Leading in style
Five area women in the C-suite discuss leadership, flexibility, and generational differences.
Women have come a long way since 1920, when the 19th amendment granted them the right to vote, but long before that, Anna Bissell became America’s first female CEO, taking the reins at her husband’s carpet sweeper company after he passed away in 1889.
Under her watch, Bissell’s company grew to be the largest organization of its kind, with Anna involved in every aspect of the company, from defending patents, to sales, to training employees. In fact, she was one of the first executives to offer employees a pension plan and workers’ compensation, and she sold the Bissell sweeper to Britain’s Queen Victoria to rid the palace of dust bunnies. Bissell Corp. remains family-owned to this day.
Some may argue that the path to the C-suite has been a slow slog for women, with only 21% members of the exclusive club in 2020. In August 2021, the top Fortune 500 companies being led by women were CVS Health (No. 4), Walgreens Boots Alliance (No. 16), General Motors (No. 22), Anthem (No. 23), and Citigroup (No. 33). Two on the Fortune 500 are led by Black women: Rosalind Brewer at Walgreens and Thasunda Brown Duckett at Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA).
Based on 10-year returns, 32 women-led companies have out-performed 468 male-run companies in the S&P 500, according to a Personal Finance Club report in May 2022. The difference in returns was 384% from women-led companies compared to 261% for companies led by men over the past decade.
In this area, accomplished women such as Epic’s Judy Faulkner have led the way, and we spoke with five others who also are leading the local charge at their organizations. We learn about their rise to the top, leadership styles, and philosophies as they carve their paths.
President, American Family Direct
Leadership Style: Collaborative and team-based
After working in sales, marketing, and management at companies including Ford Motor Co. and Burger King, Telisa Yancy joined American Family Insurance as advertising director in the marketing division in 2009. Yancy launched AmFam’s “Dreams” campaign in 2011 and was named to her current role in 2021, reporting directly to CEO Bill Westrate and overseeing the American Family enterprise’s direct companies including Homesite, The General, and CONNECT.
Yancy supervises seven people directly, but her team manages about 4,000. An alumnus of the University of Illinois with an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Business, she has a passion for professional sports that is more than just a passing interest. She finds the study of both championship teams and championship companies fascinating.
“I’m a nerd and a student of business. I enjoy reading about how successful companies have done the impossible and captured the customer’s heart and minds.”
Her approach to management is team based and collaborative, but that collaboration goes three ways, she clarifies. “For those I report to, it’s critically important to be aligned with their strategic vision and the intent and role they need you to play to carry that message and amplify it.
“To the people I sit besides, it’s getting aligned to the vision set for the company and knowing which role we play.
“And for the leaders that are behind me — and I say, ‘leaders’ because I believe we all lead from whatever chair we sit in regardless of what level or part of the building we’re in — it’s about coaching and identifying roadblocks.”
Yancy’s business inspiration came primarily from male mentors. “That’s the nature of being in corporate America,” she states. “The gentlemen I’ve had the privilege to work beside and work for here at AmFam have been most supportive. They challenge me to think beyond what I even thought I could do. They challenge me to bring more of my female self, and more importantly my African American self to the office. They do not ask me to meet a model that some men might ask women to meet, or that women expect women to meet.”
Through the years, Yancy has observed management styles shifting from a top-down, authoritarian model to a more servant-leadership, collaborative, and adaptive style. But as women take on more managerial or C-suite roles, she cautions them not to become too hardened. Women are nurturers, Yancy explains, and some might lose sight of who the competitor truly is.
“It’s not you against the rest of the world because no matter what chair you sit in, with the exception of the CEO’s, you cannot accomplish anything on your own.”
Yancy discarded the me-against-the-world mentality years ago. “I had to,” she says, “because not only am I a woman, but I’m also a woman of color, and when you look around the room and don’t see people that look like you, the magnitude of me-against-the-world gets so big. And when it’s so big, it’s daunting and probably not good for your health.”
At American Family, she’s part of an executive team (vice-president and above) that is about 36% female. “Companies like this are doing things right not just because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do for the customer,” she says.
Raised in Illinois, Yancy was taught that she had a responsibility to her ancestors and others who went before her to be “basically perfect.” Consequently, she personalized everything.
“What I’ve learned is that men don’t do that. Men are really good at compartmentalizing. They can engage in robust discussions where they may raise their voices, argue, and then go have a drink together.” Women on the other hand, ruminate and play situations over and over in their heads.
Her advice: “Value and understand who you are as a human being, and don’t let how you were raised cause unnecessary stress or roadblocks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the bottom line, but I also understand that the money and the bottom line comes through people on both sides of the equation — those who buy, and those who sell, support, and nurture. We’re both focused on the same thing, just the approach differs.”
Be resilient, not sensitive
Years ago at another company, Yancy was dressed down by a female colleague for wearing a wintergreen suit to work rather than the corporate blue. A male executive overheard the conversation and later reached out to suggest Yancy not burden herself with any preconceived notion of which box she should fit into. She greatly appreciated his comments and brushed off the incident, but it was a lesson that often comes to light when she mentors her nieces who are just entering the corporate world.
“Young people these days have a level of sensitivity that I learned early on to ignore. They get stuck on the little things and sometimes never get to the big things. I believe it’s more important to visualize where they want to be and the impact they want to have. The money and titles will follow.”
The world is totally open to them, but her wish is that they hone-in on being more resilient and learn to brush things off. “I understand why people are hypersensitive right now — our country is somewhat divided. But where do you want to go? Which room do you want to sit in? What table do you want to be at?
“And if someone passes you the mic — in the words of my favorite author and pastor, Bishop T.D. Jakes — don’t drop it. Have something to say that is impactful and game changing.
“Being upset about the little things really only has a momentary impact,” Yancy continues.
“So prove that your presence in the room creates more customer awareness, creates a better idea, greater business success, and greater loyalty to your brand.
“That’s the game-changing idea that opens the doors for others to come after you.”
Attorney, President/CEO, Von Briesen & Roper S.C.
Leadership style: Listen, learn, trust, and lead
Susan Lovern has worked at von Briesen & Roper for nearly three decades. The law firm now has about 320 employees, including 170 attorneys. When she first joined as a summer associate, she was well aware that the firm had one of the highest percentages of female shareholders of any firm in Wisconsin. Even back in 1995, von Briesen employed female practice group leaders, women equity shareholders, and board members, which was not at all typical for law firms at the time, she explains.
“They did a good job of being inclusive in offering leadership opportunities to everyone there. It’s important, if we’re going to build a pipeline of women leaders, to be thoughtful about providing opportunities early and then growing those opportunities throughout your career so that you have the requisite experiences to be in a leadership position later on.”
Women need flexibility to succeed, Lovern says. When she was raising her young children, she was able to step back and work part-time for four years. During that time, she also was promoted to equity shareholder.
“I look back at that as an example of the firm’s loyalty and how it created a sense of value in me. It didn’t matter that I was part time. I still qualified for a promotion and wasn’t put on a different track. I think a potential barrier can be when rules for promotion or compensation are one size fits all.”
It’s important that companies meet people where they are on their career journey, Lovern adds. “We need to be flexible in our promotion and compensation models and not operate from structurally rigid rules on what a career pathway to success might look like.”
COVID-19 went a long way in teaching employers that things typically considered barriers, such as a need to be part-time or having flexibility to be able to care for children or family members, doesn’t need to interfere with career progression.
“I was lucky,” Lovern admits. As long as internal and external client needs were being met, she had the flexibility to work when and where she needed to get the job done. “That made a huge difference. When women don’t have that flexibility, it becomes difficult for them to meet their priorities, which in turn may lead to them exiting the profession.”
Another issue Lovern sees is not having enough “on ramps” back into the profession for women who have to step away for a while. “We’ve seen women leave for a variety of reasons, so when they’re ready to reenter the workplace, they should be well-supported.” That support comes from having a team around them to provide backup when needed.
Making sure there’s opportunity for on-ramping provides reassurance that the job will be there when the individual returns. “It’s different than an entry-level person joining the firm,” Lovern notes. “These people already have skills and experience, but they may just need training or mentoring to bring them up to speed with new technologies or other changes that occured since they were out.” At the same time, she cautions against unfairly asking full-time team members to pick up a boatload of the part-timer’s work. “There has to be lot of open and transparent communication,” she says, “or it won’t work.”
An inclusive leader who encourages participation from all, Lovern believes the most important leadership traits are empathy, open and transparent communication, and a service mindset.
“Our industry needs to pay more attention to opportunities for women, though we have made strides. As more women come into leadership roles, it serves as an example and a normalization, and that can only help increase the numbers.”
COVID stalled many of the gains women had achieved in equity shareholder ranks as female lawyers left the profession at a higher rate than their male counterparts. But COVID also changed the management dynamic, forcing leaders to be more empathetic and communicative.
Lovern, for example, implemented a weekly firm update that continues to this day, encouraging employees to share what’s going on in their lives if they’re comfortable doing so. “We lost a lot during COVID, so talking things through with trusted colleagues can make for a more well-rounded, supportive organization.”
President/CEO, Wisconsin Bankers Association
Leadership Style: Service oriented with an open-door policy
“I’ve never been a micromanager,” states Rose Oswald Poels, who took the helm at the Wisconsin Bankers Association in 2011. As the first female to lead WBA, she puts her trust in her staff and gives credit where credit is due, recognizing employees for tasks well done. With about 58 people working at WBA, six directly report to Poels.
Originally from Cedarburg, Wisconsin, her parents raised their daughter to have a tremendous work ethic. During law school at UW–Madison, she worked as a legal counsel for WBA, and after graduation in 1993, joined full time. Eighteen years later, the gavel was passed to her.
“Personally, I never felt like I had any barriers to overcome. I was hired by Harry Argue, a past president of WBA, and had a wonderful mentor in John Knight, a local attorney, so I had wonderful male role models,” she explains.
Along the way, Poels coached women who may not have had the same experience. “Some people just aren’t good cheerleaders for themselves, which can hold them back from promotions or pay raises. Honestly, I wasn’t always a great advocate for myself either,” she admits. “I got my job done and didn’t question management or authority, but that changed as I gained more confidence.”
Much has been discussed about the lack of women on boards, and Poels agrees. “There are many boards out there without women on it, and most bank presidents are men, so there’s certainly room for improvement. I think there are some women who would like to be asked that are not being asked. I also know that often, if a woman is also a mother, she has very little time, so it’s important to try to balance things.”
Younger people, she says, are bringing a different perspective to the workforce and are better at saying no. “They know what they want, how much they want to work, and they don’t want to take on anything extra.”
Poels saw a growing need for empathy in the workforce long before COVID-19 hit. “There is a lot of anxiety and depression out there, so it’s important for us to lead with flexibility and allow people to take family or medical leave, whether it’s for themselves, a parent, or a child, and critical to offer family-friendly policies.”
She’s optimistic that the future will bring more diversity in management. “We definitely have room to improve,” Poels acknowledges, “but we know that when inviting people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds to the table, the conversations and experiences they bring are really important to business success.”
Leadership style: Organized strategist and communicator
With nearly 900 employees at Agrace, communication is critical to the not-for-profit’s success. Lynne Sexten, who worked in hospital administration for 20 years prior to joining Agrace, has been leading the local hospice organization since 2012.
“I have two strengths,” she states. “I’m very good at developing a long-range strategy to steer this organization, and I’m very organized.” That combination, among other qualities, has allowed Sexten to communicate a vision that everyone understands.
“In order to develop my strategy at Agrace, I need to be very connected not only locally but also nationally in terms of what may come down the road. What is our senior population? What services are needed? Or, on a national level, what are the payment policies? I must be able to communicate that clearly with people from all different levels.”
Few jobs can be more impactful than those that dignify a loved one’s death. “Yes, there’s a level of stress and loss that goes with that, but there’s also a sense of great reward,” Sexten explains.
