Speakers Share Lessons from Journey to C-Suite

By:
Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jan 22, 2019
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Speaking at the NYSSCPA's Women's Leadership Forum on Jan. 18, a group of top women executives discussed their journeys on their way to the C-suite and the challenges and pitfalls they overcame to get there. While the conversation was wide-ranging, covering a variety of topics, several themes began emerging through the course of the talk. 

One was the need to get out of one's comfort zone and take risks. Panelist Ramona Cedeno, the founder and CEO of FiBrick Financial Services Inc., understood this principle from the age of 19, when she decided she would move from the Dominican Republic to New York City to study accounting at Baruch College, by which point she was already  married and expecting her first baby. Her drive to take risks also factored in when she decided to start her company. 

"I left my company on a whim, like I was quitting tomorrow, and I went home and said, 'I'll take a month off and took a month off,' and the idea of starting my business just evolved," she said. 

Despite years of experience in the accounting field, despite her children being grown enough that they didn't need as much care, despite having some savings she could live off while she got the business off the ground, and despite a very supportive husband, she described the experience as "really, really scary." Yet as soon as she registered her company, someone she knew said that they were looking for a CFO and wondered whether she cared to join. She said she wasn't looking for a job, but could work as a consultant, "and that was my first customer, and the others came from referrals." 

Another panelist, Holly Gagnon, president and CEO of Seneca Gaming Corp., said that "a lot of my positions came from being a risk taker and going where no man wanted to go." These places included Philadelphia, Miss., or Shreveport, La., while most people in the gaming industry did everything they could do work in either Las Vegas or Atlantic City. She also noted that she wasn't afraid to "do a lot of zigging," noting that she also spent two years as a professor at the University of Massachusetts, worked in information technology, and performed both CFO and HR roles at a company. She conceded that accountants in general tend to be risk averse by nature, but said that real success requires leaps of faith, which sometimes involve making mistakes. People should not let this discourage them. 

"If you're not making mistakes, then you're not making enough decisions. Playing it safe does not yield big wins. You [addressing Cedeno] took a huge leap of faith, and you got the huge win. Me, moving to crazy Mississippi, taking chances and allowing [myself] to fail [is what helped me]. I don't know if it's a generational thing, but my oldest is phobic of making mistakes. She is 27. I said to her fail, fail, fail, while you have no responsibilities! And learn that failing is not the end of everything," she said. 

The panel also talked about the importance of mentorship, which can take many different forms. Andrea Madho, the co-founder and CEO of Lab 141 Inc., said she used to work in finance on the mid-1990s, at which time she said "it was Wolf of Wall Street, it was all that." While not pointing to a formal mentoring experience at that time, she said she gained a lot from watching what other women did in the industry. She talked about one woman in particular, who taught her a lot just by showing her how she navigated the company and how she treated clients at a time when "everyone around you is unethical." She noted wryly that others provided valuable negative examples, saying, "I'm one of the only people I know on Wall Street with a clean license" because of this lesson in integrity. 

"I would not do the things they wanted me to do, and to this day my integrity is one of the most important things to me. And now that I'm CEO, our company, our morals and ethics, are based on how I feel, and it comes from that tradition of doing the right thing even when it's not the easy thing. ... You'll be encouraged to curve the corner, and I don't do that because I saw way too many people around me go to jail on Wall Street," she said. 

At the same time, she said, she also is part of an advisory program for aspiring female entrepreneurs, and while she acknowledged it was a cliche, she said "I get more back from them, they have given me such faith in younger women." 

Gagnon made a similar point, saying that she regularly sits with her employees at lunch, which allows her to find out how the workers are experiencing the organization, and what issues might not be bubbling up to her level. For instance, she said she hadn't known that the building didn't have heating or air conditioning on the weekend, when some people were working, and so hadn't been able to fix the problem until her employees raised the issue with her. 

She also said that she is a strong believer in peer mentorship, observing that she knows two other female executives in the gaming industry (she said there's not a lot of them) who are "my little peer group, or board of directors," She said that she can hash things out with this group as "they know my industry, so I can say it can be peer to peer and get that mentorship at a certain level." 

Katelyn Kogan, a senior manager in the real estate services group at Mazars USA, noted that mentors can also be found outside the firm, such as at the NYSSCPA. She said that, early on, she found that she was very excited about the real estate industry, so she worked to get into that industry practice area, go to industry events and accompany partners when they would visit real estate clients. Eventually, she get a masters degree in real estate. When she joined the Society's Real Estate Committee, she said she found men there who became good mentors for her and encouraged her to get more involved. This encouragement eventually led her to become the current committee chair. She said it was important to play to one's strengths and passions. 

"If I'm passionate about something, I want to get as involved as I can," she said. 

The panelists did concede that work-life balance, despite what one might read in the business journals, is very difficult. Gagnon advised people not to put too much pressure on themselves to maintain a perfect balance and achieve an impossible standard. It does not do oneself or one's loved ones any good. She said she was fortunate enough that she has worked in companies that gave a lot of flexibility for family matters, but said it has still been very difficult for her, particularly when her two daughters were young. But she said that the quality of the time you spend with your family is more important than the quantity, observing, "If it's an hour, make it a great hour." She told the audience to have faith that their kids are more resilient than they think, and they will be proud of you for staying true to yourself. 

"The relationship I have with those girls, now [that they are in their 20s,] is so incredible, and they respect me for having my own identity and my own life," she said. "If you choose to work, you should be proud of it, and your decisions and you will figure it out."

Not that she never left the house with mismatched shoes or baby vomit on her blazer before, she noted, but she said it's important to be kind to yourself despite that. 

"Don't be the mean girl,"she said. "Don't hold yourself to an impossible standard. Be happy. Whatever you choose to do, be happy, because that will be the biggest thing your kids remember."

Madho noted that balance can be a challenge even for women who don't have children. She was blunt when it came to work-life balance, saying, "There is none." She constantly feels like a tennis player, she said. Her business, which she said she considers her baby, takes up "every waking moment." She conceded that this lack of balance has has taken a toll on her health. 

"[My doctor] tells me, 'I have no doubt you're the billion-dollar unicorn, but if you don't get your diabetes in check, you won't have eyes or feet,'" she said. 

Reasoning that if she is not well, her company is not well, she has resolved this year to cook more "because when I cook, I cook healthy." Overall, she said she cannot tell people where to find work-life balance, but said, for her, it's in the little things she can control. 

One message the panelists conveyed was not to feel guilty about asking for help, not just in business but in life. Cedeno said this was a lesson she had to learn over the years. 

"I have an 18-year-old applying for college this year, who is a procrastinator, and so I was helping him with the application process. I have an eight-year-old forgetting his homework every day at school. And then my brother, who moved in with me to go to college, he gets two Cs and I'm, like, 'Guys, make it easy for me, huh?' But my son is my bookkeeper, my brother is my IT guy, and my son's friends check and sort my mail. I work a lot, and I ask for help. I like dancing, going to the gym, I like going out with my sisters, my friends, there's always something. ... I don't mind asking for help," she said. 

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