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Mentors, Leadership, and Dream Jobs: Insights from Power Play


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It can feel daunting to tackle the hard questions about your career: what it takes to be an effective leader, how to advocate for yourself at work, and finding the right mentors. This year’s “Power Play: Up Close and Personal with Business Leaders” virtual event tackled that and more, featuring executives from Swire Coca-Cola, one of our founding partners. A WISE national signature event, Power Play brings together senior to executive-level leaders from the same organization or sector of sports business for honest conversations about finding success in the industry. 

Journalist and author Jen Mueller led the conversation with Heather Curtis and Ginny Sorenson. Curtis has worked at Swire Coca-Cola for almost twenty years and currently serves as the vice president of business insights at Swire Coca-Cola. Ginny Sorenson joined the Swire family six years ago and is the vice president of human resources. Learn more about what they had to say about navigating challenge situations at work.

Finding key mentors

“It’s really important to have a variety of mentors,” said Heather Curtis. “Some people you can relate to more formally and informally. A mentor is someone that you trust and someone that will recognize the kind of communication you need to hear. Find those people that you really connect with on both sides. A lot of the time, you’re going to have to go ask them to be your mentor. You need to do that for yourself so that you can create that network and find those people that you feel comfortable talking with.”

When asked how you can make the most of a mentoring relationship, Curtis replied, “It’s all about how you set up the relationship. Mentors can be a great resource for holding you accountable. The main thing that [one of my mentors] really taught me was to say no. As women, we tend to just say yes to everything. We say ‘Yes, we can.’ We can take on more, we can do more, but he was the one that said, ‘Heather, you really need to learn to say no,’ and he probably had to tell me that for five years straight and guess what, I've learned to say no.”

Developing authentic leadership skills

Mueller asked Ginny Sorenson to expand on the gap between our perception and the reality of what makes a good leader. “As you move higher up, there seems to be this notion that we have to be even harder driving than we were before,” said Sorenson. “Not only that, we have to be brilliant and we have to know everything that there is...So what I think the difference is is when you start to get to levels or areas where you are seen as “the One,” the responsibility is a lot more than you thought to begin with and you realize there are some areas that you need to work on yourself.” A good leader knows to:

  1. Ask for help - “Even if you're in a male-dominated industry and even if that isn’t your thing, what I learned at one of the large employers where I was that I wasn't very good at data,” said Sorenson. “I had a good gut feeling and intuition but what I’ve spent time doing is data. You don’t get to have the conversation if you don’t get it. You’ve got to have that information first and then you can apply your data.”
  2. Round out their skills - “Can I be a kinder, gentler Ginny compared to the super hard driving one so that I’m still at the table and I’m still getting invited, as opposed to ‘let’s not invite us her because she’s going to give it to us every time.’ So I work on rounding out the pieces that got me to that higher level job but realizing that those might not be the reasons to keep you there. I want people to say ‘we won’t have that meeting without her.’ That right there is the biggest compliment, in an area of responsibility, where they say they are not having a meeting without her.”

When asked about how to get experience managing people when work won’t give you the opportunity, Sorenson replied “I believe that there is one skill that women in particular could develop to be able to have the conversation about managing people: project management. I think that everyone should get a certificate in project management because it shows leadership and you’re often not over the other people in your project group. Create those leadership skills for yourself by offering to lead to a project group. If a project comes to fruition, you’re showing you can deliver and you can motivate other people. It is the single biggest skill that people can go and get. You can get certified online and then take on any project: diversity and inclusion, acquisition, sales, it can be anything.”

Sorenson also shared her favorite places to grow her leadership skills, from reading Boys in the Boat to watching Brene Brown’s TED Talks

Making lateral career moves

Heather first started at Swire Coca-Cola in finance, and capped out in the company, so she switched over to sales. After working her way up, she capped out a second time and in a discussion with her boss, Curtis shared that “he said, ‘Heather, if you want to go any further, we need you to have that sales office experience.’ And that was pretty daunting to me.” It required her to move states and relocate to Bellevue as well as take a step down from her VP position. 

“I’m three years into this transition and I’m learning a ton of stuff and loving it every minute. But the leadership within my organization is changing. The people who knew my history with the company are starting to retire. I've learned that I need to be more proactive about advocating for myself and making sure that my reality and how my story is perceived by other seniors is correct.”

Learning to advocate for yourself

As the panel discussed the power of advocating for yourself, Jen Mueller shared her go-to advocacy practice, highlighting that you don’t have to wait for your big performance reviews to advocate for yourself. “It could be as simple as the response you give to the question, ‘How are you?’ said Mueller. “Instead of just saying fine or good, I call them success statements and you better be able to point to something that you are doing even if it doesn't seem extraordinary. For me, today, I'm ahead of schedule on two deadlines at work. So when my boss asks how am I, you better believe that I'm going to tell him I'm ahead of schedule on two deadlines because it's part of making sure that I'm staying on the radar of people who are going to make these decisions about me.”

Applying for “reach” jobs

“As women, we’re just so hard on ourselves and a lot of us are in an environment where we’re the only females or there one or two more females and we feel like we have to be 100% qualified for what we choose to do,” said Curtis. “But sometimes, I think we need to step back and really look at it and see what value we are bringing to the table. While I might not be an 8 on spreadsheet mastering from a scale of 1 to 10, I may be at a 5. But you know what, if I get the job, I'm going to get to an 8. We need to learn to be easier on ourselves and support each other in those endeavors.”

Empowering those around you

Sometimes it’s the smallest moments that make a large impact on our careers. Curtis made an impact on one of her colleagues by passing along her confidence in a meeting. “I had a young woman working for me and I started bringing her into some of these meetings because she was awesome, knew the subject matter and needed to be there. But in the conference room, there was a big long table and that’s where the executives and everyone would sit around the table and then behind it there's another row of chairs for overflow. The first couple times we’d go into these meetings, I'd sit right up to the table and I found that she was sitting behind, even though there were clearly extra chairs around the table. 

It was the third time and I said ‘Come sit at the table, your opinion is valued, you need to be sitting at this table.’ She pulled me aside afterwards and said thank you so much for telling her that. It’s our job as leaders to make sure that people know that they’re there for a reason and I was lucky enough to have a leader who told that to me.”

Creating an individual development plan

“It's about starting to have those conversations, throughout the year,” said Curtis. “Sitting down with your manager or with your employees and asking ‘where you want to be in five years?’ And then mapping out the road and creating a development plan with three things. I don't like to go more than three because we all get busy. We all have our day-to-day tasks that we have to do, so let's identify those three things that we can work on whether it’s a professional class or certification so that they can develop themselves so that when the next position comes open, they're ready to move right into it.”

“It’s my job as a leader. If I'm not able to promote my people, if I'm not able to help them succeed and I have to say that a lot of the time it's identifying that you know what they really like and how you can move them around in the organization to fit their expertise. Those individual development plans help you spend time talking about what they really want to do, what interests they have, and what motivates them. 

If you don't have a boss that's doing that with you, I'd encourage you to go talk to them about that and say ‘what do I need to do to continue to grow at work?’ If you don’t feel comfortable doing that with your boss, do it with a mentor that you feel comfortable with and have them help you with the development plan.”

We loved talking with Heather, Ginny, and Jen in July and look forward to applying their valuable insights to our careers. Follow Swire Coca-Cola on LinkedIn to learn more about their mission and involvement in the Washington community.


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