Power Women: Susan MacKenty Brady Of ‘The Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership’ On How To Successfully Navigate Work, Love and Life As A Powerful Woman

An Interview With Ming Zhao

Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

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… Practice # 2: Embrace Authenticity. Be…you; encourage honesty from yourself about who you really are and help others do it too. Being free to be authentic will save you all that energy spent on trying to be what you think others want you to be. Model what real is so others can be who they really are, too.

How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.

As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing (Susan MacKenty Brady.

Susan MacKenty Brady, CEO of The Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership and Deloitte Ellen Gabriel Chair for Women and Leadership at Simmons University. As a relationship expert, leadership wellbeing coach, author, and speaker, Susan advises leaders and executives globally on fostering self-awareness for optimal leadership. Susan is the co-author of the WSJ Bestseller Arrive & Thrive: 7 Impactful Practices for Women Navigating Leadership.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I credit my parents for giving me the leadership basics of agility, compassion, and confidence. I was raised year-round by a single father on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. My Mom was and is very much in my life and she and my stepfather played a big role in my “off-island” formation as a human (-: Though I was shy and a bit gangly as a kid, I found my courage and “voice” on the theatre stage at Island Theatre Workshop. I was an encouraged leader in high school (president of my senior class, founder of the PEP Club, leader of the leadership club) and active in my church ecumenical youth group.

I went on to attend Marietta College, a small liberal arts school in southeastern Ohio and studied leadership and business communications. My master’s degree is in applied behavioral science and educational leadership and I consider myself a social and pragmatic humanist at heart.

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

I have always been interested in people, relationships, and leadership. My path began by my own clumsy — always well-intended — ways of leading, ironically mostly while working in revenue-producing positions for leadership development consulting and training firms. I became a teacher, author, expert over time because as I learned better ways of managing myself as a leader, I wanted to socialize the learning with others.

To this day, I really like the duality of 1) dreaming up a future that does not yet exist and then galvanizing others to join me in making it manifest and 2) awakening spirit about empathy-first, conscious leadership that helps to remind people of the heart of humans (themselves included).

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In 2014, I was encouraged to make the leap from growing a business as a revenue-producing leader (and hosting our main event as emcee) to stepping on stage as a thought leader.

It was for the Women in Leadership Institute — a business I was running at the time. I had no idea what I could offer to 800+ women leaders other than share how I manage my own inner critic. So, I did. Afterward, several women in the audience asked me if I had a book about my practice. (I did not.) So, I wrote the 30 Second Guide to Coaching Your Inner Critic. Then I was invited to speak more and more and consult with women leaders — and often the men who mentored or led them — and discovered the 7 Hurdles and how that pesky inner critic mucks it all up for women.

I then wrote Mastering Your Inner Critic and 7 Other Hurdles to Advancement: How the best women Leaders Practice Self Awareness to Change what Really Matters. I traveled all over the world and spoke at hundreds of organizations.

You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Self Confidence. Specifically, boldly bringing ideas to life. One example is collaborating with my incredibly accomplished co-authors on my latest book, Arrive & Thrive: 7 Impactful Practice for Women Navigating Leadership. We believe the best thing about thriving is that it’s contagious. Women leaders who champion their strengths and are open about their vulnerabilities are more likely to inspire others. And yet… Too often, our work culture encourages women to get their foot in the door, only to leave them without support once they step in. We wrote Arrive and Thrive to change that. This book is our attempt to start these honest conversations and help women get the resources, advice, and support they need to thrive as leaders.
  2. Strategic thinking. My latest personal examples are needing to 1) make meaning of the endowed chair I was asked to step into, and 2) raise the profile of the newly established Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership. This project that became a book that is becoming a movement called Arrive & Thrive is all very intentional and strategic. Like my co-authors, I want women to own their power in ways that honor our individual strengths (instead of trying to fit in to a working world created by men, for men.).
  3. Communicating effectively. Writing and speaking, and enthusiastically enrolling others by communicating effectively, comes naturally to me. I love telling stories — and hearing the stories of others. I love engaging the hearts and minds of awesome people who want to be even better.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?

