Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Will To Lead

“The Will To Lead” is the most important part of Sheryl Sandberg’s message -- to be found at the end of her book’s title (Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead, co-authored with Nell Scovell and published by Knopf: 2013).

I and 400 of my closest, personal friends (men and women) listened to Ms. Sandberg as she was interviewed by Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Entertainment, at a book signing in Beverly Hills last week.  Having seen the trivial interrogations conducted by Nora O’Donnell (60 minutes) and Katie Couric (The Katie Show), it was refreshing to see a more complete presentation of Ms. Sandberg’s perspective (unedited by the Sisterhood).

Ms. Sandberg has roiled a fair bit of women’s feathers.  NOT mine – I’m one of her biggest fans. Not necessarily because I agree 100% with her message (or the media interpretation of same), but because she is such a strong advocate of addressing tough issues, transparency, speaking up about important issues today, and because of her essential even-handedness. Having to answer to one son and one daughter kind of forces even-handedness. How do you advocate equality for women in the workforce while you ALSO must consider the impacts (real or perceived) on the other half of the species (men)? 

“I think … that these issues run deep. This is serious stuff. This is about who we are as a people and our expectations for our lives and our partnerships and our families, and I think people are really passionate about this.” [Sheryl Sandberg]

Ms. Sandberg’s message appeals to the economist in me: scarce resources ought not to be squandered, under-utilized, or under-valued.  Nor should those scarce resources under-perform compared to their potential.

“I want us to be able to choose -- unencumbered by gender choosing for us.” [Sheryl Sandberg]

As someone fascinated by good governance, I am also intrigued by her focus on transparency.  Things that are kept hidden tend to fester.  The bright lights of disclosure, evaluation, and deliberation tend to encourage intellectual assessment – and that can’t be all that bad compared to the alternative.  Secret societies, cloistered deals, insider transactions and the like are not in the best interest either of a democratic society or a public share-owning form of capitalism. 

“The will to lead” is Ms. Sandberg’s primary message.  It is even more important than the statements that “shared work in the home (husbands doing laundry) could be more romantic.”  It is much more important than the statement that “companies could provide proximate parking for expectant mothers.”  And it’s a helluva lot more important than the powder-puff questions that circle “work-family balance.”  Ms. Sandberg says it clearly:

"So there's no such thing as work-life balance. There's work, and there's life, and there's no balance." 

The will to lead is the courage to step out of the expectations and stereotypes in which our friends, families, companies, culture, and society insist upon wrapping all women. Ms. Sandberg and her co-research author, Nell Scovell, gathered an abundance of data about those stereotypes, behaviors, and expectations.

One example is that some people have challenged Ms. Sandberg’s decision to use a “ghost-writer.”  As an author, myself, I commend Ms. Sandberg for her decision to collaborate with a strong complementary skill.  This is exactly the type of decision women need to make…. IF they have the will to lead.

Throughout Ms. Sandberg’s interview last week, she easily selected from the reams of date contained in the book to support a point here or to emphasize a message there.  Then she would conclude with a positive statement:  “this is what we could do.”  These are the options, choices, and alternatives to the same ol’ same ol’ that we have accepted for far too long.

This is what it looks like if we women choose, like Ms. Sandberg, to Lean In against a host of challenges and to exercise “the will to lead.”

Strong Women – Do They Intimidate or Inspire You?

Do we always expect every woman only “to play nice?”  Is this why women in the workforce are befuddled when they encounter women bosses who expect – perhaps even demand – performance?  Are women intimidated by women leaders who are firm, who expect much of their employees, and who are not the type who will “kiss a boo boo and make it better?”

Women now are advancing to leadership positions, today, in a wide spectrum of professions.  Women are now able to serve in combat roles in the military.  A woman (Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz) heads the Coast Guard Academy.  Another woman was recently appointed to head the Air Force Academy (Maj. Gen. Michelle Johnson). Do I really need to cite the woman who heads Harvard Business School or (until just last year) the woman president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?

Even Condolessa Rice (one of only two women admitted to the Augusta National Golf Club) told us, “And you have to be tough.” “When you enter a position of power, you have to want to be respected.”

In coaching women entrepreneurs to deliver their business pitches to investors, I have seen a transformation take place.  They might begin with uncertainty, no small measure of anxiety, and sometimes a bit of self doubt.   All of that probably is driven by a sense of reasonable caution about what might be ahead.  Anxiety has as its foundation many unanswered questions.

Will she be attacked for her business idea?  Is her market defined accurately, clearly?  Is her revenue model credible? Do the investors have any knowledge or familiarity with her business sector? Since the entrepreneur has never had to test these concepts before a panel of so-called “experts,” her concerns are valid.

