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11 in the 517: Women Leaders Who are the Regional Trailblazers

11 women in the 517, tenacity, focus and drive have allowed them to step up and stand out.

There has never been a more tumultuous time for leadership in any business community: human resources departments turned on their heads, a hybrid workplace, difficulty retaining employees due to burnout — most all of it related to the ongoing pandemic. Those issues are layered on top of the systemic obstacles women in the workplace have faced for decades. Yet for 11 women in the 517, tenacity, focus and drive have allowed them to step up and stand out.

Lynn Griffor

Vice President of Philanthropy: McLaren Greater Lansing Foundation

Having served as vice president of philanthropy for the McLaren Greater Lansing Foundation since 2019, Lynn Griffor successfully led a $10 million capital campaign to support McLaren’s new health care campus, scheduled to open in March. As part of the senior leadership team at McLaren Greater Lansing, Griffor serves on the funding committee for the McLaren Center for Research and Innovation and is a founding member of the Women’s Giving Circle.

“I truly believe that approaching work with an open mind and the belief that we can figure anything out contributes to successful outcomes,” Griffor said.

On her journey to her current role, Griffor credits Jennifer Montgomery, former CEO of McLaren Port Huron, with encouraging her to take a risk when she was offered the opportunity to come to McLaren Greater Lansing.

“She … gave me the confidence I needed to step up to a new challenge,” said Griffor.

Asked how she’s built confidence and resiliency over the course of her career, Griffor is humble.

“Authenticity and vulnerability have helped me build confidence and resilience,” she said. “I embrace my shortcomings, I am open about my mistakes, and I never pretend to be the smartest person in the room. I also love to learn, which makes me comfortable taking risks.”

Griffor gives sage advice for women who want to grow into a leadership role.

“My advice is to support your team above all else,” Griffor said. “I made a promise to the MGL team that I would never ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself, and I try very hard to uphold that promise. I try every day to make sure my staff feels protected, supported and appreciated.”

Pictured on the cover, Lynn Griffor visited the 517 Magazine office for this month’s photo shoot of 11 women leaders from the region.

Nicole Noll-Williams

President and CEO: Capital Region Airport Authority

Nicole Noll-Williams assumed the lead at the Capital Region Airport Authority after spending almost three years as the mid-Michigan regional director for U.S. Sen. Gary C. Peters. The move returned her to an area of extensive and familiar experience. Noll-Williams previously logged over 25 years in the aviation industry, with experience in air service development, airline management and contract management, and more recently as the director of marketing and passenger development for the Capital Region International Airport and Mason Jewett Airport.

She describes her leadership style as collaborative.

“I strive to create an environment that encourages sharing ideas and different viewpoints,” she said. “I wholeheartedly believe that the success of my organization requires looking outside my own thinking, leveraging the talent and creativity of my team. Surrounding myself with people who will work together and challenge the status quo is the way I can be an effective leader.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have had wonderful mentors and role models who have inspired me throughout my career, but, without a doubt, my parents have been my biggest inspiration,” Noll-Williams said. “From a very young age, they instilled in me the values of a strong work ethic and a just-get-it-done attitude.”

When she first started in the aviation industry, Noll-Williams said, there were very few women in leadership roles, let alone as CEOs.

“I’ve been blessed to have had men who have helped me navigate what was a male-dominated industry. In addition, I’m indebted to an amazing group of strong women in my life, who are fierce, who are brave and who support each other without hesitation.”

The importance of loving what you do has been one common mindset held by all who have inspired her. One of her favorite quotes by Winston Churchill states, “Those whose work and pleasure are one, are fortune’s favored children.”

“I believe that even through challenging times, you should love the work you do,” Noll-Williams said.

Brandie Ekren

Executive Director of Strategic Planning and Development: Lansing Board of Water and Light

Brandie Ekren’s passion for the energy industry has helped her grow and advance her career at BWL for more than 17 years. She currently is responsible for overall organizational strategy, commercial and industrial business development, marketing, and real property management. Ekren joined BWL in 2004 as associate attorney and advanced to general counsel for BWL legal affairs in 2008.

