PROFILE: Susan Henricks

News, Spring 2016

ICAN’S Susan Henricks Follows a Passion for Developing Leaders


Susan Henricks, President and CEO of Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN)

Not surprisingly, the leader of the Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN) has a few ideas about leadership.

“An authentic leader acts with integrity and understands that in business, results have to be achieved while balancing the needs and the growth of the people who you are working with,” says Susan Henricks, president and CEO of ICAN.  She considers her own leadership style to be one of collaboration—creating teams of people who work hard to achieve a common goal.  “That’s what I attribute a lot of my success to,” she says. “It isn’t all about me. I don’t put myself first.”

With more than 40 years of leadership experience in business, Henricks joined ICAN in May 2014 after serving on the board for two years.  “It’s kind of like the capstone to my career,” she says.  “What a great way to take what I’ve learned and work with young people here and in other organizations and share some of that. I have always been passionate about giving people opportunities to develop and grow.”

Prior to ICAN, Henricks held executive leadership positions at National Research Corporation (NRC); Arbor Capital, LLC; First Data Corporation; RR Donnelley’s Directories and Metromail Corporation. She earned her BA from Northwestern University, majoring in English and Education in 1973. “In the 1970s, when a woman went to college she was either going to be a teacher or nurse. I was going to be a high school teacher,” she says. However, one stint of student teaching in a northern suburb of Chicago pushed her in a different direction. Henricks enrolled in an IT developer program, to become a systems analyst. Later, with 20 years of experience in business, she earned an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Moving up the ranks in business in the 1970s and early ‘80s, Henricks lived the story many women tell about being the only woman in the room.  She was that woman and yes, there was the assumption that if somebody needed coffee, Henricks would be the likely candidate to fetch it. And she gave many suggestions to deaf ears, only to have her very same ideas repeated by a man 20 minutes later and watch him receive accolades for having thought of it.

“The business world was very different then,” Henricks recalls. “It was all men back then, and they were used to women being either their mother, daughter, sister or secretary.” Women had to persevere, dust themselves off and just keep at it to earn credibility and confidence. Then one day around the conference table, when a male colleague asked Henricks to get him a cup of coffee, she responded, “Joe, you’re perfectly capable to get it yourself.”  The group of men all laughed, and Joe did get his own coffee.  “It took several years to build that confidence to do that and have a voice,” Henricks says. “You just keep coming back and you persevere, and you do your job and you do it really well.”

Over the years, the business environment has improved. Sure, there are still going to be certain men who deal with women differently in a business context, but Henricks believes they are fewer and fewer. “You learn to work around them,” she says. In her 30s, Henricks took on a new role with a company she had been with for less than two years. The president of the company brought her in to meet her new direct reports. One of them, a man who was close to 60 and had been with the company 30 years, sat in the meeting with his arms crossed, refusing to participate. “About an hour later, I walked into his office, shut the door, and I said, ‘Charlie, what are we going to do about this?’ He said, ‘About what?’ And I said, ‘The fact that I’m a female and I’m younger than you and I’m your boss now.’ He had very gruff responses back but I just continued,” she says.

“I treated him with respect and told him I would like for us to be able to work together and would like for him to share his knowledge with me.  And he did. He was still very gruff in that meeting, but ultimately we had a very productive business relationship.”

Henricks stresses the need to address these types of issues head-on.  “The team needed to see that he and I could work together.”

Now, many businesses are facing the new challenges that come with having four generations of people all in the workforce. “This is the first time that companies have had to spend any time even thinking about that,” Henricks says.  These generational groups are referred to as the Traditionalists (born before 1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965 – 1980) and Millennials (1981 to 1997).  “Millennials are a different group of people, many of whom were raised where you get a trophy just for showing up.  Many, I won’t say all,” she specifies, “but many Millennials didn’t learn how to lose or win really because everybody was the same.  I think that is something that many companies are grappling with.”

The solutions vary, but Henricks sees an evolving trend of two-way mentoring relationships emerging.  “Executives benefit greatly from having Millennials mentor them,” Henricks says.  She profited from two such mentoring relationships in the past—one helped her with social media, the other technology.  Those relationships materialized when young people, new to business, came to her wanting to know what they needed to do to have her job in a year.  “I didn’t laugh, which I think is key,” she says about a 25-year-old she worked with in this type of double-mentoring relationship.  “He started to realize that you have to learn a number of things in order to run a company.” And he helped her to understand the perspective he and other Millennials possess.

One clear message Henricks gives to encourage up-and-coming leaders is to own their own careers. “It’s not up to the company to set your career, it’s up to you,” she says. “You have to own the responsibility to ask for training, a particular position or an opportunity to work on a special project.”

This year’s ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference, entitled “Shift: Capitalizing on Transformation,” to be held in Omaha April 6, echoes many of the themes that many companies are focused on or want to be focused on. “The idea of many of these topics is to equip the people who attend with a tool to go back and address one of these challenges,” Henricks says. “ICAN is all about teaching men and women to be better leaders—to be authentic leaders.” W


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