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Step Aside and Let a Lady Lead the Way

An Interview with Linda Spalla

by Joyce Dixon


  After reading Linda Spalla's book and interviewing her, I have this image of Scarlett O'Hara standing in the field with her fist raised to Heaven saying, "With God as my witness, I shall never go hungry again."  Linda did not let the blocks that life put in her path stop her; but she worked to succeed, was kind to those around her, and helped those following her.  Linda Spalla went from divorced, single mother and school teacher to the first female general manager for The New York Times Broadcast Group.

Linda Spalla was a native of Anniston, Alabama and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1969 from Jacksonville State University where she majored in English, minored in piano and earned a B.S. degree in Secondary Education. Right out of college she married a Methodist preacher and taught high school English for the Atlanta Public School System.  Three years later, she was living alone with her son in Huntsville, Alabama. 

Spalla's entry into broadcasting was as a secretary at WHNT-TV, the CBS affiliate station in Huntsville.  During the next 25 years, she was an Account Executive, Local Sales Manager, Director of Marketing and finally President and CEO for nine years.  Spalla retired in October of 2000 and began her writing and motivational speaking career.

While on her lifepath, Linda Spalla probably didn't take time to see how unique her journey has been, but those who spoke at her retirement party pointed out what made Linda an excellent leader.  She was one of the first female television general managers in the Deep South; one of the first women to serve on the board of Alabama Broadcasters; and the first female general manager for The New York Times Broadcast Group.  That evening caused Linda Spalla to write her 30 Tips for Dynamic Female Leaders; and today, she shares these lessons with management and women's groups.


