(Read a comprehensive story about the conference)

By Bill Peel, Executive Director of Innovation & Strategic Planning

It’s impossible to anticipate the dynamic of being one of five men in a room filled with 400 enthusiastic,  energetic women eagerly anticipating the lessons to be gleaned from a conference titled “From Bossy to Transformational.” That’s exactly the situation I found myself in as I attended the second annual Mays Business School “Women’s Leadership Initiative” conference.

To say that I came with preconceptions about this forum would be a gross understatement. Yet, as I peered through the “looking glass” into the world of women in leadership, I was enveloped by the challenges women face in leadership roles – challenges that are unique and uncommon to their male counterparts. I left with an enlightened respect for a woman’s leadership journey and the manner in which I could better interface with women in the workplace. I also left with leadership lessons applicable to my own career.

Julie Lenzer ’88 challenged the conference participants to get out of their comfort zones, go someplace they’ve never imagined, and follow the thread that will weave their career path. She reminded us that we never know who’s following our careers and the impressions we will make with our actions. I smiled as she noted to “beware of saying something out loud, as it might just prompt your next career move.” It was disappointing, yet realistic, to be reminded that “men can make women feel uncomfortable” in the workplace, vowing to increase my sensitivity to this tendency in myself. The point that resonated the loudest was not to “spend our lives ‘shoulding’ on ourselves.” That one hit home!

Janeen Judah ’81 focused her comments on the three E’s that frame our journey from tactical to transformational leadership – excellence, endurance, and empowerment. She reminded participants to “have a specialty people know us for, finding something we like and becoming good at it.” Be open to new experiences and don’t become rigid in our career plan. Her emphasis on the power of people was vividly displayed as conference participants exchanged contact information and broadened their network. She challenged us to “keep the ladder down, helping those behind us,” reminding me of the importance of being a coach and mentoring someone else along the way, possibly even someone we met that day. Judah cautioned women not to say “yes” to everything, as it causes them to burn out.  She also challenged women to brag about themselves and learn how to tell their own story, noting that “if you don’t know it, no one else will.” That one got a star in my meeting notes!

The lunch panel was a rapid-fire exchange of tips on issues and opportunities facing women as transformational leaders. Men are simply unaware of the “cycle of weariness” that women face as they are not only leaders, but also wives and mothers. It’s true that “a woman’s work is never done.”

Communication and presentation skills were common themes as the panelists implored women to “learn to brag on themselves” and “be ready to present at a moment’s notice.” It was interesting to learn that women often lead with “I think” or “I feel” when men seek direct communication. Authenticity and confidence were tips offered to elevate the perception of women’s leadership acumen.

The power-packed day ended with Shantera Chatman ’98’s presentation and role playing on negotiation. She stressed the power of self-worth and the ability to “quiet the inner voices” that distract us. “Every time you have a crucial conversation, it gets easier,” Chatman noted, as she blended hints with humor to engage the audience. A member of my table thrust her hand high in the air when there was a call for volunteers. The young professional, a mere six months into her career, was hungry for the tips that would empower her to be a better negotiator and self-advocate. It was so rewarding to feel the energy and see the impact the day had made on her and the other women leaders in the room.

The view through the “looking glass” was both convicting and compelling. It revealed a day filled with energy, engagement, enthusiasm, and excitement. And this appreciative male participant left with a new perspective of the challenges women face and the value women leaders bring to our organizations.