Ladies America Founder Lindsey Mask

Who she is: Lindsey Mask is the founder and executive director of Ladies America, a national network of professional women connecting to advance one another personally and professionally, following the motto “Women Helping Women.” Founded in 2005, the organization’s membership totals more than 3,000 top-tier professional women in chapters based in DC, NYC, LA, Nashville, Atlanta, Seattle, and Albany.

What she does: Mask is also the Director for the Center for Health Communications of Federal Occupational Health, a non-appropriated segment of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that provides competitive health and wellness services to 1.8 million federal employees across the country. For more than a decade, she also served as communications director and spokesperson for Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Why she does it: “I am most passionate about our newly launched Mentorship Program, because it focuses on all of our core values at once: connecting, educating, and advancing women. For some reason, women tend to try to go-it-alone, without even realizing they are doing that. My goal is to help more women realize that they aren’t alone—that Ladies America is there to be their support.”

GROWING LADIES AMERICA: 10 Questions for Lindsey Mask

1. Hope Katz Gibbs: Tell us about Ladies America, and what inspired you to create this national organization.

Lindsey Mask: Ladies America began as Ladies Dinner Club back in 2005, when I casually invited five women to dinner after moving to DC. That table of six quickly became Ladies DC, and now has chapters across the country. I first asked some women to meet for dinner monthly because I knew that until I figured out how to successfully work with women, I would not be successful myself. I just knew I needed the support of other women, and I wanted to offer the same support to them.

What we learned quickly was that the majority of women we were meeting felt the same way and were looking for the same support. Through the years, Ladies America has now supported and connected thousands upon thousands of women—all linked by the common understanding that united we can accomplish anything, individually and collectively. The term “network” used to have such an ominous undertone to it, but we like to think we have redefined networking for professional women.

2. Hope Katz Gibbs: What part of your business are you most passionate about?

Lindsey Mask: With our mentorship program, we are able to focus closely on the relationship, directly tackling the goals of our mentees one by one. In fact, I am leading one of our two group mentorship opportunities focusing on personal branding. We meet every three to four weeks for an hour, and then I am also available for them when they need individual help.

I absolutely love our time together and getting to hear directly from my mentees about their challenges in the workforce and where they feel stuck in their personal lives. Not to minimize any of these challenges, but I still believe that at the end of the day, we need to encourage one another to trust our guts, and frankly, sometimes we need someone with authority there to tell us that or to help us figure that out for ourselves. It’s a beautiful process to watch and be part of in a meaningful way.

“Ladies America” has its proverbial boots on the ground—and we are in the trenches with professional women at all levels.

3. Hope Katz Gibbs: What aspect of this organization has tested you the most?

Lindsey Mask: I can honestly say that I have felt challenged in almost every way—and in the best possible ways—as a professional woman and as a leader. Learning what to let go of has been critical for me personally. Figuring out how to stay focused on our core values and the reasons the organization grew as organically as it did, can of course be a challenge.

These challenges can be found in virtually any business or organization. It’s actually pretty easy for a group to come up with good ideas; what’s hard is to keep things simple. I think I still have room to grow in this area, but we have been systematically shedding the unnecessary “great” ideas to get back to the basics of what makes Ladies America so remarkable. That, and figuring out the best method and models for scaling the organization across the United States.

I feel winded just thinking about all the different tactics I have tried and failed at making work, with “failure” being an important experience, because it has helped us refine, refine, refine.

4. Hope Katz Gibbs: What was the major crossroads in building this network? How did you handle it?

Lindsey Mask: Developing the internal platform for leadership identification and development within the organization has been an area that our organization, and many other member-based organizations, have faced. I felt I was using myself up by physically trying to build chapters up in different cities by traveling to them and building networks in all the cities.

That is not sustainable! It would almost be easier and harder if I could build the organization that way. The truth is, any organization has to have a clear vision and then leaders who are engaged and enthusiastic about seeing that come to life. We have to have full buy-in from our leaders. Every single chapter matters to us, so we do not give up, but we also do not force any of our growth. Proven models and the reminder that people are not scalable are two of the most important pieces of advice I have ever received.

5. Hope Katz Gibbs: Looking back, what advice would you have for your 25-year-old self?

Lindsey Mask: Honestly, I use this one all the time now, but I would tell myself, “It’s not that serious.”

I see it more than ever in our younger professionals now—this feeling that they have to be changing the world this second, in a major way, or their efforts do not matter. As Helen Hayes once said, “We relish news of our heroes, forgetting that we are extraordinary to somebody, too.” That, and I have a quote framed and hanging over my desk at work that reads: “Simply become who you are.”

