Break the Ceiling, Touch the Sky

Exactly a week ago today I was in NYC for Break the Ceiling, Touch the Sky, a success and leadership summit for women. Unifrax’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Brian Walker was asked to speak on a panel at the event by Anthony Rose, Owner of House of Rose Professional and creator of the conference. Brian invited a couple Unifrax colleagues to accompany him for the event. I’m so grateful to have attended! Read on if you’re interested in seeing my notes and take-a-ways!

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The first panel featured Julie Hamilton from Diageo, Natalia Shuman from Bureau Veritas, Lisa Coleman from NYU, and Chester Twigg from BIC.

Julie first spoke on what are the top skills and mindset shifts leaders will need. Her first point was that change is part of the journey. Change is the journey. Change is always happening, so embrace it. With change comes opportunity. I loved this point because there really isn’t an option anymore to be change adverse, I think you’ll be left behind. Embrace it and move forward. Her next point was that working in teams won’t change. So being able to be part of a team and lead a team will be essential leadership skills. She went on to say maybe what work the team does or how they work will change due to technology, but we will still have teams. Her next point was to stay curious, make connections and always be learning. Surround yourself with positive people. If you aren’t happy, YOU own that. No passing blame onto others for your current situation. Be the leader that you’d want to follow. Inspire people and build relationships.

Lisa spoke next and started with her top tip for leaders – always hire people who are smarter than you. Next, know your triggers. What frustrates you and keeps you up at night. Be aware and be real with yourself so you can manage these and not let them affect you negatively. Then she asked us to ask ourselves where we are on a learning and adaptability scale? It’s important to be self-aware and know your strengths and weaknesses. She closed with that leaders need to focus on innovation. Use your teams, universal design for learning, knowledge production and engage your staff and teams.

Natalia started with piggy-backing off of Julie’s point about change – find the positive in the change. Next she talked about how as a leader, she encourages impact thinking within her team. We can be so focused on the tasks at hand, that we don’t think about the impact we produce. She works with her teams to think about what impact they’re making on other employees, customers and the business. And as a leader she focuses on the impact she has on her employees’ experience. She then talked about the importance of self-management. As a leader, you need to empower your team to arrange their day for themselves. Let them think about their impact, their personal/family needs, and design their day. Make sure we are doing that for ourselves as leaders too!

Chester talked about his 5 C’s. Which ended up turning into 7 C’s from the other panelists. It was the day of C’s!

  1. Curiosity is a key skill for leaders in the future. He quoted Yogi Berra “the future is not what it used to be” indicating that the future is becoming harder to predict. Leaders need to be curious in order to stay ahead of the curve. Another quote he mentioned was “If you see a fork in the road, take it”
  2. Critical thinking, making the complex more simple
  3. Confidence. Jump in, stretch yourself, jump into new opportunities
  4. Creativity
  5. Courage
  6. Be coachable. Take feedback you receive seriously. If a mentor gives you feedback, how you respond and take that information and criticism is important. Put your ego behind.
  7. Control. Take control of your situation and career. Raise your hand so that someone can see you and help pull you up! (more on this topic later from Marcia Bole)

Lisa Coleman then made the point, related to control, brand yourself or you will be branded. I LOVED this! It’s so true. Be proactive in creating the narrative for yourself and curate yourself, make yourself understood in your organization as a high potential. If you don’t, people will create their own thoughts of you.

first panel - natalia julie lisa

Next we heard from Monique Lanaux from Pepsi Co. She talked about their internal D&I initiatives and programs. I especially loved the information about their #EmpowerHer program which helps women elevate their business impact by tapping into their authentic selves! The program focuses on how to navigate work and life, and build skills for both. Sample topics in their program include building resilience, building capacity to expand yourself, how to step into your strengths and your life print. The program helps women operate with a new level of bravery and be themselves at work with no regrets. Graduates of the program are ready to fill gaps in the organization and take on new opportunities.


