By Meg Fry
SpeakEasy is a running feature in NJBIZ in which we recap presentations given by key business leaders around the state at one of New Jersey’s many conferences and events. This report is based on a keynote speech delivered by Cheryl Bonini Ellis, principal of Ellis Business Enterprises in Madison, on April 22 at an event hosted by the New Jersey Bankers Association for an audience of more than 400 banking professionals.
It was easy to see Cheryl Bonini Ellis’ high level of confidence as she danced her way across the stage at the New Jersey Bankers Association’s “Knowledge, Leadership, Mentorship” women in business event last Wednesday.
Good thing, as that is exactly what she was there to teach.
After having spent 30 years at Fleet Bank progressing from entry level to senior positions, Ellis founded Ellis Business Enterprises in Madison to advise business owners and executives on how best to achieve greater bottom-line results by developing companywide leadership abilities.
But it wasn’t always so easy to get through to people, she said. “I remember the first time that I was invited to a meeting with the big boys,” Ellis said. “I remember sitting there thinking, ‘I’m here. I made it.’ I was just young and naïve at the time.”
At lunchtime, she said, her team was instructed to grab some food and return. “When one of my new colleagues looked right at me and said, ‘Where we come from, the ladies get the lunch.’ I looked right back at him and said, ‘Well, then, we’re in some trouble here because there don’t seem to be any ladies here.’ Then I excused myself to the women’s room.”
That wasn’t the only story she could have shared — as was the case for many of the women in attendance at last Wednesday’s conference. “I can tell you dozens of stories like that one that made me feel underestimated, unappreciated and underutilized,” she said.
Many of those stories left her considering legal action.
“But I’m grateful for those experiences because I believe that, if you’re paying attention, each and every experience that you have can contribute to who you become as a leader and as a person,” Ellis said.
But only if one doesn’t simply just work hard and wait for opportunities — positive or negative — to come to them.
“If hope is the main strategy that you employ for moving forward, you better have a lot of patience for when that next opportunity might come around,” Ellis said. “Maybe you’ll get lucky. Or maybe you’ll win the lottery and never have to work a day again in your life.”
Instead, Ellis offered up five pillars (or “the five C’s”) on which to build clear development strategies:
The first, she said, is clarity. “What is it that you want, and more importantly, why do you want it? What’s your motivation? What need is it really satisfying for you?” Ellis said. She recalled learning that a job she had applied for — one she thought she had really wanted due to the money, title and prestige — had been awarded to a less-qualified man.
That’s when she found herself sitting in front of the bank president.
“He said, ‘Cheryl, I’d like you to know that you’re going to have a lot of opportunities in this company, despite the fact that you’re an attractive female.’” Shocking, yes, but she wasn’t too upset. Six months later, she was offered an even better position — and that less-qualified man would then be reporting to her.
“The reality was, I would have hated that (other) job,” Ellis said. Finding better clarity, Ellis said, enables one to make better-guided choices. “You’re clear on what you should do next and how to shift priorities and make tradeoffs,” Ellis said.
Like the time she had to make the choice to accept a job everyone told her she was “crazy” for considering. “How could I turn down an opportunity like that? Even if I failed, I’d learn so much in the process that it would have been worth it,” Ellis said. “It ended up being the best career decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
Confidence and courage, she said, were also key pillars — but she cautioned executives on how to best instill those qualities in their employees. “If you focus so much attention on fixing what’s broken at the expense of taking what your strengths are and developing those, that’s a big mistake.”
The last pillar, she said, is clout — a subject on which she’s about to publish a book about entitled “Becoming Deliberate: Changing the Game of Leadership from the Inside Out,” and the focus of her women’s leadership retreat entitled “Leading with Impact and Intention.”
“Influence is the currency of leadership,” Ellis said. “When you have personal influence, that goes with you wherever you go. You want to learn to lead from the inside out.”
Strength in Numbers
In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, more women leaders were losing their jobs than men, according to research from the New Jersey Bankers Association.
And according to a 2012 study by the Rutgers Institute for Women’s Leadership, New Jersey women made up nearly 60 percent of all employees in commercial banking, but only about 30 percent of executive and senior officers.
The numbers at the top grew even smaller: According to the New Jersey Bankers Association, women in New Jersey were barely 3 percent of all CEOs in the state; 10 percent of CFOs; and 4 percent of COOs.
So the New Jersey Bankers Association created the women in banking conference to ensure women had an active forum in which to share their experiences and knowledge to better prepare for leadership opportunities and periods of change.
Since its inception five years ago, attendance has nearly doubled, to 414 from 223.
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