6. Hope Katz Gibbs: What advice do you have for the women in your network about being successful in business? And do you think it’s harder for a woman than a man to succeed in business?

Lindsey Mask: I believe women have all the tools and resources available to them to succeed in business. We just need to get past some of the social norms that do exist—and that starts with an awareness. I have seen a slow but steady shift in how women are operating in business, and personally I am grateful for the changes. In years past, women had to work with such an aggression to be taken seriously, whereas now, we are inching closer and closer to being able to be our true selves in the workplace. At the end of the day, my recommendation is to be prepared and actually know your craft. Ultimately, this is a skills game. Since we know money talks, if your skillset is sharper than another’s—and you share that with confidence—you will succeed. So, study, learn, perform, improve—and keep going. The best person can win.

7. Hope Katz Gibbs: What frustrates you most about being a woman in the business world—and what would you change if you could?

Lindsey Mask: I am not actually that frustrated. I have been fortunate for a large part of my career to have men and women support me and open doors for me based on how well they thought I could do. In my current position, I have the full support of the people at the top level. I cannot say that has always been true. I have felt in the past that if I showed any glimmer of not knowing something, that I would lose a one-time-only chance and be cut almost immediately out of the decision-making.

That can be brutal. Frankly, sometimes I have seen male counterparts wanting to shield me and other female colleagues from some of the “tougher” decisions, but if we are able to consistently illustrate level-headed decision-making and progress, those tendencies melt away.

I think if I were currently seeking funding for a venture, I would be frustrated by that. Women are still not capturing venture capital for start-ups and ideas the way they should, but initiatives are in place and growing to help counter that.

8. Hope Katz Gibbs: What’s your top leadership lesson for other women? Do you live by that lesson?

Lindsey Mask: Here are two simple leadership lessons I have learned:

  • Be transparent. When I was younger and less assured of what I was doing, I was more likely to “protect” my work, but that style of operating almost instantaneously calls critics to the table. If you share everything, you end up having more ability to collaborate and reach the best product or solution. Don’t be afraid of criticism, and remind yourself that even if it’s given maliciously, see it for what it is—and remember that the goal is to have the best result, so stay open to that.
  • Allow your softer side to shine through. This is a more recent lesson for me. When confronted at all, a natural reaction is to defend and harden a bit, but I have found that doing so only exacerbates the issue. Instead, allow your human side to show, because it helps lower the guard of those around you while simultaneously building trust. That is a tricky one too, though, because often we do not even notice when we are hardening a bit. Let me clarify, though, that this does not mean you should cry or “let the waterworks flow” at work—that is still unprofessional. But it is okay to be honest about how you are feeling in a situation rather than pretending to be a person you are not. Remember the old adage, “The truth shall set you free.”

9. Hope Katz Gibbs: You are clearly at the top of your career—what have you not yet accomplished?

Lindsey Mask: I have a lot I would like to do in my personal life, to be honest, which I am focusing on at the moment. I regularly evaluate where I am and areas where I believe I should be, but also realize that every goal I have set, I reach—and that there are no shortcuts to any place worth going. So, I have a peace about where I am in my career, and I continue to enjoy each step of it.

The tangible things I would like to see are to write any or all of the numerous book concepts trapped in my head. The closest I have come is drafting an outline and a writing schedule. One of these days, I will complete that—and I know that when I do, it will be the perfect timing.

10. Hope Katz Gibbs: What are your big dreams and goals for Ladies America in 2015 and beyond?

Lindsey Mask: 200 years! That is how long I believe Ladies America can grow and exist. I foresee the organization being a staple of our culture that provides outreach and communities at the micro- and macro-levels. Everything we have been doing is focused on the larger picture of a longstanding organization.

As it is now, we will be celebrating 10 years of the organization in 2016, which will also equate to influencing and supporting thousands upon thousands of women, and that is truly extraordinary. In the short-term, we are looking to begin our first international initiative and to begin rolling out our newly launched mentorship program across all our cities.

We will continue to expand our target audience from post-college (23-45 year olds) to include Ladies Emerging, which is geared towards supporting college-aged women to help them transition into their first jobs. There are so many ideas and goals, but those are the big ones—and what I want to focus on for 2015. We have identified some new additions to our leadership, and I just know 2015 is going to be a fruitful and remarkable year for Ladies America/Ladies International Foundation!

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