Living Women's History: Janet Brewer

We're celebrating Women's History Month by talking to strong female leaders within TVA. In this exclusive Q + A, Janet Brewer, TVA's vice president of Communications and Marketing, talks about taking a leadership role and achieving excellence.

What are your thoughts on being female in today’s work environment?

I believe everyone in the organization has opportunity. The key is putting your energy into identifying the role where your individual talents and interests make the greatest contribution to TVA’s mission and goals, and then doing what it takes to get there. We should always be looking to stretch ourselves—to open up and discover what more we can do.

I had the benefit of growing up with parents who encouraged me. At a young age, at a time when many women were still staying at home to raise their children, I remember my father saying “you can be anything you want to be.” My mother pushed me to be independent and challenge the status quo. That came with high expectations—not just for good grades in school, but in a more rounded way: strong character, hard work, interpersonal communications, understanding the broader picture and, especially, helping others.

As a result, I set pretty high expectations for myself and those with whom I work—just ask them! Working toward high expectations allows us to extend beyond what we think our capabilities are… to do more than we ever thought we could. As a result, we grow and develop professionally and personally. Inherently, others benefit as well. It starts with the will and commitment to do better.

How have things changed for women during your career?

It was unusual for women to be in leadership when I entered the workforce, and even more unusual to see women who were pursuing both a career and a family move into top management.  I was always thankful for the women 10 years ahead of me who started breaking through some ingrained mindsets. While I remember instances where men—peers—would tell me to go pick up their dry cleaning or type a memo, and a few who challenged me after I had my children on whether I should return to work, there were many who mentored and encouraged me.

My first female boss was a role model of what not to do as a woman in leadership. I learned a lot from that experience and I decided that my leadership style would be different. You can always learn from the people around you, whether positive or negative.  I decided then and there that my behavior would be more embracing and encouraging for my employees. I hope I’ve lived up to that through the years—focusing on how I can support them and help them succeed and how together we can help the business and our customers be successful.

Maya Angelou said it best. “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Do you feel women are still judged on their appearance in a way that men aren’t?

When I entered the workforce, women were supposed to wear skirts, hose and closed-toe heels. I was told to walk down the hallway at a certain time of day because the men executives were in their offices and they’d see me. Guess how many times I did that? None (laughs).

I do believe everyone—men and women—should look professional at work to enhance their credibility. But increasing credibility goes beyond appearance to being an expert in your field. Voicing your opinion in a positive and constructive way. Listening to others before speaking, and thinking about how what you’re saying could affect other people. Communicating effectively is key—not just verbally but visibly—including appearance from the moment we walk into a room.

One of the biggest tools for influence and engagement is tone. Tone is everything. It can help portray a sense of urgency, or simple dissatisfaction. It allows you to be direct and not be strident. Tone can be sharp and demeaning, or extremely motivating. When you don’t think about your tone, you can be misinterpreted. When you don’t think before you speak, you can get off track.

Let’s pursue that further. What can women do to be better communicators?

First of all, you’ve got to believe in yourself. People displaying confidence are better received. In my role, I often remind people that the reason they are up on the stage or selected as the spokesperson on a particular subject is that they are the expert—the  person who should be talking. So how do you gain confidence? Do your homework so you know what you’re talking about and can answer questions. Prepare. Practice. Get feedback on your message and delivery. Be sure that when you speak, people can trust what you say. It starts with gaining confidence through preparation. You have a voice. You have the ability to influence outcomes.

What would you say to a new female employee just entering the workforce?

I would tell her to learn everything she can about the organization and the people she will serve. Learn the history, learn how the organization works, meet as many people as possible. And learn about the industry. Get piped into something, whether it’s a volunteer opportunity, one of the Employee Resource Groups, or a planning team. Get on social media to see what’s going on with TVA and our competition. Consume as much information as possible. Knowing the organization will help employees assess how best to use their strengths to help us better serve our customers.

Everyone wants to achieve and be recognized. We can’t be shy. We need to work within the processes and requirements of the job, but the more you know about the organization, its people and its mission, the more effective you’re going to be.

I do believe people have control of their own destinies. Don’t sit back and wait for someone to discover you. You’ve got to jump in. Jump in with all you’ve got.