As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Tammy Heermann.
Tammy Heermann is an award-winning leadership expert sought out by some of the world’s top companies for her programs that accelerate women’s advancement. For over 20 years, she has helped change thousands of mindsets around what it takes to lead both oneself and others. Learn more about her and her new book, Reframe Your Story, at tammyheermann.com.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
For 20 plus years, I have worked in the field of Human Resources and Leadership Development in a variety of sectors across the globe. Over a decade ago, when I ran the leadership development practice at a consulting firm, our CEO came to me with a “project.” A close contact of his was asking for help. His daughter was running a successful company that organized networking luncheons for women that featured inspirational speakers. But her aspiration was bigger. She didn’t want to merely motivate women; she wanted to do something to increase the number of women in leadership roles. To do this, she needed a strong leadership development partner. She was looking for someone to create and run publicly offered workshops for women seeking to advance. “Make it work,” I was told.
My company didn’t offer public workshops. We created custom programs for organizations willing to pay a premium. This project entailed a whole lot of work for me and little money for my business. But I did it, and it opened up my whole world. I am still amazed that what started out as a pet project for me has grown into a passion. As a speaker and facilitator, I have been fortunate to reach thousands of women worldwide who have taken charge of their leadership careers. But more than that, I lived the leadership journey alongside these women. As I progressed from a senior consultant to a senior vice president, I found myself dealing with the same myriad challenges that these other women were facing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I was writing the manuscript for my book, Reframe Your Story: Real Talk for Women Who Want to Let Go, Do Less and Be More — Together, and was focusing on a chapter called Do Less Shit. One part of the chapter talks about the ways in which we (women) unconsciously make ourselves subservient by taking on grunt work or office housework. Of course, when you are immersed in a subject, you begin to see examples of it everywhere.
One day, my husband and I were at home folding laundry together. We both hate folding the fitted sheet — you know, the one with the awful scrunchy corners. We avoided the dreaded fitted sheet until it was the last item in the laundry basket. I was still folding my item, so naturally he should have taken the fitted sheet. Victory is mine! I thought silently. But instead of taking the fitted sheet, my husband turned his back and started walking to the closet.
“Where are you going? There’s one item left,” I laughed, proud of my victory. “I hate folding that one,” he said. He was completely comfortable leaving the fitted sheet sitting on the bed.
“So do I!” I countered. He turned his back on me again. And for a second, I convinced myself to just fold the sheet. Then in a flash of light, every study I read, every story I heard, every time I said yes to something at work and regretted it, came flooding back to me in a rush of annoyance. Why was I making myself subservient? Why was I okay to pick up the slack and be a good team player? I was gob smacked by my husband’s ability let me fold the fitted sheet like it was nothing. I was equally stupefied by my automatic reaction to give in and fold the sheet myself. I even felt guilty that I had won the game!
You might think this story is silly, but it’s not about a fitted sheet at all. The sheet is a metaphor for equality, an example of self-talk and subservience in action. It’s an interesting story because it illustrates how many times we must pay attention to our default thinking and shift our mindset each day. It’s about doing things to conquer the feeling of being marginalized or peripheral. Start with a fitted sheet and graduate to bigger moments and conversations.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Several years ago, I was teaching a series on executive presence to a client. The funny thing about the topic of executive presence is that you can’t merely teach it, you must embody it. For some reason, each time I went to teach this class, something happened to undermine me. First, I spilled coffee down my blouse before arriving at the client site with no opportunity to change or cover it up. The second time, the water and electricity went out at my house overnight. I woke up panicked, ran down to my basement, and thankfully found a couple bottles of sparkling water to wash my hair with. My hair is not cut out for wash and wear. Once again, I arrived looking disheveled.
The first time, I made the mistake of panicking and apologizing for my careless coffee stain (apparently, I thought executives weren’t supposed to spill coffee). What I learned was that being authentic, owning my stuff, and rocking it regardless was a critical part of executive presence. I showed the leaders in attendance that how we deal with things we cannot control is critical part of having presence.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Many men and women have mentored and sponsored me, but I’d like to talk about one woman that I reported to when I joined a new organization. She was an empathetic and empowering leader. As I rose in the organization, I became her colleague. We both led teams that reported to the same leader. But for a long time, I was the only person that was not a vice president on the management team. She came to me one day and said, “You must go ask for this. It’s not right; you add the same value as the rest of us.”