We then heard from Lisa Coleman again from NYU. She talked about some of their research and initiatives. Some interesting points from her presentation were that Generation Z sees diversity as a positive thing, cares a lot about being able to be authentic at work, and wants to be more mobile. She said 53% of Gen Z would rather give up their sense of smell than their phone or other item of technology. They care about honesty and transparency from employers (don’t we all!) and they are about how employers give back and engage in their community. Side note – I’m so proud of the work Unifrax is doing with our Global Diversity & Inclusion Impact Council, Community Involvement Committee and After 5 Club. Great ways for employees to get involved, team build, learn, network internally and have some fun! She closed with how the US is no longer the top source for talent. Employers have to be flexible, global and allow for remote positions if they want to fill their roles and access top talent.

lisa coleman

The next panel featured Consoles Gonzalez from Better Not Younger, Angie Halamandaris from Juniper Group and Marcia Bole from RB. The topic was charting a course from the middle to the C-suite!

Sonsoles started by talking about how you don’t have to know everything! But if you get good experiences, have a strong work ethic, network and have confidence, you’ll be able to get to the next level.

Angie talked about what she calls the 3 P’s – passion, purpose and people. Have energy and excitement for what you’re doing, know your why, and bring people together by including and inspiring them.

Marcia talked about her education in pharmacy and biochemistry. She said having this technical knowledge was not enough to get ahead, she had to know the business in order to get a seat with the executives. She also talked about how you can learn something from every person you interact with. You cannot do things alone – be an enabler for others, a facilitator, unblock the road for others. She then talked about her step by step process for how to take control of your career and get ahead. This was probably my favorite take-a-way from the conference!

  1. Design your flight plan. What do you really want from your career. What do you want now, next, and after that
  2. Consider who else is on your plane – do you have a co-pilot, crew, passengers. Who else do you need to consider in this plan
  3. MY FAVORITE ONE – make sure your plane is on the radar/can be seen by the control tower. She said as women, we can be excelling and doing all of the right things. BUT if the right people don’t see this, or know what you want and where you’re trying to go, it’ll be harder to get there!
  4. Put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others. It’s not selfish, it’s necessary to take care of yourself and follow your own values.
  5. Pilot your plane to break the ceiling and touch the sky. Go for it, you can do it!

The mic then went back to Angie. She talked about how important it is to recognize why you got to where you are today. Develop and invest in your strengths, continue to create your secret sauce. Do what comes natural for you. Surround yourself with people who compliment your strengths. According to Gallup research, you are 3xs more likely to report positive quality of life when you get to use your strengths.

Sonsoles then wrapped up the panel by saying if you’re going to be an entrepreneur, gravitate towards your strengths and what you’re good at. Not just what’s hip at the moment and will make you money. You will fail and not be as fulfilled. Also, be aware of what you’ll be leaving behind when becoming an entrepreneur. You’ll have to manage your resources much more carefully and your time will be limited. Be prepared to learn and be humble. Don’t just have others do things for you, learn how to do it yourself. Get ready to be really hands on and in the weeds.

consoles marcia

The next panel was on wellness and taking care of yourself. My favorite take-a-ways were from Jennifer Murtell from SnapDragon, Rosana Melendez Colon from Walmart Puerto Rico and Holly Shafer from Besomebody, Inc.

Jennifer talked about the importance of making time for yourself that’s a safe space. Where you can reflect, deprogram yourself from bias, find your agency, tune into your true self, tap into your skills that you maybe weren’t raised to use. She said as a young girl, she was taught by her parents to be caring and empathetic and wasn’t encouraged to use some of her natural skills like thinking logically and making sound decisions. She enjoys spending time to exercise these other skills and traits. She also talked about the importance of surrounding yourself with positive people, a topic brought up earlier. She said her husband said to her, “your abilities don’t give me a disability.” I loved this phrase! Don’t be resentful when other people are doing well. There’s room for all of us to do well.

Rosana talked about her metaphor of a tree and how it relates to self care and self growth. She basically said be a tree, not a bush! When you grow up into a tree:

  • Your roots spread -you gain more experience, you’re more grounded and sure of yourself
  • Your trunk gets stronger- you gain more knowledge and strength through life experiences
  • You grow more branches – you’re flourishing and can take on more
  • You can provide more shade – to others!

