Women in Business Symposium panelists to reflect on how they navigated career changes

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Kendra Whitlock Ingram moved across the country to take over leadership of the Marcus Performing Arts Center, only to have the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the venue two weeks into her new role. 

VISIT Milwaukee chief executive officer Peggy Williams-Smith switched from the corporate hospitality sector at Marcus Hotels & Resorts to become the champion of Milwaukee’s convention and visitors bureau, just in time for what promised to be a historic event for the city, the 2020 Democratic National Convention. In a matter of months, that event and the entire tourism sector was completely upended. 

Sometimes, a career change is deliberate, the natural next step in one’s professional journey. Other times, change is caused by external and entirely unforeseeable circumstances.

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Whitlock Ingram and Williams-Smith are among a group of panelists – which also includes Leana Nakielski, strategic partnerships director for American Family Insurance, and Syneathia LaGrant, vice president of global learning and development for ManpowerGroup – who will discuss their stories of change during BizTimes Media’s Women in Business Symposium on Aug. 19. The panel discussion will be moderated by Laura Gutiérrez, executive director of the United Community Center. Click here for more information, and to register.

Each of the panelists has navigated shifts not only in their own career trajectories, but also in the teams they are charged with leading and within their industries. The panel discussion will include their reflections on changes related to leadership, company culture, mental health, and innovation. 

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LaGrant – who, prior to ManpowerGroup, worked in HR with some of the region’s largest employers, including MolsonCoors, Fiserv and Johnson Controls – said the past year and a half has highlighted the role of high-quality leadership in cultivating positive company culture. 

“What we realize now, and research is saying this: Any leader who leads with empathy is way more effective, especially in times of chaos and crisis,” she said. 

Particularly at a time when companies are struggling to retain workers and eager to draw many back to the office, a lack of empathy and self-awareness among leaders can easily translate to a disengaged workforce, she said. 

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Whitlock Ingram said company culture has been one of her highest priorities as she is in the process of hiring back nearly one-third of the Marcus Center staff, after the performance space sat virtually empty for 18 months. While it may be a rare occurrence for a leader to onboard that large a segment of their workforce at one time, it’s a position many employers – particularly those in the live entertainment and hospitality sectors – find themselves in as they rebound from pandemic-related closures.  

“This is probably the biggest existential issue in my organization right now,” Whitlock Ingram said, adding that the challenge is integrating new hires and creating cohesion with veteran staff. 

When it comes to finding qualified workers amid a labor shortage, LaGrant said employers are increasingly turning to upskilling and reskilling existing employees, casting wider hiring nets than before, and looking to talent pipelines as early as high school to build their workforce. 

While employers may find themselves competing with one another to meet their hiring needs, collaborations in the region can help enlarge the overall talent pool through intentional diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, Nakielski said. 

Nakielski – who has previously held leadership roles with the Greater Milwaukee Committee, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin and Growing Power – said she’s leveraged her nonprofit background in her current role, which has her connecting with academic, community and business partners to build Am Fam’s talent pipeline. 

“While, yes, we are all trying to tap into the same pool, we can broaden and strengthen that pool, if we share our best practices with one another,” she said. 

Each of the panelists will also share stories from their own professional journeys, how they navigated career advancements and when they knew they were ready for executive leadership positions. 

Whitlock Ingram said she’s seen many women, herself included, initially shy away from the C-suite for fear of not being ready, despite having the right credentials. Prior to becoming CEO of the Marcus Center, she was executive director of the University of Denver’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts and before that held various leadership roles at other performing arts centers and symphony orchestras. She said she wishes she wouldn’t have let fear hold her back from pursuing a top leadership position. 

“I wish I had done this sooner,” she said. 

Taking career leaps requires courage – and resilience in the face of setbacks, LaGrant said. 

“For women, it’s really important to think through what’s the worst that could happen. What are they going to say? No? You’re not going to be the first, you’re not going to be the last,” she said. 

The symposium will take place Thursday, Aug. 19 from 7:30-11:30 a.m. at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee. Registration is available at biztimes.com/women. 

The Women in Business Symposium is sponsored by title sponsor U.S. Bank, presenting sponsor MATC and signature sponsors CJ & Associates Inc., Davis|Kuelthau and Summit Credit Union. Event partners include Milwaukee Women inc, Professional Dimensions and TEMPO Milwaukee. 

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