By Tracey Drury  |  Buffalo Business First  |  July 31, 2020

WNY women executives dedicated to leadership

The ability to overcome obstacles, push for change and advocate for women at all levels are key attributes for women leaders.

That’s especially true during times of crisis, as the past few months have demonstrated. Women continue to take leadership roles across every sector and industry in Western New York.

Eight accomplished and influential women came together July 15 for a power dinner to talk about challenges and opportunities in leadership. They shared how they’ve built a culture of leadership at their organizations as part of a dinner series hosted by Phillips Lytle LLP and Buffalo Business First.

Participants included Michele Trolli, M&T Bank executive vice president and chief technology and operations officer, who was the first woman named to M&T’s Management Committee. She has since helped to expand diversity programs and grow awareness among the company’s male leadership.

“Belonging is when they feel like they should be at the table,” she said. “It’s pointing out those little things, adding perspective. Leadership means helping people do things they didn’t know they could do, helping them see the art of what’s possible and supporting them to take risks they thought they would never take.”

Elizabeth Woike-Ganga, who took on the CEO post in early July at BestSelf Behavioral Health, said it’s important to make sure the management team makeup reflects the workforce and the client population.

“It hasn’t, and it doesn’t, so we’re working toward that intentionally,” she said. “It’s been inspiring to be able to see women who maybe were working as a clerical staff or at a residence as support staff go back to school and be able to become counselors and vice presidents.”

That can also mean taking responsibility for sharing the access to resources and people that often come with a top leadership post, as well as recognizing that others at all levels of the organization bring value, said Gale Burstein, Erie County health commissioner and a longtime pediatrician and public health leader.

“Success,” she said, “comes from the top and the bottom. We have a lot of people who are really committed, and I trust them.”

That’s especially true at the statewide level, said New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, where it’s important to use her platform as a leader to make a difference for women.

Hochul said she’s used that platform to talk about child care, how women can achieve the pay equity they deserve, and the extra challenges faced by women trying to succeed in the workforce, often while caring for their children during the pandemic.

At every step along the way, Hochul said she has worked to bring more women onto her staff.

“I really wanted to build a team of strong women, even my interns, so I spend a lot of time questioning my staff. I started as an intern with no political connections, volunteering in high school and college, and it changed my life. So I want to make sure I use all my positions to open doors for other women.”

Katherine Conway-Turner, president of SUNY Buffalo State, said part of being a leader is also staying true to the mission of your organization. For her, that means recognizing the transformative role of education. Turner is a great example: Not only was she the first generation in her family to attend college, she was also the first to earn a high school diploma.

“Also, being a Black woman, I have been in this space where I’ve been the ‘only’ so many times in my life I’ve just stopped counting,” she said. “(I try to) be a model for our students of color, to realize you can aspire to all kinds of things, even if you have a family where no one has ever done it.”

Laura Cianflone, vice president for human resources services at Catholic Health, said having and being a good mentor is key as a leader, even if that other person isn’t a woman. Though HR is female-dominated, she learned early on that she’d be working with finance, IT and other departments that remain male-dominated.

“I had a very good male mentor who pushed me forward to make sure I had a seat at the table,” she said. “We have to make sure we’re representing everyone appropriately. Even in my own team, I’m doing the same thing, making sure not only that they’re just included, but that they have a voice and influence.”

Amanda Lowe, a partner with Phillips Lytle LLP, said she became her own advocate when she became pregnant in the days before paid-family leave.

That experience made her realize she not only had the opportunity, but an obligation to advocate for underrepresented groups in the legal profession, including women, people of color and LGBTQ individuals.

“Everyone needs our support and advocacy,” she said. “We can take this opportunity through Covid to reimagine how we can do things better as an industry, as corporate America, to be more inclusive.”

While women have always fought for equality in the workforce, many women leaders also agree that they are simply different than their male counterparts and bring different qualities to the job. That’s been especially true during the pandemic, said Conway-Turner, who saw women jump into crisis management mode to figure out how to manage at the college.

“Many women are just less individually ego-invested, so it’s about the good of whatever you’re working on,” she said. “It’s a natural tendency that women have, to gather people around us to figure out how to solve the problem.”

At the same time, Hochul said women also have to balance the need to get things done and make difficult choices with compassion.

“As a woman, I can feel the pain of the people, too,” she said. “I feel for things very deeply, and that takes an emotional toll, but I also have to rise above that and be strong and be authoritative.”