A Conversation with Woman of Influence Honoree Mary Lynn Fayoumi
Mary Lynn Fayoumi, CAE, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, president and CEO, HR Source, is the 2021 recipient of the Woman of Influence Award. She was nominated by peers and won the award due to her longtime commitment to the association community and the field of human resources. She is a highly respected speaker, trainer and advisor, as well as an authority on workplace issues such as culture, employment trends, and HR management. HR Source is a Chicago-based employers’ association with more than 1,100 member organizations.
I spoke with Fayoumi about what it means to win this award and how women can continue to advocate for themselves in the workplace.
Association Forum: Tell me about your career and your journey to becoming a Woman of Influence.
Mary Lynn Fayoumi: At no point along the way did I set out to be an influencer. You start out by wanting to help others and to support others and learn from others and it’s in that spirit of servant leadership that I became influential.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood and how I was surrounded by farmers and teachers and the Catholic church and a small-town community. And my parents were both teachers. People helped each other, and were there for each other. It’s just a part of my core values.
Association Forum: What have you gained from this community?
Fayoumi: I think the influencer gains as much as, if not more than, the recipient of whatever it is you’re providing: advice, counsel, resources, etc. And I’m also very fortunate to have landed in a career as well as at an organization where it’s like the perfect storm in terms of the ideal platform and place to utilize my natural born gifts, but also tap into my knowledge and expertise from my fields of study and from the human resource profession. If you asked me today what my next job would be, I’d still have a hard time telling you if I would go into an HR role or an association role. Even though I’ve been in association management for 30 years, the reason I’m an association exec is because I also get to practice human resources.
Association Forum: Looking back over your career, what are some of the challenges you encountered?
Fayoumi: I was the first female CEO of my organization and we’re a 123-year-old association. We were originally a manufacturers’ association and there were very few female board members and very few female leaders amongst our membership. In my early days, I was the first woman in my organization to get pregnant, work all the way up to my due date, have both babies and come right back to work. And that was before the FMLA, so, I remember sitting on ice packs while writing articles and working. I even got a hotline call from a member when I was in labor. She’s still is a member and we still joke about it 27 years later.
Association Forum: That’s incredible.
Fayoumi: One of the challenges early on was getting respect—not only because I was young, but because I was a woman. And navigating the challenges of motherhood as well as an environment where you often had to kind of hide your at-home situation was hard. It was a day when you had to have a real reason to call in sick and often having a sick kid was not something you ever wanted to share as your reason. And so I just made sure to have a huge support team in my back pocket. You had to do your job and never give your employer any reason to believe that you weren’t fully capable because you were also trying to be a mom. That has changed so much in today’s workplace where people can bring their whole selves to work, and it’s not embarrassing to say that your kid is sick or you don’t have daycare. That just wasn’t acceptable in the eighties and the nineties.
Association Forum: Tell me about some of the people who have helped you along the way.
Fayoumi: I was very fortunate. I’ve been thinking a lot about examples of female role models. But certainly, besides having incredible parents as role models, I also have had wonderful mentors and cheerleaders and supporters and bosses along the way who were male who could care less what my gender was. And who pulled me along, who gave me advice, who took me aside, who coached me. My mentors weren’t just females because in many instances, I was going to be the first female in any given capacity. So being the first of anything is always hard. But also, I have found through the association community, particularly women being amazingly generous with their time and energy and expertise and willingness to support show you the ropes lend a hand, give constructive criticism.
Association Forum: That’s great. I want to talk about the outsized effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on women. According to a study released by McKinsey in fall of 2020, 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely because of the impact of COVID-19.
Fayoumi: It’s a terrible statistic. It’s very concerning. Again, a very uneven impact on working women, young mothers, and women of color—they are dropping out of the workforce. If they’re not dropping out, they’re stepping back in their roles or responsibilities because they just are not able to handle the increased burden at home. And it might not just be with young kids. It’s also with aging parents, and trying to figure out how to care for them. As an employer advocate, I’ve been coaching our member organizations to figure out ways they can accommodate these changing obligations for female employees who have kids at home, are helping kids with e-learning, have a daycare that is closed, or aren’t ready to send their kids back.
If you want to retain your talent, you’ve got to be more flexible, be more open-minded, ditch your rigid policies. Figure out how to come up with arrangements, schedules, responsibilities, whatever it is, revised job descriptions to make it possible for these employees to flourish—not to feel like they don’t have a choice. My kids are 25 and 27 now. They were only a year apart in school. And even when they were in school full-time [not during a pandemic], it took a village to be a working mother and to raise them both successfully. I can’t imagine if I’d had to homeschool them because my son has learning disabilities and he received special services through the schools. It would have been virtually impossible for me to hold down the responsibilities of my job with my kids at home full-time. Fortunately, my son is now working full-time, living on his own, leading a very prosperous adult life and my daughter is getting ready to graduate from medical school in just a few months.
Association Forum: Wow. So, what are the options for women? How can we advocate for ourselves during this incredibly stressful time?
Fayoumi: If you can think of a formula that you believe would still allow you to do your job effectively, but would also help you out from a personal perspective, make your case. And if you don’t have a champion, if you don’t feel like you’re the best person to present that option, for whatever reason, think of who might be your advocate or a good spokesperson. In a larger organization, you might go to HR and see what other options are available. If there are any examples, any precedent, if you have a supportive boss, you can go directly to your own boss or supervisor. If you have a colleague who has a similar situation or has been successful, you could go to them for tips.
Make sure that whatever you ask, you make it something that’s advantageous to both parties. It can’t be all about, “Hey, look at me, I need this, this and this.” The employer won’t see the advantage. You know, don’t put me between a rock and a hard place, right? Give me some benefits of this for our organization, walk me through. I would also recommend a trial period. Don’t force the organization to agree to a long-term commitment. Instead, say “can we try this for three months?” And then we’ll have a touch point where we talk about how what’s working and what’s not. And then we can adjust and amend and move forward.
Association Forum: Thank you, that is great advice. Especially during such an extraordinary time.
Fayoumi: I think for many women, given all of the things on our plates, there is definitely something fulfilling about getting work stuff checked off your list. For me, work is often an escape and a refuge and it feels a lot more fulfilling than some of the other necessary tasks in life.
When you’re in the zone and getting things done, it really is a high. I’m not a runner, but I bike and I hike. And you know, it is like a runner’s high—I don’t get that same feeling when I clean my house. Or when I go to get my car serviced, none of those good endorphins get released. But if you’re doing things professionally that use your brain, use your heart, use your mind, you get such positive rewards that it’s very addictive in some ways. And to pour yourself into your work—in a world that’s so unpredictable right now—I think has been easy for a lot of us because it feels kind of normal and you feel more comfortable and more successful and accomplished than you do with a lot of the other stuff.
You can hear more from Mary Lynn Fayoumi at the Women’s Executive Forum:
Association Forum Board Chair, Paul Pomerantz, offers an update on event safety, CEO search, Board...