HERe Keynote Speaker Mel Robbins Reveals How Women Can Seize Leadership Opportunities in Challenging Work Environments

by Lisa Towers

Mel Robbins, CNN commentator, is the HERe 2015 keynote speakerWhen the conversation turns to women’s career development, Mel Robbins’s enthusiasm buzzes across the phone line. As a married working mother of three, an Ivy League-educated criminal lawyer, a CNN commentator, and a motivational speaker who has coached countless women about how to get what they really want, Robbins is passionate about women’s leadership issues.   

Attitudes about women in leadership positions are slowly changing, she says, but there is a lot more work to be done. “What companies have come to recognize is that companies that are led by women, that have more women on the board, are more profitable.”

And corporate America’s revelation about women leaders is not necessarily all about the money, either. “They have come to learn that diverse teams, meaning teams that include women on them, are more collaborative, and more innovative, and more agile in their problem-solving,” she says. “Companies, without a doubt, have realized the business mandate and the business benefit of having women in leadership roles.”

Robbins will elaborate on these and other topics vital to women in leadership roles as the keynote speaker for the HFMA Women's Leadership Conference (HERe), Oct. 27-28 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The meeting is the first-ever national conversation about the unique challenges women face as leaders in healthcare finance, and it’s designed to inspire attendees to connect with their colleagues across the industry.

Carpe Opportunitatem

Despite their progress, Robbins concedes that women still have an extraordinarily long way to go to achieve gender equality at work. “There are some very real and undeniable biases that play against women in the workforce,” she says. The key is to take advantage of the opportunity this situation creates “to know about the bias and how you actually maneuver your career and handle yourself so that it doesn’t impact you.” This simple yet profound statement acknowledges the challenges that women know exist in the workplace, but it also helps women avoid some of those pitfalls when considering career paths in challenging environments. 

“There are all kinds of deeply ingrained biases that are out there” about women, she continues. “Many companies are not very flexible in terms of work arrangements when somebody has a baby. And they’re not very flexible around the scaffolding of leadership roles and how somebody gets to become a partner.” These and other obstacles continue to hamper women’s progress.

“There’s a very real holding pattern that women go through when they have a baby and when the demands on their time become nonnegotiable because of home life. So, until companies address those very real issues around flexibility for men and women when they’re parents or when their children are born, until we have equal pay—because, again, we’re still getting paid 78 cents on the dollar for what the guys are making—a lot of this stuff is going to be hard to fix.”

Century of Progress

Although the time frame for resolving these critical issues seems nebulous at best, a recent study puts it in more concrete terms: It’s going to take more than 100 years for women to achieve parity with men in the workplace. Yes, women potentially are facing another century of workplace challenges, but the indefatigable Robbins is not deterred. “The women who attend this conference are going to be given some absolutely essential advice for how you work inside a system that is, in many, many ways, not working for you,” she says.

As an in-demand speaker who delivers 60 to 70 talks on this topic that range from motivational keynotes to leadership training sessions for some of the top CEOs and their senior teams in the United States, Robbins has some reassuring news: “Every single company wants to figure out how to elevate female leaders. Every single company has a budget now earmarked for creating events and creating training programs that develop the next generation of female leaders. Every company knows that one of the challenges we need to deal with in terms of changing the culture to be more innovative, more collaborative, more agile includes some kind of shift around how the company empowers, trains, and promotes women.” Even more heartening is her surety in stating, “Companies are looking for female leaders to promote. And they’re looking for ways to support women.”

But this opportunity is wasted if women don’t know how to take advantage of it. “If you know what to do to make sure that your work is strategically aligned with the company’s initiative, and you know the difference between visible and invisible work, which you’re going to learn at this conference, and you have a very awesome and strong network of men and women professionals inside your business organization and your business category that you can bounce ideas off of, or that you can network with, you’re going to win,” she says. “It’s never been a better time to be a woman in business—if you understand how to seize the opportunity.”

Mentors Need Not Apply

And, forget the old saw about needing a mentor to get where you want to be. “You don’t need a mentor,” Robbins emphasizes. “A mentor, to me, is someone you ask advice of who has no interest in your career. You have plenty of friends. You’ll walk out of this conference with 20 or 30 amazing women who can serve as your own personal mentors that you can bounce ideas off of. But what you really need is somebody inside your company—or somebody who is inside the company that you want to work for—who is more senior than you, who knows what your hopes and dreams are, who knows what your goals are, and who is thinking about, looking for, spotting, creating, and recommending you for opportunities to take your career to the next level.”

How do you find this personal career advocate that Robbins refers to as a sponsor? It’s not as simple as approaching your favorite leader and asking him or her for a hand up. “You’ve got to look at where you’re at,” Robbins says. “And you’ve got to make sure that in the role that you’re in, that you’re a superstar. Because nobody’s going to want to promote you or advocate for you if you’re not knocking it out of the park, and if you’re not demonstrating value, you’re not demonstrating that you’re capable of more.”

Only after you’ve proved yourself in your current role should you approach a potential sponsor. And even then, you’ll have to work even harder by getting to know this person and making his or her workload a little lighter, she says. “Volunteer to take stuff off of their plates to make their lives easier, and to demonstrate your value to that person,” she says. “Because no one is going to take you on blind. They’re going to take you on and be an advocate for your career. But you have to be honest with yourself about what you want and what you don’t want.”  

Kick the Doors Open

As a woman in healthcare finance, do you truly want to improve your leadership skills what Facebook COO and author Sheryl Sandberg calls “leaning in” to your career? Robbins agrees that Sandberg’s book, Lean In, kicked open the door on a conversation that the world needed to have.

“You have to be very clear if you want to lead,” she says. “If you really have aspirations to lead a team or to grow your career in a different way, then you’re going to have to behave differently. If you don’t pay attention to what you want to accomplish, why would anyone else?”

As with many worthwhile pursuits in life, Robbins’s advice is to not take the easy path. “Apply for things you’re not quite ready for yet,” she says. “Once you do this, management’s going to know you want more. They’re going to look at you very differently from that moment on.”

Are you ready to lead? Robbins’s presence at the HERe Women’s Leadership Conference is sure to inspire and motivate you to be more and do more than you ever thought possible.

  Lisa Towers, MS, is Managing Editor, Digital Content and Specialty Publishing

Publication Date: Thursday, October 22, 2015