On November 12th, the theme “Reinvent Your Narrative; Leading with Strength and Resilience” echoed throughout The Zone Club at Kyle Field. Mays Business School’s Women’s Leadership Initiative Conference program offered a wealth of inspirational ideas and a chance for women leaders to network, while several sessions touched their hearts with stories of overcoming great life challenges. The conference was made possible thanks to the financial support of corporate sponsors BP, PwC, Reynolds & Reynolds Sales Leadership Institute, EY, Randstad, and Lockheed Martin.
Approximately 350 women professionals and Texas A&M University students filled the room, while another 150 attended virtually. “If I’m being honest, it was so cool to be at Kyle Field, on Ring Day and celebrating women,” said Morgan Young ’02, vice president at Lockton Dunning Benefits in Plano, TX. “To know that each and every person there has a crazy busy life, yet they took the whole day to invest in themselves and grow personally and professionally – it made me feel so proud to be a part of a university that gave us this opportunity. And the chocolate cake was insanely good!”
The focus and energy of the conference resonated with everyone in the audience—including those who attended this conference in the past. “Previous years’ conferences were amazing in their own right but were more or less good reminders for me,” said Jaime Ledford ’06, a senior business program manager for Amegy Bank in Houston, TX. “I appreciated the applicable learning this year, specifically the ‘Leading with Strengths’ where we were able to see how strengths have a strong side and a shadow side.”
The first-time attendees also applauded the conference’s presentations. “The quality of speakers stood out to me; they showed humility, leadership, strength, courage, and transparency,” said Tracy Foster ’96, associate agency director and chief financial officer at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service in College Station, TX. “In this day and age, it’s so refreshing to see women leaders who can speak about their challenges and obstacles with a focus on reaching a hand to lift other women leaders in growth personally and professionally.”
Attendees learned new ideas and received the motivation to put them into action. They also left with plans to attend the 2022 conference, which is scheduled for Friday, October 14, 2022 with Chevron as the title sponsor. “I’ve already gone back and bragged to the women leaders in my office and encouraged them to come next year,” Young said. “The thoughtfulness that went into planning the day, the order of the speakers and variety of information was terrific.”
Rewriting Life’s Narrative
The conference focused on helping women become proactive in their lives through questioning society’s social constructs. “We can go through life accepting constructs just as they are presented to us, but there is a great deal to be gained from examining their meaning and the manner which they are applied,” Texas A&M’s Interim Vice President and Associate Vice President for Diversity Annie McGowan told the audience. “Cues that suggest marginality or a lack of a critical mass in a particular setting can impact the way that we feel about being in that space.”
The day’s program focused on learning how to view these cues and then interrupt the impact on lives. “The better equipped we are to process the impact of these cues on our own narrative and those of others, the more we can dedicate our important resources to blazing a trail into the domains of our choices,” McGowan said.
Strong, Resilient Leadership
The conference didn’t shy away from addressing the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, which created significant stress for women in trying to learn to combine work and home. BP Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Dawn Constantin shared her journey to find balance, even as she struggled with depression caused by the pandemic as well as BP’s reorganization. She found that she had to learn how to come from a place of strength by being true to herself. “To me, that means showing up and being your genuine, authentic, real self, no matter what situation you’re in,” she said. “To be yourself, you have to know yourself and spend time with yourself. What gets you excited? What gets you out of bed in the morning?”
This analysis allows women to determine how they want to show up in every area of life and then choose aligned behaviors. “The more authentic you are and the more genuine you are in everything you do, the more engaging you are,” she said. “People want to listen to you and be with you. People want to work with you—and that’s powerful. That’s walking into the room with strength.”
Constantin also pointed to the importance of resilience. “Everyone has goals, and you have to work for them,” she said. “You have to grit your teeth, put in the hours, ask the questions, be curious, get smarter.”
Resilience also is important in relation to working with other people. Constantin described how she used her knowledge of sports to help build connections with male colleagues. “You have to learn to relate to people, because the people you work with will help you get to where you want to be,” she said. “You have to be able to find that connection point, build that trust, and build that kind of relationship.”
She stressed self-care’s role in creating resilience. “Pay attention to you. Nobody can give 150% seven days a week, 365 days a year. You will drop, so take a break. Pay attention to your physical and mental health,” she said. “This became such an important issue, living through the pandemic.”
Reinventing one’s narrative is critical. “Nobody is perfect,” Constantin said. “It’s really important to seek advice and get feedback because nobody has this all figured out. Everyone makes mistakes; everyone has distractions along the way.”
She encouraged listeners to seek a mentor, coach, pastor, leader, teacher, or friend. “It’s really important to seek criticism and constructive feedback from people you trust,” she said. “It will make you better, so whatever rooms we show up in or want to influence, we can be better over time.”
Two sessions by Dr. Sarah Jaks, associate director of Mays Full-Time MBA Program, helped the audience identify their strengths and then begin to figure out how to utilize them. She encouraged the audience to identify their strengths through determining what they enjoy doing, when they felt their best, and the words that describe their strengths. “Shift your story and tell the story that you want to tell,” she said.
Using the Strength Finders analysis as a basis, Jaks pointed out that every person has all 34 strengths, but some strengths are more prevalent. She encouraged the audience to focus on their top strengths, as opposed to trying to hone what they consider “weaknesses.” Combining strengths also can be advantageous because together they cause an amplifier effect.
Teams also benefit from understanding members’ strengths. Jaks pointed out that this approach allows teams to use everyone’s strengths, understand different perspectives, and operate effectively as a team.
The conference also addressed the importance of helping women who have faced significant life challenges. Mays Interim Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs Shannon Deer and Quantum Circles Consulting Owner Cheryl Miller described “women overcomers” who have rewritten their narratives from an earlier life chapter spent in poverty, addiction, incarceration, and/or engagement in the sex trade. “These were stories that at one time were about darkness and destruction that become stories about hope and new life,” Miller said. “We have found that women who have overcome challenging pasts become some of the most productive and loyal employees.”
Citing several examples—including Miller’s own story of overcoming addiction and poverty to raise premature twins—the pair said it’s important to realize that society often unfairly puts middle-class expectations on these women. Additionally, this expectation leads to the creation of assumptions that these women are not able to or willing to do the work to succeed.
Inviting the audience to think back to their early days in leadership, the speakers asked them to consider how they felt—and how those feelings can help turn around the lives of women overcomers. “We advocate for immediate leadership opportunities for women overcomers,” Deer said. “That’s early opportunities to lead, whether that’s in big or small ways.”
Additionally, the co-authors of “Business Doing Good: Engaging Women and Elevating Communities” noted that many of the skills that women learn when they are struggling are useful and valuable skills in business. For example, previous attributes such as being bossy, pushy, and manipulative can be reframed and then used in productive ways.
This session resonated with many attendees—but perhaps none more than Stephanie Davis ’00, the director of educational development of the non-profit, Together for Haiti, which seeks to encourage, equip and empower vulnerable women. “One of the most powerful points the speakers made is that these vulnerable women have been told they have character flaws, but those flaws are just strengths that haven’t been harnessed for good yet,” the resident of Salado, TX said.
The importance of personal resilience also is critical in the face of tragedy. Tara Storch shared her journey after her teenage daughter, Taylor, died in a skiing accident. The family decided to donate Taylor’s organs, which resulted in saving five lives.
Storch described her quest after her daughter’s death. “I had a longing to hear her heartbeat again,” she told the audience.” She did just that, meeting the nurse who benefitted from Taylor’s heart as television cameras captured the moment.
Storch and her husband used this tragedy to make a difference for society through creating Taylor’s Gift Foundation, which emotionally supports organ donor families and shares the importance of outliving yourself through organ donation. “We had to make the best out of the worst situation, so we decided to focus on the good,” Storch said. “The good was that Taylor saved lives and so we decided to create something to honor her legacy and keep her spirit alive. Our sweet girl is still impacting lives to this day.”
Attendees were moved by Storch’s ability to pick herself up and move forward in such a meaningful way after the death of a child. “Tara took one of the most awful situations a mom/parent can experience and turned it into a battle cry of how to outlive yourself,” Young said.
Avoiding the Red Zone
The day’s final session encouraged the audience to consider how they lead when facing pressure and triggers that mark the red zone. “We are not on our firm footing when we are in fight or flight,” said co-presenter Cindy Billington, interim director of Mays Graduate Career Management Center. “It means something has caused us to freeze, but freeze in a way so that our brain, our head, our heart, and our soul are not talking to one another.”
For women to keep their feet planted so they can be at their best requires incorporating their head and their heart, which creates soulful leadership. This type of leadership involves strategic thinking as well as character.
Billington also tied soulful leadership to self-care, noting that regularly taking specific actions—whether meditation, laughter, running, aromatherapy or chocolate–boosts dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins in the brain. “These help you access your soul, and your soul is what is going to bring you back into perspective, so the fight or flight comes back into center,” she said.
Soulful leadership also requires changing one’s internal dialogue. “Reinventing your narrative really starts with what you tell yourself,” Mays Director of Diversity Nancy Hutchins said. “Seventy-seven percent of our thoughts are negative. It’s important to think about the things you say to yourself on a daily basis and focus more on positive self-talk. Your thoughts and words influence your actions and decisions.”
Participants left with a better understanding of how to proactively navigate their careers and their lives—and how to empower others to do the same to help advance the world’s prosperity. “You need to be able to identify and use your strengths. What is the use of a strength if you don’t use it?” one participant said. “Use it for yourself and use it for others—and remind others to use it.”
- Watch and share the Women’s Leadership Conference ’21 video
- View the Women’s Leadership Initiative Conference ’21 photo album
- Mark your calendar for the ’22 conference
- Join myMays to network with ’21 attendees