Attending the Women’s Leadership Forum can change your life.
Shae Watson vividly recalls attending
ELFA’s first Women’s Leadership Forum. The year was 2018, and she was a sales representative for Caterpillar Financial Services Corporation. “There aren’t many women in the heavy equipment sector of our industry, and this was the first event I’d attended that was all women. My eyes were opened,” she says. “Had we all come together that day and not spoken a word, that would’ve been enough for me, because I realized that women are here, we’re successful, and we’re doing great things. I was inspired, even before the conference began.”
Watson has come a long way since then. Now an Area Sales Manager of Caterpillar Financial, she has responsibility for six states, 11 people and a $700-million portfolio. She is also a member of ELFA’s Women’s Council. “Today I’d have a lot to say to my younger self, because I’ve learned how to leverage my influence,” she says. “I’ve shed the layer that kept me guarded because I’m a woman. I know now that a woman’s perspective can be very helpful. So I’m more vocal in my conversations and more heavily involved with our dealer executives. My voice is different, and what I say is more impactful.”
When it comes to crediting the Women’s Leadership Forum for help advancing a career, Watson has lots of company. No wonder: these annual events are packed with dynamic speakers, stimulating panel discussions and tremendous energy. The impact can be profound. Listen to Sonya Morlock-Ryals, Senior Vice President and Deputy Chief Risk Officer of Signature Financial:
“I remember the first one, having no idea what it would be like. It was uplifting and empowering. I looked around and saw all of these career-minded women who cared enough about themselves to improve, become more independent and learn from others, and I realized I was one of them. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much positive energy in one room!”
“This was the first event I’d attended that was all women. My eyes were opened.”
—Shae Watson, Caterpillar Financial Services Corporation
Morlock-Ryals particularly remembers a panel discussion at one Forum about “Super Powers.” “People were talking about negotiating, creating your own brand, and building your executive presence,” she says. “At the time, I really was not sure of my next step. But I knew what our organization looked like and knew there was potential to be where I am today. I wrote a note to myself as I listened to the presenters, listing all the things I could do to improve myself both professionally and personally, and now that’s my tactic every year I attend. I don’t just listen, I work to relate what is said to my life and where I want to be.”
Morlock-Ryals started at Signature as a managing underwriter with no direct reports. Several years later she was promoted to senior managing underwriter and had a small staff. Next, she took over a second business channel and its team, and in 2022 she was promoted to her current position. “As our company has grown, I’ve grown along with it, as have my responsibilities,” she says. “I’ve also helped elevate others below me to step into my roles as I move up.” She credits a Forum session on “Managing Up” (2022) for helping her become more effective with executive management. “I’d always worked to establish strong relationships with these individuals, but never thought of it as managing up,” she says. “The session taught me the importance of recognizing various leadership styles and taking them into account to create a collaborative environment beneficial for everyone and the company.”
“You can choose to be in the passenger seat or the driver’s seat. And while it’s more comfortable to be in the passenger seat, it doesn’t always get you where you want to go.”
Sara Holtz, Women’s Leadership Forum Speaker
Mark Your Calendars!
This year’s Women’s Leadership Forum will be held April 3-4 at The Palmer House Hilton in Chicago. Registration is open to women and allies, including both seasoned talent and emerging talent, and there’s no cap on the number of attendees. The conference theme is “Leading With Your Whole Self.” Michelle Speranza, Chair of the ELFA Women’s Council and Chief Marketing Officer at LEAF Commercial Capital, Inc., elaborates:
“There’s long been a perception that it’s best to maintain strict boundaries between the personal and professional when we’re at work. But recent events have served as a catalyst for stepping back and reconsidering this. Months of working at home gave us a lens into a different way of approaching work and life, one that focuses on integrating the two instead of separating them. As workers return to the office, they’re bringing that new sensibility with them.”
But how should leaders respond? Speranza says the Forum will explore the idea that as employees bring their whole selves to work, leaders should do the same. “During our two-day session, we’ll cover some compelling benefits for leaders who choose to bring everything they are to their work, and how the right approach to making this important change can make any leader better, and support stronger personal career growth as well,” she says.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much positive energy in one room!”