She was a fierce advocate for my promotion. We began building my profile together. She would reinforce my ideas in meetings, conspiring ahead of time so that I could say my ideas first. We would practice conversations with the boss, and she’d give me feedback and prop me up when things didn’t go as planned. Not only did she help me get promoted, but also bolstered my self-confidence to operate at that level. When I decided to start my own company, she advised me on critical aspects of building a business. She still does. She’s a great example of women empowering women.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I’m a big believer in using a mantra — a positive word, phrase, or quote you say over and over to provide motivation, encouragement, or focus. A mantra strengthens self-belief in situations where you feel underconfident or fearful and keeps you on track whether you’re facing familiar or new situations. Athletes and professional performers know the power of focusing your mind on what you want to happen, not what you don’t want to happen. Rather than saying, “Don’t strike out,” Don’t miss,” or “Don’t forget your lines,” they visualize success and say self-affirming things to themselves.
I learned this the hard way when I went into a seasoned and cynical crowd of mostly men in a financial services organization. I was warned numerous times how hostile they would be. I was early in my career, a woman, and short to boot. I felt like a kid up there. And I kept telling myself negative stories: They won’t listen to you. You’re too young. What can they learn from you? Well, of course I screwed up. I completely froze mid-sentence and forgot what I was saying. I confirmed why I wasn’t supposed to be there, which of course couldn’t be further from the truth.
Now, I feed my mind with positive, self-affirming, powerful statements. I visualize success just like the sports psychologists tell the pros to do. A mantra coupled with a few deeps breaths is a powerful tool. A few years ago, I spoke at a large conference of over 2000 attendees. Once again, I was the only woman amidst five men who were a lot more famous than I was. I was speaking with Tom Peters, one of the most influential business thinkers of all time, and Sir Ken Robinson, who was knighted for his contribution to education in the arts! As I stood backstage, I started to completely freak out. Then I pulled out my mantra: You belong here. What did those other experts know about my topic? Nothing! Or very little. I belonged there. I had an important message to share with the audience too.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
This is critical. And we need to spell it out. We need to be overt. We need to keep pushing because we cannot be complacent. We will not naturally evolve to a better state. Diversity, equality, inclusion, and belonging of all forms are required. My area of expertise is women’s advancement, which is only a slice of the bigger equation. But what I know for certain is this: Research shows that women tend to score higher on most leadership capabilities, despite the “think manager, think male” stereotype.
I hear many organizations say they value teamwork, collaboration, talent development, and emotional intelligence. Yet, senior leadership is still a pit of toxic posturing, bullying, and egotism. There is mounting research that shows that women-led companies, or companies with a 50/50 executive gender split, have more engaged employees. Women-owned companies are also shown to have higher returns, and new research has proven that when women are brought into the C-suite, they shift how the organization thinks about innovation, which in turn results in more value-creating strategies.
It’s clear the world needs more women in leadership. And customers, communities, and children need to see themselves reflected in their leaders and in the organizations and institutions that shape their future.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Clearly this is a systemic challenge, otherwise we would have made more movement by now. To create lasting change, we need to reinforce the right individual behaviors, shape an inclusive culture, and have the right policies and procedures. It will take all the factors working together in unison. I will give one example of each.
1. Individual Behaviors. Earlier, I referenced the example that woman both willingly take on more grunt work and are voluntold to do more grunt work. A critical behavior is being able to define strategic priorities and have the mindset that saying no is not letting down the team. We need to rethink our definition of a team. When we take on too much, we’re also letting the team down. This is critical to getting out of the weeds and moving from tactical executor to strategic leader.
2. Inclusive Culture. Culture is shaped by its leaders, which means an organization’s diversity and inclusion results will only be as strong as its leadership culture. Leaders need to learn to have equitable career conversations, connect with and profile a variety of people, and offer and monitor stretch assignments to women and minorities.
