Monday, August 1, 2011

Learnings from the Women's Leadership Forum, Harvard Business School

I was privileged to be selected to attend the incredible ‘Women’s Leadership Forum’ in April this year at the Harvard Business School. After a whirlwind of 5, 12 hour days listening to leading professors and researchers, participating in debates with over 63 international delegates and gaining insights in to best practices, I am keen to share my key learnings with all women in leadership roles. Men read on as well please..

Women in leadership roles need a whole basket of skills and behaviours to become ‘successoholics’ who meet their goals and achieve their ambitions.

Networking emerged as one of the top leadership competencies – so members of professional and social networks are already ahead of the game! It is all about having a trusted ‘board of advisors’ that has your back AND ALSO what is referred to as “the strength of weak ties”. This is the ability to have a wide range of loose connections that in time will extend you in to other network hubs.

This demands a huge leap of faith as we sometimes do not derive immediate benefit from attending networking events and from joining industry associations. There is however definite evidence that women with strong peer groups do very well professionally.

A great question to ask yourself is – how many new contacts have I added this year?

Another leadership skill is the ability to be able to find those moments when we can exude warmth and confidence – those occasions when we can give what is called the ‘Duchenne smile’. This is the smile that is authentic and gives us wrinkles around the eyes as we smile through our entire face.

Over 80% of first impressions of others are based on their ability to be seen as being warm and confident, so it might seem a small thing, but makes the world of difference to how we are perceived. Competence is second on the list and therefore those few minutes of chit-chat before meetings with staff or clients lead to better outcomes - they set up the connections first and foremost.

The forum also highlighted for us just how important influencing and negotiating skills are for women who, when it comes to negotiating on behalf of themselves, rate at far lower levels than men. Some tips include:

  • In a private area, stretch out to make yourself as physically big as possible. The come back down to normal size before you go in to the negotiating room.
  • Women and men negotiate equally effectively when the parameters are transparent and known. It is up to us to ask the right questions to reduce the ambiguity. Talk to people who have a different set of information and data from what we know.

Some other useful guidelines for women in leadership roles include:

  • It is all about how you ‘show up’ every day. No matter what you are experiencing personally or how hard times are, you present well with “credible optimism”.
  • The way in which we “feed and water” ourselves and our team members is critically important, on a physical and metaphysical level. How do we achieve work-life management and also provide ourselves and our team with the right nutrients for health and for a positive environment
  • Have an Oprah-style purpose that rings true for you. Oprah’s is to ensure that we all “live our best life” and that drives her to be authentic and to survive as a woman in a man’s world and to be successful as a fat person in a thin person’s world.
  • Change can start off in minor ways and there is enormous value in the power of small wins.
  • The career lattice is the new career ladder. We have so many more options in terms of where we want to go and our own business plans are only guidelines that need to be constantly shaped and updated.

We were finally reminded that “life is lived forward and understood backward” (Soren Kirkegard). It is worth developing the habit of mind of reflection so that we are mindful of what we learn and make the required changes in our personal and professional lives.

Professors worth reading and following are:

Prof Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Prof Amy Cuddy and Prof Nancy Koehn. They all blog or tweet or write numerous articles and research papers.

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