Why do the numbers of women in the C-suite, on boards, and at the highest levels of government remain frustratingly low? In a world where women are trained at the same institutions and have some of the same experiences as men, why do we see cultural limitations place on what they can and cannot do? It’s time to change the script.
We’re catching up with one of our favorite guests, Molly McAdams to talk about her experience as a female leader in a male-dominated meatpacking and retail industries. Molly McAdams, Ph.D., a meat scientist. She is a tremendous storyteller with a wealth of leadership experience.
ED: Tell me about being a highly successful, female leader in a typically male industry. Not only the meat industry but retail.
MOLLY: Oh my gosh, I think the best thing that could have prepared me for really anything in my career, was working in a meatpacking plant.
Right out of college, and I’ll never forget it. What I really needed to understand is that, I always felt like I was a pretty friendly person, but I was from the South working at a packing plant in Iowa. I didn’t talk like them, I had a ridiculous foreign car that the locks froze up on all the time in the winter, and I was college educated with a master’s degree. So those factors for line workers in a meatpacking plant—which is an extremely tough environment—made me realize early on that leadership definitely wasn’t about me. It was about getting all kinds of different people to trust me. That they knew I would make decisions in their best interest. Very, very valuable lessons. It was amazing. We could talk forever about that, but what happened when I went from meatpacking to retail—another male dominated industry—was my leadership role was elevated. I had a lot of people that reported to me—a lot of men and a lot of very young women as well. There were a couple of things that hit me really loud and clear. Primarily, if you were tough and opinionated, and were able to express your opinions with conviction, probably to the point of being argumentative, you are going to be called names. I got some advice when I was still in college, they said, “you better get used to being called a B.” Because it’s going to happen to you a lot in your life. And I was like, “yeah, but that’s not really fair. I don’t I don’t like being called that.” She said, “you’re gonna have to get used to it.” And I did. And I did.
ED: Now that you’re out of the corporate world, and actually serving multiple companies, has your femaleness either been more well-received or more challenged even, as you are trying to help people who are paying you to help them?
MOLLY: There are definitely aspects where when there’s a clear authority structure, sometimes that can be easier. In the corporate world, there’s a tremendous structure around reporting relationships and authority and what that looks like. It’s not that you have to constantly earn it. You have the title, there’s a reporting relationship. On the outside, there are just different challenges. One thing that I really miss is having people reporting to me, because it gives you a great opportunity to help young people—to cultivate them and to see them grow, leave your team, and go into other teams. It’s great to have alumni out in another organization. I always loved that. But I definitely think that there’s a piece now where I find myself mentoring employees in some of these companies that I work with of off to the side, especially young women.
ED: Do you find yourself having the opportunity to actually coach individuals with some of your clients?
MOLLY: I do, and interestingly enough, I’ve even coached some people that were considering leaving. Where they ask me, “how did you leave, x, y, z?” They were women who were asking about, what it looks like to leave the vestiges and the benefits of a corporate work environment and go out on your own? What I was able to notice is they’re looking at me is like, “how did you do it? If you did it, I think I can too!” My role was telling them, “yes, you can do it. Watch out for these things, prepare yourself this way, you’ll be fine.” And sometimes, that’s really all that people need.
ED: If you were to go back 15-20 years, is there one example of something that knowing what you know now as a leader—female or not—that you would do differently?
MOLLY: Definitely. I think that the main thing that I realize is that sometimes people need more time to process information than I do. Whether it’s good news, whether it’s bad news, as long as they’re making forward progress, give them the time that they need to process. I can think of some frankly, really painful memories of things that I’ve been wrong. I had a time clock in my head. Something had to be done, this way, by this time. Looking back, I realize I pushed people to the brink. I really did. I wouldn’t do that again. I think part of what helped me is having a kid in-between When you have children, sometimes things happen on a kid’s schedule, not your own. It made me a lot more empathetic. There’s that word. How much time people need to be able to process information, whether it’s good or whether it’s bad, sometimes they need more time than you need. It doesn’t hurt to give them a little bit more time. I’m still reeling from some of those experiences, but I’ve learned my lesson.
ED: The demand for speed has not changed in the last 20 years has it?
MOLLY: It hasn’t. You’re probably the same way, Ed. I think both of us, we process information quickly. And then we immediately get into action. We don’t dwell on it. We go. Some people need more time than that.
ED: What I’ve found is not only do I process it, but I actually go into action quickly. If I would just explain why we’re going to action a little better, things typically work a little better. If the team hasn’t, or the client hasn’t processed the data, then I go into action they’re confused, because I didn’t explain why.
MOLLY: That is exactly right. One of the things that I’ve been teased about mightily and deservedly is my Spock-like unawareness of any pain that someone else is going through. I suddenly realize it and say something like, “I see that you’re crying. I’m not sure why you’re crying. Do you need to get a hold of yourself? Or do you need to explain to me why you’re crying?” And they’re like, “that doesn’t help!” But once I get it, I’m like, “now I understand, what has you so upset and can understand.” Sometimes I literally am like, “I don’t even know why you’re crying. Help me with that.” I could probably be a little bit more receptive,
ED: Empathy. That’s the word for the day. Thanks, Molly.
MOLLY: Thanks, Ed.