During this Women’s History month, one of the key focuses is on gender parity advocacy.
Gender equality leads to increased innovation and creativity and better business results. The question is how women can stop taking a backseat and take more centre stage in the workplace.
Every week, Ebere Akadiri sits down with inspiring business leaders who are creating positive social change in diversity, inclusion and equity, finding out the backstory behind their journey to the top and how they are leading the change towards a more inclusive and equitable world.
In a recent episode, we featured a live conversation with Cristina Falcone, the Vice-President in Public Affairs for UPS Europe. She has held many managerial positions in product management, small business development, customer loyalty and public relations. She is very passionate about empowering women, professionals and entrepreneurs. She has dedicated her time to mentoring women and has participated in many Rise and Lead events. In this conversation, she discusses her journey to UPS’s top positions, what kind of support she received during her rise, and what tips she has for women who want to get to the top in leadership. She will also discuss how UPS is driving gender diversity in Europe.
Did Cristina ever dream of becoming the vice-president of UPS, and what is the backstory behind how she got to her position?
Cristina began at UPS in 2000 but never dreamed of building her career in the company.
She explained how her curiosity and participation in work meetings allowed her to learn about the business and discover that it was a fascinating industry that touched on all aspects of the supply chain. She was also exposed to various role models, enjoyed working with her colleagues, and found that the company’s values aligned with hers. So, curiosity was the first stepping stone for her to opening her mind and learning new things within UPS.
What came after is that she set herself personal goals to move up her career ladder. She passionately expressed that through curiosity and goal setting, she has now gotten her dream
How do people develop this curiosity style of leadership?
For Cristina, it is a matter of being open-minded and remembering that what you expose yourself to impacts your style of leadership. She used the example of attending meetings – even if these meetings are not relevant to your immediate job, following them will allow you to be more involved and learn about other aspects of the company you work for. Cristina, despite being Vice President, still does this today. She talks and makes connections with people outside of her field.
On her rise to the top, what have been Cristina’s biggest challenges and what has she done to overcome them?
Cristina highlighted that she had imposter syndrome when she began getting promotions. She joined UPS at a young age and felt that she was inexperienced. She explained that she felt insecure and questioned why she was being assigned tasks out of her expertise level. Having supportive managers propelled her confidence. She realised that she could always excel, but she needed to develop her competencies, skillset, and be open to feedback which fed into her growing self-confidence. Cristina also explained that she was very shy to begin with. Still, by observing others and their behaviour, especially how they interacted with others and how they built their networks, she took note and progressively overcame her shyness and moved out of her comfort zone. She talked about how she had a self-limiting belief that she was only skilful in communications, which is the area she started within the company. She decided to challenge herself, so she pushed herself out of her comfort zone and stretched herself into other areas UPS was working on, which allowed her to open doors to leadership roles.
The theme for International Women’s Day was “choose to challenge”. What has Cristina chosen to challenge?
Cristina is choosing to challenge accepting the circumstances which hold women back from their success, potential and fulfilment. Cristina explained that she was the first in her family to get a degree and a corporate role. She expressed that “your circumstances and history do not have to dictate your future”. This is especially pertinent now during COVID-19, as this pandemic has affected society across the board, especially women. Cristina enthusiastically talked about how UPS provides training for women entrepreneurs to grow their business and teach them how to tap into the e-commerce market to grow and succeed.
What is the difference between mentorship and sponsorship? How has Cristina benefitted from these in her career journey?
For Cristina, mentorship is like having a personal coach who provides another perspective and helps you define your passions and goals. She explained that if you are open and willing to grow and learn about your blind spots through someone you trust, this can help in your career advancement. In Cristina’s experience, she trusted her mentors through the critical feedback she received from them. She also admired their leadership skills, and she fostered productive and honest working relationships with them. She clarified that in order to establish this relationship, she offered her support for their work and delivered added value even though the job was above her expertise level. This enabled a trust base to be established, and once this happened, it gave her free reign to seek feedback from mentors in areas where she could improve. For Cristina, “it all starts with fostering trust”.
