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TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITYWant to be a leader? Take on projects and new roles, fulfill promises, be confident

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Gretchen Mohen, owner of Lehigh Valley Plastics and S&W Metals, makes a point at the roundtable discussion. At left is another participant, Pamela Shupp, president and CEO of the Greater Reading Economic Partnership.
PHOTO/CHRISTOPHER HOLLAND Gretchen Mohen, owner of Lehigh Valley Plastics and S&W Metals, makes a point at the roundtable discussion. At left is another participant, Pamela Shupp, president and CEO of the Greater Reading Economic Partnership.

When given an opportunity, run with it. Believe in yourself and your abilities.


Want to be a leader?

“Early in my career, I said ‘yes’ to everything that came my way,” said Pamela Shupp, president and CEO of the Greater Reading Economic Partnership, who started her career working for Reading’s zoning department.

“When you’re given an opportunity, take it.”

A zeal for work and projects was one of the key takeaways when four accomplished businesswomen in the Greater Lehigh Valley met this month at Lehigh Valley Business for a roundtable discussion on women in leadership and other issues faced by women in business.

Shupp was joined by Barbara Green, president and CEO, Blue Mountain Resort in Lower Towamensing Township; Sandra Kuhns, co-founder and president, Kuhns and Heller Custom Window Treatments in Trexlertown; and Gretchen Mohen, owner, Lehigh Valley Plastics Inc. in Bethlehem Township and S&W Metals in Colebrookdale Township.

The group had never met each other yet engaged in a frank, open conversation, sharing lessons they had learned over the course of their careers, which sometimes took unpredictable turns.

After earning college degrees, they began working in the 1980s. Over the next decades, they made advancements, endured setbacks and reset. They rewrote their resumes and ultimately set their careers on constructive paths where they forged leadership roles for themselves.

Green, who began her career as an accountant for a large firm in Philadelphia, said she hadn’t set out to be the CEO of a ski resort, but she realized she had the skills based on all the previous jobs and experiences she’d had, coupled with the fact the fact that she loved to ski.

The lesson, Green said, is don’t underestimate what you’ve learned from the jobs you’ve previously held, because the knowledge you’ve gained may be applicable to your next job.

Mohen said to advance in one’s career, it’s important to have worked at more than one company in order to gain new skills, experience and perspective. If you’ve been a longtime employee at the same company, work in a different department to grow your skills, she recommended.

Kuhns considered herself fortunate that she learned about confidence and leadership from her mother, who led nearly every organization in which she participated. Having a strong role model helped, so that by the time Kuhns joined the corporate world, she knew she had the confidence to take on any job that came her way, and, ultimately, to start a company with her mother.

During the approximately one-hour discussion, the four talked about several other issues, including career advice, mentoring and re-entering the workforce.

The following is an edited and condensed transcript of the discussion, held at Lehigh Valley Business’ office in Bethlehem.

Lehigh Valley Business: How do you find or identify good mentors, and why is mentorship important?

Pamela Shupp: I think it’s when someone identifies in you that spark or that thing that they see in you that allows them to mentor you. I was very fortunate in that whatever my bosses saw in me at the time they said, “You know we’re going to start teaching you other things.”

I’ve had excellent mentors of both sexes. It didn’t occur to me that I needed a female mentor.

Now, I think we’re very conscious of the fact that when we see a talented young woman we absolutely want to jump in and give them opportunities that we had. Maybe things are a little bit more segmented than they used to be.

Gretchen Mohen: I’m going to say something maybe a little bit controversial, but I’m actually not a fan of mentorship and mentor programs. When I was at Morgan Stanley, I was in the IT [information technology] department and we had a diversity issue.

Management decided they would launch mentoring for women. This was going to be the bone they threw to solve the lack of women in senior positions problem.

We all got mentors. I actually came to like my mentor a lot as a human being, but professionally it didn’t do anything.

I think what is much better than mentoring is giving people projects, giving them the opportunity to produce something that gets noticed. You can work with that person in the context of the project.

They’re demonstrating their skills. You’re giving them a place to stand out and shine, but based on tangible things, not ‘Gee, I’ve had a mentor.’ But that might just be one biased experience.

Barbara Green: I think it’s something that sort of just comes naturally. There are some people who will come into my office and say, “You know, I’d really like to go and learn about this. What do you think of that?”

So you have this discussion. Yeah, this is great. But it usually has to come from the person.

GM: And it also can’t be, “I want a mentor so somebody advances my career for me.”

BG: So the open door policy, anybody in the company can go to anybody in the company about where they would like to be, I think we really, really try to live it. I also think in today’s age, especially in the business I’m in, you’ve got to have the people working at the same level as actually come to the resort.

I say every department should be 50-50. It makes a very, very balanced team when you have diversity on your team. And with us in the public eye all the time, it wins every time.

If you’re all in the same mode, it doesn’t work as well. Women all working together doesn’t work well, men all working together doesn’t work well, at least in my business.

PS: Age diversity, also.

