Inside the #SpotItToStopIt movement

Conversation with leaders


Using very simple, straightforward, direct words and commentary is important

Whitney Kellett

Senior Vice President & Chief Administrative Officer, Essential Utilities, Inc.
There is a need to have conversation with people and educate them
Whitney Kellett 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?

Whitney Kellett: I’ve certainly had my fair share of interesting situations, particularly because I’ve worked in several industries where you don't typically see a lot of females. More often than not, I’m the only woman in the room or just one of a few in the room. One example occurred about a decade ago. I was in a role as a chief information officer and I was invited to go to a conference at a resort with other CIOs to spend a couple of days talking about technology and industry trends. Only about 50 CIOs were invited, and it was by invitation only.

When I first walked into the meeting room, a gentleman came over to me and said, “The breakfast buffet is out of bread. Can you take care of that?” I said, “I'm not sure I understand your question.” He said, “Well, clearly you're here with the event staff, handling the catering. So can you fix this?” I said, “Actually, I'm an attendee of this event. I'm a chief information officer and I'll be here today.”

He was quite embarrassed. But in his in his mind, he saw a female walk into the room and assumed that she was there to serve others. It was uncomfortable, but I learned from that experience that if something happens, you have to address it right away. You do it professionally, you do it with care, but you do it as quickly as possible. And that's one of my biggest pieces of advice to women—we've all earned the right to be in the room or at the table. And so if you experience bias or an inappropriate comment, it's very important to address it immediately or as soon as the meeting is over. If you let grass grow under it, that's unfortunately showing complicity, which means it will continue.

Adam: What are some of the other patterns you've seen?

Whitney: I've had some situations when people talked over me, interrupted me, or didn’t give me a chance to finish my thought. Again, it's important to speak up. We're in the room for a reason. A mentor gave me some advice years ago: if you are invited to a meeting, do your homework and come to the meeting prepared, but don't sit in the meeting and listen the entire time. You're there to provide an opinion, whether it's agreeing with somebody else's point of view or expressing your own. You have a role in that meeting. And if you join the meeting and don't say anything, then you're not helping the business at hand.

This goes for all leaders, but I think women tend to sometimes feel they need to be deferential to others in the room, especially if their voice isn't as strong. So it's important to get your point across. And that might mean you have to turn to a colleague and say, “Excuse me, I wasn't finished speaking.” That usually is impactful if somebody is interrupting you. What I don't want to see from female leaders is overly emotional reactions. We're not doing ourselves any service by crying, yelling, getting upset, or being emotional. We need to be professional. And that's true of any executive, regardless of background, gender, nationality.

Adam: Have you ever encountered a repeat offender, and you had to have a tough conversation with them outside of a meeting?

Whitney: It's hard to have that conversation with someone, especially when they've done something more than once. But good professionals will respect your opinion, and more so if you do it one-on-one. Figure out when you want to do it, where you want to do it, and make sure it's in an office or a conference room where you won't be disturbed. If they appear distracted or otherwise not present, then you need to start the conversation by saying, “Is this a good time to have a conversation? I have something important I'd like to discuss with you.”

And if they say, “Well, I've got five other things to do,” then it's okay to say, “Can we set up a time to discuss this?” You need their full and undivided attention. Using very simple, straightforward, direct words and commentary is important. Talking around the issue rarely works. Most people do not infer what you're trying to say. So if that means writing it out and practicing it, there's nothing wrong with that. I have written out the words that I want to say to somebody and practiced it in front of the mirror. And I've practiced those conversations in front of other people, and asked them to play the part of the person I have to meet. I've done that for performance reviews. I've done that for difficult conversations.

If it’s with a colleague who may have offended me, the first question I typically ask is, “Do you realize how your words might have offended me?” Because I want them to reflect and see if they can understand my perspective. And if they can't, then I will explain. But I first want to give the person the benefit of the doubt to explain themselves.

Adam: What were some early influences that really shaped your values today?

Whitney: My mother and father created a structured home life, which of course is helpful to children. We need boundaries and guardrails, but they also encouraged me to grow and to develop my skill sets, and to do it in a way that fostered kindness and empathy. So I have been a motivated, driven person for a long time.

I started a summer business in high school. And I worked throughout much of my schooling. It was always important to me to be diplomatic, to be professional, to be kind and to recognize people with empathy and understand that they have complicated lives. There are many things going on and we're all trying to do our best working together. Not everybody takes that approach. Some people come into work with a strong, heavy, dominating presence. I took a different tact. I would always go into new assignments with an open mind, recognizing that I needed to respect the people I was working with, and that they in turn would respect me.

Another constant in my career has been communication. It's incredibly important to communicate and make sure that you're bringing people along. A lot of mistakes come from miscommunication or a lack of understanding or a disconnect between two people. You can put all the right people in a room, but if you don't have a productive conversation and walk away with the same expectations and understandings, then you will likely have problems later. So I focus a lot on communication and I pride myself on trying to be as transparent as possible with my team, my peers and my customers.

Adam: When you’re mentoring and coaching younger women, what advice do you typically share with them?

Whitney: First and foremost, let your work speak for itself. As female leaders, if you're in a new leadership role or if you're seeking a leadership role, you're clearly have been working hard and the work that you're doing should speak for itself. Don't focus on whether you're a woman or whether you're allowed to be at the table. When you get an assignment, do your homework, learn as much as you can about it, ask other people, embrace it and throw yourself into it and learn and let your work, let your successes, let your accomplishments speak for themselves.

But at the same time, as female leaders we also have to raise our hand when we see opportunities and ask for those new roles. We need to put ourselves out there and take that chance and ask for those opportunities. They won't just be presented to us.