How can women push through barriers to achieve professional success? Molly Langenstein, president of Apparel Group of Chico’s FAS, shares her advice for women pursuing leadership roles.
President, Apparel Group of Chico’s FAS
Why are you passionate about helping women advance their careers?
When I started my retail career more than 30 years ago, I was able to see representation of women in my company. These were women that I’ve relied on for career advice throughout my career. The mentoring I received enabled me to find out what I gravitated to and to authentically forge my path. I’ve had a great career and I want that for other women – for them to take their place in their careers and achieve all that’s possible for them.
My passion for career empowerment started in my childhood. I grew up in a small town in Ohio and was surrounded by strong women who inspired me every day. During the Great Depression, my grandmother, Wilma, worked her way through nursing school before becoming a nurse. She advanced her career and worked as a head nurse, until she married my grandfather at the age of 30. During a time when women were not expected to have careers, Wilma pursued her chosen career without apology. The lesson I learned from my grandmother is to confidently follow your passions and do what’s right for you, and this is how I’ve chosen to live my life.
My grandmother was one of the first mentors I had in my career, and the lesson I learned from her continues to influence the decisions I make for my career. Since then, I’ve had many mentors in my life – both men and women – and it’s a gift. When you’ve had that experience, you have to pay it forward. I believe the No. 1 priority for leaders is to pull up the people in their organization and to groom them for the next step in their careers.
What skills would you encourage women in business to own if they are looking toward advancement?
Career advancement goes beyond mastering your craft. It also includes commanding equality in the workplace. That’s why it’s so important to understand that we are not consultants with start and end dates. There will always be more to do, so we should never feel obligated to stay in a role to finish it. When a new opportunity presents itself, whether it’s applying for a promotion or being assigned new responsibilities, be ready to say yes, even if you don’t check the box on every requirement.
What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
Often, how we respond to situations is a barrier for our advancement and growth. Growing up, many of us were taught to be diminutive and to physically reduce the space we occupy so as not to rock the boat. When we enter business, many times this translates into prefacing a strategic and thoughtful remark with an apology, not negotiating salary when offered a new role or additional responsibility, and waiting to apply for a promotion because we don’t believe we have everything needed for the role.
Who is one of your mentors within your industry?
Throughout my career, I count both men and women as being instrumental in my career advancement. I’ve had strong bosses that pushed me and encouraged me to have confidence as I advanced in my career. However, one woman, Gretchen Fox, was – and still is – an incredible mentor to me. I’ve worked in retail my entire career and I remember considering a new opportunity that would require me to uproot and move from Florida to Minnesota.
I shared my concerns with Gretchen and we talked through everything to make sure I was comfortable applying for the role, including debriefing after the interview process. When I accepted the role, I spoke with her weekly and she offered guidance about how to navigate the role and the politics of the organization, which was incredibly helpful for my success in the role. While I no longer speak with her weekly, I know that I can call her whenever I need advice about whatever I’m facing in my career.