Climbing the Leadership Ladder with Tracie Sponenberg


Tracie Sponenberg SHRM-SCP, SPHR is SVP, HR for The Granite Group, a full-service wholesale distributor of plumbing, heating, cooling, water and propane supplies based in Concord, NH. Responsible for leading all HR functions for 34 locations and nearly 500 employees, throughout New England, she has gained a broad HR background across a wide range of industries in more than 20 years in HR, with much of her career focused on working with CEOs to develop strategic people strategies to help the organizations grow. She began her career in HR while in college, interning with a global public transportation company but found she could have the most impact on the business in smaller, private companies. Tracie has a BA in Psychology from Holy Cross, and a MA in Human Resources from Framingham State University. She is SPHR and SHRM-SCP certified, teaches the SHRM certification course at SNHU, is a member of the SHRM Special Expertise Panel and is Co-Organizer of DisruptHR NH.

Tracie will be a panelist at the 2018 HR Technology Conference & Expo session: Climbing the Leadership Ladder

The research is unquestionable: Companies and the economy perform better when they fully engage women. The presence of women leaders in the workplace sends a strong gender diversity message, attracting and encouraging others to reach for similar opportunities while providing role models and mentors. In sharp contrast, although progress is being made, the World Economic Forum says gender parity will take about 170 years at current rates. As Mark Twain said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started,” and each woman’s leadership journey is unique. 

As a 2018 HR Technology Conference Insiders blogger, I conducted a Q & A with Tracie to learn more about her thoughts on Climbing the Leadership Ladder:

Tracie, as an HR specialist, I know that one of the areas you focus on is building corporate culture. Do you have any suggestions for companies that are looking to make women a larger part of their culture and leadership?

As the only women on our executive team, this is something I am particularly passionate about! It all starts with culture.  We must create a culture that is inclusive and supportive of women.  We have to start there, or efforts to attract and retain women will fail. Women provide different perspectives and it’s critically important to have a diversity of thought on a leadership team.  My company is in the wholesale distribution industry, and we are about 80 percent male.  We also have 500 employees, so we are not quite large enough to have some of the departments or resources of large organizations.

However, we belong to a larger association that is doing great work in supporting women in our industry – the ASA Women in Industry annual conference continues to be one of my favorite conferences each year!  Even smaller companies can support women but sending them to events such as this.  Connecting with other women in your field is a valuable part of growing in your company. Companies can also highlight achievements of women leaders or emerging leaders.  We hired a new Controller last year, who is a woman.  She works for a very supportive CFO who has given her the chance to work on projects that highlight her expertise.  The more we do this for women, the more we all benefit.

You’ve written in the past on the difficulty of recognizing employee contributions. How does recognition help employee retention?

A simple, sincere Thank You to someone is one of the most powerful recognition tools any of us can have.  So why do most of us not do this?  We get busy with the day to day, we are running around and putting out fires.  I am fortunate to have a wonderful HR team who I really rely on, as I travel quite a bit.

Last year, after traveling for a week, I returned to the office to find flowers and chocolate chip cookies (I love both), along with a note from our HR coordinator.  She was recognizing me, and it made me realize I had not been letting her know often enough all the wonderful things she did!  I vowed to change that and have been trying to live up to that since.  (As an aside she was recently recognized in a big way, as she is now our HR Generalist!)

At The Granite Group, we have a very strong corporate culture, for the most part because we have a team of amazing managers who recognize their team members regularly.  We actually have a six-part recognition program, which helps contribute to our low turnover and dedicated team.  Imagine working for a company where you walked in every day, did a great job, and no one ever thanked you or noticed?  That is the reality for many people, and those workplaces are less likely to retain their employees than workplaces that recognize the value of their employees.

I think we’ve all heard the adage, “People don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” What are some things that managers can do to help women engage more fully in corporate culture?

We don’t talk often enough with our employees.  Really talk about career goals, life goals, what they love about the company, what they don’t love.  Managers can communicate with women and get to know them – and actually ask what they think, feel and need from the company.  The more we do this – with men and women – the more we can build a strong, healthy culture.

