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Women leaders share advice on communication, confidence

Executives discussed empathetic communication, collaborative mentoring and effective networking at the 2017 SmartBrief Women in Leadership Forum.

6 min read


Women in leadership


On Sept. 22, executives and other leaders gathered in the SmartBrief corporate offices in Washington, D.C., to attend the inaugural SmartBrief Women in Leadership Forum. The keynote address was delivered by Teresa Meares, immediate past chair of the National Association of Women Business Owners and president of DGG Uniform and Work Apparel. Meares’ speech was followed by presentations and exercises led by Kathy Korman Frey and Dana Theus.

Teresa Meares, “Breaking Through Barriers of Communication”

Teresa Meares drew on her 20 years of experience in law enforcement, her time with NAWBO and her experience running a business to illustrate her advice on breakdowns in communication between team members and what leaders need to do to support effective communication. She urged attendees to recognize and acknowledge conflict. Moreover, she called on leaders to take their own emotions into account when reacting to workplace tension.

“Having confidence while communicating and being aware of your own emotional triggers can aid you in practicing self-control and being intentional with your communication.” Meares said.

Great leaders, she continued, show C.A.R.E — confidence, authenticity, responsibility and empathy — in the face of conflict. While making this point, Meares stressed that empathy is not always part of an initial reaction to a challenge, but it is the most important part of effective communication.

She shared that as a 20-year-old police officer, she was sent on a domestic violence call to a location where several officers had been recently injured. When she arrived, the man who had put her colleagues in the hospital was outside. He was angry, and Meares was scared. But instead of meeting his energy with shouts and authoritative commands, she asked, “Are you OK?” They began to talk. Before her backup even arrived, the man had decided to get into the back of her car without a struggle.

“Having emotions is natural.” Meares told the audience. “Learning to identify and overcome the barriers in communication is key to becoming a great leader.”

Kathy Korman Frey, “Guerilla Mentoring”

Building on the importance of empathy, Kathy Korman Frey shared the results of a case study of thousands of women’s life experiences called The Hot Mommas Project. Korman Frey, CEO and founder of the project, noted that exposure to mentors and role models like those presented in the Hot Mommas Project — even just in the form of case studies —  can increase self-efficacy. Self-efficacy, the confidence in one’s ability to manage the events affecting one’s life and one’s reactions to those events, has become a focus of Korman Frey’s research on successful women executives.

A major effect of self efficacy is the drive to seek out relevant mentors. According to Korman Frey’s research, women who had five or more mentors demonstrated 20% higher confidence than those with fewer mentors.

Frey led forum attendees in a “guerilla mentoring” activity, in which they acted as each other’s mentors in small groups. She urged those acting as mentors to share their own experience with similar challenges rather than simply give a to-do list to their mentees. Attendees participated actively, experiencing real mentorship in a matter of minutes

Dana Theus, “Getting to the Core of the Confidence Issue”

During the final presentation of the day, Dana Theus, president and CEO of InPower Coaching, broached the “confidence issue” that women face at the executive level.

“What is this thing that women are accused of not having?” she asked. Attendees called it executive presence, boardroom presence or authority. Theus explained that many executives, who are predominantly male, understand this to mean “people who look like me.” She allowed that all people implicitly filter the people with whom they interact. But, she added, confidence is not how another person perceives you; it’s something you build with internal tools. Rather than focusing on an ever-shifting implicit standard, Theus encouraged the audience to consider their inner confidence.

All people have confidence, Theus explained. It comes from a knowledge that you’ve done something well before with the intent to do so. To grow in internal confidence, you need to leave your comfort zone and devote energy to an area of weakness, or a “stretch zone.”

“Confidence is a skill.” Theus said, “Experience gives us confidence to perform well and to recover from failure well.” She led attendees in a networking activity in which they were encouraged to be open and vulnerable, and she urged them to reflect regularly on their goals and what they’re doing to reach them.


The forum concluded with a question-and-answer session, during which attendees inquired about women’s attire in the workplace and what may hold women back from gunning for leadership roles both professionally and politically.

Extra tips from the #SBWILforum:

  • Find the benefit in past challenges. Meares explained that past challenges can enhance an empathetic mentality. In time, if you encounter someone going through a problem like one you’ve experienced, you can bring real empathy to the situation.
  • Mentees, get active! In most successful mentorships, Korman Frey mentioned, mentees seek out their own mentors rather than giving their managers the task of assigning and organizing a new program.
  • Mentors, get engaged! “Don’t just sit around and have coffee.” Korman Frey said, adding that successful mentors should actively work to solve problems with their mentees.
  • Nix the “pre-apology.” Theus calls comments like “I think maybe” and “Well, I’m not sure, but” pre-apologies. She challenged the audience to take note when they make those comments, and work towards eliminating them. This is an arduous process, but you must let yourself hear your pre-apologies before you’ll have a sincere desire to prevent them.
  • When networking, ditch the pitch. Rather than focusing on your elevator pitch when networking, Theus suggested, aim to form intentional, genuine connections that can help you now and grow to help you later.


Teresa Donnellan is an editorial assistant at SmartBrief.

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