We deal with the substantive product uncertainties by providing them with coaches from areas of expertise that they require. Coaching is provided by business professionals with long track records in key fields:  finance, marketing, product development, operations, technology, etc.  Where appropriate, we push the women entrepreneurs into classes or technical advisory services at partnering organizations to refine their fundamental business skills.

When it finally is time to pitch, the challenge is a bit different.  People are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death.  Then, too, there is the desire to be liked as a person.  But a pitch is about the business, first and foremost, and then it is about how the individual presents her enterprise.

As part of the presentation coaching, we ask each woman to answer the question, “Whom do you admire?”  Inevitably, she will mention a strong woman -- one with substance and presence; one whom she respects for her performance and accomplishments.  When we ask her why she admires this person, you can almost see the entrepreneur’s own back straighten up, her head rise, her chin become firmer.  In a challenging situation, (like preparing to pitch a business concept to total strangers), women can learn how to tap the inspiration of strong women.  They will respond to the expectation, rather than be intimidated.  Women can elevate their own expectations of themselves.  And what is even more amazing is to watch how the entrepreneurs take that inspiration in hand to perform at outstanding levels.

The women entrepreneurs who complete this caliber of training and coaching are not the same ones we saw at the beginning.  We select the word “coaching” purposefully. We describe the entrepreneurs as “candidates.”  Even long after the pitch event is done, the women candidates go farther, on their own initiative, than we possibly could have imaged.

We believe this happens in no small part because the candidates are not cowered by strong women whom they encounter in business; but rather are invigorated, charged, and inspired by the women leaders whom they now see surrounding them at every turn – encouraging them to pursue more opportunities and to reach their own fullest possible potential.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Thank you and I wish you peace of mind.

Peggy Drexler wrote March 6, 2013 in the Wall Street Journal about “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee.”  When I saw the posting, I hesitated to comment because many of us were in the middle of preparations for International Women’s Day events – efforts which prove how obsolete this concept is in today’s world.  I did not wish this debate to overshadow the great works underway by today’s women of accomplishment.

The article mentions that this “behavior” was much more common in the 1970s.  Having seen and experienced it back then, I feel qualified to hypothesize why some women might have displayed such appearances.  

Before we criticize women of achievement from that era, let us first walk a mile in their shoes.  

Understand what it must have been like as “a first woman” in business, law, medicine, the media, the military, or any of the major professions.  It was far more unwelcoming back then compared to the minor challenges women might face, today.  There was outright, in-your-face hostility from some men who believed that all women should stay at home, barefoot, and in the kitchen.  There also was the more subtle, negative judgment from women who felt threatened by women who did not fulfill the stereotypical role that they felt should prevail.

Women who dared to achieve their ambitions in a man’s world tried to “fit in” without the help of role models, guides, or sages which abound today.  Even the use of less threatening floral bow ties – an attempt to affirm a woman’s femininity in an otherwise hostile and austere man’s haberdashery world – ended up being ridiculed by both those judges and juries of their peers.

Women of achievement from that era had to develop thicker skins in order to endure snide side comments from both genders.  So, why should we be surprised if they kept their guard up in uncertain future encounters? Was the next person they would meet another foe? Or friend?

And what about the women these leading women might encounter with ambitions that matched or exceeded their own?  As long as the opportunities for advancement for women were few and far between, why would any rational person expect these early-achievers to give away opportunities that had been so difficult to attain? Who could they trust to help them increase the size of the market for women in a world of obvious scarcities?

But, worse than it being simply a “small pie” – too many women coming upward in that era expected a free ride on the coattails of those women who had earned their positions through adversity, as evidenced by the arrows in their backs.  The women who made it knew it would take perseverance, fortitude, courage, and patient strength for the next generation to succeed.  They knew that women who expected an easy ride simply would never make it.

I have been blessed in my career to have met many more women of talent who were willing to tell me the truth of what I needed to do to learn from their experiences and to chart my own career course.  I have been honored to “meet” countless women of achievement through my interviews and my writing.  I found them all to be gracious, honest, with incredible integrity, sincerity, and a willingness to encourage and advise the next generation of women how they, too, might succeed.

I am fortunate that I may have met only a few of the negative stereotypes described in this and similar articles.  I believe they are few and diminishing in number.

But, even as I may have encountered just a few, I am willing to extend a hand of appreciation to them, saying “I know what you had to endure to achieve what you did when you did so. And I am immensely grateful to you for your strength and endurance.  You made it possible for women like me to have a path to follow that is significantly more satisfying than the one you took.  Thank you, and I wish you peace of mind.”