Inside the #SpotItToStopIt movement

Conversation with leaders


Accountability is important to ensure right conversations are being had

Jeanniey Walden

Chief Marketing Officer, Rite Aid
There is a need to have conversation with people and educate them
Jeanniey Walden in conversation with Adam Bryant, Senior Managing Director at The Exco Group

Adam Bryant: What are some headwinds that you’ve encountered over your career because you’re a woman?

Jeanniey Walden: I think all of us in the professional world face headwinds over the course of our careers. Some of them are based on your identity from a gender, age or ethnic perspective. There are so many factors, as we all know, that can lead to bias in the way we’re treated in the workplace.

One of the biggest challenges I've faced over my entire career is the fact that I don’t necessarily look as old as I am. In some cases, that means that I've had to work extremely hard to validate myself, in terms of my experience, my intelligence, my presence in boardrooms, and my participation on executive leadership teams.

Early on in my business career, I worked for a retailer and I was given the opportunity to lead a team of about 30 women who had been with the company for over 30 years. At the time, I wasn’t even 30. I thought, how in the world am I going to establish a sense of respect and create a performance expectation with a group of women who have been working longer than I've been alive?

That’s when I started to appreciate that you've got to establish your personal brand in the workplace to be successful. I did that by being open and honest with the team and approaching the situation with a lot of candor. I said, “I'm new to this business and this role, and I’ve got this incredible opportunity to work with a great group of people who have a history and a level of experience that I can learn from. There are things that you're going to do better than me. And there are things that I probably know a little bit more about than you do. Let's work together and create a team atmosphere that can really drive results.” That approach not only worked, but it enabled me to move up in the company. And I've applied that throughout my career.

Adam: How have you handled those inevitable slights that occur sometimes when you’ve walked into a meeting full of men?

Jeanniey: I’ll share a funny story that helped me get ready for those kinds of moments. When I was younger, I thought my dad was the biggest nerd, as most dads are in the eyes of their children, especially their daughters. He wore his socks pulled up too high. He wore sandals with them. He told silly jokes.

He was also a leading executive at a children's hospital and had a very well-established career. And when I went into work with him, I realized that people didn't see him as a nerd. They saw him as a distinguished, successful executive. That's when it dawned on me that everybody we meet in the workplace is a regular person. They all live lives outside of work. They all have friends and families. They may even pull their socks up too high on certain occasions.

So I've learned over the years that when I am in situations that feel uncomfortable—where I'm the only woman in the room and I’m being questioned about my intelligence or insight—I remember that at the end of the day, everybody's just a person. And if you can approach them from that very personal level, you can establish that level of credibility.

Adam: When you do encounter those moments in meetings when a man may say something off-key or patronizing to you, how do you handle it?

Jeanniey: Addressing the situation immediately is sometimes the right thing to do. And at other times, it’s not the right thing to do. It depends on the situation. But it is absolutely imperative that you not be afraid of addressing the situation, because if we do not point out to others that the way they acted can be seen as inappropriate, then there won’t be that accountability and their actions will never change.

Now, how you address it is a different story. If you know the person and you have a relationship with them, you can take them aside at the end of a meeting or during a break and say, “You probably didn't mean it this way, but when you said this, it made me feel like this.” But there can be other times when it’s okay to call something out during the meeting, even in a joking manner, as in, “Now that so-and-so has mansplained the situation, let me just acknowledge that we're on track with that and let's move forward.” You can only do that if it's the right situation. Otherwise, you risk being seen as snarky or vindictive, and that doesn't help your case at all.

If it's not a person or situation that you feel comfortable with, reaching out to the HR representative or the CEO or somebody else you have a relationship with to bring it up also works, but only if you both agree to follow up. It's very important to have the follow-up because that ensures that the right conversations are being had at the right times and that you've got a level playing field for moving forward.

Adam: You mentioned mansplaining. Are there other patterns you've seen like that?

Jeanniey: I've been working for 30 years and I've heard everything from indecent propositions to being told that I'm too young to be in the room to being asked to be quiet until it's my turn to speak. I also like to refer to what Eliza Van Court, the author of “A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space,” refers to as “non-promotable moments.” Those are moments when women are asked to do something that an executive wouldn't normally do, such as being asked to get the coffee at a board meeting or arrange for a birthday cake at work. Women often like to help, but you have to be aware of those moments where this is a downside to taking on those tasks.

And when you encounter any moments that feel like slights, I also think it’s important to ask yourself whether you did or said anything to bring on this behavior. It’s a good reminder to always be aware of how you’re establishing your brand and your persona in the meeting. A lot of moments are straightforward in terms of the behavior you’re experiencing, but some of them are more nuanced.

Adam: Was there a moment in your career that stands out more than others as an example of particularly bad behavior that you faced?

Jeanniey: The most devastating encounter was when I first moved to New York for a very high-level role and I didn't know much about being an executive. I was invited to breakfast with a very senior executive and he asked me if I would move to California and be his mistress.

Most people think those things only happen in movies. I had just moved to New York. I was married with a family, and I could not believe these words were coming out of someone's mouth. So when I politely said, “I appreciate the offer, but no thank you,” he told me that I was going to rue the day that I made the decision not to move away with him, and that this was going to be the end of my career. He walked out and left me to pay the bill at this high-end restaurant.

I thought to myself, I better figure out how to get out of this company. There's no amount of money that could make me want to stay here, and I don't need to be in this toxic environment. There are some crazy things that happen throughout people's careers, and you really just have to assess the situation and make the decisions that are best for you.

Adam: That’s both a powerful and depressing story you just shared.

Jeanniey: It's not depressing, though. It's depressing in the fact that it happened. But because of that, I was forced to start from scratch. I had to immediately find a way to get into a new role that was going to open the door to better things. That's resilience. When something negative happens, it opens the door to something positive. It gives you a chance to learn. It gives you a chance to emerge better and stronger. I live this fearless life, and I don't mean fearless in that I take silly risks. I believe that nothing can stop you from being successful if you in the time and work for the right reasons.

And so my advice to other women is to be fearless. Remember that there’s a community of women around you who are here to help you. And there are a lot of great men who can help, as well. So when something like this happens, seek out another executive woman, because I guarantee that they’ve experienced something similar themselves. There's always somebody out there who is willing to talk.