“The most notable fact our culture imprints on women is the sense of our limits. The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities.” — Adrienne Rich, American poet, essayist and feminist
Supporting women and advancing equity in the workplace is not a one-and-done effort. It requires a consistent, open, honest dialogue — a collective will that inspires individuals to take action.
Building on the success of last year’s inaugural event, Cigna hosted the 2022 Global Women’s Leadership Summit — featuring motivational sessions, panels and presentations from industry experts and Cigna leaders. Held virtually, the day provided advice and insights on personal growth, professional development, mental health and wellness, and more. Read on for a few of the most inspiring moments from the summit.
Putting Your Oxygen Mask on First
Many women find it natural to put the priorities of others ahead of their own needs. The well-being of children, significant others, family members — even coworkers, managers or employees — often come at the cost of self-care and self-love. During a session on wellness and rejuvenation, Dr. Sheila Robinson, founder and CEO of Diversity Women Media, reflected on the counterintuitive challenge of taking care of ourselves at a time where many of us are feeling more stressed than ever. She pointed to the example of oxygen masks on airlines, where in the case of an emergency you’re directed to put your own mask on before helping those around you.
The answer, she said, is that showing up for others and accomplishing the things we need to do are impossible unless we take the time to care for ourselves. When we’re thinking about our jobs, our family and all of the stressors in our lives, we need to remember the importance of putting our own oxygen masks on first. If we do this, we can help ease our response to stress triggers, enabling us to be healthier and better able to show up for others.
Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., a best-selling author, researcher and Yale lecturer, told attendees that if we bring in greater calmness through basic restorative actions — such as sleeping, going outside, exercising, eating nourishing foods, meditating and breathing exercises — we’ll have more energy and can better show up for those around us with greater intention, greater memory, more creativity, more emotional intelligence and better decision making. Additionally, she explained that self-criticism is self-destructive, triggering a stress response in the body and leading to higher levels of depression and anxiety. People who exhibit self-compassion — kindness, patience and understanding toward themselves instead of self-criticism — are more resilient and have better relationships, she said. The keys are reframing self-care as an investment in yourself, finding little moments to nurture yourself so you have more to give when you’re nurturing others. Your relationship with yourself, she explained, predicts your relationship with the people you love the most.
The theme of oxygen went beyond the metaphorical. Dr. Seppälä honed in on the importance of structured breathing as a wellness technique to adapt to stress and triggers. Deep breathing and lengthening your exhales (so they are twice as long as your inhales) for a few minutes can kick-start your parasympathetic nervous system and evoke calm and cooling throughout your body, she described. Your mind becomes calmer, more collected and more emotionally intelligent. You can also take time out during the day — between meetings or before difficult conversations or perhaps as you transition from work to home life — to take these deep breaths. You will show up more refreshed, present and centered. Just like an athlete trains her muscles to show up at her prime on game day, we can train our onerous system with daily breathing practices to show up at our best too. You become more stress resilient. The deep breathing Dr. Seppälä has researched is called SKY Breath Meditation and her research team found that it is more powerful than other techniques for preventing burnout and improving mental health.
Dr. Robinson challenged the audience to take on a regular program of self-care and to incorporate basic stress-relief habits like structured breathing. She highlighted the importance of reframing stress and rewarding positive behaviors. “I challenge you to take control of the situation and create power in your life,” she said. We are powerless in the face of external factors, she noted, but we can regain our power by taking control of the situation through self-care and self-compassion.
Confidence and Competence: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome, first coined by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the late 1970s, is the experience believing that you are not as competent as others may perceive you to be or the feeling that you don’t belong or to discount the obvious evidence of your abilities, no matter your competence, education or skill level. It is an all too common phenomenon and can weigh heavily on even the most successful, accomplished people.
Dr. Valerie Young, an international expert on imposter syndrome and a bestselling author, moderated a discussion with members of Cigna’s executive leadership team to explore some of the myths and misconceptions attributed to the syndrome and to hear about their personal and professional experiences overcoming it.
One way to overcome imposter syndrome is to build and project confidence, she said, noting that studies have shown that people in a leaderless room are apt to follow the person with the most confidence, not necessarily the most competence. Dr. Young called attention to the counterintuitive relationship between confidence and competence, explaining that women often try to overcome their imposter feelings with competence — securing advance degrees or spending years building professional skills — before feeling confident enough to throw their hat into the ring and lean into leadership roles.
