Advancing the Conversation on Women in Leadership

Maureen Leif, President, Grays Peak Strategies

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I am the oldest of three, born to a Judge and an artist. When my youngest sibling was born, he was the first boy in the family.  At the hospital, some of my dad’s friends said, “now you have a law partner”. My dad said, “I already had two” referring to my younger sister and me. I was fortunate to have this kind of support from my parents, and as a result of their guidance, and the guidance of many great teachers, coaches and other adults in my life, I gained confidence looked for opportunities to be a leader.  However, during my tenure in college or law school, the topic of women in leadership was not something that I ever heard about being discussed or studied. So how do young women who may not have the support or influence I had become leaders? How do we support women in leadership roles to thrive and succeed? In the past seventeen years of being in the workforce, the topic has thankfully become more mainstream.  There are people discussing it and studying it, and addressing this need.

Recently I was asked to coordinate a workshop on Women in Leadership to take place at a Child Support Conference.  Child Support is a field with a lot of women in leadership roles, and this seemed like a great place to have this discussion.  In preparation for this session, I have been reflecting on my own story. I have spent time discussing these concepts with successful women, listening to TED talks, listening to podcast, and reading a lot of articles. I have become interested in women’s experiences, how they’ve overcome obstacles, how they find balancing of motherhood, and how they have stuck with their vision. In having these conversations, I am learning a lot from not only the women in leadership roles that I admire, but I have learned a lot about myself. Everyone defines success differently and there is not one path to success.  This is true and in my mind it has come down to three top themes:

1. Be Authentic. You don’t have to pretend you are someone you are not. Do what you are good at and do it your way. Successful women in leadership roles lead their own way. When someone expends time trying to pretend that they are something that they are not they often come across and disingenuous. Being genuine, authentic, and self-aware are major components of having emotional intelligence and having emotional intelligence is the key to being a good leader. Daniel Goldman wrote in one of the most enduring Harvard Business Review’s articles, “What Makes a Great Leader“….”emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.”[1]

2. Be Brave. Sometimes we are too scared to make a change. It is easy to settle into security. However, think about the times you have experienced great personal growth, it is usually centered around some great challenge.  Step out of your comfort zone and push yourself. The key for me on this one is to surround myself with supporters who encourage me to be brave. My successful friend and mentor, Stefanie Jones, President and Founder of Feed Media pushed me for years. So after 11 years I decided to leave the Judicial Branch. I decided it might never be the perfect time and if I was not brave and go out on my own now I might never do it. So this June after a lot of contemplation I started my own consulting company Grays Peak Strategies. I am lucky to have surrounded myself with some incredible colleagues who are also being brave with me! Today I opened a fortune cookie that said, “You will never need to worry about a steady income”.  I hope that it was right, but either way, I am proud to have been brave.

3. Be Different. This one makes me think of my three daughters. I recently asked my 14 year old twins if they could run something to the neighbor’s house. They were too embarrassed.  I joke with people that they are embarrassed just to exist. I get it, I was probably like that at 14 too, but I desperately want to teach them that it is ok  to be different. Many successful women that I know got that way because they were able to differentiate themselves from the crowd. They try new things and take risk.  Build your personal brand and remain true to that brand.

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If I could add a 4th it would be to have fun. Let us be hard workers and be the best that we can but also know that life is short and having a little fun in what we do every day will make our lives that much more enriched and meaningful. In reflection, these secrets aren’t really secrets at all. Occasionally we need to take time to reflect on our vision and our personal brand. We need to ensure that we are where we want to be and who we want to be. If not, change it. We have to give ourselves, our colleagues, mentees, and daughters permission to be authentic, brave, and different. In case you were wondering, my sister and I both became lawyers and my brother became a writer and producer in Hollywood.

[1] “How Emotional Intelligence Became a Key Leadership Skill” Harvard Business Review. By: Andrea Ovans, April 28, 2015. https://hbr.org/2015/04/how-emotional-intelligence-became-a-key-leadership-skill