In honor of International Women’s Day, I’ve compiled leadership advice from five of the finest contact center leaders I know. All have held senior leadership positions at enterprise-level contact centers. They are also sought-after speakers at industry events, such as the annual GTACC (Greater Toronto Area Contact Center Association) Women in Leadership Event.
One of those speakers is Afshan Kinder, Partner at the contact center consulting firm SwitchGear. She shared a story regarding expectations in the workplace. “The biggest challenge I faced was perception,” she says. “I’m small in stature and have a quiet voice. I don’t fit the stereotype of what people expect a leader to look like.”
She adds, “When I was Senior Vice President of Sales and Service at ING Bank, I was in the elevator with several newly hired team members and my Vice President, who was male and over six feet tall. Later that day, we both went to welcome the class. Just about everyone thought the VP was the Senior VP, and that I was his assistant. They didn’t even think I was a VP!”
Many people would be angry with that, however, Afshan says that she “wasn’t mad at all, because that’s what I’ve lived with for years.” Her advice: “The best remedy is to prove yourself by being the best you can be. That’s how you overcome adversity. Don’t give anyone a reason to doubt you. While that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, it’s only pressure if you feel you MUST do it. It’s not pressure when you WANT to do it.”
Being the “best you can be” is a common theme that I heard from these highly successful leaders. Heather Arthur, Vice President of Customer Care at Rogers Communications, says, “I learned early not to be like everyone else. After observing the behavior of successful leaders at that time, I tried a similarly masculine approach. But it did not feel genuine. When I found my voice and embraced my feminine energy, I played to my strengths. As a result, my career progression soared. By approaching difficult situations with compassion and curiosity, and by involving others in the solution, we all won together. The advice I would give to the younger version of myself is to ‘be yourself.’ It’s the one thing you do best!”
Elizabeth Sedlacek, Vice President, Client Relations & Partnerships at ContactPoint 360, agrees on the importance of being yourself. She tells aspiring female leaders, “Always be yourself. Be genuine and compassionate. In addition to being in tune with your customers, become a trusted advisor to your team.”
She recommends that leaders should “always prioritize your frontline agents. Make your contact center an uplifting, fun, great place to work. Have personal connections with employees and engage with them daily to show that they are valued. This should come naturally as a servant leader.”
In addition, Elizabeth highlights the importance of continuous learning: “I spend a lot of my time staying current on how we can better serve customers and employees. Discovering new channel options for customers, new training platforms for agents, and new sales and coaching tools will help you as a leader in our industry.”
That is why Afshan advises women to “always be learning on the job. Take a risk! Take those stretch assignments. Let learning be your compass, not a title and salary,” she says. “When you’ve invested in your growth and showcased your strengths through your achievements, you’ll earn the title and salary down the road.”
In addition, Penny St. Antoine, Senior Vice President of Single-Family Operations at MCAP Service Corporation, notes, “One of the most impactful developmental activities that I did was visiting other contact centers. Learning from other leaders and sharing best practices is a great way to improve your own leadership skills. It helps to develop a network of like-minded leaders who can share experiences and be a resource when you need advice.”
While reaching out to your peers may seem daunting, Penny finds that “most contact center leaders are willing to share their world with other leaders because they are passionate and proud of their teams.”
Learning also includes gaining broad experience to boost your career. Leanne Park, Principal Consultant at Macevan Consulting, advises female leaders to “learn everything. Take lateral positions to learn the broader picture. Learn about your industry and best practices. Be willing to make mistakes and learn from them.”
Career learning does not just happen on the job. Some of the best lessons take place when you are not at the office. Leanne notes, “Outside of work, my biggest development came from extracurricular activities. I played, coached and refereed soccer for over 30 years,” she says. “Playing in a competitive sport teaches you to work as a team, lead multiple personalities toward one goal, overcome obstacles and find motivation during hard times. Most importantly, you learn how to make mistakes and adjust quickly.”
Leanne applied those lessons in her former role as a senior contact center leader for one of Canada’s largest heating, air conditioning and plumbing companies. “Internally, I tried new things, tested assumptions and took risks. I learned from both good and bad experiences,” she says, adding that: “Often mistakes or the things that didn’t work will teach you more than your accomplishments.”
Great leaders are also great communicators. Heather notes that “to be the best at this role, you need exceptionally strong communication skills. Early in my career, I read books, took courses, and became a certified coach to take my communications skills to the next level. Even today, the books I read are still focused on good communication skills because the learning never stops.”
As a senior leader, you need to communicate with—and inspire—large groups of employees. Penny confides, “My biggest challenge was finding my voice. At first, I was more comfortable working in the background than standing up in front of people talking. Being able to communicate in large groups and build the culture was one of many lessons learned.”
She adds, “I needed to build a culture that wasn’t just about business updates. I encouraged my team to thank and appreciate team members. We added social, community and fun pieces, which made meetings interesting. After several years, my events expanded to include other teams within our office, as well as video communication to our branch network. The team really appreciates these communication forums and I love doing them!”
Communication is also a two-way street. According to Heather, great leaders need to “practice the art of asking questions. Inspire others to have the answers. In more senior roles, you will rely on the strength of your team. So, if you ask better questions, you can inspire your team to succeed.”
What if you have questions regarding your own career? Who can you turn to for advice? A mentor can help—or mentors. According to Afshan, “Don’t just seek out one mentor. Have many mentors. Each mentor should have different strengths and unique perspectives. This creates a mini-board that can provide support, perspective and advice. If you’re serious about your own development, take the time (and yes, it takes a lot of time) to seek out the right mentors and be prepared to clearly articulate what you need.”
In addition to mentors, Heather advises women in the contact center industry to “communicate your career aspirations. Tell people (your boss, your peers, your mentors) about personal goals and career paths. You will be amazed at how many people want to help you achieve success.”
Having the right attitude is also important. “Opportunities to learn and grow personally—or help others grow—depends on how you react to situations,” says Penny, adding: “People who complain about issues or challenges get stuck. Instead, look for opportunities in that situation. Take charge and speak up. If you have an idea, share it and ask for feedback. Ask others how we can be successful in this situation. You don’t have to have all the answers. You DO have to pull the right people together to find a way!”
Pulling the right people together toward a common goal, being genuine and communicating effectively, while always striving to learn and improve are hallmarks of great leadership.
Here are final words of advice from Heather: “Many years ago, I made a non-negotiable rule for myself: Never leave the office before positively influencing at least five people a day. Everything changed when I put this in place. By beginning each day with an attitude of service and measuring my success by the success of others, I found extreme gratitude and fulfillment. I truly believe this one change in my approach was—and still is—the catalyst for my growth and success. It is the reason I jump out of bed every day to lead teams.
“Look for people you can positively influence,” she adds. “Then, feel the gratitude that comes from serving from your heart.”