On the other hand, a sponsor is an enabler in your career, who connects you with others and opens doors; this person is your advocate. Cristina explained that to get a sponsor, the responsibility first lies in exposing yourself and your work, and approaching people. You need to show someone where you can deliver value, and they can then become an advocate for you in your growth and advancement within a company.
For companies who do not have mentor or sponsor programs, what can be done?
Cristina expressed that you need to be proactive and find mentors on your own – “go out, seek it and request it”. Her mentors and sponsors did not come from formal programs; they came from professional relationships that developed naturally. However, she specified that it was her responsibility to reach out to them, to vocalise how she valued their expertise in areas she needed help on and to ask for that help. The responses were usually positive, and the relationships she developed were either long or short term, but they served their purpose.
How should you go about finding a mentor and a sponsor?
Cristina explained that finding a mentor first starts with establishing what your plan is. What are the gaps you want to fill to get to your goals? Who have you observed around you that you think could help you on this journey? This all depends on who is accessible to you and who you have in your network. She echoed what she said previously on expanding your network out of your area of work so that you can truly understand the ins and outs of a company.
For sponsors, the focus shifts from asking for help to exposing your capabilities to others in your network by helping and volunteering. Only through these actions can you showcase the great work, and people will remember your name. Once a trusted relationship is established and someone sees you in action, you can ask for support in getting endorsed for a higher position.
Does Cristina think that training is important for career advancement, and what was an important training she did?
Cristina replied that training is important to keep your skills fresh – “we should all be lifelong learners”, she says. You cannot grow a business if you are not growing on a personal level.
For her, the most impactful training was a women’s leadership development training she undertook a few years ago. It helped her understand and address the barriers that hold women back from achieving professional goals and labelling the difficulties in overcoming these barriers. She also learned how to influence and lead with compassion effectively. This gave her an ongoing network that she still taps into.
Planning personal leadership starts with self-awareness. Did self-awareness help Cristina understand what training and competencies she needed to develop, who she needed to engage as a mentor and who to ask for support?
Cristina responded by saying that understanding the skillsets you have is one thing, but you should also be aware of what else there is underneath the surface, what has impacted you (e.g. your upbringing), and how this helps to take you forward professionally. For Cristina, who grew up with the notion to always be respectful to elders, she had to learn how to balance this respect with challenging things when there is a path she thinks the company should take. Self-awareness was an eye-opener for her in guiding her into the leader she is today. She recognised that a lot of her hesitation at the beginning of her career was down to her upbringing of elderly respect and her imposter syndrome she mentioned earlier. Cristina explained that it is important to learn how to address passion, respect and putting yourself forward at the same time. You need to use this as a foundation for your professional growth and focus on setting goals to fix what is missing, recognising where you are today as a leader.
Many leaders have struggled during the lockdown with balancing family, work demands etc. How has Cristina successfully managed this period with regards to her mental health and self-care?
We need to be careful about how we manage our time. Cristina said she has been more selective in what she does and uses a calendar to distinguish which meetings and activities she accepts to participate in. She has been working long hours during COVID, but she kept family time consistent, especially at dinner times. She also explained that we need to start the day positively and energetically and visualise what we want to get done that day. Keeping a grateful mindset has also helped her mentally and kept the lockdown situation manageable by
putting things into perspective.
What three things have helped her get to where she is today?
- Having a vision and goals and understanding “what is it that I want?”.
- Taking action and personal development – “what do I need to do in order to build the competency to attain that vision”.
- Network and support building through action and luck – asking for it or knowing the right people.
Cristina’s concluding thoughts to the discussion were that “you don’t need to wait for a title to be a leader, and you don’t stop growing once you get to that position”. A leader takes the initiative to grow and add value to themselves, their business and to others.
Sources for further information on gender parity: