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When I was in my early 20s, I received a valuable piece of advice from an old-school-yet-well-meaning employer.
After we passed through a particularly distracting office baby shower for one of the administrative assistants—where there were plenty of homemade treats on display—he was visibly irritated. He looked at me very sternly and said, “If you want to succeed, never bring baked goods to the office.”
He never fully explained, but he didn’t have to. I intuitively knew he meant that if I typecast myself as a woman who baked, it would reinforce a stereotype that could get in the way of my career aspirations. Simply said: I could never be an executive if others thought of me as too domestic. This was during a time when female executives, especially in financial services, were few and far between. It was advice I took to heart at the time, so early in my career.
Following his advice, I worked hard to separate my work and personal life. I didn’t talk about personal things and didn’t socialize with colleagues outside of work. I kept everything strictly professional and gained plenty of respect for my hard work and good results. My career progressed.
It wasn’t until several years later, when I was a manager and started receiving intentional development feedback that in addition to praise for my leadership, I started reading comments like “too polished,” “intimidating,” and, the one I remember most: “She’s so diplomatic I always wonder what she’s not telling me.”
That feedback was hard to read, but I swallowed hard, accepted the feedback like a gift and asked myself both whether it could be true and what I would gain if I leaned into it and learned from it. After discernment, it dawned on me, metaphorically, that I’d better start baking.
I recognized that holding such a firm boundary on my personal life, I had been making myself less approachable to people I really cared about. What’s worse, because I wasn’t in the habit of sharing my personal details, I wasn’t in the habit of asking other people theirs. It’s not that I didn’t care about people’s personal lives, I had just been schooled not to ask.
So many women have walked this fine line, at the peril of stereotyping ourselves no matter which way the pendulum swings: Be brandished as “office mom” or scorned as “boss bitch.” This early lesson pushed me to actively embrace a more holistic sense of myself at work. Showing my personal side made me vulnerable, but my relationships improved exponentially, as did the feedback about my leadership.
I told this story while the guest on CUES’ RealTalk! live show last month. My message in a nutshell? “Leaders bring banana bread!”
CUES is dedicated to advancing the knowledge, careers and success of leaders and aspiring leaders across the movement—including women. I want to personally invite you to the next RealTalk! session, “How We Got Here: Lessons From the Firsts,” at noon Central time on Nov. 15. You’ll hear inspiring stories from three women who are the first female CEOs at their credit unions—Maria Martinez, CUDE, Border Federal Credit Union; Tansley Stearns, Community Financial Credit Union; and Tonita Webb, CCE, Verity Credit Union. Whether you’re male or female, a CEO, a board member or an aspiring credit union leader, I’m wondering, what leadership lessons have you learned and refined during your career?
Heather McKissick, I-CUDE, is CEO of CUES. Her 30-year not-for-profit career encompasses six different industry sectors. She is a former EVP at University Federal Credit Union, Austin, Texas, where she served for nine years. Prior to that, she was CEO of Leadership Austin, an organization dedicated to developing community and civic leaders across Central Texas. McKissick is the previous director of organizational development at one of the largest non-profit healthcare systems in the US and was an administrator and faculty member at St. Edward’s University.