Most Powerful Women: Megan Barry

Metro Councilwoman-at-large learned valuable political leadership lesson at age 10

Few people are “born leaders.” In fact, within the business world, the ability to oversee plans, processes and personnel requires skills that are honed over time and with great patience. Sometimes there is an “aha moment,” an epiphany of sorts at which point a person realizes ‘I can lead.’ In other cases, a series of general events or a string of specific incidences yields a confidence and focus within a person, allowing leadership qualities to come forth.

In Nashville, the majority of leaders remain men. But woman are closing that gap, making significant impact on the area’s business community. It is a trend that is encouraging and surely will benefit the city and the region. The Nashville Post editorial team selected the 2012 Most Powerful Women — check out our 2011 choices here — based on their leadership skills, broad influence and ability to facilitate positive change. The group represents a cross-section of area industries: health care, government, nonprofits and public relations/marketing.

We interviewed the four to learn about their leadership styles, philosophies and challenges. They came across as humble, intelligent and seasoned. We liked what we heard. Nashville, indeed, should take note of these leaders.

 

The first office Megan Barry ran for was the lofty post of secretary of her fifth-grade class. Her opponent was her best friend. And, guided by the logic of a 10-year-old’s mind, Barry cast her vote for her buddy.

Ultimately her friend won the race.

“My mom was one of the vote counters and, of course, she knew my handwriting,” Barry said.

“She told me ‘If you don’t have the confidence in yourself to think you can do this job, why should anyone else?’ “ she said. “That was a valuable lesson.”

Barry holds the punchline of the story until the end, but the outcome is easy to predict.

“I lost by one vote.”

She’s never made the same mistake again. A student council loss in Kansas City started a path that’s landed Barry as an at-large member of Nashville’s Metro Council, on which she is one of the most respected — and, yes, confident — members.

That motherly lesson decades ago was one of many from the women in her family who helped put Barry on a path to leadership and success.

Unusual for the times, both Barry’s grandmother and great-grandmother were college graduates.

“My grandmother had a degree in nutrition,” Barry said. “She worked for the gas company. She’d teach new brides how to cook on their gas stoves.”

But when she got married, the gas company made her grandmother quit her job.

“She pined to work her whole life.”

Barry said her grandmother would have been “an amazing business woman” but for the era in which she lived. Barry’s mother, too, was a career woman, working as a paralegal to support a family as a single mother.

“She taught me you need to have a career — not to rely on some guy,” Barry said.

Those simple lessons — those classic Midwestern virtues of confidence and hard work — have Megan Barry tagged as one of Nashville’s top political names.

But she’s not just a politician. Barry is the ethics and compliance officer at Premier Healthcare and she said it’s her time in that job during which some of her proudest leadership accomplishments have come.

“In the early 2000s, I took the job as the ethics and compliance officer. It was a company in crisis and I was asked to create a culture,” she said.

Since then, Premier is a regular winner of Forbes’ Most Ethical Companies award.

Barry, though, sees leadership as a journey, rather than a destination.

“I think there’s never been one moment [where I realized I was leader],” she said. “There are times you are asked to step up. There’s moments you’re asked to lead.”

It’s a role Barry embraces.

One of just 11 women on the 40-member council, Barry said there is a responsibility for established women politicos to “build up the bench.”

“The number of women is greater … and those doors are open. [Women] are waiting,” she said.

More than that, though, she said the key is to give people a chance to make a choice.

“When you look at the slate [of candidates], there are some races where there isn’t any competition,” she said. “Democracy deserves a chance. The Metro Council is non-partisan so you want to court people who care about the community.”

In addition to being one of the few women on the council, Barry said there are two other key factors that affect the way she approaches her work on the council. As one of the five at-large members, Barry is charged with representing the entire city. And as one of the “old timers,” she tries to be a stabilizing force on a body with a high level of turnover.

Barry notes that at all levels of government, reaching across the aisle to political opponents has become unnecessarily rare, so a good leader has to make an effort to make connections with colleagues — whether or not they are ideological opposites.

“You’ve got 40 people [on the council] who are very different and you know the people who [sit] around you,” she said. “You’ve got half the council being new. Part of being accessible is just reaching out.”

Term-limited on the council, Barry’s name is regularly bandied about as a potential candidate for mayor. But for now, she’s happy to fill her present leadership role: with confidence from an early lesson from her mom, work ethic from her grandmother, a responsibility to help others carry the mantle of leadership, and knowledge that leadership isn’t a destination — it’s a journey.