She refers to her leadership style as transformational, adopting and practicing a mindset that includes passion, innovation and growth to yield the highest potential in all teams within her care.

“It’s fulfilling to encourage and witness my team going beyond their immediate self-interests to realize their full potential and exceed their perceived capabilities,” said Ekren, crediting her parents, colleagues and team members as sources for her own inspiration. “Additionally, the utility industry and its future potential are also inspiring. I like to think of our customers and how we as a utility can help positively influence their life.”

Ekren’s resiliency comes from within.

“I don’t originate from a background that involved a clear-charted course to success,” Ekren said. “As a matter a fact, my indigent upbringing did not always afford me basic utilities such as electricity, heat and running water. My parents did the best they could, and I learned at an early age to improvise, abandon pride, and be open to giving and receiving help. As such, I never believed I was limited by my circumstances.”

Her advice for women looking to lead: “Develop and continuously update your personal purpose and mission statement. Then apply your purpose and mission to everything you do.

Margaret Trimer

Vice President of Strategic Partnerships: Delta Dental of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana

Margaret Trimer guides marketing, public relations, company culture and the investment of more than $7 million dedicated to building healthy, smart, vibrant communities. Prior to joining Delta Dental in 2018, Trimer led Junior Achievement of Southeastern Michigan, founded and ran University Prep Science and Math schools in Detroit, and directed communications for the Michigan Education Association. While at the MEA, Trimer started a nonprofit called Your Child, which is credited with revealing Michigan’s lackluster culture of education and conducting a major public relations campaign designed to spur improvement.

“I lead by distributing power,” Trimer said. “I tell my team members they are the CEOs of their own jobs. They must stay in their lanes, but they have decision-making power and are expected to be experts in their area of work. This requires them to know their jobs, be accountable and keep things moving.”

Trimer had several role models and critical friends along her journey but credits Beth Konrad, former editorial director at Detroit NBC affiliate WDIV-TV 4 for mentoring her as a 17-year-old television intern. Her TV history has also led her to podcast.

“I have a podcast called Grit —MarGRIT Trimer,” she said. “It’s an appropriate title, as I’ve developed that trait over a lifetime. I’m a first-generation college graduate, raised by working-class parents who were from immigrant families. Nobody gave them anything. They were self-made and they taught me how to chase my dreams and make them real without any sense of entitlement.”

Her advice for future women leaders is simple: “Don’t be a mean girl; support your colleagues in their professional journey. If you do well, then turn around and do good for others. Be a learner. Be purpose-driven. Know your core values and your why and live them passionately.”

Lori Simon

Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging; Civil Rights Coordinator and Human Resources Liaison for Caregiver Resource Groups: Sparrow Health System

Lori Simon provides leadership and strategic direction to support Sparrow initiatives, and she has established a comprehensive diversity approach that supports an environment inclusive for all patients and caregivers. Through her extensive community outreach, Sparrow received the 2016 Diversity Star Award from the Lansing Economic Area Partnership. Among her many accomplishments, Simon was recognized by MacDonald Broadcasting as a Lansing Legend and as a Woman of Achievement by the Lansing alumni chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc.

“I consider myself to be a servant leader,” Simon said. “My goal is to manage people up to reach their full potential and to ensure that they are fulfilled both personally and professionally. Being a servant leader is very important to me because it creates a work environment where employees at all levels feel respected and valued and are empowered to contribute to the organization’s success.”

Many women leaders throughout her career have inspired Simon on her journey to her current role, including family members, sorority sisters and leaders at Sparrow; “but the person that I must give credit to for setting me on this path is Jacqueline Thomas-Hall. She hired me in 2014 and saw something in me at that time I didn’t see in myself.

“My resiliency comes from knowing my worth and understanding my purpose,” said Simon. “I never allowed others to write my narrative or decide my worth. In all honesty, I’m where I’m today because someone else decided I couldn’t or shouldn’t lead their organization, which gave me the opportunity to lead another organization, which led me directly to my current leadership role. I’m an example of a woman who in many eyes may have lost a battle. But I won the war.”

