Think back on your career. As you climb the ladder to career success, you’ve probably had critical conversations with mentors, managers and peers, who helped get you where you are today.

Recently, I had the privilege of moderating a panel of fearless, inspiring female leaders at our Kforce headquarters – and I’m excited to share their best career advice with you.

Sitting directly to my left was a woman for whom I have tremendous respect for – the first four-star female general. Retired Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody graced us with her presence to offer her empowering words of wisdom.

Ann and I were joined by Kforce leaders Mary Jo Ferris, Shermila Lemos-Martina, Ashley Ehlinger, Tawanda Norton, Lindsay Weakley, and Jennifer Smayda.

These dynamic women shared their advice on numerous topics. I hope you enjoy hearing from them as much as I did.

Break through barriers

Kye Mitchell: Ann, I’d love to start with you. Tell us a little about your journey, the biases you encountered and how you overcame them.

Ann Dunwoody: I had no intention of joining the army, even though I had four generations of West Pointers in my family. In my junior year of college, at the end of the Vietnam War, they were recruiting more women into the military. If you joined the military program, they would pay enlistees $500 per month during their senior year of college. You had a two-year-commitment and went in as a 2nd lieutenant.

I raised my hand, and I signed up. Two years turned into five.

When I started, it was the Women’s Army Call. We didn’t have integration with men and women. Slowly, the journey of integrating women into the military began. However, just because they changed the law, didn’t mean you could change everybody’s mind.

Our challenge as women in the military was ensuring men didn’t push us back into stereotypical “feminine” jobs. It was an exciting, unprecedented time; finally, women had the same career opportunities as their male counterparts.

As I look back, it was a career path where the doors continued to open for women, but not without many challenges and roadblocks. I never worked for a female; I worked for all men. They either believe in you, or they don’t. You had to make them a believer.

Advocates, patronizers and detractors

Kye Mitchell: In your book “A Higher Standard,” you talk about advocates and how you worked around unsupportive people. Can you tell us more about that?

Ann Dunwoody: Fortunately, I’ve had many more advocates who opened doors for me than people who I call “patronizers.” They say you are doing a great job to your face, but then they might say you are just okay behind your back. The detractors just don’t like you. They are in a separate category. It’s not who you work for but how you deal with it. Be on the moral high ground. Do your best, be professional and be fair. You can make believers out of non-believers.

Kye Mitchell: I think this is especially critical during times of change. You know there will be naysayers. You realize it’s easy and tempting to focus your efforts on them. You want them to “get it.” As a leader, this can be quite frustrating.

Remember that these detractors don’t make up the majority of your employees. Focus 80 percent of your energy on those people who “get it,” and encourage them to become enablers who get the naysayers on board.

Career advice on having high standards

Ann Dunwoody: When I joined the Army, I knew I was going to have to exceed the standards to be accepted into this male-dominated profession. I found, in my journey, that all the good leaders I respected held themselves to a higher standard, and expected their subordinates to, also.

Kye Mitchell: I’d love to hear more about Sargent Bowen, who you talk about in your book. What are a few lessons you learned from him?

Ann Dunwoody: As a brand new 2nd lieutenant, Sgt. 1st Class Linden Bowen told me, “Lieutenant Dunwoody, I’m going to make you the best lieutenant in the United States Army.”

Not the best female lieutenant – the best lieutenant.

The most important lesson he taught me was to never walk by a mistake. You have to make on-the-spot corrections. It’s easy just to ignore them. Again, a lot of times it’s simply education. People don’t know they’re not meeting the standard. And if we don’t help them and correct them, they’ll never know. It’s a slippery slope that leads to low performance.

Mary Jo Ferris: We come across many different leaders in our life. I think back to my first encounter with a leader when I was a swimmer in high school. We had a new coach, and she treated everyone the same – no matter if they were a state champion or not. She had the same expectations for every person. That motivated me so much. At the time, I was a junior varsity swimmer, and the way she worked with us was truly motivating. In my career, I’ve had leaders who have expected the same thing of each of us – the same level of drive and passion – and treated us all equally. Our coach expected each of us to not only meet but exceed her high standards.

Ann Dunwoody: Yes! If you build a team of people that want to exceed the standards, you’re going to have a high performing team. If you are happy just to get along, you’re going to have an average team.

I believe everyone wants to be a part of a high-performing team that has a great reputation and does great things, no matter how large or small your organization. Every person counts, and you should try to encourage them to be the best they can be.

Every organization has a bell curve. On one end, you have the people with high standards. The ones who will make that touchdown. At the other end are the people who don’t care or who may not even want to be there. And then in the middle, you have the people just getting by. The hard part for leaders is identifying the people dragging the team down and addressing that.

Kye Mitchell: Yes, they either need to stay on the bus or get off the bus if they are dragging people down. What should you do when someone questions the standard of excellence?

Ann Dunwoody: As a leader, it’s important to recognize those that are making a difference, whether it’s a pat on the back or an award. The hard part is identifying those that are dragging the team down. Sometimes it’s a matter of educating them – they don’t know they’re pulling the team down. The best thing is to say, “You really disappointed me.” No one wants to disappoint anybody.

Some people won’t realize that they are lagging. You can encourage them. Some may not care, and those are the people you must cut away.