BG: Oh, yeah. The healthier the organization, the more diverse, in my opinion.

Sandra Kuhns: I never really had any formal mentorship for myself or did it for anyone else. I think, like you said, it’s actually working on something together and learning that way, working on a project-by-project basis or case-by-case basis.

I try to do that when I have new employees. These are the results we want; these are the things I would do to get there. You can do that differently, but this is the result we want at the end.

I feel like that’s the way to do that. And to be there if there are people outside my company that I can help them find the right path.

I try to do that, too, because it’s always good to have somebody to bounce ideas off. I love to do that. I love to say to my peers, what would you do?

GM: Or play devil’s advocate.

LVB: What advice would you give to a woman who is re-entering the workforce after years away and is looking to land a job, or maybe she wants to hone her skills? Any specific piece of advice on that?

BG: I had that happen. I took five years off when my kids were very young and then came back. My training was as a Certified Public Accountant and I came back into the workforce as a chief financial officer of a very small IT company, but it was intimidating.

There was Lotus and then there was Excel and Word [laughter]. And I was like, oh my god, I’m not going to know what to do. All I could say is it’s sort of like going through labor, you’ll get through it after a couple of days then everything will be fine. Because it’s intimidating.

You’ve missed what’s happened. Things are changing so fast in our world. But it didn’t stop me once I got back in. You get back right into the swing of what to do and how to get there.

The next project comes along and you want to get it better than the last time. You just keep moving forward.

GM: I give you credit. I would not know how to answer that question because I would never have done it. I worked, my husband worked [at home], so he took care of the kids. I missed that and I’m reminded every now and then of field trips.

BG: It was the hardest job I ever did, staying home with three kids.

GM: Yeah, you made a big commitment to them.

BG: There’s nobody saying, “good job.” It’s always, you didn’t do more. Your significant other comes home tired from work just like you used to [laughter].

GM: I have not been eating bonbons on the couch!

BG: My second half of my career, after my kids, is probably my most rewarding. Again, it gets back to taking the initiative and wanting to be involved and communicating with everybody about what issues they have. How can you help them, whatever job you’re in.

SK: I think we have some great educational resources locally where you could pick up a class here or there. I think you should do that even if you’re not working.

It wouldn’t hurt to take a class in a computer program or whatever to keep up on that rather than wait until you’re ready to go back and then do it. It might be something while you’re home with the children and get you out of the house in the evening.

BG: My aunt, who was a teacher, went back for her master’s. I think she was 70. Just because she liked to learn. She never stopped going to class.

GM: I think to your point, coming back doesn’t mean coming back to what you were before you took the time, whether it was for childbearing or to care for an aging parent.

It’s a great opportunity to say, do I have the career I want to have or do I actually want to do something completely different? I think you’re right because there is so much opportunity to retrain.

PS: It does go back to that learning, as well. You’ve got to keep up on that even when you’re outside of the workforce.

But it’s interesting, I think women also have to come back in confidently. So you’ve been out of the workforce and all of these things happened, but you’ve got to come back in confident yet where you feel you can ask questions.

If you were out for five years now, the changes you would see now would be so completely dramatic if you tried to come back into the same field.

BG: Like I said, I went out doing Lotus and doing algebra in order to get your spreadsheets done, and then you come back and all of sudden, this is like so easy.

No one even understands the concepts behind them. We used to have to understand the concepts.

I’m sure men would have the same issue if they took time out.

LVB: What is the best career advice that you ever received?

BG: Make sure you can answer when, why, where and how much before you present what you want to do.

There are so many things you can bring to the table that I don’t think when you are young you feel like you can or you should. You’ve got to have confidence in yourself and you can be participating.

So use everything you have, all the assets you have, all the learning, all the family, all the friends, all the contacts.

SK: One thing I always tell people is to do what you say you’re going to do. If you say you’re going to get back to someone on something, then do that.

If you say when you’re going to do it, then do it. Even if you don’t have answer, tell them, I’m still working on it.

PS: You have to take advantage of every opportunity.

The other part of that is be confident. That makes up for so many other things. All of those insecurities have to take a back seat to walk and talk confidently.

GM: Maybe this has more from having grown up in sports: never give up. That kind of gets to being positive.

If you hit a brick wall, figure out how to get around it, through it, sideways. So many people when they hit a speed bump, they derail.

I think women are used to having to deal with a lot of crud because you’re working, you maybe have an ailing parent, you have kids, you have a spouse. It’s one of our assets.

There are 18 balls in the air. We have the ability to somehow hold 17 of them up, figure out that one that’s about to hit the ground, try to grab it and figure out how to get it back up there and then the next one goes.

It just makes us so much more resilient. If we just put everything we got into what we do, we can do awesome stuff.

I would say for young people, they have so much technology that they can deploy to strengthen them as people in the workforce. I would encourage them to do that, not just use it in their personal lives for Facebooking or whatever-ing, but to actually use it to learn, enhance skills, whatever they bring to the table, give them ideas.

In that sense, it’s a new world, we didn’t have that and they do.

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