Holly talked about managing her schedule. Looking at meetings and deciding what she does not need to be at. Instead of looking at your calendar and thinking what you want/need to do, look at what you don’t want to do, and then decide if you really need to be there. She also talked about cracking the door open with self care. It’s easier said than done of course. But once you start, say it’s yoga for an hour once a week, it becomes more non-negotiable. Not many things will be urgent enough that you need to forego that time. This really resonated with me because sometimes I can feel my tendency to micromanage creeping up and I just need to take a step back and realize I don’t need to be at that meeting. Other people are capable of taking care of it and there are only so many hours in the day!

Lois Lee from Children of the Night brought tears to my eyes. I can’t believe I had never heard of her before. Look her and her amazing organization up right now! I didn’t take as many notes as I wanted to because I was so present and captivated by what she was saying. She talked about living your purpose. She said if you’re going to influence change, you will need a strong support system. Keeping moving forward and don’t look back. 250 children who had been victims of sex trafficking or related some how to the sex trafficking business came through her small apartment over a 3 year period when she was working on her dissertation in LA. She said you’ll have to make hard decisions and stand by your morals. I believe the example she provided related to this statement was that the police, or the news offered her money for her charity if she would release names and other information about the victims she was helping. HARD PASS. Tough decision and she would have loved the help, but she stuck to her morals. She also talked about how changing the world for the less fortunate is not a friend game. You will burn bridges but it’s okay if you are sticking to your morals and doing what you know is right.

Next up was the panel Brian spoke on, male champions for D&I! Anthony Rose shared some research on how having women on your board is better for business. Businesses with women on their boards became more ethical, had less fraud and had better attendance at meetings. He also talked about not working with agency recruiters who bring you the easy candidates, challenge them to look for women leaders. Do business with those who are also champions for D&I.

One of the questions asked of Brian was “should men feel threatened at all by the agenda to bring women into leadership” (something to that affect) and he talked about how if you’re a male and you’re worried about a woman taking your job, then you’re probably on the wrong side of this initiative. We should all be focused on being the best version of ourselves and our own performance, anyone could take our role from us.

Brian also talked about how diversity improves business – it forces us to hear perspectives we may not have otherwise heard, it forces us to listen to each other and ask questions of each other, to be curious and respectful. His power tip he closed with was just do something. All of us doing a little bit adds up to a big impact. Mentor someone, demand the diverse slate of candidates, have a conversation with your team about D&I and what it means to them, do they think we lack diversity, etc. Learn about other people and be an ally.

Anthony closed with, if you care about D&I, you care about it. A lot of people are good at talking the talk and it’s easy to see who is really invested in it. It shouldn’t matter what company you’re with, it should be part of who you are. If there’s a male champion for D&I that you know, each out to them and thank them, let them know they’re making a difference, ask them if they need any help in order to do even better work. Men who are champions for D&I are responsible for getting more men on board.

brian speaking

We closed the day with the following activity:

  1. What did I learn today? I learned how to continue to be an advocate for myself, the importance of making what you want known to others, the importance of getting a mentor, and bringing along other women and helping them develop too!
  2. What will I reapply tomorrow with my own career/team? The importance of having my flight plan and being on the radar. That inspired me to reevaluate my plan and make sure I’m on the right track. Also to check in on myself and my self care. Am I managing my time well and taking care of myself. Checking in on my team and making sure they’re taking care of themselves too.
  3. What can I personally do to create a more inclusive environment in my own workplace? I make sure to say hi and smile to everyone I see in the hall. I try to learn everyone’s names. I help my hiring managers create diverse interview teams and help the women on their team gain new leadership skills. I contribute to our internal committees that bring people together in welcoming environments to engage and get to know each other!

It was a jam packed and inspiring day. Always so thankful for the opportunity to attend conferences, learn and network. If you read all the way to the end, leave me a heart emoji in the comments of my LinkedIn post that references this blog post. (: Even better, let me know your thoughts on my post and if anything resonated with you!

Until next time…


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