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Three of Tampa Bay's female CEOs share some business tips

TAMPA

The rarest of breeds — three powerhouse female CEOs of formidable Tampa Bay companies — teamed up Monday to share leadership insights. The MBA-trained women splintered glass ceilings to win top executive suites only to find themselves managing in the roughest of economic times.

The three urged an audience of mostly aspiring businesswomen to be bold, take smart risks, be nimble, network often, and encourage new ideas and open debate. Above all, they said, be sure every employee knows where the company's going.

"If your business is not comfortable with change, it will like irrelevance even less," said Liz Smith, CEO since late 2009 of Tampa's OSI Restaurant Partners, whose restaurant chains include Outback Steakhouse and others.

Mindy Grossman, CEO of St. Petersburg-based retailer HSN Inc., told how her company went public in August 2008, just as the Wall Street market collapse began in earnest. HSN survived and prospered, she said, because "our culture still believed we could be successful amid the tumult." The company's market value? Nearly $2 billion.

And Eileen Auen, chief executive of Tampa's PMSI Inc., a business insurance firm specializing in workers' compensation advisory services, warned against "CEO disease" in which managers tell a top executive only what they think she wants to hear.

The three CEOs spoke frankly to a luncheon group of Women Executive Leadership. Its goal: to advocate for more women on boards of directors and in CEO-level jobs.

If there was a sub-theme to the luncheon, it is best described as I Don't Know How She Does It. That's the new Sarah Jessica Parker movie about a female executive torn between a demanding job and a home life with two kids and a husband whose career is on the decline.

Monday's three female CEOs offered their own candid tales of handling the extreme demands of running major corporations, children and life outside the office.

"We all struggle with the same thing," said Smith, a former executive at Avon and Kraft Foods. "I refuse not to have a 360-degree life. My family is most important."

So how does she manage that pressure cooker existence? "I am a ruthless prioritizer," she said, which includes "cutting out 30 percent of the busywork" on any given day.

Grossman emphasized the need for a "support network." For her, that includes a family nanny even though Grossman's daughter is 21.

Auen's kids are now 14 and 12 and — the CEO acknowledged to knowing nods in the audience — demanding more of her time. Her solution? "A need to reprioritize."

In the audience, ex-banking executive and gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink volunteered that she "tried for a big job and did not quite make it." Then she asked: What's needed to boost area jobs?

We need more technology people here, Auen said.

A metro area with a high quality of life to attract sharp young people, Smith said.

"We are competing for the best in digital talent," Grossman added. That gets easier when Tampa Bay becomes more of a magnet for people.

If I didn't know how they do it before, I know a bit more now. It's one heck of a balancing act in the fast lane.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Three of Tampa Bay's female CEOs share some business tips 09/19/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 19, 2011 9:59pm]
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