In the 1970’s, women were told they had to dress and act live their male counterparts to succeed up the ladder.  How is femininity an asset?
Women must find their natural leadership style in order to soar.  Otherwise, it's like walking around in a pair of high-heeled shoes, which kill your feet. 
Think about it.  We talk about the male/female dynamic everywhere but in the workplace!  It's discussed on the golf course, at church, at cocktail parties, on television, in support groups.  Why in the world do we not acknowledge these differences in the workplace?  Why are there no courses taught in business schools on the differences in male and female leadership?  I'm writing a second book on that right now which will be research-based. 
Women are not men; they don't think like men; they don't process data like men; they certainly don't process feelings as men do; most don't communicate like men.  No one can function at maximum capacity trying to be someone else.  I promote the idea that women have some "natural" talents which if used in the workplace turn into dynamic leadership skills.  The most obvious from the book are communication, intuition, and doing the personal stuff.
I believe men hate women who act like men!  But I'll either prove or disprove that theory with my forthcoming research and book, which by the way will be called HOW LEADING LADIES LEAD MEN.
How does one discover their authentic self?
The journey to an authentic self is a life-long process, which unfortunately seems to hit our self-awareness after age 40.  I can't say that I gave much thought to authenticity while I was fighting to be a wife, mother, and worker bee in my 20's and 30's.  I was just trying to keep my head above water.  As I have aged, I have embraced some basic principles of good mental health, which I think is another name for authenticity.
--  Happiness is inside us, not outside us. 
-- There is evil in this world and we must learn to recognize it and shun it. 
-- There is a spiritual force, which never leaves us alone.
--  Gratitude is the key to a balanced life.
--  Giving back is the ultimate mission before we die.
--  Enjoy being alone.
--  Loving what we do and feeling no guilt for what we say no to
--  Being unafraid to die knowing that life has been a treat
The journey is a marathon, not a sprint and requires a lot of bandages,  supportive friends and a daily glass of wine!   
Huntsville, Alabama has two organizations – Women’s Economic Development Council and Girls, Inc. -- to mentor adult and young women.  Why did you get involved in mentoring? 
I'm retired and have precious time.  I have a compulsion to share because I had no role models coming up and no mentoring. Television was totally a man's world when I started and even when I became a CEO in 1991.   It would have been wonderful to have had a listening ear and a guiding force.  Young women often do not have strong family ties these days and are left to flounder.  I figure I can share my story which most can relate to because I started at the low end and worked my way up.
At age 28, you found yourself a single parent trying to manage career and home.  Through WEDC, you recently mentored Heather Farrell, a 21 year-old single parent of twins.  How was that experience like coming full circle?   Was there someone who offered guidance to you in the early years?
Mentoring Heather has been a wonderful experience.  In her, I absolutely see myself.  She has grit, spunk, whatever you wish to call it.  I think with my encouragement and her hard work, she can become a dynamic leader. The best gift I give her is the gift of believing in herself.
One of the first initiatives you took as General Manager at WHNT-TV was to write your superiors at The New York Times Company requesting funds to purchase a Doppler radar.  Later, that Doppler with the successful forecasting of meteorologist Dan Satterfield put the station at odds with the National Weather Service and north Alabama emergency management officials.  Why is weather important to your region?  How did you manage the fallout?
Huntsville is one of the most tornado-prone areas in the country.  Severe weather is a huge part of the service the local television stations provide.  People who have lived here and moved elsewhere often comment that their new tv stations don't know how to “do” severe weather coverage.  It creates a definite tie with viewers.  Our research indicated that 95% of people watch local television news for weather coverage.  We made a commitment to make that our mantra.
I managed the fall-out with frustration but determined commitment.  We took a lot of heat from the local EMA through negative press.  However, we believed our decision was the right thing to do.  Negative response didn't mean we could abandon our decision.  Eventually, the negative PR subsided and the reliance on WHNT for severe weather coverage grew into a following that still exists today.  The station remains a dominant number one.
How do you feel that your training as an educator prepared your for management?
I would say that being a good communicator, an avid reader, a good writer, a meticulous grammarian all helped immensely in the world of corporate management.   
What do you feel is the most important trait for a woman in management to develop?
Learning to teach others how good they can be; raising the bar so high that employees don't want to disappoint you.
What can a leader do to inspire a work ethic?
Set the ultimate example, run fast so everyone is trying to stay up, insisting on the details, candid feedback, sense of humor, impeccable character
How are men and women different when it comes to communication and presence?  
These are generalizations.  When it comes to communication, I think men want bottom line with little convoluted frills and details.  Women want more concerning the process and how the process will be carried out.  Maybe this is because women so often are the ones who make it happen.  I also believe men think that too much communication with employees can be a bad thing; most women think the opposite.
A man's presence is often removed and impersonal, staying behind a closed door.   However, that is a very individual phenomenon.  I have worked for a woman in my career who was the coldest, most adversarial, most threatening type personality I'd ever met.  There was NOTHING warm and personal about her.  But guess what, she left the NYTimes and a huge salary to adopt a child!  So maybe her femininity was just carefully hidden in the work world.  I found that amazing.
Women tend to take care of everyone before themselves.  Why is it important to set a priority to take care of yourself? 
I think the obvious is that if you don't have your health, you have nothing!  This is one of those realizations that hits us later in life.  Women can also have a dose of low self-esteem and feel that their nurturing of others should be at the expense of their own well-being.   Some women truly feel guilty doing nice things for themselves.  I have never understood that.   I like myself a great deal and will go to the extreme to take care of myself.  I do the spa experience a lot...massage, pedicure, nails, hair.  I don't think this is ego; I think it's leadership.  I treasure my body and good health.  Setting that example for other women is essential.
Is there still a glass ceiling for women in the corporate world?  Do you find many women and men choosing quality of life goals over corporate title/power goals?
Unfortunately, I have to say yes to the first question.  It didn't happen with me but as I read articles and listen to women, I hear the restrictions still.  I'm speaking to a group this Friday at a major corporation here in Huntsville which has just now with new leadership (male) started trying to develop their female employees.   For my new book, I did an extensive search of business schools only to find almost no female deans.  I was appalled. 
I think many people are choosing to find their joy outside of work.  As Jill Connor Brown (Sweet Potato Queens) says, "We have to find what makes our heart sing."  If it can't be found at work, I salute people who find it elsewhere.  In the long run, they will be better employees if they have happiness in other areas of their lives.
What is the best way to leave a position?
Clean, quickly and without a bitter heart.  Also hopefully you've left a legacy that is positive.  Mine was a commitment to excellence. 
If your departure was a retirement, make sure you stay away!  Going back creates problems for new management.   
In your new career as an author and motivational speaker, what has been the most rewarding experience?
The support of my community, friends and contacts.  The surprise has been how much men like my book!
On what topics do you speak? 
  Leadership Tips from LEADING LADIES as a package for women's groups
  General Leadership tips for mixed groups
  Motivating a Team
  Conflict Management
  Stress Management
  How to Write and Publish a Book

Linda Spalla web site
Leading Ladies: 30 Tips for Dynamic Female Leaders
by Linda Spalla
Over the Transom Publishing Company, 2003
Trade paper, $15.95 (63 pages)
ISBN: 0-9728930-0-8
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© 2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved