Balancing life and career and moving ahead were two main subjects of “Finding the Secret Sauce,” the opening session of the McKnight’s Women of Distinction Forum on Wednesday. 

Speaking openly at work about the struggles of working as a single mother “has allowed other folks in the organization almost freedom to feel like, ‘I can talk about my struggles, too,’ ” offered Lori Alford, a mother of two young teenagers and chief operating officer of Avanti Senior Living. “It’s been a breath of fresh air at our company to talk about those struggles and talk about how to manage them, because it’s real.”

In addition to Alford, two other panelists, Brenda Bacon, president and CEO of Brandywine Senior Living, and Leigh Ann Barney, president and CEO of Trilogy Health Services, participated in the discussion.

Helping women advance in an organization also was a point of discussion. The best way to add women to the upper ranks is to give them increasing levels of responsibility and encourage them to take risks, the panelists said. 

Bacon encouraged women who think they have a good idea to pursue it. Initiating a project, seeing it through, getting buy-in from others and implementing it helps a person grow, she said. 

“Just because you thought of it doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect the first time,” she noted. “That’s how leaders develop, if you give them that encouragement and freedom to go for it.”

Barney compared leadership with bodybuilding. “If you want to build a muscle, you stretch it beyond what its capability is, and then you recover from that. Then the next time you do it, it’s going to be a little bit easier to lift that weight,” she said. “To me, leadership is about that. If you don’t challenge yourself and if you don’t do something outside your comfort zone, you won’t build that muscle.”

Seeking support

Women starting out in their careers should encourage their fellow women, Alford said, adding that women often are each other’s worst critics. 

“We can’t assume someone must fail in order for you to win,” Bacon agreed. “You can win, and they can win.”

Women also must be responsible for their own success, the speakers pointed out. Developing oneself never stops, even as one advances in an organization, Barney said.

“I probably spend more time learning and trying to grow myself now than when I was younger,” she said.  

Alford said that, during her career, she has had to balance the “soft side” she learned to focus on as a young woman with more typical male traits, such as being assertive. “If you want to play in the big leagues with boy boys, you can’t go in with all sugar and spice and everything nice. …It’s the business world at the end of the day.”

Find your path

One misconception among young people is that success comes with a set of instructions, the speakers said.

“A lot of young women today think there is a formula [that] gets you here,” Bacon said. “Keep your eyes open, look at what the opportunities are, learn to recognize those opportunities and work hard — not think it’s somehow going to happen to you because you have education or are smart. …There are a lot of smart, not-successful leaders.”

The panelists also addressed the challenge of attracting more women of color to organizations. 

“There is a lot of conversation going on now in very large companies around this country and our own companies. What can we do?” Bacon said. “We can’t change the past. We can’t change everything. We all need to be looking at … our own situations and our companies and say, ‘What can we do to make change and move that step forward?’ ” 

She added, “We can all do something. Everybody can do something. …to make a change.” 

The session is available on-demand. To watch, sign in or register here.