Even in the face of societal and market adversity, many women in leadership are continuing to thrive in their positions. As leaders in executive search, we at JM Search speak to these high-performing individuals every single day. Through our Women Rising Series, I dig further into the decisions, experiences, and inspirations that shape their careers.

In this edition, I had the pleasure of speaking with Helayna Minsk, who I have known for some time, but only got to meet personally more recently in Chicago. She is warm and engaging, and really, really smart.  What I admire most about Helayna is her candor; she does not mince words. Some view candor as aggressive or unkind.  It is not.  It is doing you the biggest favor because you will always know precisely where you stand.

Helayna is actively seeking her next C-level role.  In addition to her Board Director role with PPI Beauty, Helayna has served in leadership positions, including Group VP, Own Brands for Walgreens Boots Alliance; VP, Marketing for Johnson & Johnson Consumer China; VP, Business Development for Johnson & Johnson; and Marketing Director, Laundry for Unilever.

The themes of risk-taking, confidence, and boldness have carried Helayna through her successful career, allowing her to effectively lead global teams and reach her career milestones. Here are some of the insights she’s gained through her impressive experience.

Considering your career to date, what are key moments that helped you achieve your current position?

The key moments in your career really do build on one another. You may not see it at the time, but you certainly see it in retrospect.

I started my career at Unilever in classical brand management, which was both the right place and the right role. As a marketer, you’re expected to commercially, operationally, and financially deliver the brand. I learned to understand all these functions and bring them together.

My experience with lower-margin businesses such as laundry and global roles led me to J&J, working on women’s health. This was another heavy-capital, lower-margin business within a global enterprise. Joining J&J ultimately led to my going to China, which was absolutely a highlight in my career. It speaks to not only the opportunities your career lends you, but the importance of taking risks and leaning forward.

Because of the role women play both at home and in the workplace, we may not be as likely to raise our hand for some of those out-there opportunities. But honestly, China was one of the best personal and professional experiences I’ve had. It was truly a privilege to take advantage of that opportunity. I had the biggest team I had ever had in a new marketplace. The company was in turnaround, so a lot of business capabilities came with that. But also, you gain a lot of confidence in your judgment. I came back after that experience thinking, “I now know that I could probably live just about anywhere.”

When I returned, I was recruited to a global team within Walgreens Boots Alliance. My international experience differentiated me in a way that never would’ve happened if I continued going straight up the ladder within a U.S. business.

In retail, you learn to appreciate the sheer range of competing KPIs that merchants face, which rounded out my experience from the manufacturer’s side. Now, as a board member for a beauty company, I can look at sales presentations and say, “This is great, but it’s very much from your own perspective. We’re not showing the value we can bring to the merchant’s P&L.”

As you think about your life experiences, personal and professional, is there one or two experiences you’re most grateful for? Why?

Professionally, the China experience stands out. It was so different from what I was doing. It represented a risk. I went in thinking…“This is a two-year assignment. I have no idea if this is going to work out or not, but you can make it work for two years.”

From not even day one, but hour one, I was so pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t difficult to acclimate. There’s a wonderful expat community. The Chinese team was wonderful. They had a sense of humor. They were warm, welcoming, and terrific to work with—industrious, creative, hard workers. It was wonderful to live and work in a very different environment.

I was having so much fun. It was such a dynamic market, so you could see the results of your work almost in real time. It was tremendously gratifying turning that business around and elevating and re-energizing that team.

Personally, I moved to Chicago for the job with Walgreens. I learned a tremendous amount from that professional opportunity, but the unforeseen benefit was that I met my husband here. My life has certainly changed for the better. We’ve been married almost 11 months now. I went from being single with no children to married, with three stepsons and three grandchildren. I have this wonderful new family, in addition to the wonderful family I come from, that has absolutely changed my life.

Can you share your thoughts about mentorship and sponsorship within companies?

Learning the difference between mentorship and sponsorship is something I came to later than I wish I had. Some people may be terrific champions who encourage you to take full advantage of opportunities, but they’re not the people in the room who create those opportunities for you. That sponsorship is something I wish I had had more of.

It’s in the interest of companies to develop more structured, intentional mentorships and sponsorships. The fact is there are a lot of people, and leaders are busy with a lot of things. They need you to raise your hand and say, “Have you seen what I’m doing over here? This is great stuff,” and do so for others.

If sponsorship is missing formally from a company, make sure you’re the pioneer. You need to be the change you want to see. Model that behavior, so your people can grow as leaders and turn around and do it for the next generation.

Many women of your caliber that I’ve spoken with agree that, in general, women often think, “I’m going to do a very good job, and they’ll tap me on the shoulder.” Then, a man gets more opportunities by spending more time in your boss’s office. But there’s an art to how these opportunities come to be, right?

We all think, “I don’t want to self-promote. That doesn’t feel right.” But there is no shame in pointing out to the company that you are a great talent. You have to look at yourself as another asset who is worth raising, amplifying, and elevating.

As women, we hold back a little bit on confidence. We don’t put ourselves out there as much or raise our hand as often. So, some of that is on us, right? Lean forward to take more risks and be confident.

Some of it is external. As I’m looking at full-time CEO roles, a lot of times, I never even get to interview because they like my credentials but only want to talk to people who have been sitting CEOs. It’s unconscious bias because fewer women have been sitting CEOs.

I completely understand where they’re coming from—you have confidence they’ve performed on the course. On the other hand, there’s talent and perspective you miss out on by not even meeting some of these people who have not yet done the job. This is one of the reasons I think women are not as well represented in the C-Suite as men are. Nobody comes from the womb as a CEO. At some point, everybody was new to the role.

What have you observed, in women you’ve worked with, that prevents them from advancing to the next level? What advice would you offer?

Confidence is a big internal barrier. I’ve joked that, on a job spec, if there are 10 criteria and a man has three, he’ll say he can do the job. If a woman has nine out of the 10, she says, “I don’t think I meet the spec for that.” I don’t think women trust enough in their own abilities and their own skills. The more risks you take, the better you get at learning and winning.

Being bolder is another internal barrier that women need to get over. If you apply for a job internally, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Even if you don’t get the job that you’ve applied for, you’ve gotten onto somebody’s radar. It may open up a conversation you wouldn’t have had otherwise, which is how I ended up getting the China job.

We’re all afraid of imposing. People are busy, and you don’t want to take up their time. But somebody said to me, “If somebody called you, would you help them?” I said, “Yeah, to the extent that I can, absolutely.” And she said, “So, why do you assume that you would help somebody, but somebody wouldn’t help you?” It was such an eye opener to frame it that way. The fact is people love helping people.

A very special thank you to Helayna Minsk for her insights and contributions!


For more insights from women in executive leadership, read the previous installment of our Women Rising Series featuring the CMO of Sephora.


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