Carolyn Portanova wishes she had been a more serious student as an undergraduate at Penn State University.
"I was a good student, but I don’t think I took my studies seriously enough," says the recently retired president and CEO of the Catholic Family Center. "I would have relished my college days more by being a little more dedicated to my studies."
Highlighted for their achievements and leadership excellence, Athena Award recipients like Portanova, who was honored in 2005, and other women who have been selected as finalists for the award in past years have made significant contributions to the community. When asked, they generally are comfortable with choices they have made along their career paths. Still, if she were mentoring a young woman starting out on her own journey, each of these women can identify at least one aspect of her past, whether a management style or an opportunity for higher education, where she might have made a different choice.
While content and confident about her career moves, Sandra Parker, president and CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance Inc., says she wishes she had pursued a graduate degree at some point. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the College of Wooster.
Nonetheless, the lack of an advanced degree has not gotten in the way of her successes, Parker says, and she has had a satisfying career. Prior to her current position, Parker worked in human resources at Rochester Institute of Technology, as director of research at the Industrial Management Council of Rochester and as director of human resources at Schlegel Corp. She then returned to the IMC, first as vice president and later as president. When the IMC and Greater Rochester Metro Chamber of Commerce Inc. merged in 2003 to form RBA, Parker was appointed to her current role. She was named an Athena Award recipient in 2002.
"I have been blessed along the way with good bosses, and all of my job changes were good changes, through which I was able to gain additional experience and professional growth," Parker says. "When my head hits the pillow at night, there’s nothing that makes me say, ‘I wish I had done that differently.’"
Sharon Napier answers similarly. An Athena Award finalist in 2006, Napier, the CEO of Partners + Napier Inc., occasionally offers career advice to young women within her marketing communications firm. While proud of her achievements, Napier can identify one point early in her career when she might have made different choices.
"When you are building a career in the service business, you have two constituents, your clients and customers, as well as your internal team," she says. "Early on, I focused more on my clients and customers than on my co-workers and direct reports.
"Through time, I learned to correct this, find the right balance and became a more effective manager."
Today, when speaking with young women about their careers, Napier has noticed a trend. These young professionals are concerned about finding the perfect job. She advises them to be more realistic instead.
"Just get your first job," Napier says. "Do your very best at that job. Don’t worry so much about the starting salary, but do make sure that you are learning and growing. It will all work out in the end."
Patricia Malgieri, president of the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection, a program of the Hillside Family of Agencies, interacts daily with young women attempting to overcome the challenges of growing up in an impoverished environment.
One thing Malgieri can identify that she might have changed during her career is the emphasis she placed on mastering every detail of her areas of responsibility. Prior to January 2011, Malgieri was deputy mayor of the city of Rochester, and before that she served as president of the Center for Governmental Research Inc. She received the Athena Award in 2007.
"My early training was as a researcher, and I needed to immerse deeply into all issues," she says. "When I became deputy mayor and my experience grew broader, I still wanted to remain deeply involved in every aspect of my job, but that was hard to do."
Malgieri says she wanted to understand every detail of the departments that reported to her, from human resources and finance to the Fire Department.
"But I finally realized that was unrealistic and that instead I needed to trust the expertise of my direct reports from each of those areas," she says.
Eventually, Malgieri says, she learned to "not beat myself up" and to have faith in her management team.
"What I learned to do was to think about the essential features of the job and figure out what I did and did not need to do," she says. "I discovered that the most important action was to ask the right questions."
Though Portanova wishes she had paid more attention to her books, she has managed to make an impact in Rochester. She just completed a rewarding 37-year career at the Catholic Family Center, since 1989 at the helm of the organization. In that position, she oversaw the work of nearly 500 employees who serve roughly 50,000 clients annually.
Portanova, a former elementary school teacher who later earned a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Rochester, adored her career, she says. She actually values mistakes she made along the way, noting that they helped her become a stronger and more effective professional.
Above all, say the women interviewed for this article, the key to success is always to look at the big picture.
"My advice to young women starting out is to practice perseverance," Portanova advises. "Remember, this too shall pass." ï®
Debbie Waltzer is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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