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Three Florida Women CEOs share their personal stories


On Monday, I couldn't believe the excitement in the room when I attended the Women Executive Leadership event in Tampa. High ranking business women from all over Florida had come to hear what three powerhouse female CEOs of Florida companies had to say about what it takes to get to the top and stay there.

It was a rare insight into how these women shattered glass ceilings to win spots in the executive suites and now must manage big businesses in the roughest of economic times. In a candid conversation, Eileen Auen (PMSI), Mindy Grossman (HSN, Inc.) and Liz Smith (OSI Restaurant Partners LLC) talked about everything from leadership to motherhood to advancement.

Do you wonder whether these women always knew they wanted to be a CEO? Their answer was no.

They all said they had people who mentored them and guided them to the top of the corporate structure, which they said was no longer a ladder but more of a jungle gym.

Now that they're at the top, the women said the key to staying there is to be nimble and adapt to change.“You have to have vision but you also have to be able to turn on a dime. Being nimble is critical.” said Liz Smith, CEO of Tampa's OSI Restaurant Partners, whose restaurant chains include Outback Steakhouse.  Smith also advises anyone in management to be a courageous leader. "If your business is not comfortable with change, it will like irrelevance even less."

One big take away for the audience: Don't be afraid to fail, but if you do make a mistake, recognize it and move on -- quickly. Smith put it succinctly when she said: "Fail faster."

In addressing work life balance, the three female CEOs offered their own candid experiences handling the extreme demands of running major corporations, children and life outside the office.

"I'm a ruthless prioritizer," Smith said. "I believe in fewer, bigger, better."  She said that includes cutting out 30 percent of the busy work on any given day.

Mindy Grossman, CEO of St. Petersburg-based retailer HSN Inc. said she's learned that if she doesn't take time to renew herself, she's not good for anyone, family or work. I particularly liked Grossman's comments on how much she relies on her "support network" which includes a family nanny even though Grossman's daughter is 21. At one point, when deciding whether to take new, higher position, she consulted her entire family, nanny included.  "My family is always going to be my greatest priority, she said. "If I've made tough decisions, I have done it with them in mind."

Eileen Auen, chief executive of Tampa's PMSI Inc., a business insurance firm specializing in pharmacy and medical services and workers' compensation advisory services, said her big challenge is to deliver today but continue to innovate for the future. Like Grossman, she feels it is critical that women build networks. "When women get busy, that's the thing that goes, but that is essential."

A highlight of the day was when the three women spoke about the disappointingly small number of women leading Fortune 500 companies and occupying seats on public company boards. They urged companies to be willing to relax their rigid checklist of board qualifications if they are committed to gender diversity. Grossman advised women aspiring to corporate boards to put themselves out there and get as much exposure as possible.