My drive, to Chapel Hill from Winston Salem, was uneventful on this gloomy Friday morning in September. My day, however, was filled with energy, expectation and excellence. I had the great fortune to attend the National Diversity Council Carolinas, North Carolina Women in Leadership Symposium. In attendance, there were roughly fifty women, representing the full range of diversity in regards to race, age, and career status. There were two men in attendance as well, myself and a representative from the host company.
The four panelists, Barbee Myers Oakes, PhD, Chief Diversity Officer and Assistant Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at Wake Forest University; Meagan E. Spychala, DrPH, Assistant Vice President, Operations at Rho; Alesia M. Perry, Director, Technical Support Cloud Integration/Cloud Platform at IBM; Dr. Catherine Burr, Director of Academic Affairs at the University of Phoenix; and moderator, Amy L. Robinson, President and Founder of National Performance Consulting; shared profound anecdotes and lessons from their lived experiences related to the symposium’s theme, Secure Your Place at the Table.
The panelists acknowledged women’s struggle to gain parity to men in holding executive leadership positions in order to have a seat the executive table. For example, according to recent data from the Center for American Progress, just 14.6% of executive officers in the 500 highest-grossing companies are women. Only 4.6% of the CEOS in those companies are women. However, the spirit of the conversation was not one of struggle, but one of successes. In the span of four hours, these executives covered a vast array of topics ranging from developing leadership potential, finding your own voice, becoming a person of influence, and positioning yourself for your next big move. There were so many relevant and real-time lessons shared, it was hard to distill into something digestible for this blog. However, here are my top five pearls of wisdom:
VISION IS MORE ESSENTIAL THAN SIGHT
Dr. Barbee Myers Oakes shared that a good leader must be a person of vision. The ability of a leader to peek into the future is critical to individual and institutional success. “One must have one foot grounded in the reality of the present, while the other foot is planted in the future to determine your next innovation,” says Dr. Oakes.
FINDING THE RIGHT MENTOR
No matter if you are on the first rung on the corporate ladder climbing to the C-Suite or you have a seat at the executive table, having a mentor is essential to your success. A mentor can help you identify the values and cultural norms of the company. A mentor can also help build your confidence in yourself, your skills and will tell you when you royally messed up. Dr. Meagan Spychala offered, “The mentors and advocates in my life helped me to strive to greatness.” Dr. Burr discussed several key points
regarding mentorship. She noted the difference between having a male and female mentor. On the one hand, a male mentor helps accelerate your movement into a more senior position at a faster rate. On the other hand, one benefit of having a woman mentor is that research confirms the mentee-mentor relationship has greater longevity. In other words, a substantive relationship is established and sustained for years to come with female mentors. “In my research, 18/20 women documented a mentor was essential in succession to the C-suite. Only 2 women participants confirmed no mentor and they had feelings of isolation and fighting their way to the C-suite” says Dr. Burr.
FIND YOUR OWN VOICE
Steven Covey once said, “One word expresses the pathway to greatness: voice. Those on this path find their voice and inspire others to find theirs. The rest never do.” Those who sit on the margins of authority, power and influence are the ones who most likely can offer great insight and direction. A few years ago, Ford Motor Company beta tested their prototype minivan targeted to their “soccer mom” market. The feedback was not what they expected. The women stated that the minivan was not functional for their needs. They said it was too bulky and it did not offer much rear-end room for athletic equipment. Therefore, they were forced to squeeze their children into seats shared with their sports gear. Receiving these critiques, the executives at Ford went back to their engineers to figure out what went wrong. As the engineers scratched their heads and pondered their errors, they noticed something. Everyone tasked with working on the project was male. There were no females directly involved in working on the design and functionality of the minivan. The men realized they were lacking insight from a woman’s perspective. Thus, the absence of that voice from the decision making table contributed to the failed design in the minivan. Therefore, women engineers were included in the redesign. The following year, the Ford Windstar went on to outsell any other minivan in the industry.
Dr. Spychala says that in order to find one’s voice, you have to speak about what you do. Don’t be afraid of telling people who you are, what you believe in, and the outcomes you have achieved. “You have to put yourself out there,” she says. “Once you are at the table, you have to be willing to fight for other people to have a seat at the same table.”
INFLUENCE FOR IMPACT
“Leadership and influence are highly correlated. An effective woman leader has a high degree of influence,” says Alesia M. Perry. She goes on to say that a “wider sphere of influence helps you to have power to help others.” In order to obtain a wider sphere of influence, one has to develop networks in both the formal and informal structures of the organization. Julie Battilana, of HBS, and Tiziana Casciaro, of the Rotman School of Management, underscore the importance of networks. What matters most, they conclude, isn’t where someone ranks within a company’s formal hierarchy, but how well that person understands and mobilizes the informal networks needed to effect change. Trust is a requisite attribute that a leader must possess if she is going to gain influence. Perry suggests that a leader must lead with integrity, trust, and faith. “It goes a long way when people trust you,” she says.
Reaching the highest executive positions in any organization takes having a vision, a great mentor, finding one’s voice and a healthy understanding that the more influence we have the greater our impact. I am confident the women in attendance left the symposium with a greater understanding as to what it takes to secure your seat at the table. I know I did.