Monday, August 4, 2014

On Leadership

When I try to imagine a LEADER in the field of astronomy, it is not usually the likeness of a woman that comes to mind. I said in a blog comment recently that the front in the battle for gender equality has shifted to the senior ranks. I also know that we all need role models to help us navigate in unknown territory. As a senior woman in astronomy, it is my peers who are the emerging leaders. So where do we look for role models? Where do we go to get good advice from the women who have forged the path that we are trekking?

One place to look is the word of business. Although few and sometimes far between, women have been presidents and CEOs of major companies. Here are some quotes from these successful businesswomen that resonated with me:

“Don’t Be Your ‘First, Worst’ Critic” - Virginia Rometty, CEO, IBM

“I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist.” - Virginia Rometty, CEO, IBM

These are issues that I struggle with . . . every day, it seems. I don’t think Virginia Rometty would think that I was following her excellent advice, because I always seem to be second-guessing myself. I imagine (and re-imagine) how I could have done something better – how I could have handled a dispute, addressed a problem, or navigated a sticky situation. I want to be comfortable and I want to grow. This is my way of having it all. I chair committees, run review panels, and direct working groups, and I am always coming up with ways to do things better than the way I did them the first time around. Really, don’t guy do that?

“There is no either / or between being competitive and collaborative. You have to be both and decide which in each situation.” - Cathie Black, Former Chairman and President, Hearst Magazines

“If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Brothers and Sisters we probably wouldn’t have had our financial meltdown.” - Betty Spence, President, National Association of Female Executives

People say that men and women have different management styles . . . that women are more collaborative while men are more competitive. As a committee chair, my objective is to get things done, so my style can’t be passive – just sitting back and waiting for people to volunteer for tasks, but I do like to put people together with tasks that they are either interested in, have experience with, or are passionate about. Of course, there is also the day-to-day business that needs to be done to keep the committee moving forward. It is always good to balance these two so committee members do both the work that needs to get done and the work they are passionate about. If you know your group well enough to strike this balance, one hopes that there will never be the equivalent of a financial meltdown. 

“Don’t just stand for the success of other women – insist on it.” - Gail Blanke, President and CEO, Lifedesigns

“As a leader, I am tough on myself and I raise the standard for everybody; however, I am very caring because I want people to excel at what they are doing . . .” - Indra Nooyi (CEO of PepsiCo)

As a senior woman is astronomy, I strive to follow this advice. I want to help create an environment where other women can thrive – free of discrimination, sexual harassment, unconscious bias, stereotype threat, and impostor syndrome. I want astronomy to be a true meritocracy. Tough but caring? I’ll have to work on the “tough” part, but this seems like a good way to go.

“We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes – understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.” – Arianna Huffington (AOL/Editor In Chief of Huffington Post)

 “Define success on your own terms, achieve it by your own rules, and build a life you’re proud to live.” - Anne Sweeney, President of Walt Disney

I love this phrase – failure is not the opposite of success (note to self!). Learning from our (inevitable) mistakes is critical part of (eventual) success. The only way you can always make the right decisions is if you already have all the answers . . . but then you’re not moving forward, you’re just standing still. I appear to be in a transition phase – moving from academia to bureaucracy, from doing science myself to enabling others to do science. It seems like the time is right for this type of personal evolution, and following good advice is part of the process. That’s how I would strive to build a life I’m proud to live.
Let me finish with the research results on women from Leadership Development CEOs, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. Their 2011 study of over 7000 leaders found that they (women) build better teams; they’re more liked and respected as managers; they tend to be able to combine intuitive and logical thinking more seamlessly; they’re more aware of the implications of the their own and others’ actions; and they think more accurately about the resources needed to accomplish a given outcome.

Women, it looks like it's time to drop the impostor syndrome - we've got what it takes to be exemplary leaders, and the best research in the business backs this up!

Note: Here is a related incident that could be funny if it were not so sad. I did a google image search to find a picture to accompany this post. I was looking for a cartoon of a senior woman sitting at the head of a boardroom-type table. I searched on many combinations of keywords, each of which included either “woman” or “chairwoman.” I found photos of individual women, cartoons of boardrooms with men in the chair’s position, boardroom tables full of men, dinner tables set for families, banquet tables with elaborate decorations, wedding tables with brides and grooms, boardroom tables for sale, women giving presentations to the board, round tables with both men and women, and boardroom tables occupied by women only. Not only could I not find what I was looking for, but the only picture even remotely acceptable was the one included at the top of this post. At least it shows a woman at the head of the table who appears to be chairing a meeting. It’s not a cartoon, and the chair is hardly senior. What does this failed search say about the position of women chairs on our society?