At the height of COVID in early 2020, Agrace thrift stores shut down for six weeks, and neither family members nor nurses were allowed inside care facilities to visit or check on their patients. “That was very hard on our staff,” she says.
Under her leadership, the executive team decided to mail every Agrace employee a care package to show how much each was appreciated. “We committed not to impact employee paychecks, and we also reemployed 150 nursing assistants to do other work. There were no layoffs,” notes Sexten.
As the pandemic waned and COVID restrictions eased, the Great Resignation took hold and priorities shifted again, this time to maintaining a work-life balance. Agrace implemented dozens of staffing plans to keep people satisfied. A hybrid plan was created to hire weekend-only nurses, which eliminated the need for a weekend rotation that had been in place. Another care package went out, and this time it included a Wisconsin State Park pass and a backpack.
“The messaging was all about work-life balance and how we value our employees,” Sexten says. “We still need the work done, but we believe that employees who believe in their employers will do an even better job overall.”
Sexten is especially proud of the work Agrace has done when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. “When I first got here, everyone looked like me, which was so different than in a hospital environment. Back then, only about 1% of our staff were people of color. Now it’s around 15%. We’ve made great strides.”
But winds of industry change are lurking, she notes. “For 30 or 40 years in the hospice industry, women dominated in leadership and in the workforce, but in the last 10 years or so, hospice has swung from being almost entirely not-for-profit to being gobbled up by private equity firms. I’m starting to notice a how-do-we-turn-a-buck mentality now, as more men get into the industry.
“Women want to make a buck too, but there’s a different thought process,” Sexten says. “I can’t imagine that would happen here. We’re very fortunate that Agrace is so beloved in this community. We’ve earned our reputation.”
Co-president, JP Cullen
Leadership style: Transitional leadership
JP Cullen is a Janesville-based, family-owned construction company run by the fifth-generation brother-and-sister team of Jeannie Cullen-Schultz and her younger brother, George Cullen. Jeannie first joined the family business as a project manager, and a few months later, while pregnant with her first child, she pursued a health care division manager position and got it.
Now, with five children under the age of eight, including 21-month-old twins, Cullen-Schultz oversees two divisions while her brother handles three. “It’s easier to work than be at home right now,” she laughs.
With about 700 employees and a remarkable turnover rate of just 4.5%, she manages five people directly.
Leadership qualities were evident in her athletic career. Cullen-Schultz was a talented basketball player in college, and her dream job was to be a basketball coach. Recruited to play for Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Cullen-Schultz scored 1,481 career points and became the fifth highest scorer at the Ivy League school. Recently, Dartmouth named her to its 100 Greatest Athletes of All Time list. Back home, she was admitted to the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame.
After working as a graduate assistant for former UW–Madison’s women’s basketball coach Lisa Stone, Cullen-Schultz came to the realization that recruiting and travel, a big part of coaching, didn’t interest her, so she had a heart-to-heart chat with her dad about joining the family business and never looked back.
She’ll always draw on that team experience. “In basketball, we shared a vision we were always working toward. I learned to interact with people of different backgrounds and experienced different styles of leadership through the many coaches I met.”
What she learned has paid dividends in her career, despite never actually working in the trades herself. “I know my way around,” she says, “but we’d probably be in trouble if I had to set a door or lay the block.”
Cullen-Schultz enjoys getting to know her team members on a personal level, believing it creates trust, engagement, and a commitment to the working relationship too.
And as the co-president of a company that dates back to 1892, she’s learned to handle scrutiny with aplomb. “When your last name is on all the signage, the eyes are always on you to be an effective leader,” she says.
“Your name is always on the line, which adds expectations and pressure. We have a lot of history and tradition to uphold here.”
Interestingly, any barriers she encountered along the way were not because she was a female in a male-dominated industry, but rather because she was often the youngest in the room.
“I have to prove harder that I can do this,” Cullen-Schultz says.
With women finally making strides in construction, it’s no longer typical to be the only woman in the meeting room, she says. “Now there may be one or two of us, which is great, but whether you’re male or female, you always have to keep raising the bar because this is a very competitive industry.
“People are always watching.”
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