Nicole Jones, Executive Vice President and General Counsel at Cigna, told attendees that confidence is hard-earned, not something you’re born with. Jones’ experience is that confidence is more inherent to some people than others, and that overcoming challenges through hard work and determination is what truly builds confidence. In areas where you feel less confident, she said, it’s crucial to reframe your thinking to understand that you simply don’t have all of the necessary information or haven’t spent the time to grow confident in that area.
Cindy Ryan, Chief Human Resources Officer at Cigna, described how her definition of confidence has changed over her career. Early in her career, her definition was always being prepared, having the correct answer and being competent at every moment. Today, her definition of confidence includes the willingness to stand up, make mistakes, take risks and ask for help. In these dynamic and challenging times, there’s power in asking for help, she explained, because no one has all the answers or can be competent at everything. Asking for help creates space for others to step in and collaborate to build their own confidence.
Facing Adversity Through Vulnerability and Adapting to Feedback
Dr. Young and Cigna leaders also shined a light on the power of vulnerability, how it can be a defining leadership trait in the face of a lack of representation, and create space for others who may feel out of place. Dr. Young illustrated the vulnerability of being the “only” in a room — the only woman, the only ethnic minority, the only person with a disability, etc. — and the pressure of feeling that you have to represent your entire group.
Noelle Eder, Chief Information Officer at Cigna, offered her advice to overcome this pressure of representation. She said that inquiry and, by extension, vulnerability are powerful tools. By inquiring further, asking questions to unpack the knowledge and logic of others, you can participate on a deeper, more meaningful level — helping not only improve your confidence and competence, but also improving your connection to people in an environment where you may feel alone. “Vulnerability, putting yourself out there when you feel uncomfortable, is an incredibly powerful and important characteristic in a leader,” Eder said.
Jones reflected on the early stages in her career, where she made an active effort to avoid focusing on the superficial differences between people or groups. Jones said that often as the “only” in a room, she deliberately focused on the commonalities she shared with others. When you are willing to put yourself out there, get to know people, and have other people get to know you, it becomes less about representation and more about human connection, she said. Everyone has their own issues, stories and background — it is crucial to go beyond the labels in order to feel comfortable in unfamiliar environments.
The leaders also collectively discussed the challenges of responding and adapting to feedback, an area that can prove challenging to those who suffer from imposter syndrome, Dr. Young said.
Eder acknowledged that it was difficult for her to take constructive feedback early in her career. She reflected on a pivotal shift in her thinking, where she was able to separate the emotion from the learnings when receiving feedback. She offered the audience this piece of advice: Put distance, of any kind, between yourself and the criticism. The distance allows you to get perspective and process through the emotion you feel from the criticism. By better controlling that emotion, one can respond in a more rational and thoughtful way.
Ryan added that is important to seek advice through feedback with a trusted network. By entrusting others to help respond to feedback, you’re able to tap into a more powerful, effective response. “It is OK to feel the feedback and have a natural, emotional response — we’re all human,” she said.
Creating Space for Others to Succeed
Susan Stith, Vice President of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) and Corporate and Employee Giving at Cigna and President of the Cigna Foundation, closed out the summit with some inspiring words and thoughts about the broader impact of DEI at Cigna. As she reflected on the sessions from the day, she mentioned a recent a personal experience, ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange. She remembered thinking in the moment, “How can a small-town girl from the middle of Missouri be standing on this podium? And then I thought, I should be standing here. I’ve earned it.”
And that was her message to all of the women in the audience. Questioning one’s value, she said, takes up too much of daily life for a woman in our society. We’ve earned our value, she said.
Stith challenged the audience to look inward and think about the ways they can continue to show up for others, create a sense of belonging and treat people with the dignity and respect they deserve.
“It’s brought connections that we would have never imagined before. We’ve been our most authentic selves in many ways,” Stith said.
She stressed that women must help each other and lift each other up, actively taking part in each other’s lives and championing and supporting each other through sponsorships, acts of inclusion and by listening to understand each other’s perspective. At the end of the day, she said, diversity, equity and inclusion create space for everyone to succeed.