Cindy Kangas

Executive Director: Capital Area Manufacturing Council

A lifelong Lansing resident, Cindy Kangas is proud to have grown up with an appreciation for the community. Her experience includes nonprofit development, marketing and community relations. A key near-term priority for Kangas in her current role at the Capital Area Manufacturing Council is to reach out to community stakeholders and explore partnerships that can help bring more awareness to the challenges and opportunities manufacturers face while operating in the capital region.

“I always look for leaders to coach, teach and mentor me,” Kangas said. “Similarly, I feel it’s important to coach, teach and mentor others. I’ve found great success in not only learning my job description but the job descriptions of those around me. It has taught me so many amazing skills and given me an appreciation for all aspects of the business.”

As a mom of four, Kangas has looked to women who have found the perfect work-home balance.

“I love when women make big things happen at work all day, then go home and drive the soccer car pool,” she said.

The confidence Kangas brings to the table has come with education.

“It’s important for me to be able to sit in a room full of people and not only listen to the conversation but contribute based on experience,” Kangas said. “There will always be people who think your voice is not as valuable as others. Bless and release them.

“I have found great value in surrounding myself with other women who can lift me up when I’m struggling and be a sounding board when I have questions,” Kangas said.

Michelle Massey

Vice President of Community Outreach and Customer Operations: TechSmith

With over 25 years of information technology experience, Michelle Massey has extensive experience in community engagement, business operations, corporate planning, support and proposal development. Her current responsibilities include growing the philanthropic impact in K-12 education and engagement into science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields for underrepresented and underserved communities. In addition, she is responsible for TechSmith’s customer and technical support teams to maximize the impact of the customer support experience for clients.

“Seeking to understand is a key component of meeting people where they are at and leading in a manner that will get the most out of people and for them,” Massey said.

Prior to joining TechSmith, Massey worked at Dewpoint. A strong supporter of the Lansing region, Massey has sat on several boards and is currently on boards for the Lansing Art Gallery and Education Center, Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Wharton Center.

“My recent decision to leave my role after 15 years came from an evaluation and understanding of what was truly my passion and what I wanted to do in the next phase of my career,” she said.

Having a strong knowledge of self has been imperative.

“It is easier to evaluate situations and my response when I can keep the big picture in mind,” Massey said. “Others may wonder why I choose not to engage, get riled up or become confrontational. It is because I have a deeper yes inside. So this requires a lot of confidence and being resilient.”

Massey’s advice for women in leadership roles is to be yourself.

“This doesn’t mean there aren’t areas to improve or lessons to be learned,” she said. “Don’t fundamentally change who you are in order to fit a mold of leadership.”

Lisa Corless

President and CEO: AF Group

Prior to her current promotion, Lisa Corless was a member of the AF Group  executive team, serving as senior vice president, chief administration officer and chief of staff. Her impact and influence in insurance has earned her respect and several significant, professional honors, including the Woman of Influence Award from the Austin Business Journal and the 2017 Women to Watch Award from Business Insurance.

“My style has certainly evolved over the years, and the most important thing I’ve learned is to be authentic,” Corless said. “Early in my career, I tried to model my leadership after other leaders in an attempt to make their behaviors or style my own. But the feedback I got from my teams was, ‘Just be yourself.’ And this simple and obvious advice has really proven to be the best approach for me.”

Corless’ father served as her inspiration.

“He wasthe one who introduced me to the world of insurance many years ago,” Corless said. “He was caring, intelligent and was very good at connecting with others. But the single most important thing he taught me was the tremendous value of integrity.”

Corless gets her resiliency from experience.

“For me, confidence comes in the successes I’ve had, but also in the failures,” she said. “The successes have given me the assurance that my insights, intuition and decisions can result in great outcomes and progress; and the roadblocks and failures let me know that I need to keep trying and being creative.”

