Abuzz from an afternoon of speakers, attendees were treated to a panel discussion, Champions of Change, featuring leaders from key Minneapolis- and St. Paul-based businesses and organizations and moderated by Jim Smith, president and CEO of Thomson Reuters. Among the panelists — Dr. Penny Wheeler, president and CEO of Allina Health; Dr. Julie Sullivan, president of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.; Scott Anderson, chairman, president and CEO of Patterson Companies, Inc.; and Jennifer Smith, co-founder of Innovative Office Solutions.

Greeted with a warm round of applause, the discussion began with a discussion of professional challenges.

Dr. Sullivan noted that her journey was not about goals on a timeline, but seizing opportunity and climbing toward growth and enrichment. As an academic, she noted that she was being recruited for leadership roles, but her personal life took her elsewhere. After stepping off the leadership path for a professorship in San Diego, she was recruited to be a university provost a short time later, allowing opportunity to emerge.

“Sometimes you have to take a chance even when you don’t know the road,” she recalled.

“Julie is right,” said Anderson. “If anyone said that they plotted their career perfectly, I wouldn’t believe them.”

Dr. Wheeler echoed a similar sentiment, acknowledging her path from practicing medicine to business leadership was unexpected. “The obstacle was daunting at the time,” she added.

Jim Smith noted that part of success is becoming comfortable with confronting risk, adding, “The biggest thing I learned is that you have to take calculated risks to grow.”

The conversation turned to a discussion of managing stress. Dr. Sullivan noted that women and men may cope with stress differently, adding, “Women may be less likely to say ‘I will tough this out,’ opting instead to move to other more fulfilling opportunities.”

Dr. Wheeler echoed this sentiment, noting that high-stress industries, including the medical field, may have a challenge recruiting women into leadership roles. To confront this, the panel agreed, it comes down to managing culture within an organization.

“It’s part of our culture. It’s intentional,” Jennifer Smith responded. “Sometimes people think of culture as a fluff word… But it’s important for us to learn about our people.” She went on to explain that a number of processes play out to embody a strong culture that empowers women, including a longer hiring process to make sure that people “buy-in” to the organization and the model it embodies.

“You have to know what the company looks like,” Anderson added as the first step to find out how to be able to measure qualities like diversity.

Dr. Sullivan noted that if you want to change something you have to set goals, despite her aversion to the notion of “quotas.” The panel agreed, adding that often the most challenging aspect to supporting diversity and bridging the gap is about confronting unconscious bias.

Dr. Wheeler added that diversity can lead to success by a very simple measure — people prefer to deal with an organization that “looks like them.” To achieve this, Jim Smith noted that organizations need to be proactive in looking at the numbers and acting to incorporate diversity, as “measurement has matter.”

Beyond the metrics, discussion, the panel circled back to the importance of seizing opportunity and confronting risks. Part of success for women in business is about knowing when to step out and take the lead, Dr. Sullivan added, and while sometimes it take support, it also takes confidence.

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