In honor of Women’s History Month, Common Impact is spotlighting prominent female leaders who are leaving their mark on their organizations and communities. Today we hear from Lauren Banks, Vice President of Client Services at Creative Marketing Resources, a full-service, strategic communications agency that specializes in developing cause and behavior change marketing for Fortune 500 companies, major nonprofits, and government agencies.
You are a leader in more ways than one, as Vice President of Client Services for PR agency Creative Marketing Resources (CMR) and a member of Common Impact’s Board of Directors. Tell us about your career and your experience as a woman in leadership.
I would say what really shaped my career was realizing early on what I didn’t want to do. I had worked for March of Dimes, Boy Scouts, and a living history museum doing marketing and I realized I’m not one of those people who can do the same type of job every day. I needed change and diversity in experience, I needed to have a lot of different things I was juggling, and I couldn’t have put that into words as a twenty-something. I had a coffee meeting with CMR’s CEO, Jacque Moore, back in 2006 and talked to her about what I didn’t like about my role at the time. She said, “It sounds like you might be a better fit for an advertising agency. This is what we do at CMR…” At the end of that two and a half hours of sitting down with her, she had offered me a role as an account manager with her agency and the rest is history!
Knowing what I didn’t enjoy and being able to find the positive of that is what really shaped my career. As opposed to just sticking it out and thinking, “Well, it’s work. Nobody likes work,” it was about seeing I might be needing a new opportunity and really wanting to be intentional about finding that passion.
Who are the women who helped you get to where you are today?
I got my Master’s degree from Marquette in Milwaukee and at the time I was one the youngest people in the program. Most people had some years of experience under their belt, but I had just kept going right from undergrad. I had some women in that program with me – there weren’t that many of us – who because of their experience could really speak some positivity into me. They taught me, “You may be the only female in the room sometimes: use that to your advantage. People may remember you because of that and that’s okay. Let them.”
Now the industry is changing and I’m seeing a lot more young women, but at the time in the early 2000s, there were very few women at the top in management and leadership roles. I got good advice early on telling me to stay the course, to not be afraid to speak up for myself. “You’re going to have to learn how to speak up for yourself because no one is going to do it for you.” It’s worth acknowledging that distinction that we as women might have to say, “I need to learn how to speak up for myself,” but for men it’s just what they do.
I remember being in classes where I wouldn’t always feel comfortable raising my hand. A woman pulled me aside after class one day and said, “You have good ideas – you need to share them. You can’t be afraid, because this is the industry you chose.” I find myself saying that to young women now. There will be client meetings or strategy sessions where I’m sitting across from a young woman and I can tell she has an idea, and after the meeting I’ll ask her about it and she’ll reply, “I just wasn’t sure if it was okay to say it.” It’s important that women in leadership roles teach this lesson, because unfortunately it’s a cycle.
Have you experienced or witnessed gender bias in the workplace during your career? Did it change how you behaved at all?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten bolder. At CMR, we do a lot of behavior change campaigns. We don’t sell products or services; we develop campaigns that will change behavior to impact society. For example, we work on campaigns that target tobacco use, especially in young people, or campaigns to get people immunized for the flu. One of the campaigns that we’re currently working on is trying to make an impact on dating violence. Working on this campaign the past three or four years has really opened my eyes to the fact that dating violence isn’t “just a female issue.” There is a gender bias, absolutely, and as I mentioned earlier, as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten bolder to be comfortable enough to question that or to say, “That’s interesting you would assume that role is a male. Can you tell me why?” When you question people that way, it forces them to see the bias, and I hope people will do the same for me because we all have bias.
I definitely have experienced gender bias or just the assumption oftentimes that a person in leadership is going to be a man, using he/his pronouns. I will often correct that and I love doing it when it really is a woman, but also questioning, “Why was that your first assumption?” It’s more implicit than explicit at this point – I think people are much more careful about the things they say – but I’m always trying to get to the root of the thought process.
COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on working women, especially women of color and caregivers. In January, women’s participation in the labor force hit a 33-year low with millions laid off or forced to leave their jobs over the past year. How can organizations create pathways for women to reenter and remain in the workforce post-pandemic or promote gender equity more broadly?
When I really take a step back and think about my coworkers and my clients, all our meetings are happening virtually right now and 90% of the time it seems like it’s the woman who’s having to make sure she’s available because naptime’s almost over or lunch isn’t going to start or when meetings run late into the evening it’s the woman who’s worried about getting dinner on the table or helping kids with homework. I very rarely hear that from my male counterparts, even though most of them have children.
Now I find myself checking the time of meetings and saying, “I realize you have kids at home and this is over the lunch hour, is that going to be okay?” and they can reply, “if we could shift it an hour or two that would really help me.” Even though everybody’s at home, even though dad is at home too, the onus of this is still on mom. She’s the keeper of the schedule.
Over time, I’ve seen the corporate world make strides in saying it’s okay to need to leave early if your kid is sick, that people aren’t going to look down on that. We need to start to shift that thinking based on the environment that we’re in and understand that it’s still on mom 90% of the time and that’s a huge responsibility when you’re trying to manage a conference call and you have a little kid who’s doing distance learning. I applaud women who are doing that and I’m hopeful that more companies will recognize that and be more flexible.
One of the things I’m happy that CMR is doing is holding lunch and learns where we’re having open conversations and dialogue around how the pandemic is impacting mental health and what the isolation is doing to us. I hope that there will be more conversation around what that dynamic means for someone who is raising children because that makes it even harder. Even for women with no children it’s hard!
What is one of the most important lessons in leadership you’ve learned?
The greatest lesson I have learned is to give grace to people. When you’re in that hustle bustle time, it’s so easy to get frustrated with people, especially if your personal expectations are not being met. This last year has really taught me the importance of grace. I’ve heard it said this way: you should never judge someone’s choice until you know what their options were. I have really tried to reflect on that over the past year with so many things that have changed and not knowing where people are in all this mentally, physically. Especially in management and leadership, when you are reviewing performance of staff, contractors, even finances and making hard decisions based on that, sometimes extending grace makes it a very grey area, but I’ve really tried to insert that sentiment into my interactions. I hope that stays with me beyond the pandemic because it’s taught me a greater, maybe more elevated way to treat people. And when you extend it, it comes back to you.