Inside the #SpotItToStopIt movement

Conversation with leaders


Set the boundaries that are right for you and find your voice to do that

Lise Monahan

Vice President & Chief Information Officer, North America, Sysco
You teach people how to treat you
Lise Monahan in conversation with Adam Bryant, Senior Managing Director at The Exco Group

Adam Bryant: As a woman in business, what are some headwinds you’ve encountered over your career?

Lise Monahan: If I see things like mansplaining or people taking credit for others’ ideas, I tend to call it out. This is my personality. I will see it and say it. I will say, “I'm sorry, are you mansplaining that to me?” People typically get a little bit uncomfortable with that, but I do it in a way that isn’t derogatory. I find that, in most cases, men aren't doing this out of malice or out of a desire to put women down.

It's just because nobody points out to them what they’re doing. So the first thing is always to point it out. “Hey, I'm not sure if you're aware, but this came across like you were mansplaining this to me.” It doesn't necessarily have to be in the meeting, and you can do it in a side conversation after. Or you can also speak up in the meeting and say, “I hear you, and what I was saying was…”, just to make sure that people hear you.

I also try to reinforce the voices of other women in the room. So if another woman in the meeting is being mansplained or being talked over, I will speak up and say, “I would really like to hear what this person has to say.”

Adam: Have you ever had to deal with a repeat offender? And if so, how did you handle that conversation?

Lise: Earlier in my career, I had to deal with a bully at work. He bullied everybody. He was an equal opportunity bully. He was aggressive and condescending and he treated people badly. He would yell and scream. It was not okay for me. I talked to my boss about it. I said, “I have a problem with this. I can see he's doing this to everybody. It's not just me, but it's really uncomfortable for me.” And the answer I got, which was really unsatisfactory, was, “That's just how they are.”

That's not good enough for me. There was a time when I went to this bully’s office to have a professional conversation. We disagreed on an approach to something. He was frustrated with me because my opinion was different from his. He stood up and put his arm around me and pushed down on my shoulders. He was a physically imposing guy and said, “I'm so glad we talked about this and that you understand that we'll be doing this the way that I talked about.”

I was absolutely furious. I talked to my boss about it again, and he encouraged me not to say anything. So instead of going to my boss, I went to the offender's boss and said, “This is what happened. This is not okay for me. And I would like to give you the opportunity to speak to him before I go to HR. But I will be going to HR.” It was really scary. I was young. He was at a higher level. He had all the power. And things didn’t end well for other people who hadn't complied. Because of that, nobody else spoke up to say it was a problem. Eventually, I did pursue it with HR and he was later released from the company. At some point you have to trust the process and the culture, and set the boundaries that are right for you and find your voice to do that.

Adam: What were important early influences for you that shaped your values?

Lise: I joke sometimes about how I'm the black sheep of my family because I do speak up, and I do speak out. It is important for me to do those things. I don't know where it comes from, because it is outside the norm of my family. It was definitely an internal drive for me. One thing I got from my family, my mom especially, is my inclination to advocate for people. I am compassionate. I am compelled to take care of other people in whatever form that takes. I am much quicker to take action for somebody else than I am for myself.

Adam: Some of these dynamics can be pretty subtle. What’s your framework for deciding whether to let something go, as opposed to acting on it?

Lise: I rarely let things go. Not because I have to charge every hill, but because having the practice of having those conversations actually makes them easier. Often when you do talk to someone about what they did or said, it turns out they weren’t aware, and they are sometimes deeply embarrassed that they showed up that way. And so that is a way to share awareness and share education and help people see things from a different perspective.

Adam: Do you feel like progress is being made?

Lise: Absolutely. Early in my career, women advocating for other women wasn't as common. It was much more competitive. We didn't talk about things openly. And now, 25 to 30 years into my career, things are very different. You do not have to do this stuff alone. Women advocate for other women.

They create safe places for other women. We encourage and support other women as they grow in their careers. It's just a much more comfortable environment to do that. Our networks also have grown outside of just the women in our immediate circles. We're connected globally in such a different way.

Adam: What advice do you share with younger women about navigating these headwinds?

Lise: Everybody's got their own compass. What is right for me and what I feel strongly about is going to be different for other people. I grew up with three brothers and no sisters. Being one of the guys was something that I was always comfortable with. I don't think I'm particularly sensitive to situations. And there have probably been situations where it didn't occur to me that it was gender bias or a difficult situation. So you have to know what's right for you and what your boundaries are. And you have to respect other people's boundaries as well.

If you do face challenges, it’s always best to find a safe person to talk to in your organization. I'm not talking about your best friend at work. It's usually not a peer. It's somebody who can provide a little bit more experience and perspective and help you navigate through whatever situation you’re facing. So find that safe person to have the conversation with and they can help guide you through the process.

They can help you prepare to talk to somebody for a difficult conversation. And if it's a bigger situation where it takes more structured or formal processes, they can help you do documentation. They can help you make sure you're connected with the right people and that you're following up with the organization to make sure actions are being taken. This isn't something you have to face alone.