My entire career, I’ve had the privilege of surrounding myself with powerful women. As a special guest of Gretchen Keefner, Vice President, Enterprise North America at Bullhorn, for a fireside chat during the 2021 celebration of Staffing Industry Analysts’ Global Power 150 honorees, my gratitude came full circle. While typically in-person and over dinner, I must admit, it certainly didn’t feel “virtual” with this group. In fact, what I felt was a group of powerful women from across the staffing industry not only celebrating their achievements, but also working together towards a common goal: rising others up.

At the onset of our chat, Gretchen stated, “If you look up the definition of power you will get several meanings, and the two that I believe most describe this recognition and all of you is ‘the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events’ and ‘to move or travel with great speed or force.’” 

I couldn’t agree more. You could just feel it in the room (or Zoom in this case!).

These women, and so many other women in leadership positions, have the opportunity to influence greater diversity across the industry at scale. While it may seem like a tall order given recent industry statistics (i.e. this Women’s Business Collaborative study), every time a door is opened for another woman to take on a leadership role, it paves the way for others to follow.

While we could have talked for hours on the subject, I wanted to share the conversation with others in hopes that it inspires you to join in and #ChoosetoChallenge. Enjoy!

Gretchen: Leslie, I’m so very glad you are here with us this evening. You’ve had a very unique opportunity to speak in depth with so many of the women here with us through your podcast, The Edge. You also have a unique perspective as the co-founder of ARA, raising women up across the technology vertical. I mentioned the definition of ‘power’ in my toast just now – how do you think about power specifically in relation to this group with us tonight? 

Leslie: Thank you for including me tonight, Gretchen. It is a real honor to be here. You are right, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing several of the women here with us tonight and getting to know them personally. Congratulations to all of you on being recognized, including SIA for starting the list to begin with. I remember the first and only women’s luncheon at the Executive Forum many years ago—my company sponsored it—I remember Subadhra coming up to me and saying we’re on to something big here. Not too long after, the Global Power 150 list was created and the rest is history. 

When it comes to power, look around at this group. Talk about a powerful room of women. To me personally, power means the ability to use your voice for change; the ability to create succession seats and raise more women into the C-Suite; the ability to appoint your own board of directors. Again, when I look around this room, each and every one of you has those powers, and it’s an incredible opportunity we’re sitting on, together, to make change. 

When I think about someone who really defines the word power—the ultimate power in this group and in our industry—I think of a living legacy, Joyce Russell. No other person in the staffing industry has influenced more women into C-suite positions than Joyce, from Janette Marx to Penny Queller to Joanie Bily to Linda Perneau to Ursula Williams and so many more. Joyce recently said to me: “Leaving a legacy is extremely important personally and in business. Planting trees (people) whose shade you might not sit under.” 

First of all, cheers and hats off to you, Joyce. Second, we all have that power. According to a recent study by the Women’s Business Collaborative, conducted in partnership with SIA and others, 48% of entry-level roles in our industry are women and 38% are in management. Yet only 21% in the C-Suite are women. Talk about a succession plan and ability to make change! Nearly 50% of our staff are women. Think about that for a second. Think about what all of you—influencers in your own rights—can do to rise up those around you. To me, that’s pretty powerful. 

Gretchen: You’ve had an opportunity to hear from many of the women on the Global Power 150 list via your podcast The Edge. What are some of the most common themes you’ve heard? What are the common characteristics that make these leaders powerful?

Leslie: I’ve interviewed around 25 women who are here today, and there have definitely been some consistent themes: confidence, work-life balance, moving up in the C-suite/succession seats, the importance of creating your own personal brand, staying in touch with a network, having mentors and sponsors, and interest in joining boards. There’s a lot in-between, but certainly those rise to the top. I guess that’s kind of a lot! 

Finding your voice and being confident.

Gretchen: Let’s start with confidence. It seems like confidence is something that comes up quite often, regardless of an executive’s level or stage in her career. 

Leslie: Confidence is a topic that comes up in just about every podcast. You mentioned ARA in my introduction; we publish a women in tech survey and it’s so fascinating to me: the number one thing both men and women wish for women is to be more confident. Number one. Of course, what goes hand-in-hand with confidence? Using your voice. 

I truly believe the gift of confidence is one the best gifts we can give our children and those who surround us. It’s something that can so easily be stripped away and take a lifetime to gain back. If ever. 

Sometimes when moving up a career ladder, we let confidence get the best of us, and I mean in a negative way. The evil DJ that keeps playing the same song over and over about why we shouldn’t be in a role, shouldn’t speak at that event, shouldn’t join a board, shouldn’t go for a promotion or ask for a raise. Because who would want to hear from me?

Two things I want to mention about confidence and using your voice: 

  • See it, say it moments. Early in my time as an entrepreneur I struggled with imposter syndrome. I didn’t see in myself what others saw in me and wasn’t convinced that I should be running my own company. I was maybe five or so years into starting ClearEdge and showed up to an industry conference. I went by myself and noticed a group of people standing around during the welcome reception. I knew someone in the group so I joined in the conversation. Pretty quickly into the conversation a male executive from a large staffing company said something wildly inappropriate to me , in front of everyone. I stood there, frozen, in shock, not sure what to say. Robin Mee was standing next to me and used her voice to say something. She saw something that wasn’t right, and used her voice to say so. I’ll never forget that moment. From that day on I knew I had to use my voiceand to be confident to do sonot just for me, but to pay it forward for the next generation of leaders. 
  • Speaking of imposter syndrome, I remember interviewing Joyce Russell and she mentioned a quote from Amy Cuddy, ‘Instead of faking it till you make it, fake it until you become it.’ I’m not sure if you’re all familiar with the power pose, but I have to admit, I use the power pose often if I’m in a situation where I get in my head. I’ve even been known to make a quick exit before moderating an event to just stand with my hands on my hips. It helps me get out of my head and to reset. I also use it with young girls I mentor; it works like magic when I can relate it to Wonder Woman. 

On this topic, I’ll leave you with a quote from Stacey Lane. She said, “Trust your voice. My father was really passionate about women’s rights and the advancement of women. It really made me believe that anything was possible, and that gender was a non-factor.”

Change the song that plays in your head, keep doing it until you become it, and make sure, above all else, that you trust your voice. 

Succession seat. More women in the C-Suite. 

Gretchen: I was reading through the recent Women’s Business Collaborative Study about DEI and our industry, and couldn’t help but be stopped in my tracks when I read the stat around 48% of our industry being women in entry- to mid-level positions, yet only 21% in the C-suite. So basically half of our industry are women, yet less than 2 in 10 make it to the C-suite. 

Leslie: It really does make you wonder what’s happening to those women. Are they leaving our industry? Being overlooked for promotion? A combination? I do believe there’s more we can do to impact this number.

First, I’ll never forget my podcast with Colleen Tiner from Beelinethis may be one of my most quoted podcast lineswhere she said: “It’s a long road before we’re going to see 50% women in the executive suite. Women need to put themselves in the ‘successor seat’ to be the next in line when a role opens up… and understand their value and how they can make the biggest difference.”

The concept of a succession seat really struck me. Certainly we’re all in a position to ensure there are women in succession seats, and if you’re looking to advance, you have to ask yourself if you’re in a succession seat. 

I also remember vividly my conversation with Michele McCauley. She thought she was in a succession seat, going back many years ago, but her company brought in someone else for the role. She could have left at that moment, but, instead, she stayed. She put herself in the succession seat, learned as much as possible from the new person, and took on not only the same role, but so much more. I remember Michele saying: “Whatever your style is, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Speak up and be willing to stretch and do things outside of your comfort zone that will help you learn and be ready when the time is right.” And for Michele, the time certainly ended up being right. Her podcast is a go-to for me in many regards. 

Recently, something I can’t get out of my head is when DeLibra Wesley mentioned if there aren’t more seats, create one. It isn’t an us vs. them scenariomen vs. womenbut certainly there’s room for more seats. I just love that!

Speaking of more seats. When I interviewed Lydia Wilson about joining Signature, it hit me that she found a company and founder who created a seat at the table for her. She was the first person on Signature’s executive team who came from the “outside” and the first female. It is possible. And guess what Lydia believes in? As Gretchen said. Paying it forward: “I see my role as paying it forward by giving women [and] people of color a voice and an edge, and the confidence to be able to move forward in the way they’ve always wanted to do so.” 

I also love this quote from Janette Marx during last week’s Bullhorn Women’s History Month event: “Drive your performance, balance with relationships, and most importantly be the author of your career.” Author of your own career. That’s so important. Don’t wait for others. 

Two other quotes around succession planning:

  •  “The biggest problem is that women aren’t sponsored like men when it comes to moving into the C-suite. Mentored, maybe, but they’re not pulled in and pulled up.” Robin Mee
  • Taryn Owen: “I’m honored to be in this company. Each time a woman reaches that level, it makes it just a little bit easier for the woman coming up behind her.“

If you see it, you can be it. 

Building a personal brand.

Gretchen: Tell me about the importance of building your personal brand and how it differs from your company brand. 

Leslie: There are so many women here today who have taken the time to really build a personal brand. Yet there are others who are a little nervous to join podcasts, speak on panels, etc. We have so many women in our industry, we shouldn’t ever struggle with having enough women on a panel or to join a CEO keynote, yet we do. We have to convince them that they have something important to say. It’s gotten much better, but we still have a ways to go. I’m a great example. I was in-house marketing before starting ClearEdge. I was behind the scenes making CEOs look good. The last thing I wanted to do was be in the spotlight. But I knew I had to, for my company, my business AND for more women to see it and become more comfortable with it.

I have to say, one of my favorite examples is Anna Frazzetto. She keynotes events, is active on social media, hosts a podcast and so much more. She can track millions of dollars in revenue directly to her efforts. She’s one to follow for sure!

Another important topic related to building your brand is having a strong network. Women often let their networks go and focus solely on work during the day and home at night. Same with mentors and sponsors. In our survey, the majority of women wanted them, but didn’t know how to go about finding them.

Beth Delano talks a lot about finding mentors and sponsors, and even creating your own personal board of directors. The best way to describe mentors and sponsors: a mentor will suggest you land speaking gigs to build your personal brand; a sponsor will submit your name for one. 

“If you are a strong, successful woman in this industry, make sure you find at least one person to mentor and help get there. We can help women move into the C-suite by continuing to give each other a leg upand not being concerned with things that might tear each other down.”, Kelly Boykin

Board roles. 

Gretchen: We talk a lot about the lack of representation in the C-Suite. I bet people ask you all the time how they can also get on boards. What’s your advice?

Leslie: You are absolutely right. I do get asked this question a lot. Here’s what I can tell you: if you don’t put yourself out there, it may not happen. Susan Salka talked about her board roles during our interview, her own board put her up for a board role, I believe it was with Playtex. 

She was sponsored. So certainly that’s key.

That’s how I’ve landed board roles. People referring me in. In fact, Penny Queller just referred me to the board of my Alma Mater’s Business School, so now, she and I will be on a board together. 

Also think about the type of boards; non-profit boards are a great place to start. There are a lot of tech companies in our space growing and scaling, and many of them are looking for advisors. Of course, it can’t be a conflict, but certainly when talking to companies you can simply make the ask, and if they aren’t looking at that moment, maybe they will be down the road. And then if someone asks them, they’ll ask you.

I also just had an industry partner ask me about a staffing exec for a board role; if you told me you were interested in a board position, you were certainly top of mind. Otherwise, I have to think about it, reach out, etc. Share your wants and goals with PE firms, advisors. Let people know.

RISE each other UP. 

Work/life balance and having a support system. 

Gretchen: I can only imagine how many conversations you’ve had about finding work/life balance. Perhaps share a coupe of your favorites. 

Leslie: I feel like I keep saying this, but one of my absolute favorite podcasts was with Ursula Williams where I actually interviewed her daughter Dana. Two things really stood out to me in listening to her. 1) When she said to, “Be a working woman and be it unapologetically.” In other words, “Maybe you can’t be at every PTA meeting or every after-school pickup with the other moms, and that is OK. You are pursuing your passions and making an impact. This is more meaningful than the after-school, 10-minute car ride home together would be; despite how it may feel.  My mom showed me that you can (and should!) follow your dreams and be an independent, driven woman while also being a loving, present mother and wife. These things are not mutually exclusive of one another. Don’t let anyone tell you that they have to be!” Dana went on to say, “You absolutely CAN have it all.”

The importance of a support system cannot be underestimated. Dana mentioned, “My parents have been the greatest example of love I could have ever grown up a witness to. They both have worked full-time their entire lives and have gone through nearly opposite 24-hour schedules, being apart for weeks during work, travel and plenty more. But, every single moment of it they have been nothing but loving toward each other, all while making me feel like the center of their worlds. I don’t know how they do it. They are a team, in the truest meaning of the word.”

The heart of this message: find a partner that allows you to figure out the healthy work/life balance. Find someone who will support you. Fully, genuinely support you. The right person won’t put more pressure on you, but they will be understanding and lend a helping hand when you need it.

Another one. Thinking back to her personal struggles on her path to CEO, Teresa Creech spells out 23 years where she worked and lived in different cities! I had to take a triple take when she said that… 23 years where she worked and lived in different cities. I really felt like if she did this, I can make it through days with my little one at home while working or even when I start flying again with the numerous work trips. 

Gretchen: Bullhorn hosted an event last week where Janette Marx was on the panel and she said, “Women putting down other women is so yesteryear.” Let’s talk about women supporting other women. 

Leslie: I loved something DeLibra Wesley recently said during our podcast which was to honor the absent. It really struck me, and is in line again with radical candor. We as women need to be raising each other up, not bringing each other down. 

Rhona Driggs always says, “All leaders should lead with passion and to lead in the way they want to be led.” It goes the same for treating people. Lead by example. 

How it’s possible that women don’t always support other women, I will never know. It just simply shouldn’t happen, but it does. Make sure to take action against ituse your voice see it, say it, and honor the absent. And as Mary Lucas always says, ”Find the like.” 

Congratulations again on all of the 2021 Global Power 150 Women In Staffing honorees! Cheers to ‘choosing to challenge,’ standing in your power, paying it forward, and all the success that lies ahead. 

To read more about SIA’s Global Power 150 Women in Staffing list, visit:

P.S. Gretchen and I kept the conversation going, and wanted to share a few extra soundbites: 

Gretchen: Speaking of a strong support system, you mentioned something about significant others that I personally found of interest. 

Leslie: Yes, an interesting podcast guest fact: it must have been at least five podcasts in a row where each woman said her husband stays at home to help with the family/kids. And I thought to myself, really? How do I not know this? Why don’t people talk about this more? We talk about changing stereotypes with women staying at home, yet we can’t even talk about men staying at home. How can we start to change that perception? 

Gretchen: Is there a favorite saying you heard as it relates to work-life balance? 

Leslie: Actually, yes. And this one gets me every single time. I heard Joyce Russell talk about a 10-10-10 approach to work-life integration from Suzy Welch. The first time I heard it was actually during her Bullhorn Engage keynote with Art Papas. In short, when making decisions, the 10-10-10 philosophy will have you think about how that decision may affect you in 10 minutes, in 10 months, and in 10 years. Joyce shared a story about her son’s lacrosse game and a conflicting client meeting, and explains how the 10-10-10 philosophy helped her manage priorities. Her story brought me to tears the first time I heard it, and the second time, and the third time (you’ll have to read her book – Put A Cherry on Top – to get the full story!). It equipped me with a process to follow when making seemingly difficult decisions. And it works. 

I also think of the perfection trap from the book How Women Rise, which I know of because of Teresa Carroll. I really appreciated it when Susan Salka said, “You can, as they say, ‘have it all,’ but it’s never going to be perfect. There’s always going to be a juggling act going on, and you’re always going to wish you were doing a little more here and a little more there, but you do the best that you can. And in the midst of all of that, you also have to remember to take care of yourself physically and mentally.” We aren’t perfect, and that’s OK. 

Something we haven’t touched on is male allies, and I have an interesting fast fact about our podcast: Most of our guests were referred to me by men, two in particular: Brian Hoffmeyer with Beeline and Eric Gregg with ClearlyRated. Clearly, Art  Papas and Barry Asin are also what I would consider allies. Look around this call, for starters. But these two men have intentionally gone out of their way to refer more women to me than any other person. 

We can’t do this alone – make change – we have to be in this together.