.

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard & Jon Luther, chairman and CEO of Dunkin' Donuts.

Lynette McKee, WFF Emerging Leader Award winner (left) and Trailblazer Award winner Pat Anton.

Never, never, never give up. That was just one of the multi-layered messages at the Women’s Foodservice Forum’s 2007 Annual Leadership Development Conference this April in Orlando, Fla., but it was repeated—sometimes in words, sometimes in deeds—by a variety of the speakers, as well as award winners.

While other conferences focus on the industry itself, the WFF is the only conference where women and men come ready to invest in themselves to improve their personal and professional skills, according to WFF President Mary Bentley. Based in Minneapolis, the 18-year-old association was started by leaders in the foodservice community to ensure that women were given the tools and the pathways to become leaders in the industry. This year’s event, which added an executive track for senior-level women, attracted a record-breaking 3,000 attendees, including about 1,000 new members. Even more remarkable was that eight companies sent 900 attendees, including franchise companies McDonald’s and Yum! Brands.

Each year the conference focuses on three or four of the 10 core competencies the association has identified as necessary for leadership. This year’s workshop speakers highlighted strategic thinking, building networks, developing others and risk taking.

New this year was a program on Board Readiness, “Getting on the Radar Screen for Board Service,” where Susan Stautberg, president of PartnerCom Corp., advised executive women on how to position themselves for board nomination committees. And, since the WFF is known for action, not platitudes, in addition to providing a game plan, they also had a photographer onsite for professional headshots to accompany resumés.

Another program from the executive track advised women on the art of negotiation—something men are much better at as a group than women. Typical examples of items women traditionally refrain from asking employers for are: higher pay, promotions, the resources to do their jobs and staffing, said Vicki Husted Medvec, a professor and member of the Management and Organizations Department at Kellogg.

What women don’t realize, Medvec said, is that by not asking, women are handcuffing themselves, since they won’t have the resources they need to be successful in the job.

Women fail to negotiate for a number of reasons, including: They don’t realize something is negotiable, they think they’ll be given resources (or titles or promotions) because they deserve them, or they don’t want to damage relationships at the office. Medvec’s advice on how to successfully negotiate was: make the first offer; build a rationale on why it’s in the company’s best interests, not just yours; and to start high so that you leave room to concede on some points.

Keynote speaker Carly Fiorina joined Medvec to give her personal perspective on how to be a strong negotiator. Fiorina not only negotiated a multi-million severance package from Hewlett-Packard, but also HP’s controversial merger with Compaq Computer Corp.

Prior to the negotiation session, Fiorina addressed the general session on her remarkable rise from Kelly Girl (temporary secretary) to one of the most powerful women in business as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

She received a glowing introduction, which she immediately discounted. “My introduction was kind,” Fiorina told the audience that was so quiet you could have heard pin drop. “I didn’t leave HP, I was fired.”

And although she’s been described in the press as being fearless: “I am not fearless. Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s acting in spite of fear.”

Her first brave act, she said, was to quit law school, knowing that it was important to her father. As a medieval history major, she said her parents were worried she was unemployable. She answered the first ad she saw and took a job as a receptionist. “It never occurred to me that I would have a career in business,” she said, until two men recognized her talent and encouraged her to apply for a promotion. So, in essence, she said, her career was launched by “someone seeing possibilities in someone else.” A trait all leaders should develop in themselves.

A self-described “shy” person, Fiorina’s stint at AT&T provided her a defining moment. She shared an account with a male rep, and was told she wouldn’t be able to attend an important lunch meeting, because the customer wanted to go to The Board Room, a strip club. At first, Fiorina acquiesced, then decided she needed to be at that meeting. “I dressed in my best dress-for-success outfit,” she said—the dark business suit, accessorized with the floppy bow tie designed to feminize it. On her the ride over to the club, the cab driver took in the whole outfit and asked, “Are you the new act?” And, to make matters worse, she said she had to walk across the stage to get to the corner where the customers and her co-worker were seated.

“Two hours later I left and everything had changed,” she said. “When I got back to the office, the relationship had changed. As terrified as I was, I proved that I couldn’t be intimidated.”

Being a woman in a man’s world wasn’t easy. On more than one occasion, she said, she was introduced as, “This is Carly, she’s our token bimbo.” If “bimbo” wasn’t being used, then the other “B” word was, she added.

“It’s easy to let others define you,” she said, but if you do, “you’ll be less than you can be.”

She stuck it out, and her risks paid off. She was on Fortune magazine’s list of the 50 most powerful women for six years, even though she told them she didn’t think they should create a list just for women. Having a separate list, she said in an interview after her speech, is akin to saying women can’t compete with men. “It’s not the gender (that’s important), it’s the contribution,” she said.

Women won’t be considered token in the future, she predicted. “If you want to solve any problem in the world, women have to be involved,” she told the crowd. “The countries with the best brainpower will win; the companies with the best brainpower will win.”

Remember, she said in closing, “If in the 20th century a woman like me can go from secretary to CEO, then in the 21st century, truly anything is possible.”

Risky business

Taking risks and recognizing potential in others were reoccurring themes. While some of the advice was clichés, most of the speakers were not only motivating, but gave concrete ways for audience members to practice what they preached.

In a comedy stand-up act worthy of HBO, Karen Ruth White from Laugh & Learn Productions talked about how to bring more laughter into the workplace, which not only diffuses stress, but also builds camaraderie. “Leaders are bellwethers, they decided the tone of the office,” she said. “Keeping yourself optimistic is a 24-hour a day job.”

Working humor into the day is appreciated, whether it’s to liven up another dull meeting or providing the office with a treat from the ice cream truck. But it needs to be genuine, she said, adding that she once looked at a former boss’s Dayplanner and read under the 10 a.m. timeslot: “Feign interest in employees.

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