  1. External to women: For far too long, women leaders have had to focus on survival. After all, women comprise less than a quarter of middle managers, and that number shrinks even further at each rung of the corporate ladder. Even women who rise all the way to CEO experience higher turnover than their male counterparts do. Bias and stereotypes and blindness to both by all of us play a large role. Biases like the “likability” bias are still perpetuated by so many — even women!
  2. Internal to women: Our own blindness about the invisible hurdles and biases women face and a lack of understanding about how best to navigate it adds to our discomfort with strong women. I also believe that some strong women confuse or get wrong altogether the responsibly of power by not caring enough about their impact on others. When they do, they face great scrutiny and criticism by all genders.

Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?

  1. The best example of the “likability” bias I know is a recent presidential election — where many people voted against a competent candidate not because they didn’t like her policy but because they didn’t like her. She wasn’t likable.
  2. I have coached many executive-level men who don’t get the people part of the job right (empathy, communication, inclusion, etc.). When a “difficult” exec finds themselves being coached by me and they are a woman, they haven’t usually yet been advanced but COULD if they ___. When a “difficult” exec finds themselves with me and they are a man, they have advanced and are now causing problems on a grander scale — this time with power.

What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?

One of the 7 Impactful Practices is Embracing Authenticity, and this chapter addresses this directly. Let down the veneer of perfection and be authentic: Be real. Be herself. Be human. Share a story or give a window into her humanity. A great way to do this is to share a story of resilience or courage or authenticity or connection. Women leaders who champion their strengths and are open about their vulnerabilities are more likely to inspire others — both to grow as individuals and to better their teams, organizations, and communities.

What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?

Bring more powerful women out from behind the scenes and get to know them. Advance more women so there isn’t othering around the “unease.” Once we have more women in positions of leadership — integrated into how industries and sectors are run on parity to men — unease will decline. It’s getting there that’s the challenge!

In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?

My own realization is that my belief in meritocracy was naïve happened slowly over time. I looked around me and realized my actions and intent were landing differently than my male counterparts. I was getting feedback like “you need to show more vulnerability” and learned that some of my colleagues assumed my tenacity was self-serving.

The men around me were not getting this same feedback, and in many cases, ran products or eventually lines of business that were growing far slower than those that I ran. Given that men were a significant and trusted early part of my support system throughout my life, I never thought that being a woman made me show up differently. Until it did.

I thought leading effectively and advancement happened the same way for everyone: hard work, smarts, and a track record of results would lead to promotions. I began to look into advancement issues for women and consistent challenges — or hurdles as I came to call them — emerged. This was the start of the field research on the 7 Hurdles and how second book came to be.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women have expectations of themselves that makes leading harder, these are learned and often implicit expectations. Further, the sheer population disparity between the number of women leaders vs. men offers a context that is wrought with inequity.

Leaders are not helped to see some of the implicit biases and expectations of women, and in turn our ability to navigate our own professional lives involves challenges that we don’t have awareness of, language for, or often the support to manage.

There are still systems at play with workplace norms that make it more difficult for women than men. The Great She-Cession can be summed by this: CARE. The need to provide care for family (including children and parents and other members) still falls primarily to women. We need more support mechanisms in play to help women lead at home and at work.

While we have seen more progress, C-level executive leadership and commitment across all industries is still lacking for true gender parity in leadership to be realized.

When it comes to challenges with advancement, I write about this extensively in Mastering Your Inner Critic and 7 Other Hurdles to Advancement: How the best women Leaders Practice Self Awareness to Change what Really Matters.

Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?

It was stressful to “manage” the home and lives of two kids and have a more-than full-time job. I have two daughters. Their dad worked full time too — and while I had more travel than he did, we both had leadership roles throughout our kids’ childhoods. Further, we were what I came to refer to as “orphan parents” with the entirety of our parents and extended family over 200 miles (or a boat trip to an island) away! We had to pay for every bit of care if we were to both work.

Most women who work in executive roles have either a partner who works less hard (or quits to stay home altogether) or they hire a professional “third parent” to run the household and who can create consistency for the children. It never felt like we could afford (though I always fanaticized about) Mary Poppins or Alice from the Brady Bunch to help us. Looking back, I wish we had more consistent support. It was a constant stress and most of the 20-something after school babysitters we had over the years were busy becoming adults themselves and came and went.

