Leadership - 10.22.2020

Leading From The Front: Rosina Racioppi

Rosina Racioppi, CEO of WOMEN Unlimited, knows what it takes to become a successful female executive. She’s devoted her career to helping women become leaders. Here are a few strategies that she recommends.

Tony Hunter Author: Tony Hunter

There is a lot of benefit in hearing someone’s story. It’s why mentoring is so valuable as a developmental tool. Sharing, relating, listening, walking in someone else’s shoes, it’s how we connect and build relationships.

Recently I sat down with Rosina Racioppi, CEO of WOMEN Unlimited, to learn how she leads from the front as a female executive. We spent 30 minutes sharing stories about our passion for leadership and the different strategies we’ve employed throughout our careers to ensure that women have the opportunity and support to grow into leadership roles. Here are some of the strategies that she recommends.

Take ownership for your development

While working in manufacturing, Rosina often saw women stall in their careers because they waited for their leaders to guide their professional development. They weren’t wrong to do so. Great leaders should actively do what it takes to develop others. That’s part of what leading from the front means. 

But when that doesn’t happen, women have to step up and own their career development. Having worked in HR, Rosina watched women focus on executing the transactional aspects of their work perfectly, and neglect the link to business results. She, herself, made a mental shift to focus on understanding and contributing to the company bottom line. She said her focus on the customer, even indirectly, was critical to demonstrate her value, and to open opportunities for advancement.

That aha moment and her experience as a female executive was the foundation for her book, “Relationships Matter: How Women Use Developmental Networks to Step Into Their Power and Influence.” The book provides ideas and practical tools for men and women on how to build the critical skills and relationships that can help us personally and professionally. 

Relationships are everything in business.  When done well, communication, reciprocity, feedback and support lead to great outcomes. But Rosina said too often male leaders hesitate to give women the quality feedback they need to work at a high level. In those cases, women have to ask for clear feedback. They must also build relationships with diverse people so they can develop the capabilities to operate effectively in a complicated, complex business environment. 

Build relationships. Have big ears and thick skin

Rosina said a colleague once told her how much he enjoyed working with her, but that he wouldn’t follow her out of a fox hole. She could have glossed over it, or dismissed it because she didn’t agree. Instead she asked what he meant, and she listened to his response. That conversation helped her see a different perspective, and ultimately it led her to make meaningful changes in her leadership style. 

That’s the power of building relationships. They are essential, especially as you move into senior roles. If you have big ears and thick skin, hearing tough feedback can lead to teachable moments that can improve your performance, and provide valuable insights as you create a development plan. 

Of course, there are also some macro issues to address when it comes to women in leadership. The onus is not solely on women to advance their careers. There are myriad reasons why the representation of women in leadership isn’t there: failed quotas, unconscious bias, top down hierarchy, women’s leadership development programs aren’t taken seriously, or created to promote continuous, measurable results. 

Culture can do a lot to change that. It’s the ultimate support mechanism, creating an atmosphere where women can grow and be successful. But it’s not easy to build. Rosina said it best when she explained that to create a supportive culture, you must change the underpinnings of how things get done. 

To create an environment where women can thrive and advance comfortably, companies have to promote a culture without bias, one that allows women to grow and develop comfortably from early career to senior leadership. That arc of development, enablement and support is critical to create a sustainable pipeline so you don’t lose talented women along the way — without that arc, you will lose women. 

Data from a 2020 McKinsey study on the state of women in the workplace shows that women systemically lose ground ascending that first step up to manager. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted. This gap is even bigger for women of color. Only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted in the aforementioned study. 

Have male and female mentors

That’s one reason the programs at WOMEN Unlimited are so effective. They offer rigorous programs to develop women at different stages in their careers. But in the absence of nuanced development offerings, there is one thing men can do to support women on their leadership journey — give clear, direct feedback. 

Rosina said it’s also important to suspend judgment, listen, and put aside your feelings about an issue. For instance, if a woman asks a male manager for advice on how to be heard in a meeting, he has to stop, listen, and address the problem even if he has no experience with that scenario. Meet her where she is. Acknowledge her frustration, and help find a solution. 

On the other hand, women must be unafraid to go to a leader and ask for clear instruction, advice and feedback. Don’t wait for it to come naturally because it may not come. If you need or want feedback, ask for it. 

There is high value in male-female work dynamics, if both parties are open to the opportunity to learn new ways to work, communicate, and do business. I found male-female mentoring arrangements to be very effective when I worked as an executive mentor for WOMEN Unlimited. 

The learning is reciprocal as each person absorbs a new point of view and new ways to think about situations. Men often gain as much as they give as they develop a deeper understanding of the challenges that women face in the workplace. Then they bring that knowledge back to their organizations, become more empathetic and effective in leading their female talent, and thus become stronger leaders. 

Lean in to risk

We’re living and working in an undeniably disruptive time, and those disruptions won’t go away. Now is the perfect time for women — for anyone — to strengthen their resilience muscles, to learn to adapt, reinvent, and deal with setbacks. Both men and women share the same need to be effective despite challenges, and that may require doing things differently, taking a step back, and thinking more broadly about what will create a powerful impact for you and for the business. 

Whether you’re in operating roles or supporting roles, there’s not a lot of time to step back to think, but Rosina offered the following pearls to guide a woman’s leadership journey:

  1. Focus on how you can help the company make money. Have a clear picture of the business. What’s the P&L? What are the important metrics and strategies? That will inform how you can create value and directly impact the company’s performance. 
  2. Don’t shy away from risk, especially now. Take smart, manageable risks to move you and your business forward. If you take risks, sometimes you will fail. There’s no shame in failure. Just learn so the next time you encounter a similar situation, you can capitalize on it.

Rosina leads from the front in so many ways. I was grateful that she took time to speak with me, and for all of the wonderful work that she and WOMEN Unlimited do to develop women leaders. Now, how can you make a difference in developing female leaders in your organization?