You have created a new twist on the word “BITCH” by making it a powerful acronym for women climbing the leadership ladder. What does it stand for and why is it important?

I wish I could take credit for it!  But I actually heard the acronym – Being ITotal Control of Herself – from a mentor and my go to IT thought leader, Joanna Young.  I was preparing for my first DisruptHR talk and this was suggested by my friend Colleen Cone, who thought it would fit perfectly in the talk and it did!  We thought Joanna coined it but as it turns out it was actually from RuPaul’s Drag Race!

Getting back to why the word is powerful, many women in leadership positions have been called a bitch before.  I know I have.  I wanted to turn the word around and use it to encourage women instead of discourage them.  If you frame it that way – Being In Total Control of Herself – the word has more meaning, and it is actually empowering.  It really exemplifies my leadership journey, from painfully shy office worker to my current role as a Senior VP in a male-dominated company.

What are some ways that women can overcome the lack of confidence that often holds them back from climbing the leadership ladder?  

For many years, I did not have the confidence that I should have, looking back, and certainly did not have the confidence to succeed in my career.  It took me a long time to get there, but it’s not an impossible journey.  It’s a little different for everyone, and it tends to be more difficult for women. There’s a sobering statistic from a Forbes article a few years ago – “Men are confident about their ability at 60 percent, but women don’t feel confident until they’ve checked each item off the list!”

Also, as women, we tend to put others first – many of us are taking care of kids, families, parents, pets – work in the office and come home and continue working! About five years ago I started to put myself first.  That’s critical as a first step toward confidence.  If you aren’t taking care of yourself, how can you take care of everyone else?

I got healthier by losing weight, eating right and exercising.  I still start every weekday by exercising – that’s how I put myself first, every day. Then, I have the energy for the things that are important to me.  Family is at the top of that list for me.  Their support – particularly that of my husband – allows me to do what I do every day.  Putting myself first and getting stronger helped with my confidence, and then I started doing things that would get me out of my comfort zone – public speaking, teaching, attending work parties alone – all things that were terrifying for me, but I did them, over and over.

Getting uncomfortable is absolutely critical for growth – and absolutely challenging for an introvert and someone who is risk-averse by nature, like me.  But pushing yourself – taking a risk on that new job, asking for a promotion, taking that challenging assignment – can help boost your confidence, and your career.  The more you challenge yourself, and you realize these things you do won’t kill you, the more you will increase your confidence, which will allow you to take more risks and challenge yourself in more ways and grow in your career.

Networking and “finding your tribe” is so important for women along their career journey. How can women find their tribe and what networking resources, or groups have you found helpful?

I have a group of powerful, confident, amazing women that I am proud to call friends and mentors.  Even with more than 20 years in my career, I still have questions and doubts and fears.  We all lean on each other for support.  And, we support each other – we are lifting each other up instead of competing.  We get together for lunch in either large or small groups – whoever can meet whenever we can meet – and email regularly.  One of my closest HR friends actually has my old job.  And instead of competing, we are supporting – she is one of my biggest champions, and I am one of hers as well.  And one of my mentors, I followed into two positions, including my current one.  She’s incredibly supportive and I still look to her for advice, even with several years at my company.

I see some women – even in HR – forming more adversarial relationships with other women.  That needs to stop.  There is room for all of us to grow if we lift each other up. Though I found most of my tribe organically, you can form your own fairly easily.  Go to local HR meetings and talk to those you are sitting with.  Find some people you like, but make sure some are different from you.  We learn more from a diversity of experiences, thoughts and personality.

I am also a massive fan of LinkedIn.  Connect with people in your field.  I will always accept a connection from someone in HR, and I often answer questions or give advice to those new to the field.  There are also some great Facebook groups, and twitter chats that you can learn a lot from.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to those who you find interesting.  I have done it, and still do it, and they nearly always respond.



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