Ask the experts: 3 questions with 4 top female executives in N.J.

The recently completed Women’s Entrepreneurship Week at Montclair State University included a number of panels with top female business leaders.

ROI-NJ listened in to questions from the crowd at an all-star panel featuring Michele Siekerka, CEO and president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association; Michellene Davis, executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at RWJBarnabas Health; Leecia Eve, vice president of government affairs for the tristate region for Verizon; and Judith Spires, CEO of Kings Supermarkets.

Here’s just some of what they had to say.

Q: How do make sure your organization is helping other women when other women may be intimidated to talk to you?

Michellene Davis: I’m always amazed by this. How have we inadvertently created this space that permits the hierarchy of an organization to make others feel their opinions are less important? As a result of that, we have to be very deliberate about being inclusive.

I ask all the time for feedback. I ask females for feedback after a major meeting, after we review a strategic plan, because I think it’s incredibly important, especially for the millennial generation, to feel that their opinion is of some value — or we’re just going to lose them all to Google. You really have to be deliberate about trying to remove that barrier or trying to bring that pedestal down, because a great idea can come from anywhere. And every member of your organization is so important to that organization to achieve its ultimate goal: It’s not just for your consumer to feel value, but your employee feels value.

Michele Siekerka: On my first-day meeting at NJBIA, before I told everyone about me, I made sure we went around the room and I made everyone introduce themselves and tell them the best thing about BIA — and then I said, ‘I want you to share the challenges.’ So, I opened up the door on Day One. The second thing, I walk the building. I have (approximately) 50 employees. I walk the building and I stop in. And if someone is working on partnerships, I come and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ Or, ‘Did this work for you?’ I elicit their opinion.

Q. How can men better support the entrepreneurial spirit of women?

MD: We need to raise our young girls to make sure they understand that it’s OK to be the unicorn. Making certain that they understand that it is OK to take a risk and to fail and the fact that we get back up. I think, oftentimes, we get so concerned with trying to be perfect that we miss the good in all of it. Then, we need to make sure that we are doing two things. One, acknowledging the fact that great leadership comes in many packages; and, make certain that you don’t fall for the small microaggressions that many of us have fallen for over time. That when your (female) boss has said something, you go to another member of the senior executive team in order to have a meeting about the same thing.

Also, we need to make certain that, when you walk into a room with other men, that you look around and you look to see how you can make certain this table, this dialogue, this meeting is as inclusive as possible. As the man in the room of other men, ask: Who else do we need here? Who else should be invited to this meeting? I think being able to be much more inclusive in that manner helps to ensure that other individuals know and recognize the fact that the women who are in their organizations are rightfully leaders as well. We are each an expert in some aspect. Be able to ensure that you are vocal about the recognition of not just their talent and ability, but of their leadership skills as well.

Judith Spires: I think the important thing is, while we recognize diversity and the need for diversity, we don’t treat people differently. We just expect that there are entrepreneurs, there are workers, there are managers. I think that’s a really big thing. I have been married to my college sweetheart for a long time. And, on the night that we graduated from college, I told him that I was going to be the president of the company I was working for at that time. My husband was my No. 1 supporter. And it wasn’t a question of, ‘Judy’s going to do this because she’s a woman,’ it was, ‘Judy’s going to do this.’ I think, if we look at the world that way, it really helps move us.

Q: I know as you move up in the corporate world, you get further and further away from your customers. What are some of the techniques that you use to stay close to your customers?

MS: I call it, ‘Boots on the Ground.’ Before coming to BIA, I was the deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection. The boots on the ground there was that, on any given morning, I would go out to our regulated entities, so, literally I would start my morning out at wastewater sewage treatment facilities and landfills. Very glamourous life. Today, my boots on the ground is I go out and talk to my businesses every day. I take the phone calls, I go out to their corporate headquarters, their small mom-and-pop shop, and I ask them, ‘What do you need to survive and thrive and create jobs to help build New Jersey’s economy?’ I can’t guess what that is from my office in Trenton and then go advocate for what I think it is. I have to know exactly what it is.

Leecia Eve: For me, it’s relatively easy to do. At any given moment, someone will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I was in a store, and I had a great experience.’ I actually make a note of where that store is and communicate with the appropriate person so they’re aware that what’s happening in that store is not just good, but so good that someone made a point of coming up to me and sharing it. Likewise, periodically, someone will come up and say, ‘I didn’t have a great experience.’ I want to know where that was, so I can fix it. I’m responsible for the government affairs in three states. In any given day, I’m walking by a store and, if they don’t look the way I think they should look, I make note of that. I interface with our customers literally every moment that I’m not in my apartment, and that gives me a chance to elicit feedback if I’m not hearing from them. If you’re in a business that’s not as ubiquitous as my business is, then you have to set up a structure to find a way that are hearing directly from a customer without a filter.

JS: It’s very easy for me, because I have to shop every single week. I experience on a weekly basis what our customer experiences. I learned very early in my career that you cannot manage a business from an office. You have to know what’s going on, you have to be out there. People will always say to me, ‘You should have to go on “Undercover Boss.”’ But I don’t have to, because I started as a cashier when I was in high school and have worked in every inch of the business.