Leadership Lessons

Coach's Corner
CSPE Newsletter

I was recently invited to participate in a panel on Women and Leadership, as part of the Women’s World 2011 Conference held in Ottawa in early July. The goal was to share thoughts and experiences about leadership thoughts and challenges for women leaders. The other members of the panel were Hon Sheila Copps, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada; Sharon Ramalho, VP of McDonald’s Restaurant Corporation; and Eva Aariat, Premier of Nunavut. 

We were asked to speak about our leadership stories, how we got into positions of leadership, what influenced our decisions, and how we may have modified them as needed as we progressed. The stories of the panellists were amazing and inspiring.  There were similar themes – of all of us listening to our hearts and doing what had meaning for us, of recognizing new needs and taking leadership because it was needed, of seizing opportunities, of going where life takes us.

We shared our three biggest challenges, and how we rose above them; as well as the three key lessons we wanted to share with the women in the audience about successful leadership. Here are the ones I personally reflected upon and offered.

There were many challenges encountered over the years.  Where do I start to just name three? I decided to organize them based on the source of the challenge: from others, from the situation, and from me; and then choose one from each category to illustrate this.

  1. From others: It was not unusual to be dismissed just because I am a woman. Many times, others would notice my gender, not my expertise.  I recall a meeting I had with a Department Chair, for my annual evaluation.  He commented on my work treating physician colleagues.  “You must just look at them with your big brown eyes and they feel instantly better”. Perhaps he meant it as a compliment, yet I am sure that he would never dismiss the work of my male colleagues with such a statement.
  1. From the situation: Balancing my work and home life has always required constant attention.  My twins were born in my first year of fellowship, when my oldest son was just 14 months old. Having had three children in a year, I asked for flexibility at work.  This was twenty years ago; I was told that there was no such thing.  I had to do as everyone else; “Take it or leave it”. I decided to leave the hospital and set up a private practice.
    1. From this, I learned how balancing life was all about making choices, different ones at different phases of our life. I could not do everything I wanted to, all at the same time. I had to choose to leave the hospital setting I loved, to attain the working hours I needed at that phase of my life.
    2. I have also learned that attaining balance in my life is an illusion and impossible – just as I think I have it, something comes along to disrupt it and I have new choices to make.
    3. I have also learned that this really is my choice.  I like to say yes to everyone and everything, feel guilty if I say no, but then can become overwhelmed.  When I first set up the Faculty Wellness Program at the University of Ottawa, I worked hard as it was the first such program and I wanted it to be a success. I recall going to the Dean about 5 months into it, and telling him how I was tired and not sure how long I could keep up that pace.  He agreed, telling me that people were impressed, that I had achieved in five months what they had expected would take five years, that I was taking on a lot but “we thought that you wanted to.” These words come to mind often when I start to feel overwhelmed; allowing me to ask myself if I am meeting others’ expectation, or mine which are always much higher!
  1. From myself: I recognize aspects of myself which sometimes create challenges for me. Like many of us, I like to please people, and be a ‘good little girl’.  This is rooted in social conditioning and translates into the workplace.  While a good communicator, I did not always have the skills to promote myself, give myself credit, and be appropriately assertive. That’s bragging, right; good girls don’t brag. Years ago, I was invited, based on my expertise and experience, to serve on a task force to explore physician stress and illness. As the task force suggested further work, I offered the concept of a Faculty Wellness Program.  It was received with much enthusiasm and support, and discussed vigorously.  Yet, who would create and lead it?  It took everything I had that day to make myself speak up and say “I would like to be considered for this”.  Sheila Copps reinforced this by commenting “Well behaved women do not make history”!

Over the years, I have learned many key leadership lessons that I am happy to pass on. Was it just me; it seemed there were so many to learn!

  1. Be your best self. Believe in yourself.  Believe in your ideas, your vision, and your abilities to achieve it. Be aware of your self-doubts and how they are not always rooted in reality, and push past them.  If you have to, “fake it ‘til you make it.” Be confident in your ability, think big, and take risks. Seize opportunities.  Know the business,do your best, maintain a high level of performance, and your work will speak for itself.
  1. You must be heard. Being seen is not enough; being heard is critical. Ask openly and clearly for what you want.  Speak up and take credit for your ideas. Be persistent and patient.  You may have to repeat your thoughts and vision to many people many times.  Becoming a leader is a process and takes time.
  1. Build alliances. Create and leverage your networks.  Reach out to mentors; they are the most important tools in becoming the professional we want to be. Have as many mentors as you can; it is not like a marriage – one does not have to be monogamous!  Attend meetings and conferences, volunteer on committees.  Meet senior leaders and colleagues who are doing the sort of thing you want to do.

Although focusing on challenges here, I am happy to acknowledge that this has not been an entirely challenging process.  The majority of it has been spent in rewarding and positive times; working with creative, supportive, and inspiring people; thinking together of what the best can be; and achieving shared successes.  A true privilege!