Sonya Morlock-Ryals, Signature Financial
Speranza will facilitate a Forum session with guest speaker Sara Holtz entitled, “Advice to My Younger Me: Career Lessons from 100 Successful Women.” In turn, Holtz will facilitate a panel of executives who will discuss “Leading With Your Whole Self.”
“Who hasn’t wished they could talk to their future selves and get advice on the best path forward as a leader?” asks Speranza, adding, “I’m really excited about this session because it’s the next best thing. Sara Holtz is a former Fortune 500 VP and author of a book bearing the same title as her session. She has interviewed hundreds of experienced women leaders about what they wish they’d known earlier in their careers.”
Holtz says she’ll share key takeaways from those interviews, giving audience members a chance to put others’ hard-won knowledge and experience to work for themselves now instead of later. One such takeaway: Be the architect of your own career. “You can choose to be in the passenger seat or the driver’s seat,” says Holtz. “And while it’s more comfortable to be in the passenger seat, it doesn’t always get you where you want to go.”
Another lesson she’ll share: Be visible. “There’s a misconception that if you do good work, it will be noticed,” Holtz explains. “But in reality, that’s not true. So you have to decide how you’ll make your accomplishments visible.”
A third takeaway: Stay in the workforce. “Too often, women leave without understanding the true costs over the course of a career: lost wages, lost promotional opportunities, lost retirement savings,” says Holtz. “So women need to be very thoughtful about whether and for how long they leave the workforce. Instead of leaving altogether, they need to consider if there are less drastic alternatives: going part-time, being a consultant or acquiring a new role.”
Forum speakers also include Melinda Briana Epler, CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How to Be an Ally: Actions You Can Take for a Stronger, Happier Workplace. Epler will present a session on “Leading With Empathy & Allyship.” Speranza tells why this topic is important:
“Now that more people are breaking down the walls between who they authentically are and the work they spend a third of their lives doing, leaders need to understand how to help their employees to feel as safe, valued and empowered as they are. During this keynote, Epler will offer participants proven strategies they can start using right away to bring more empathy to their leadership, strengthen relationships across their teams, and create truly inclusive work environments.”
“This is an open, collaborative environment, so come ready to be open, to learn and to play.”
Catherine Roddick, Farm Credit Leasing
Benefits in bullet points
Catherine Roddick, Chair-Elect of the ELFA Women’s Council and Lead Relationship Manager at Farm Credit Leasing, says the Forum offers multiple benefits for everyone who attends, no matter their career level or time in the industry. She lists specifics:
“There’s so much we can all learn from each other,” emphasizes Roddick, who will moderate a panel session on work/life integration. “Even later in our careers, we’re still making connections.” She will attend her third Forum this year and observes, “I’ve been amazed each time at how people come in and allow themselves to be open and vulnerable.”
You’ll have chances to network across the industry
- You’ll learn from seasoned executives inside and outside equipment financing
- You’ll get an opportunity to recharge and strengthen your motivation, and
- You’ll get to hear from other generations about their ideas, issues and observations.
To get the most from the meeting, Roddick says to bring your whole self. “This is an open, collaborative environment, so come ready to be open, to learn and to play,” she exhorts, and then adds with a chuckle, “Just observing is not allowed!”
“Make this Forum yours and use what you get from it to become a more authentic, empathetic and effective leader.”
ELFA Women’s Council Chair
Michelle Speranza, LEAF Commercial Capital, Inc.
Watson hopes emerging-talent attendees will experience the same kind of enlightenment she felt five years ago. She personally looks forward to meeting and listening to emerging talent to learn their perspectives. “To hear ideas from members of Gen Z as well as those who are mid-career and senior career, you realize that we all complement one another,” she says. “Bringing this larger audience together, you’re able to better understand the evolution of it all and take something away. In fact, I’d be surprised if you only left with one thing.”
Speranza hopes participants won’t hesitate to speak up, ask questions and get involved. “Don’t just sit back and let the presentations wash over you,” she advises. “Be an active part of them. Bring your own experiences and challenges to the table, and find out how to best apply what you learn from them. Don’t let it be just another event that’s inspiring in the moment and later forgotten. Make this Forum yours, and use what you get from it to become a more authentic, empathetic and effective leader, as well as a more integrated person in all areas of your life.”
Learn more about the Women's Leadership Forum.