Carolyn Weidell is a seasoned executive leader and strategic planner who has worked and succeeded in several businesses. Currently she is COO/Chief Compliance Officer for a consolidation of three Los Angeles-based medical-services companies. She also is co-founder and CEO of an entertainment company. She has held executive posts with companies in information technology, senior living and computer software. Weidell began her business career at FedEx, where she spent 12 years. She has a BA in anthropology from California State University-Long Beach and did doctoral work in organizational psychology at California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles.
Seeing your résumé, I’m struck that it’s very horizontal rather than vertical. By that I mean, many people work most their lives in one business—construction or engineering or whatever—but you’ve worked in several: medical equipment, entertainment, IT, transportation and so on. What’s the skill set you have developed that makes that possible?
The core issue is business skills. I think that if people—and women in particular—believe in themselves and understand that if they develop their skills and apply them, they can use them in just about any industry. A widget is a widget, I always say. Obviously you have to learn an industry once you get there. You need to be a willing student, and nimble in your thinking.
But as you grow as a manager, it’s important to not define yourself as, say, a “transportation manager” but [instead] as a businessperson. I was taught that early on at FedEx: You’re not a senior manager, you’re a businessperson and you’re applying business skills to that job that are applicable elsewhere, too. You need to have the confidence to think of yourself that way and see the bigger picture rather than narrowly defining yourself in the context of your company.
Has it been your experience that many people do narrowly define themselves—and limit themselves—in that way?
I think they do. And employers when they’re hiring managers do the same thing. They’ll look at a person and say, “Well, she’s never managed in health care; she’s in logistics.” So they will miss really good management people because they may lack a specific background. Sometimes it matters, of course. I suppose NASA doesn’t want to hire someone without an engineering degree, or whatever, but for the most part if you’re a successful manager at a company, your skillset is applicable just about anywhere.
And people can narrowly define themselves. For example, I started out with FedEx. I was a part-time courier when I was in college and I was promoted to a management job. It would have been easy for me to be a lifer there, but I didn’t.
I bet on myself. It’s important for a woman to believe in herself because not everyone will, or they won’t take you seriously. You have to bet on yourself and have the confidence in yourself that maybe other people won’t always have.
Aren’t a lot of women, hearing that, going to say, “Oh, I believe in myself but there are barriers to women I can’t overcome”?
I agree to some extent that that’s true. It’s not an easy road certainly. I don’t want to Pollyanna it at all. But I was reading about Hillary Clinton and all the difficulties she’s had—Whitewater and all the things that have brought her down. She’s always picked herself back up. The person interviewing her said, “Well, you have to play the hand you’re dealt.” She paused and said, “Well, I actually picked the hand.”
That’s the difference. It’s a worldview perception: You pick your hand and the road’s not going to be easy but you’re not a victim. You’re not moaning, “Oh, well, I can’t get promoted because this guy is in my way. Well, he probably is in your way, but you have to figure a way around him. When you’re running down a football field, you rarely make a direct run; you have to maneuver around others.
That sounds like the self-reliance you called for earlier.
Well, the people above you can make or break you, period. No matter how good or bad you are. They want to pick someone they like and feel comfortable. Probably the biggest problem in this white-male-dominated world is this “cloning” thing: They want to be around people similar to them. And that’s human nature. It’s not particular to white males. If black females dominated business, I’m sure they’d want more black females at the top levels.
Some women see the male dominance and associated obstacles as changing. Others think it hasn’t changed enough and that young women coming into business will be surprised to find that it hasn’t. What do you see?
First of all, I can tell you that in the 1980s when I was starting out, I was the first female supervisor in the Western region for FedEx. There weren’t any others. I was the first one promoted to a management job. So thing have changed quite bit. I remember being told I was taking a job away from a man and I should, I don’t know, go home and do dishes or something.
So there’s a huge difference from the 1980s to now. However, I can say there are a lot of companies that want to be perceived as doing the right thing so they have a whole diversity program and they’re pro women and pro everyone. But the reality is that the numbers don’t lie. If you look at the website of a large company and look at who’s managing it at the top levels, it’s still almost all white males. That’s the reality. You should look at what people do, not what they say.
But I certainly would tell women to take advantage of whatever programs are offered, even if they are disingenuous. Exploit the opportunities given you. Go to women’s conferences, network, try to find a mentor if you can. It’s difficult.
Did you have mentors?
Oh, I’ve had people who were very helpful to me. But they weren’t long-term. If I had a good boss and he took a shine to me that could be helpful. One advantage men have is that they’ll have someone take them from the front line and bring them up with them. I’ve seen that a lot in my career, where men were taken under a wing and now they’re big-time or a CEO. That’s extremely helpful.
Women can find people to coach them or mentor them, but it may not be at work per se.
