By Tracey Drury, originally published in Buffalo Business First on March 20, 2020.

CEOs lead by experience and example

It may be easier now than 20 years ago, but women leaders at some of Western New York’s top companies say it’s a constant struggle to prove themselves. Still, they say it’s a struggle worth fighting, especially when it leads to inspiring and preparing the next generation of women.

Six women executives came together March 4 to talk about how they’ve built a culture of leadership at a meeting hosted by Phillips Lytle LLP and Buffalo Business First.

The women agreed that people may express doubts about their ability to lead and grow their organization. Anne Constantino, CEO of Horizon Health Services, said she turned that negative into a positive.

“I love being underestimated. You get such an advantage,” she said. Establishing who you are as a leader sets the tone for the organization, said Brenda McDuffie, president and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League.

“Everyone has value, everyone has gifts and they’re different. If we can embrace those, we’re going to be a much better organization and a much better community,” she said.

Creating a company culture can take time, and it’s not easy. It’s a constant process that evolves as teams and situations change, said Holly Gagnon, president and CEO of Seneca Gaming Corp.

Building a team to support vision requires a recognition of the people on the team who are amplifiers – the ones who will spread your mission – or mufflers, the ones who hold it back, That’s what leads to “weeding the garden” when managers and other directors don’t adopt the same mindset as the CEO, she said.

No one likes to fire people, but sometimes that’s the best way to make it happen. Gagnon called it “managerial courage.”

It’s also a way to make sure those who are doing well feel respected and valued, said Leslie Zemsky, vice president for Larkin Development Group.

“That’s part of leadership, that accountability,” she said. “Doing that review in a thoughtful way, that is the gift to your whole organization, and having that courage.”

Candace Johnson, president and CEO of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, said she’s proud to be the CEO of Roswell.

“Young women don’t realize you couldn’t get a loan without a man to sign it. The audacity!” she said. “I love to mentor women. Women today have so many more opportunities than we had. We really had to fight for where we are today. And, we’re not done.”