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Trailblazers: High-Achieving Women 'Play it Forward'

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Women’s History Month brings inspiring events and March 2011 has proven no exception. Earlier this month, the New York County Lawyers Association and the Financial Women’s Association co-sponsored a Trailblazers Celebration to spotlight women who have been among the first in private or government practice to achieve senior level executive positions.

The four panelists were all attorneys, three in the financial services sector: Susan Blount, sr. v.p. and general counsel for Prudential Financial: Sheila Davidson, exec.v.p., chief legal officer, and general counsel, New York Life; and Susan Merrill, former head of enforcement at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). The fourth panelist, Judge Judith Kaye, made history twice: the first women and the longest-serving head administrative judge in the state of New York.

Judith KayeJudith KayeTheir advice to those eyeing senior executive positions is relevant to the ambitious of either gender, across any sector, not just law.  They placed a high value on perseverance, exemplified by Merrill, who applied for three jobs at a regulatory agency before landing the one that proved the best fit. Self-confidence also ranked up there.

Susan MerrillSusan MerrillEach speaker at some pivotal juncture took what she called a “leap,” accepting an assignment that stretched her well beyond their comfort level. The two general counsels on the panel each agreed to oversee specialized units in which they had no subject expertise in order to showcase what senior management was really looking for, i.e. an ability to manage people.

This matched my experience as 2008-'09 president of the Financial Women’s Association. Once I saw that no one expected me to talk collateralized debt obligations with media, I set about to do what the FWA had tapped me for—to forge partnerships and launch new initiatives for members.

The speakers’ advice regarding sponsors and mentors was direct. Cultivate a sponsor, i.e. a senior someone who can open doors and advocate for you at your firm. Execute superbly on projects that make the sponsor—not you—look good. Be explict about your goals to sponsors and mentors. Don't just ask for advice, accept and act upon input, especially when it is negative.

The four all raised families while career-building. Judith Kaye, mother of three, asserted—with a nod to the recent film—"the kids are all right."  The others did not challenge her, but then, their domestic situations are, they realized, hardly typical.  One women lives within walking distance of both her job and her sons' school; another's spouse was a stay at home dad, another had dinner at home with her children mst nights.  Consequently, each of these women at the top of their game help other women get ahead by pushing for flex and part-time, tele-work, virtual offices, equitable performance evaluations, and other best practices.  

Susan BountSusan BountSheila DavidsonSheila Davidson

The two general counsels, Susan Blount and Sheila Davidson, have been particularly effective at advancing other women.  Blount has been at it for some time.  In 1981 she was a founder of the Center for Women in Law. Thirty years later she led Prudential Financial to spearhead a collaborative corporate nitiative to spend $30 million on women and minority-owned law firms in 2010.  Davidson received the Award for Transformational Leadership from Inside Counsel for her active steps grooming other women for general counsel roles. Her company, New York Life, has been recognized by the National Association of Female Executives for its advancement of women with its "balanced hours" approach, its Women's Leadership Project, and onsite health screening and back-up day care. She referenced the Project for Attorney Retention for its research reports and best practices recommendations. Here are some additonal resources: 

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