3. Policies. These will be undermined by culture and leaders every time. Having a policy on flexible work, for example, is merely step one, the easy step. Ensuring the policy is interpreted and applied fairly and as intended is the real work. Flexibility, the panacea for working parents, has the potential to become viewed as an accommodation for those who are not as committed to their jobs. It can also contribute to the feeling that you must “always be on” and working 24/7, versus a trust-driven work culture that allows employees to complete their work in a humane manner.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
The executive team is responsible for responding to, as well as shaping, the external environment they operate in. They must continuously scan the environment and shape the economic, societal, technological, environmental, regulatory, and political factors that impact their business.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
When I talk to women about advancing to executive roles, the common reaction is, “I ain’t got time for that” or “I don’t want that headache.” Most are barely surviving in their current role. With so much on their plate at home and at work, they can’t fathom taking on more.
Most executives have more freedom over their calendar and increased control over where and how they spend their time once they’re in senior positions. If they’re doing some things right, that is. The shift you need to make is knowing it’s not necessarily about doing more stuff, it’s about doing different stuff. If you want to advance, you must become masterful at skills such as building a strong team, delegating, and setting boundaries. I think many women confuse taking control with being controlling.
I saw this difference acutely when I moderated a panel with high-powered executives. On the panel were two women with incredibly complex executive jobs in the public eye. The first was accomplished, influential, and driven. She whizzed through the questions I asked her with intelligence, humor, and grace. She didn’t need to rehearse her answers: they were engrained in her. Everyone wanted to be like her. This was especially true when she remarked that it was easy for her to say no. She knew she couldn’t do everything, and she didn’t try. If she angered someone by saying no, then so be it. She knew it was important to keep herself healthy and balanced, and as an example, she described her passion for learning new sports. She also laughed as she described how, out of the desire to switch things up, she enrolled in a cooking class to learn how to make new cuisines. She spoke of her family and all aspects of her life. She knew what was important and she focused on those things. That’s what made her an utterly inspiring role model to the audience.
Contrast that with the other female executive. She appeared tense and nervous despite engaging in pre-planning for the event. Her assistant sent me a list of questions she would and would not cover. She arrived right before the panel and made us feel as though we were lucky to be getting 60 minutes of her time. She confessed on stage that she has a problem with saying no and frequently overextends herself. She made no mention of how she spends her free time. I got the inkling that she really didn’t have free time or that the ways she relaxed weren’t helping her.
Now, which one do you picture when you think about taking on a larger role? I’m guessing the tense, frazzled one. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The first executive was living proof of that.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Where to begin. I will focus on one that has been resonating a lot with people in my workshops right now: Women are perceived as being less strategic than men. That is what 360 Research is showing. After receiving my own 360 results in which I was perceived as more tactical than strategic, I did my own research to determine how perceptions of our strategic capabilities are formed. Study after study showed that women were rated less strategic than men. If any readers have data to the contrary, please let me know. I’ve never wanted to be more wrong.
I don’t believe that women are categorically less strategic than men. It is a perception. I work with all leaders to implement the mindsets and skills to get out of the weeds and focus on strategic priorities. This is, however, as one study described, the Achilles heel for women.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When I started my own consulting company to help women advance at work, I pretty much knew what I was in for. I had experience building a brand and products, as well as managing business development, forming partnerships, and sourcing vendors. But the lack of tech support is always shocking when there’s no help on speed dial.
I assumed that working from my home office would be lonely. I was no longer part of a large team seeing hundreds of people every day. But I’m not lonely. Client work and networking always keep you in contact with people. It’s also given me the space to think and form relationships with fewer people, but more deeply. That’s incredibly energizing for me.
I also assumed that when the pandemic hit and my whole family was working and schooling from home, we would drive each other nuts and get on each other’s nerves. But that didn’t happen either. My teenage daughter commented that it brought us closer together! If that’s not striking, I don’t know what is.
Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Probably not, although there are likely a lot more people that are capable of being successful executives than we currently believe there to be. That’s why organizations have weak or holey leadership pipelines, and why for the most part executive teams and boards are homogenous.
There are the well-known characteristics and skills that are required for senior leadership positions, such as courage, curiosity, resilience, drive, strategic thinking, communication, to name a few. The list has become endless. Being a leader has never been more complex.
