Althea Luehrsen has been CEO of Leadership Buffalo since January 2012 and is Co-founder and Vice Chair of Women Who Lead WNY. Through service, diversity, inclusion and openness to change, she believes giving back to her community is key to the success of the region. She does this every day, not only by freely sharing her 40 years of work experience, but through numerous board memberships and nonprofit causes. No wonder her career is full of accolades and her mantelpiece with awards.
How do you define leadership?
Trying to break down biases and steroetypes and really pulling our "haves" and "have nots" closer together in our community. Thinking outside your bubble, all sides of a situation. By showing people, not telling them, I think makes a big difference as far as influencing people. I don't try to dictate to folks. I try to show them, listen to them, have a dialogue, collaborate, so you're giving everyone a voice.
I do know some women who are the B-word and I don't think that's influencing anybody. None of us want to be told what to do and I don't want to deal with a bully - whether a woman or a man - so the minute you start yelling, you're not listening anymore and I'm not listening any better than I already am. That type of leadership isn't what I admire or try to emulate.
How do you inspire others?
I think it's leading by example. I believe the best leaders give, rather than take. I really, truly care about this whole community, not just certain sides of it. We have a great renaissance in Buffalo, but not everyone is experiencing those opportunities. And if we as leaders don't provide those opportunities for everyone, we're not going to be able to sustain this.
We're a very divisive, diverse city still and I think it's something we need to work on. The gap between the haves and have-nots is growing and I think it's important for people in leadership positions in our community to help open people's eyes to that and create action plans for what can we do about that. People see me walking the walk, so I think that's what helps others see me as an influencer.
You've been a woman of influence for decades. What's the secret to longevity?
I'm myself all the time. People should be true to themselves. I don't have a different personality for professional than I do for personal. That's a lot of work to switch back and forth like that. You have to be real. I truly believe in the work I do and I also think that by giving back, by being kind, helping others, all those things make a difference in people seeing you as an influencer, because you're real, you're authentic, you're not just a phoney face that you put on.
Part of pulling together the haves and have-nots is through the four women you're currently mentoring.
There's something I see in them. They're the next generation that's coming up. Just being able to help them get to the level of success that they want to have - I'm opening doors for them, I'm being a sponsor for them - is super important because when I started in the formal workplace in the '70s, there was maybe one or two women at the top. So they weren't really willing to help others because if they helped you, they usually got knocked off the shelf because there wasn't enough room. There's so many women who are in leadership positions today. We still need more in the C-Suite, but I think more and more of us are helping each other and building that network - building that sisterhood, if you will - to help women achieve.
Tell me about the mentor matchmaking organization you started.
A couple women and I started a 501 (c)(3) called Women Who Lead. It's almost like Match.com for mentors and it can be a younger woman who's new to the workplace or a seasoned professional looking to make changes. We understand that women need to help each other, and we've created a network and an opportunity for us to do that. You go online to our website, which is womenwholeadwny.com, fill out the application as a mentee and that comes back to our organization to be matched with our list of mentors. You can also fill out an application to be a mentor, as well. It's pretty informal. Everyone can create their own type of relationship. There are 10 of us on our advisory committee and we just want to open up our networks and share those with other people.
Have you experienced sexual harassment in the workplace?
I could tell you stories, Marian, that could curl your toes. I worked for a really large company, Fortune 500 company, in the '80s. I was the Office Manager and this was back in the days when they had something called dictaphones. You talk into the machine and then transcribe it. My boss - a wonderful leader and I'm still friends with him - he was always flirting with me and I was always laughing at him about it. He left a tape for me to transcribe and I plugged it in and it was a sex tape. I was like, "Whoa!" When he got back from out of town, I walked into his office, picked up the tape and said, "I really don't think you want me to transcribe this" and I walked out. He never did it again, because he knew, "Don't mess with her."
Another woman I know had a situation where she was an Executive Assistant for a very large company, and her boss kept putting his hands on her shoulders and touching her and she was very uncomfortable. This was before cell phones and he traveled a lot. So he calls the office from overseas and he was drunk, and he was telling her he wanted to get her in bed and all these kinds of things, so she just hung up on him. But then the next time he called the office, she told him,"Your wife's on the phone and, by the way, she calls here a lot" and he never did it again.
I think we have to teach women to speak up in the moment. Certainly if they speak up in the moment and that continues, to use the resources of their HR department and attorneys. But we need to empower our women, young and old, to be able to stand up for themselves to make sure that stuff doesn't happen. And when this stuff does happen, think positive, "This too shall pass."
What common mistakes do women make in the workforce that hold themselves back?
I think they need to advocate for themselves more. Women have a tendency to do a great job and then hope somebody notices it, instead of saying, "Hey, I did this great job. I'd really like to be considered for that promotion or that raise." And if things aren't being done the way they should, you need to speak up. Don't just sit back in silence and say, "Maybe it's not my place to say anything." Women have some great ideas and great heart. I think it's important for our voices and our ideas to be heard. And if you're not getting what you want, not being afraid to walk away and go find something different, start to plan your next move, your next position.
I'm a believer in asking questions. If you have a boss or supervisor who's not recognizing the work and you've done all the right things as far as speaking up, I would just say to them, "Can you tell me why?" Give the problem back to them. And also reach out to other people to help you find out. You don't have to do any of this alone. There are people out there who can help you.
Flats or heels?
Heels. Big time. Fashion before comfort. I think you can still be a very strong, effective leader and wear perfume and lipstick and jewelry and still be considered influential, smart, successful, contributing. And if you're a woman who doesn't care about those things, then that's okay, too. We need to be ourselves.
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