Shelley Zalis sits comfortably on the auditorium stage of the Celebrity Equinox cruise ship docked in Miami. The audience of more than 200 women are hanging on her every word in this unique venue for a women’s leadership event. I am among them, trying to absorb every morsel of business wisdom this go-against-the-grain leader has for us.
Zalis, is the former chief executive of a Hollywood research firm and the leader of an effort to advance corporate women. After the $71 million sale of her research firm to a bigger entity, Zalis has moved on to her next big thing. She has become the founder of the Girls’ Lounge, which she started four years ago as a gathering spot for women at the International Consumer Electronics Show when she invited women to meet in her room, and bring girlfriends. This year, Zalis, who lives in Los Angeles, will take the Girls’ Lounge to nearly a dozen major business events. In addition, Zalis also heads TheFemaleQuotient.com, a consulting firm that helps companies advance gender equality in their workplaces.
Zalis tells the audience: “There is a place in heaven for those women who help other women. There is power in collaboration. I have seen it in action. Mentorship is not from the top down or the bottom up. It is the wisdom we learn from people all around us.”
Seated on stage next to Zalis is Katie Kempner, another formidable business woman who asks Zalis the questions on all our minds. In the next hour, the women attending The Commonwealth Institute South Florida 14th Annual Leadership Luncheon hear how to break the rules and profit from it, how to spot a need and launch a business to fill it, and how to create a support team of women to bolster your chances of success.
Here is what I learned from Zalis:
Break the rules:
Zalis is not one to abide by the rules of business, particularly those that exclude women. It is how she built a company, started a movement and landed a show on Bloomberg television called Walk the Talk. “I break the rules to create new ones,” she said. “Doing it for the first time is scary, especially when you have no formula for success.” Initially, Zalis tried to conform to the male business world. Early in her career, she dressed in conservative clothing like the men, until she met Penelope Queen, a well-known researcher, who greeted her in a purple leather suit. “That’s when I realized you cannot create the new norm if you follow the same patterns.”
Think carefully about opting out:
Zalis realizes the tension of work life shows no signs of easing and recognizes companies are losing great leaders to caregiving. She explains that women are opting out to care for children or parents when they reach middle management levels. About the time they become mid-level managers, women are gaining responsibility at home and work. “They have three choices. To opt into leadership, they must conform to rules that make no sense, or they can leave to start their own company, or they can opt out completely,” she said. “If they opt out completely, getting back in is difficult. They never get back to where they were.” As a consultant, Zalis is working with companies to change the dynamics, something she says will happen in small steps.
Take diversity seriously:
Zalis believes it is of critical importance to have women in executive leadership where they provide a healthy counterbalance to the men. Diversity is good for business, Zalis explains. Yet, she realizes that male leaders need to believe in advancing women, and follow through with action. “It takes a leader saying I want to be better. I will be better, but I need to be conscious about being better.” The first step toward a mindset shift is not a drastic change. “It’s a leadership conversation about where we are and what we want to work on first,” she said
Women often have an obnoxious roommate in their heads telling them they aren’t qualified to take a risk or make a change, Zalis says. She warns women not to listen to that voice. “Perfection does not exist and if it does, it’s boring. Blemishes make you interesting,” she said. “Believe in yourself. Be yourself. If you’re not perfect have people around you who complement you.”
Encourage mandatory parental leave:
Zalis said mandatory parental leave would create a more level playing field in the workplace. Hiring bosses would be less skeptical of hiring young women, and men would be better positioned to help more at home. “The rules were written 100 years ago, by men for men. We need to cut the cord and move forward. With mandatory parental leave, the bias against women kicks out. We must go in that direction if we want a modern workplace for today’s modern workforce.”
In her first job, Zalis said she took a risk by doing the sales job her way, thinking she had a perfect performance and insisting she deserved a raise. Her boss did not see her performance the same way. “It was the worst review I have ever gotten. My boss told me I was spending too much time with clients. I told him, ‘You’re so wrong. Relationships are what business is about.’ “ Now, she does a job the way she thinks it should be done, even if it hasn’t been done that way before. “I love getting uncomfortable. I am comfortable being uncomfortable because I know I am trying something new.”
At 53, Zalis is gaining momentum, making connections and moving in a new direction. Zalis recommends trying something new as often as possible. “Invite a new person to dinner. Watch a different kind of movie. Try a different type of food. That’s how you evolve and stay interesting. If you do the same thing you don’t evolve and you get boring.”
During our short time with Zalis, she has helped the audience of businesswomen see her as the girlfriend who has our back, our inspiration for banning with other women, and a mentor for those who want to take risks and embrace change. Most of us will walk away acknowledging her guiding principle: “A woman alone has power, together we have impact.” Now, it will be up to us to act on it.