Spotlight: Accelerating Women in Customer Experience Leadership

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) are increasingly important to employees of all generations; they want to work at organizations with values that align with their own. During the Genesys Xperience 2024 conference, several sessions addressed DEI in customer experience roles, including one of two sessions specifically focused on women’s advancement. 

Amy Slater, Vice President, North America Partner, GSI and Alliances Sales, led the panel discussion titled, “Accelerating Women in Leadership,” and featured several women in CX leadership positions who discussed the challenges women face in getting where they want to be — or to places they’ve never imagined they would be, among other topics.  

Panelists included: 

What are some of the keys to forging highly successful careers in business and technology fields? 

Mary Henderson, IHG Hotels and Resorts: Be authentic, make sure that your voice is your voice. I remember when I was starting out [in this male-dominated field] and was trying to act like a guy and say words like guys do. I have four brothers, so it was easy to do, but it didn’t feel natural.  

People didn’t connect with me. I found that being authentic is the way to connect with people. And when you can connect with people, you can influence people.  

Also, have compassion and humility. It’s a way to listen — when you’re compassionate, and you have humility. You listen, and when you listen, you learn. I’ve been able to gain a lot of knowledge just by hearing what people are saying with a compassionate ear and being humble, not thinking that I know everything. 

Yalonda Wilson, Voya Financial: A big pivot point for me in my career has been learning to fail and accepting that failure is okay. I come from a time when technical implementations needed to be flawless; get it right the first time because there’s no coming back to make enhancements.  

So, it took a lot to learn to fail and to fail fast and then to make incremental improvements. And, in fact, we’ve changed the name of failures to minimum viable product, right? We launch a minimum viable product, and then we go on to improve and improve and improve.  

Nichole Conway, Missouri Department of Social Services: For me it’s having that supervisor who pushes you because you can’t always be your own cheerleader. You have to surround yourself with people who you know are going to push you outside your comfort zone.  

A pivotal moment for me was a supervisor of mine and I were making plans for a call center. It was about two years down the road because in state government, you have to plan that far out. I was overwhelmed thinking, ‘It’s two years away; we’re never going to get there.’ And he said, ‘You’ll have two years to go every day until you start.’ That was the push I needed.  

What are the most important skills and strengths you’ve learned along your career journey? 

Stacy Darling, Amica: Persistence is key in any role, specifically in leadership — and as you work to achieve your goals. But also, making sure you’re supporting your team, because you’re only as good as the folks you surround yourself with. Making sure they have the knowledge and the tools so they can achieve their goals as well.   

Mary Henderson: Telling the story to bring people along on the ride; letting them know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Telling them the reasons you’re asking them to stay up extra hours and take calls in the middle of the night. They need to know how they fit into the finished product.  

This approach also gives people an opportunity to share their fears about what’s on the other side of change. And as a leader, you try to soften that fear by giving them confidence and including them along that journey. 

Yalonda Wilson: I like to be a situational leader. I try to recognize what people’s passions are, what drives them, what encourages them to come to work every day and do the things they need to do to push us forward. It’s all about discerning where the person is, so I can figure out if I need to help lift them up the ladder — if that’s what they want.  

It’s also recognizing if that’s not what they want, and then helping them to be the absolute best individual contributor they can be because they’re very valuable, too.  

It’s also about being courageous enough to hire people who are smarter than you, letting them know you’re coming to them because of their expertise, and helping them to understand how that contributes to the organization.   

Nichole Conway: You have to be OK with saying ‘I don’t know’ in an executive position. Saying, ‘I’m going to have to ask somebody’ is a much better path than saying, ‘I understand,’ and then you leave the room, and everybody thinks you’re on the right path going forward when you don’t even know where the path started.  

What are some of the challenges around diversity and inclusion and how do you address them? 

Yalonda Wilson: Allowing people to be their authentic selves and feeling like you can be your authentic self when you walk into the workplace or call into the workplace or jump onto video these days.  

In terms of allowing people to be their authentic selves in this environment where so many of us are still virtual, we have to make sure that people have a point of connecting — connecting with the company and connecting with other individuals. I try to make it a point to do those things.  

One way is by meeting colleagues in person when I travel. Another way of establishing connections are councils. I’m the chair of the African-American and Black Council. We have an Asian council; we have Hispanic and Latino; we have LGBTQ+ and Allies; we have Environmental Stewardship, and a host of other councils that give people an opportunity to connect.   

Nichole Conway: Even as recent as maybe 10 years ago, if you wanted to move up within the agency, you needed to live in Jefferson City, the capitol, because that’s where all the exec staff is. That’s where the legislators are. That’s where central the office is.  

But in the last seven or eight years, it’s changed. We have executive staff in these tiny towns with 500 people. 

Also, we have a diversity and inclusion team that pulls new members in every year from these little towns and from the metro areas, too. And we get all these people in a room and talk about operating procedures from their perspectives, how they fit or don’t fit an area because that’s not how people communicate there. And you talk about it, and you fix it, and you move on.  

Allowing people from all different parts of the state to participate in that has been very impactful.  

Stacy Darling: Similarly, it’s participating in different groups. We have a Women in Leadership group that we participate in, and we do service initiative projects. As a company, we have a strong diversity and inclusion program where we do lunch-and-learns on a regular basis so we can learn from our Native American community, our LGBTQ+ community, African-American community, among others. We also have community leaders come in and talk about their challenges and what we can do to help support their groups and others in the communities outside the company.  

Mary Henderson: It’s also about diversity of thought and cultures. When you have a lot of different perspectives, you come out with the best solutions. Everyone is not coming at it from the same angle or the same experience, and it gives you a richer environment to thrive in and a better product. 

How, if at all, will areas of opportunity shift for women as the technological landscape continues to change and AI becomes more prevalent?  

Yalonda Wilson: What I would say is, don’t run from change. Run toward the changes and embrace them because they’re going to continue to happen.  

Then figure out what the needs are and what you’re passionate about. And once you figure that out, you get to fill in those gaps. For example, we need a person at our company who can speak both with technical prowess and business prowess because sometimes people can’t cross that bridge.  

Stacy Darling: I hope AI will offer, through data-driven insights, additional opportunities for diversity of women in leadership. So, the most important thing is that we’re looking at the data that it’s returning and we’re ensuring that it’s providing the right outputs.  

It’s important that any AI that’s implemented is done in a thoughtful way to make sure that it aligns with the principles of fairness, transparency, and ethical use — so that we’re not unconsciously furthering any inequities that already exist.  

What’s one final piece of advice for anyone who’s starting a new career or trying to accelerate in their current career? 

Stacy Darling:  The piece of advice that worked for me personally was not being afraid to step through a door when it opens. Even though it may be scary and sometimes your career doesn’t always go up the way you’d like it to. I would also say, don’t be afraid to take advantage of opportunities that come your way, even if it means taking a lateral change, because you’ll always learn from that.   

Nichole Conway: Apply for the jobs that you’re not qualified for. Get out there, put your name out there. Seventeen years ago, I was working at a gas station. Now I’m sitting on this panel. 

Yalonda Wilson: There’s something to be learned from everybody in every situation. Is everything a life lesson? Yes, it is.  

So, make sure you’re learning from every single thing in every situation — even the person you don’t think you learn from and even if it’s what not to do.  

Mary Henderson: Be intentional. Plan and prioritize your career like you would anything else of importance in your life.