Kate Bensen, CEO, The Chicago Network

[Being a leader] is really like being an orchestra conductor: you have all these incredibly talented musicians sitting here, anyone of whom could be a soloist. The beauty is figuring out how to bring all that talent together, harness it, and leverage it for the greater good: cultivating the next generation of women leaders. - See more at: http://www.letgoandlead.com/kate-bensen/#sthash.lBJomn10.dpuf

June 2015

What core traits do upcoming women leaders need to cultivate?

We recently surveyed rising star women leaders to identify the skills that contributed to their success. They include:

  • Communication skills
  • Persistence
  • Tenacity
  • Having the courage to make the tough calls

In my own view:

  • Resilience
  • Willingness to work hard
  • Take calculated risks
  • Take assignments that show your initiative, intelligence, and leadership capabilities
How do you inspire volunteers to develop creative solutions?

They actually inspire me. We really inspire each other through what we do. The Network members are all leaders, and if they weren’t creative, they wouldn’t have gotten to where they are. Women in The Network inspire me because they are working very effectively within their own companies to develop leadership, particularly among women.

As the leader, how do you bring their efforts together?

It’s really like being an orchestra conductor: you have all these incredibly talented musicians sitting here, anyone of whom could be a soloist. The beauty is figuring out how to bring all that talent together, harness it, and leverage it for the greater good: cultivating the next generation of women leaders.

How do you foster collaboration for The Chicago Network’s initiative to bring forward the next generation of women leaders?

The members of The Network are all super busy and said to us, loud and clear, if you want me to do something, ask me. So we just started asking, and all of a sudden we have all these fabulous things going on. It’s a good lesson not to be reticent in asking busy people to give.

What proactive steps can women take to secure sponsorships?

You can’t ask someone to be your sponsor. It’s really networking well within your organization and forming relationships with people in positions of authority without the expectation that someone is going to do something for you. You must also express what your desires are in terms of your career, because people, women in particular, are going to assume others know what is going on in their head; or if I put my head down and do a really good job, I am going to be noticed and promoted. But that’s not how it works: you have to communicate these things; not in an obnoxious way, but in a thoughtful way.

Have you found a difference between leading employees and volunteers?

Absolutely. When you are a lawyer, you are leading a deal team where everyone knows what their job is, and they do it. And if you are the partner, you set the pace and people fulfill your expectations. Leading volunteers is different. We want to make sure our volunteers are very well supported so that it’s easy for them to volunteer. People are busy, and they don’t have to give you their time. I have to make it easy for them to do what they want to do, and that is to give their time and talent. I always believe that volunteering should be joyful, and so we want to make it a great experience.

What is the key to leading a group of high-powered individuals?

Listening. Listening and understanding what they want. No matter what you are doing – whether you are leading a Girl Scout troop or a PTA – you have to understand the group’s needs and what is going to make it a great experience for them.

What is the most difficult lesson you’ve had to learn as a woman advancing into high leadership positions?

Figuring out what I’m not going to do with my time. If you define your life by: I’m going to do this, and this, and this, all of a sudden, your plate is too full, and you can’t accomplish it all well. You have to examine what’s on your plate, and see what you aren’t going to do and see who is going to do it.


Interview By Lynnae Van Voorthuysen

Fast Facts

Chicago, IL
Number of employees:
Number of years in current role:
Previous experiences:
Vice President, Conlon Public Strategies Chair, University of Chicago Women’s Board; Partner, Schiff Hardin LLP
First job:
Leader you admire the most:
Christine Lagarde, International Monetary Fund

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