Women are starting to form groups and help each other. In the past women tended to be very competitive. They didn’t help each other because they perceived each other as competition. They didn’t network. But now they’re breaking out of that.
Who do you look for?
You know, you’re defined by the people you hang out with, so you find people who are like-minded and interested in the same things as you. But they say you should always dress for your next job and not your current one, and you should take on people who are helpful for your next job and not just your current one so they can help you.
At FedEx I remember on one performance review the measure was “Tolerance for ambiguity.” Half the time you don’t know what’s going on with who’s getting promoted around you and why, but you have to learn to operate within ambiguity and learn to tolerate it. It can be difficult. There were times when I was the only woman in a room with 20 people around a conference room.
Initially, at least, was that intimidating?
It didn’t really bother me. The only thing was that they seemed to walk over you and talk over you if they can. You just have to be a little bit aggressive and stand up to them and talk louder. But it’s a fine line because you don’t want to give up your femininity and be too hard-core, but you don’t want to be a shrinking violet or doormat either.
You received an award for outstanding leadership from FedEx, I know. Women get access to management positions but not always to leadership positions. How important was that award to you?
Certainly to be recognized at a corporate level is important. What probably meant more to me emotionally were the local management awards from my direct reports because that said they respected me. Anything I got from higher up was extremely appreciated, but some of that was very political. To get recognition for something you’d done was not always easy.
In your experience, have you most often encountered high-quality leadership or lesser examples?
There’s a really good book, “Leadership is an Art” by Max De Pree. It is an art, but you can be taught the how-tos on how to behave. I think it takes a lot of experience and self-knowledge, and a lot of empathy and an effort to understand people and what their motivations are. It’s not that simple. So to answer your question, yes, I’ve found that it is rare to find really good leaders. It’s not something you can cookie-cutter and turn out a leader.
Are there traits common to the effective leaders you’ve encountered?
Yes. First, they take responsibility. It’s like Hillary Clinton saying she picked her hand. That’s personal responsibility. You don’t retain power by blaming others.
And a basic tenet of any good leader is respecting others, having good manners and basic empathy in how you treat others. It’s not about tolerating or accepting failure in others; it’s about helping others achieve the full potential that they can’t even see in themselves. Leadership is seeing that potential in others and taking them there, even kicking and screaming, to show them they are more than they might think they are.
Then there’s patience, and good coaching, being a very positive person all the time. Not letting anything get to you. You know, the “never let them see you sweat” idea. No matter the crisis, you’re the steady rock, the calming force.
Are you still refining your leadership skills, even after years of directing people and companies?
Yes. The challenge always is when you switch levels of leadership or when the culture changes when you move [jobs]. As you age, you see that the younger generations that come up are different. You have to constantly learn. The world is always changing and people are constantly changing in it.
I think everyone has a certain go-to [leadership] style because it reflects their personalities or it’s in their comfort zone. But you really have to caution yourself to not fall back into that. You can’t be a dictator in a collaborative environment, and vice versa. You have to be able to adapt to where you are and be able to say, “Oh, this requires this or that kind of style.”
You have to remain genuine; you certainly don’t want to be phony. People see through that. But you need to develop a transformational style of leadership rather than stay in maintenance mode.
Some people believe the prolonged recession has caused business leaders to think more short-term and to be less empathetic in their views of their employees. Are you optimistic about the state of strategic thinking?
Well, I’m always optimistic in my long-term view, but I think you’re right about the short-term thinking. But like anything, it has to hit bottom. You can’t lay off everybody or cut wages and take away benefits and worry about tomorrow but not next year. Companies aren’t investing in training so much now either. You make a phone call to get help on some consumer thing and you find no one knows what they’re doing. Customer service has gone out the window, and I think that reflects poor training.
And all that will come back to the center again, I believe. It’s all been going in one direction, but I think business will realize it needs to invest in people again. Somebody needs to run things; audit them; oversee them: You can’t get rid of people entirely. And you can’t expect them to live on poverty-level wages. But it’ll come around.
It’s a difficult time for people entering the business. I know you’ve done some mentoring work with the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. What concerns do you hear and what advice are you most often asked to give?
I’m always very impressed by the people at business school because they’re passionate about their ideas. To be able to take an idea and make it a reality is exciting. The questions are often of the how-to variety. Setting up a business and running it profitably takes a lot of learning. They have great ideas, but often they’re young and they lack those skills.
There’s still a gap between men and women in entrepreneurship. Why do think that’s so?
Actually, what I see shows that women are creating and running small businesses. But I can tell you how things work in the world, or at least in my world. It goes back to women helping each other because often others won’t. Funding can be difficult to come by.
I have a female business partner and we’re launching a new initiative on streaming video. I said, “We should hire a young white male to be our front person. He could represent the brand, because potential investors want to deal with a man.” Two women running a business? I don’t think so. They won’t stick with it. That misperception is a showstopper for a lot of women. It’s the money.