Durham, N.C. — Kathy Higgins may not be a North Carolina native, but there is no other state she loves more.
“When I arrived in North Carolina, I felt like I came home,” Higgins said. “I like to say I couldn’t get here fast enough.”
Higgins began her career as a public school teacher in Virginia, but after earning a masters degree in public health and working for a former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin, she has spent the last three decades of her career at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.
She now serves as the vice president of corporate affairs as well the president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation.
WRAL sat down with Higgins to discuss her career as part of a series on Triangle women in leadership roles.
“Just doing good work, in fact doing great work, doesn’t lead to the next opportunity,” Higgins said. “There’s a difference between career development and just improving at your job.”
This conversation with Higgins was edited for clarity:
WRAL: How do you think your gender has affected your career?
KH: I think in many ways, I have been very fortunate that I haven’t run into many roadblocks as a female professional, but I also know I have been very comfortable in my interactions with male superiors. At any point in your career, you should be comfortable being an advocate for yourself. I do think that tends to be more difficult for women. I don’t want to suggest it was easy for me, but I think I put a lot of effort into thinking about how to have appropriate conversations with management and advocate for myself.
I don’t think I’ve ever been paid less than a male counterpart with similar experience, but I would say that I believe that my own advocacy has helped narrow that gap. Women should not lose their voice around pay. When it was an appropriate opportunity for me to receive a raise or a promotion, that happened, and it wasn’t by chance.
WRAL: Is there anything you have done you feel has put you ahead?
KH: I am a golfer, and that has put me in a circle where men are networking. It has served my career well because when you’re networking with men who are in leadership positions, you have access to information. I’m a big advocate for women to play golf, because it puts you in the boardroom on the green. If you don’t golf, I would ask, what are you going to do to replace that networking?
WRAL: What piece of advice would you give a young woman launching her career?
KH: Something I emphasize to women I mentor is being resourceful. If you can figure out what someone wants and their vision for success and then deliver that, or deliver more than that, you’re setting yourself up to get ahead. People should also think about their passions as early as possible. But we all have to start somewhere. Expand on your skills, learn new things and learn how other people think as early in your career as possible.
Take advantage of informal opportunities at work and build your personal board of directors. You need coaching, mentorship and sponsorship. A coach will talk to you, a mentor will talk to you, and a sponsor will talk about you. You want all those kinds of people in your life. And if you’re asking for honest feedback, you have to be willing to hear and absorb it as a perspective.
WRAL: How can women support other women at work?
KH: This absolutely matters. There is this idea of “tagging” in meetings. When an idea is proposed, a person should say the name of the woman with the idea. You then recognize the person holding that idea. When that doesn’t happen, someone else, often times a man, is going to get the credit. We all want to be better at this, men want to be better at this, and they want to benefit from the wisdom women bring. By tagging a woman, you can also disagree with her, and it doesn’t belittle her position. But it gives her ownership of the idea. We need to have a common decency and respect for one another to rise up.
WRAL: Why is it important that women are part of business decisions?
KH: That rule of three or more women in a boardroom really matters. There’s plenty of research that suggests if there are less than three women in the room, a woman will make the recommendation, and a man will make the same recommendation, and suddenly it’s a good idea. It’s amazing, but the phenomenon does happen. The “mansplaining” phenomenon takes place too, when a man explains something to a woman when it is her expertise. Men and women want to be in positive working relationships, and it’s not that men are necessarily trying to talk over women, but it does happen. Having at least three women in every boardroom is crucial.
WRAL: How have you seen female roles in the workplace change, and what is your hope for the next generation of working women?
KH: I think it is getting better, but it’s not good enough, and we shouldn’t accept “getting better” as the destination. What’s not measured has not been achieved. Businesses have to think about advancement of women and other diverse candidates and actually take action. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself looking around and seeing men making all the decisions at the highest level. Those are not the best companies, and that is not a best practice. Women bring a female perspective, women process thinking differently, and women add more value to business decisions. I feel very comfortable being a voice in my own company that women need to be advanced in more management roles, more director roles, more vice president roles, more executive roles.