#SHRM18 – Margaret Spence on Women in Leadership



One of the most exciting things about being on the SHRM18 Blogging team is the opportunity to go behind the scenes and talk with SHRM18 presenters. I recently had the chance to talk with Margaret Spence, who will be speaking Monday at the Smart Stage on ‘Twenty-Four Months and They’re Gone: Rethinking Millennial Retention’ and again at a full session on Tuesday, ‘Radically Rethinking Empowerment and Engagement: Transform Your Approach to Developing Women Leaders’. We had a great conversation, and I hope you find Margaret as inspiring as I do.

I’ve seen Margaret present twice -  last fall when she presented ‘Dismantle the Siloes’ at the SHRM Diversity & Inclusion conference in San Francisco, and before that last year at SHRM17 on the Smart Stage where she spoke about Millennials. She doesn’t have that ‘poor us, we have to “deal” with the millennials in our midst’ perspective that we see too often. Margaret is the mother of a successful millennial, and she uses his experience to broaden our perspective on how to attract, retain, and above all, value the millennials in our workforce. Even if you come from the #saymillennialgetpunched mindset, you’ll appreciate Margaret’s take.

Margaret’s take is that we have to break down the entitlement narrative that’s been created and see millennials as an amazing generation. When we stop putting them in a box, when we give them opportunities for innovation and growth, when we allow them to contribute, we can reap the rewards and retain a stellar workforce.

While I love Margaret’s enthusiasm for millennials, I love even more her passion for developing women leaders. Margaret got her start in workplace compliance consulting and is transitioning now to fully focus on leadership development for women. That’s not a clear transition path to me, so I asked her how that came to be.

With twenty-plus years in the compliance consulting space, primarily in healthcare and agriculture, Margaret has spent years working with risk management professionals to build out compliance programs. Many of those leaders have been women, and as Margaret trained them to communicate effectively with the C-Suite to make the programs work, she realized that there is a gap between who we hire and who we develop, and especially how we develop them. Women can be developed into phenomenal leaders, but we can’t just drop them into traditional development programs and expect to see success.

Margaret asserts that historically, we’ve taken a traditional, man’s-world style of leadership development and tried to squeeze women into the mold. She challenged me – how many big names in leadership development are women? Can you think of one? In that moment, I couldn’t. She went on to explain that we think we are empowering women to go through leadership development, but a recent survey of several hundred executive and C-Suite women revealed that these successful women didn’t believe they could be leaders until someone told them they could.

As Margaret says, we are whole people and have been conditioned by society. We want women to check a box that men built, and once that box is checked we hope women find their voice.

Margaret asks, how can women find their voice if the box they checked isn’t designed for them?

All of this really resonates with me, and I can’t wait for Margaret’s session. I asked her more about the session in particular. At the SHRM D&I conference, Margaret’s session stood out because she gave us really tangible action steps to take home and put into practice. Will this session be similar?

I was assured that it will be. Margaret will get off the stage and walk around, allowing us to collectively share ideas. We will walk away knowing how to talk differently with women about their careers, how to team women with others who can pull out the potential that we see in them and be honest about where they most need development – what key things they need to enhance their careers.

We talked about a mentorship program that she’s seen with a client, where  mentors and mentees were partnered from opposite departments with no prior exposure. In the one-year program, they developed public speaking skills, EQ, and more, and participated in bonding exercises. Throughout this, mentors got to see their mentees in a different light. It can be a challenge for women, and especially African American women, to be seen as leaders. They have to have just the right background, pedigree, skills, etc. and still go above and beyond others to be seen as equals. The more comfortable we become across departments, the more women are seen outside their role as whole people, the more current leaders and mentors can envision them as potential leaders.

Margaret talked about what she described as an ‘interesting disconnect’: men see their sisters differently than they see women at work. They can have career development conversations with their sisters and still not see women at work as needing grooming and developing for leadership. Mentorship programs and other opportunities to see women in a new light helps break down those barriers.

I loved my conversation with Margaret and could have talked to her for hours. But, being respectful of her time I ended our conversation with a final question: as someone who has been presenting at SHRM national conferences for the past 8 or so years, what is your advice for first-time attenders? Her response? ‘Don’t get overwhelmed – it’s really big!’ Don’t try to do everything but pick what resonates and gets you out of your comfort zone. Participate in the meet-and-eat and other smaller, one-on-one connections. Do the smaller things, and most of all, connect with people!

I second that advice, and will add that if you can, Margaret Spence is one of those people you’ll want to connect with. Check out her new website: www.employeetoCEOproject.com. A podcast and more are also in the works. Be sure to check out her book signing – Leadership Self-Transformation: 52 Career-Defining Questions Every High-Achieving Woman Must Answer. The book sold out at SHRM17 and SHRM D&I, so don’t miss out this year. Follow her on Twitter at @margaretspence and @employeetoCEO. And finally, add Margaret’s presentation to your conference calendar – you won’t want to miss it.


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