The first step for any woman who wishes to lead at work (and negotiate in the boardroom) is to co-lead at home and negotiate in the living room! For single mothers, the struggle is different, but the essence is the same: don’t attempt to go it alone without the support of a spouse or family or hired help. If these support mechanisms are absent, it’s almost impossible to survive — never mind thrive — in the working world. This is where organizations can help women too — and many are — by providing assistance with out-of-work life demands like on-site day care, or other services.

What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?

I realized early on that managing my own impact (and my inner “swirl”) was essential if the family system was to function. I was hardly perfect at this — just as my daughters! There hasn’t been a single tipping point — but learning and practicing (and writing about and teaching) a centering practice so that I can show up as often as possible in my best self helps keep me in check. Most of my work and first two books are about this practice — a mindful journey back to compassion for myself and others.

I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?

When it comes to appearance, I do what makes me feel good and love it when others do as well. For me, that’s usually a strong lip color, vibrant jewel tone tops and likely a slightly more conservative look overall. That’s just what I feel comfortable with.

My Arrive & Thrive co-authors and I address appearance in the practice of Embracing Authenticity and the header of this part of the chapter is “The Adorned Elephant in the Room: Embracing Your Authentic Look.”

Where we land is this: Women can feel pressure to look a certain way from head to toe. But what we advocate is to recognize your aesthetic superpower and go with it. If it’s reading glasses with a bold frame, brighter lipstick, or a statement jacket — be you. You don’t have to check every arbitrary box of how a woman should show up but stay cognizant of your professional environment and audience. Ask your small cohort of friends and trusted advisors for feedback. You can feel good in what you wear to work and thoughtful about the impact of your choices at the same time.

How is this similar or different for men?

Men are simply less scrutinized for what they wear to work. Full stop. Take casual Friday for example — men: “khaki color khakis or stone color khakis” women: dress, skirt, pants, dress jeans, sweater set, blazer, blouse, heels, pumps, flats…

I have a friend who is an executive on an otherwise all-male executive team. The first event she was invited to was an outing where the executive team was told the dress code was “blue blazer, no tie.” No joke. This was in the summer of 2019, just before the pandemic.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

I’m going to offer 7, because these are the premise of our book and honestly what I believe to be true about what is needed in order to thrive as a powerful woman:

Practice #1: Invest in Your Best Self

Know who you are at your best and how to lead your life from that place as often as you can. Knowing, living and returning to your best (optimum, most grounded) self will increase your overall sense of well-being and inspire others.

Practice # 2: Embrace Authenticity

Be…you; encourage honesty from yourself about who you really are and help others do it too. Being free to be authentic will save you all that energy spent on trying to be what you think others want you to be. Model what real is so others can be who they really are, too.

Practice #3: Cultivate Courage

Believe in yourself and believe in others. Acting courageously does not mean you won’t feel fear. It means you take risks knowing no matter what you will be OK. Ignite others to step out of their comfort zone and do great things they think they can’t do.

Practice #4: Foster Resilience

Trust your own comeback and share your resilience stories. Rebounding from setback returns you not to who you were before, but to a wiser you. As appropriate, talk about your life setbacks and how you overcame them so others can see they too can rise up to new heights. You are more resilient than you realize.

Practice #5: Inspire a Bold Vision

Make visioning part of how you lead. Where is there opportunity for innovation and improvement? What will it take? Ask, talk, ideate and communicate about the future you wish to create. Encourage focus on visioning for others in your organization.

Practice #6: Create a Healthy Team Environment

Be intentional about fostering safety, belonging and teamwork. Understand the strengths of others, make mistake-making a learning opportunity, make time to appreciate others on your team and ask for input. Hold each other accountable.

Practice #7: Commit to the Work of an Inclusive Leader

Consciously include or you run the risk of unconsciously excluding. Be a model for growth and understanding; continually engage in genuine learning conversations at all levels of the organization about barriers and enablers of equity and inclusion. For this practice, enjoy my Better Understanding Podcast and The Inclusive Leader’s Playbook, co-authored by colleague Elisa van Dam.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

For sure! Michelle Obama. We have that Vineyard connection (I grew up right down a little dirt road not too far from her down-island home) and I believe she embodies the 7 Impactful practices. I’d love her take on all of them and more. She is one of my living she-ros for sure. (-:

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

Co-founder and CEO of PROVEN Skincare. Ming is an entrepreneur, business strategist, investor and podcast host.