Women in STEM - career advice

Kye Mitchell: Let’s shift gears and talk about women in STEM professions, an area in which we still see a lack of women. What do you think is keeping us from being more engaged in technology?

Shermila Lemos-Martina: I believe it’s a matter of exposure, connection and education. We need to expose young women to successful role models in the technology space. Help form connections between these leaders and our future leaders. Who knows! A young woman could be the person who designs the next faster, lighter and smarter drone!

I often witness the misconception that STEM jobs are not for women. With the merge of STEAM – adding art to STEM – areas like augmented reality are creating career opportunities and calling for hybrid skill sets. The powerful merge between “hard core technology” and creativity is so exciting. It’s offering limitless career opportunities for women.

And if you don’t start in STEM, don’t be discouraged. My educational background is not in technology, but I’ve spent the last 20 years of my STEM-related career in technology. I love every day that I can bring value through technology. Through education, perseverance and hard work, women can make a fantastic contribution to our world!

Company culture - is it important?Kye Mitchell: Ashley, I love how important company culture is to you.

Ashley Ehlinger: Yes, it is. Our values, goals and objectives are so apparent to each person at our company. When I became a leader, I realized I was working figuratively, not literally – as if our positive culture would simply be delivered to us via osmosis! [laughs] I had to ask myself, what was I actually doing to help promote an ideal culture? Was I doing enough to show others that they were hired for a reason, to be part of this culture?

I certainly learned a lot of lessons over the years on how to tactically drive a positive culture at the personal level. You risk losing so much when you look at culture and the way we engage our people as just an ancillary part of what we do.

Kye Mitchell: I could not agree more! On my team, we win together and lose together. Innovation and idea sharing are necessities, not setbacks. Leaders, when you develop trust and mutual accountability with your teams, you will be empowered to foster an environment where change is embraced, rather than feared.

Ann, what can you tell us about setting the vision for your team?

Ann Dunwoody: The retired chief of staff of the army called me up and said, “Get one piece of paper and think about where you want to take this organization – write down the strengths, the challenges, what’s important to you and what your goals and objectives are.”

You want everyone to see how important his or her role is to the overall mission of the organization. If they can see themselves, they come to work with a purpose. Setting a clear vision unifies employees.

Women taking risks

Kye Mitchell: Switching directions for a minute. Let’s talk about taking risks. I think women need to take more risks, and put themselves forward. Tawanda, why do you think women are often afraid to take risks?

Tawanda Norton: It’s a lack of modeling; we haven’t seen those female examples who are risk takers. It’s important for me to surround myself with people who are risk takers, who are willing to defy the odds.

Failure is a great opportunity to begin more intelligently.

Not wanting to fail is why we don’t take the risk. If we take the risk and fail, it gives us the opportunity to learn and grow. We need to jump and do it. I would encourage every woman to believe in yourself, no matter what, believe in your abilities. You’re at the table because you’ve been given a seat. And that seat is valuable.

Being a working mom

Kye Mitchell: Lindsay, how do you balance being a mom and your career?

Lindsay Weakley: It seems to be a constant juggle for many working moms, doesn’t it? [laughs] What helps me stay grounded is three main things. First, the structure that you have for your kids at home – whether it be daycare, a nanny, etc.— just knowing your kids are being taken care of while you are at work is critical! When I am at work, I need to be engaged with work. When I am home, I need to be engaged with my kid.

The second thing is prioritizing what is most important to me for that day, week, month and year. A fond memory from my childhood is dinner with my family, and I do that at home now with my family. When I have that limited time with them, I need to be present. My team uses “911” and “411” in email subject lines so I can prioritize when I need to respond to work messages at home.

Third, time blocking! By managing my time efficiently throughout the week, I can focus on my family on the weekend. My previous leader told me that I need to focus on me first. I need to be good, and then my family can be good. Women need to prioritize what is important to them, and ensure their needs are met.  

Fearless Women - self-confidence

Kye Mitchell: Jen, you’ve been here 14 years. Who has been the biggest influence on your career, and how did they create an impact?

Jennifer Smayda: You know, it’s hard to pinpoint one person. I’ve witnessed many strong leaders here at Kforce. The women who’ve stood out to me are those who took on tremendous challenges and risks. My leaders have had an impact on me because they have pushed me past my comfort zone, and inspired me to raise my hand to volunteer for projects – even if I didn’t feel ready for it.

I am reading “That's What She Said,” and despite the catchy phrase, it is actually about a really important topic: the differences between men and women in the workplace, and what we can learn from each other about how we approach obstacles and challenges together. The book describes a study that suggests if there were a position available that had five requirements, most women wouldn’t apply unless they felt confident they met five out of the five requirements, but men would apply if felt they met only one or two. There is a lesson in that. While bigger opportunities open up for men, women hold themselves back until we feel ready. 

My takeaway is to seek out that woman who may not believe she is up for the challenge, and encourage her to take that risk.

Kye Mitchell: Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and jump! Ann, you’re tough as nails, but you keep a genuine aura about you. How do you maintain that?

Ann Dunwoody: I think the greatest compliment is when someone says, “You don’t look or act like a general.” [Laughs] A lot of times you think you must be man-like. You don’t have to give up your femininity to be successful, and you don’t have to use your femininity to be successful. It’s important to be yourself. There’s no one style. We all have areas we need to improve. You never stop learning.