Inside the #SpotItToStopIt movement

Conversation with leaders


Take that seat at the table and bring others with you

Shelley Zalis

CEO, The Female Quotient
There is a need to have conversation with people and educate them
Shelley Zalis 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?

Shelley Zalis: Looking back, I’ve never thought of them as headwinds and I really never let them stop me. I always say that when purpose meets passion, you're unstoppable. I was unstoppable as a woman in business. I never took no for an answer. I always found solutions. And I’ve always followed my heart. Whenever I came up against a no or a wall, I always thought to myself, I have to find a workaround. When people would zig, I would have to zag.

Looking back, everyone I worked for, and everyone they worked for and so on up the organization, were men. I was different because I was a woman. I thought differently. I acted differently. In my reviews, I was always being told I was wrong. And I was dinged because I didn't follow the patterns or the rules. And so I became, in my self-acclaimed way, the chief troublemaker. I broke all the rules that made no sense for me and wrote my own

Adam: When you talk about being dinged, what did they call you out about?

Shelley: Early on, as a project manager, I thought I was the perfect employee. I would come in early. I was in market research, the survey business. You have to take orders from your clients. My first review was eight typewritten pages. The first few lines said I was smart and nice and was a good team player. But then the rest of it was about how I took too many client lunches and that I customized our client offerings too much. I did those things because I colored outside the lines and I listened to the client's individual needs instead of just delivering a standardized service. And I pushed people on the team out of their comfort zone and wanted to add additional questions to make the surveys more effective.

I was asked to sign the review. My head said, sign the piece of paper. I needed my job. And my heart said, well, that's silly. Aren't the clients supposed to be right? I looked at my boss and said, “Well, clients are right. And I'm not signing this because I don't think you're right. And one day you're going to regret this decision.” So of course I got demoted.

People often call moments like that failures. But they’re not failures. I pushed the envelope. And when you push the envelope, it means you're doing things for the first time or you're challenging yourself and you're trying new things. Eventually, I went on to start my own company, because I’d rather be the boss and in charge. You have to follow your heart.

Adam: Have there been moments where you felt you were treated a certain way by a man in a meeting and you had to take them aside and have a conversation?

Shelley: Early in my career, I was often the only woman in meetings, so I would get used to it. But I never was negative or defensive in those moments. And I've always been positive and proactive. So if someone said to me, “Can you take notes?” then I would say, “I'll take the notes if you get the coffee.” I would, in my own little way, spin it or just give it back to them in maybe a sassy way.

And I would always take a seat at the table. I would never sit on the sidelines. When I sold my company to this big French company, I lived in Los Angeles and the company was based in Paris. We would meet every month in the boardroom, which had a big U-shaped table. There were no assigned seats, and there were 24 of us. I was often the last one there because I was flying in from Los Angeles. People would typically sit first on the two sides, and the CEO and CFO would sit on the row that connected the two sides. Because there were no seats left on the two long sides, I would sit in between the CEO and the CFO.

One day, the HR guy pull me aside and said, “It really bothers someone that you sit there.” And I said, “Are there assigned seats?” He said no. I said, “Well, if he wants that seat, he should take it and then I’ll take his seat. What is the problem? Is this kindergarten? If he has a problem with something, let him tell me himself. Don't be a spokesperson for him.”

Adam: What were important influences that shaped you early on?

Shelley: My parents. I'm one of four girls and my father, who passed away over six years ago, taught us to live in the moment. He never wore a watch. He had a sailboat because he didn't believe in motorboats. We chased total solar eclipses. And we don't take photographs because it's all about capturing life in the moment and living in that moment. That's who he was. He was never in a hurry. He sauntered through life. And my mom was the senior policy advisor to Pete Wilson, the former governor of California. She started the first conference for women in the state of California over 30 years ago. They raised us to believe in ourselves.

Adam: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the prospect of real progress being made?

Shelley: I'm completely optimistic. Covid ushered in the new rules of a modern workplace and to close the door of inequity and open the new door of equality. It's not that the rules were wrong before. They were just written over 100 years ago by men, for men, when women weren't in the workplace. We came into the workplace a bit later and we never got rid of the junk in the trunk.

The World Economic Forum says it will take 131 years to close the gender gap. But so now we have that opportunity to speed up that timeline. It's not very hard to write the new rules. It’s just a mindset gap. We created a vaccine in one year. We created chat GPT in, what, two weeks? These things are not impossible. It is actually the only global goal that Fortune 500 CEOs can achieve by themselves in their workplace, in the lifetime of their leadership. It's all legacy. All it takes is prioritization and choice and intentional action.

Adam: What advice do you give most often to younger women about navigating these headwinds?

Shelley: Believe in yourself and own it. We all have that voice in our head. We call it the imposter syndrome. Men and women have imposter syndrome but men tend to, in general, ignore the voice. Women let that voice get louder. So you’ve just got to shut down that voice in your head and own the confidence voice, the voice that says, I am amazing and I am as good if not better than the men in the workplace. I bring added value to the table. So take that seat at the table and bring others with you.