But here’s the thing: leadership expectations are changing, and we need to rethink our common defaults. For example, Susan Cain’s ground-breaking book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking busted the myth that great leaders must be charismatic. Confidence and competence come in many forms.
We must also look at the organization itself, including the culture and the lifecycle stage that the business is in. For instance, many start-ups require a different person at the helm once stability and process orientation sets in.
The key is understanding a leader’s strengths, biases, and blind spots, and whether they are a fit for the current context.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Women are great team leaders. In fact, studies show that women outshine men in many leadership competencies, team leadership being one of them. When I run workshops and high potential programs for women, I ask them to tell me their greatest leadership strength. Eighty percent say leading people.
My advice would be to stop leaning on leading people as your strength. Keep doing it, of course, but stretch into something else. Get known for something else. Be known as a strategic leader. Reach, stretch, and grow into unknown areas. If your team is humming along, that’s a sign of success. The goal is for them not to need you every waking minute, then you can focus on higher level strategic priorities.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I act as a mentor for an association that seeks to increase female leaders in the technology and communication sector. Each year, I take on a new mentee and keep in touch with those from years past. I benefit from the experience as much as I hope they do. I also sponsor women and girls locally and globally through not-for-profit organizations and earmark pro-bono time for causes that advance women.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Just 5, huh?
1. Saying no is a sign of success, not failure. To rise in an organization and to stay sane, we can’t say yes to everything. That’s a sign of prioritizing what matters.
2. The child clinging to your leg as you leave for work won’t remember that when they’re older. But they will remember you as a role model later on. The guilt experienced by working mothers is relentless. It creeps in and undermines our effectiveness, leading to heavy mental weight. We need to take a long-term view and be present during important times for our career and for life at home. Sometimes one will win over the other. But in the long run, it will be balanced if you balance it.
3. You should listen to all the feedback, but you don’t have to act on all the feedback. We must be curious about our impact on people, teams, and businesses. But sometimes feedback is given through the narrow lens of the person delivering it and we need to know when to stay true to our decisions and values.
4. Being kind to yourself is free and is the best investment you can make. Learn the skills of self-advocacy and self-compassion early. You will save hundreds of sleepless nights, headaches, or ulcers.
5. Building a network is your job, not something you do when you have time. Integrate the activities of connecting and leveraging relationships into your job description. You will never have extra time, but time will save itself when you have influence.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My movement is called Think Leader, Think Female. Earlier I referenced the “think manager, think male” stereotype. This refers to the automatic association most people make with the word “leader” or “manager,” which is a man and/or a person with masculine qualities and characteristics.
I would like to inspire a movement that changes this automatic association. And this isn’t just with men. It’s with women too. We all do this. We can no longer buy into this dominant narrative. Confidence needs to be redefined because it comes in all forms. We need to stop thinking that tall or loud or men named John (or James) are automatically leaders. I discussed earlier that women are critical in positions of power and leadership. The benefits can no longer be overlooked.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“97% of the things we worry about never actually happen.”
I got an early start as a ruminator. Rumination is when you rehash how you acted or what you said in a certain situation repeatedly. It keeps you stuck and anxious. It’s a challenge for many people, although studies show that women ruminate more and suffer from higher levels of anxiety. One theory is that women ruminate more than men because they tend to focus more on interpersonal relationships.
Caring about what people think about you, your capabilities, or your ideas is ripe territory for rumination. These are the voices that make you question yourself, that tell you you’re not good enough, or that make you cling to unproductive feelings past their expiry date. Over time, rumination leads to cynicism, unhealthy relationships, and burnout — none of which are helpful for productive functioning at work or home.
Reminding myself of this quote is one strategy for snapping out of unproductive mindsets and focusing on what I can impact, control, or mitigate.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Hands down, Brené Brown. Her early Ted Talk, the one that she thought no one would see and the one that made her famous, is something I show over and over to leaders. Real talk is part and parcel to the work I do, and no one embodies authenticity and leadership vulnerability like Brené does. Her work has never been more critical than it is today. People are clamoring for humanity in the workplace. Brené has skyrocketed in global resonance because she makes leadership more human. What a legacy she’s creating.