To women leaders, she said, “Don’t be afraid to take risks and put yourself out there. Be confident in your skills and experience, and embrace this confidence as you pursue the roles you really want.”

Sarah Anthony

68th District Representative: Michigan Legislature

State Rep. Sarah Anthony is serving her second full term representing the 68th House District, which encompasses the city of Lansing and Lansing Township. In 2018, Anthony was sworn into a partial term after filling a special election, making history as the first African American woman to serve as state representative in Lansing’s history. She chairs the House Democratic Caucus and has been named Legislator of the Year by Michigan Works! and the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association.

“I am a firm believer in servant leadership and try to empower those around me in any way I can — whether that is my team, community leaders or the residents I was elected to serve,” Anthony said. “Surrounding myself with a diverse array of voices and perspectives helps keep me informed and focused on serving my community above all else.”

Anthony’s first professional job was in the office of former state Rep. Joan Bauer.

“Watching her navigate a predominately male profession with strength, grace and effectiveness inspired me to explore a career in public service,” Anthony said. “I have also been inspired by the historic journey of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president of the United States. Her ability to build a coalition of women, working-class families and young people while emphasizing civility and consensus building is a blueprint I continue to follow today.”

She said she owes a great deal of her success to the wisdom and guidance of her mentors: “They’ve taught me to admit and accept my shortcomings and lean on the strengths and expertise of those around me when needed.”

Anthony said women should practice bringing all parts of themselves to the table.

“The world is best served when women lead with authenticity,” said Anthony.

Paula Autry

Senior Vice President and CEO, Central Market: Henry Ford Health System; President and CEO: Henry Ford Allegiance Health 

Paula Autry’s mission is to be herself and keep things real in her leadership style.

“I aim to always be myself and keep things real,” she said. “Trying to be someone else would be exhausting.”

When Autry began her journey with Henry Ford Health System in 2019, she took time to learn from the team and got to know local business, nonprofit, civic and faith-based leaders.

“I also listened to those we serve because our customers are at the heart of all we do,” Autry said.

Her interest in health care grew out of her early experiences with an older sister who had neurofibromas, a type of nerve tumor.

“I saw the strengths of the health care system, along with many opportunities for improvement,” Autry said. “From my parents, who were both educators, I was raised with an appreciation for the need to improve the health of our neighbors because the overall strength of a community depends on the health of its residents. That early understanding of the importance of community health helped to inform my career path.”

For Autry, confidence comes with experience and learning from mistakes.

“Resiliency is a product of having a deep understanding of your purpose — the ‘why’ behind what you do,” she said. “When that why is your passion, it drives you to keep going. My why centers on a deep, personal sense of commitment and responsibility to my community.”

Autry said future leaders should study leaders they admire and aim to emulate them: “Be your authentic self, always. Ask questions. Become an excellent listener.”

Orlene Hawks

Director: Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs

Prior to joining LARA, Orlene Hawks led the state’s Operation Excellence project dealing with Child Protective Services investigations, served five years as the director of the Office of Children’s Ombudsman, and managed the quality and program services section in the Department of Community Health.

“I believe in being a servant leader,” Hawks said. “I want to empower the people around me to achieve their highest levels of success. I always encourage my team to prepare themselves for future opportunities that may arise during their professional career.”

Hawks has drawn inspiration from women and men who have enjoyed success.

“I appreciate leaders who have demonstrated unique qualities in seeking their goals,” Hawks said. “Leaders that I admire the most possess unbridled passion, determination, sincerity and focus in ways that inspire others to follow. The leaders that I respect the most possess an uncanny ability to balance the impulse to speak with their eagerness to learn through active listening.”

She achieved confidence by realizing the importance of being undeterred in pursuit of her professional and personal goals.

“As the saying goes: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” said Hawks, who reminds future leaders not to be bashful in demonstrating the qualities, skills and confidence that have brought them to opportunity’s doorstep.

“As one of my mentors continues to remind me: ‘Act like you’ve been there,’” she said.

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