Jessie Houlihan is used to being the only woman in the room, but she doesn't see it as a disadvantage: it's her superpower.

As the president of Stahl Construction, Houlihan is among the women who have moved into male-dominated sectors in larger numbers nationwide.1 Women are changing the definition of leadership with the strengths, skills and perspectives they bring to the table. The 2020 Fortune 500 list2 revealed a record high of 37 female CEOs, including Mary Barra of General Motors and Beth Ford of Land O'Lakes, some of the first female C-suiters in two industries heavily dominated by men.

For Houlihan, who now serves as the lead contact for Stahl's clients and partners, redefining leadership began in her earliest days at the company, which followed successful runs at technology and international environmental consulting firms. After joining Stahl, she started by interviewing clients, design partners and every single employee to assess the company's strengths and weaknesses. At the time, she was in her 20s and pregnant.

“There are barriers, for sure, when you don't look or sound like the other people in your seat,” Houlihan says. “But that can also be an opportunity to evolve someone's perspective. I'm not someone who gets easily offended if people don't understand why I'm doing the work that I am. I've always taken that as a chance to demonstrate excellence and, perhaps, change the way they see women in leadership.”

Houlihan used the collective wisdom she gathered to put together a five-year plan for change in an industry not known for forward-looking ideas. Her strategies yielded not just economic success for Stahl, but a broader vision for positive impact, including projects like the zero-waste living building project they completed this year.

“I believe diversity of thought leads to better outcomes,” Houlihan says. “Perpetuating the same thinking for the same audience when your actual client base and the world is more diverse every day is a recipe for failure.”

There are still not many female mentors for Houlihan to look to in her field, so she's collected role models and mentors in other industries and geographic regions that she admires for different reasons.

“Ultimately, my guiding force has never come from looking towards mentorship or finding someone else who has done what I want to do,” she says. “It has been born of the simple practice of listening to my internal compass and asking myself how I can show up as the fullest expression of myself and my purpose through the work at hand.”

She encourages the same from her team.

“I want people to show up as their whole selves – their dreams, strengths, magic all come out when we honor their whole being and align their path with an integrated vision. In a world that says success looks like execution alone, we've devalued humans, even men who are conditioned to disconnect from their emotions, and it is a shame for all.”

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Women look at the whole picture

As head of Advice and Solutions for RBC Wealth Management-U.S., Ann Senne brings a unique perspective to the male-dominated wealth management industry. While she started in a more traditional accounting job, she quickly moved into leadership positions. In her current role, she leads the team responsible for designing the financial planning experience for the firm’s more than 2,000 financial advisors, and delivering solutions and training so advisors can best serve their clients.

With more than 25 years’ experience in finance and through her perspective as a woman, Senne has helped shift the conversation with clients from an investment-led experience to a goals-based experience, which she says coincides perfectly with women’s unique skillset.

“Clients want to understand the meaning behind the numbers. Yes, their portfolio is up 10 percent, but they want to know if that means they can retire. It’s a feelings conversation, not just a tactical plan,” she says. “Women bring a deep understanding and empathy to those conversations.”

That’s why Senne and other leaders at the firm believe having more women in the company's ranks is critical to RBC Wealth Management clients: Only about one-quarter of financial advisors are women, but studies have shown 70 percent of women want a female advisor.

“It’s important to have different voices at the table to ensure all perspectives are represented, increasing the strength of the team,” Senne says.

Diversity matters across the board, too. Senne is focused on female representation in the research team and at the leadership level, as well. Beyond the work she is doing within her own division, Senne serves on RBC’s Diversity Leadership Council and is an executive sponsor of one of the firm’s women-focused employee resource group.

Women bring a diversity of skills

Elizabeth Miller planned to be a cardiologist, but while in medical school she was captivated by the complexity of critical care. Today she's a pulmonologist and medical director for the Intensive Care Unit at Methodist Hospital in suburban Minneapolis. It treats complex cases, including COVID-19 patients, and others who need ventilators.

Miller and her team of nine—seven of whom are women—are a rarity in the field of critical care.4 She suspects one reason for that disparity may be due to the unpredictability of the schedule, making for a difficult work-life balance. “In the ICU, you can't predict everything because people are really, really sick,” she says. “So you might not make it to dinner or you might not make it to the soccer game.”

Miller is part of a workgroup in the Twin Cities mentoring the next generation of critical care female physicians. It includes training rotations at her hospital, as well as guidance on how they can land their first job and negotiate salary and time off.

Because she has the skills and expertise to take care of the sickest COVID-19 patients, Miller works 12- to 16-hour days when she's serving in the intensive care unit, compared with the usual eight to 10.One of her team members had eight patients die in one week.It's a heavier lift right now,” she says.

Women in critical care—and medicine in general—bring a lot of needed compassion and empathy to their roles in dealing with both patients and their families, she says.

“Part of what we do in critical care is save people's lives. But the other part is giving people a good end of their life, too,” Miller says. “It takes a lot of conversations with families. And that's not something that every critical care doctor has as a skill.”

While Miller doesn't usually experience pushback as a woman in her leadership role, she did have a patient's family ask to speak with a male doctor. She explained to them she had the same specialty. “I didn't say this at the time, but I'm actually his boss.”

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Originally written by Mpls.St.Paul Magazine in collaboration with RBC Wealth Management.