Women Leaders: Mastering Organisational Strategy

This weekend, I attended the Women Leaders: Mastering Organisational Strategy workshop given by Dikla Camel Hurwitz at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

In short, my summary is: attend it if you have a chance, regardless of your gender. I personally think many discussions and practices we had would be very useful for male professionals as well. This article is a longer version of my summary.

Having been through nearly a dozen courses at Stanford, taking a workshop throughout one full weekend seems very appealing from time management point of view. I was mildly concerned that it might be too overwhelming and offer little chance to digest content between sessions compared with the courses that spread over many evenings during a term of ten weeks.

This turned out to be excellent. To me (a very active participant), it was tremendously stimulating and stretching. My physical and mental bodies were functioning at peak throughout the course. My misery came after its completion. While walking towards my ride by the Oval, there was this strong urge inside me to not take any further step and simply drop down right there on the grass and sleep off the fatigue that built up from multiple consecutive full weeks of work. Then the thought of ants, those scary creatures, propelled me to carry on and got my ride home.  

My objective of attending this course was not only to focus on the “organisational strategy” part, but also to hear about other women’s experiences and connect with them (absolutely not the kind of connection formed by superficially exchanging business cards and barely going beyond the title and the profession etc). Above all, to have fun and stretch myself as much as reasonable beyond my comfort zone. Glad to say that I have done that. Hooray!

The individual conversations and group discussions remain confidential. I respect our cohort of amazing professional women and am very honored to be part of this group. What they shared there broadened my view, gave me great second-hand experience, prepared me for a wide range of scenario, and more importantly led me to believe how strong and wise each of us could become by sharing and supporting each other. I would not write about the stories I heard. I own my responses and my feelings though. Resonance, empathy, anger, passion, respect, epiphany, courage, reflection, wisdom, hope and so on.

The six areas that I had the privilege to receive great advice from Dikla; practice, reflect and improve together with my cohort are:

  1. Coaching as a leadership tool
  2. Emotional intelligence
  3. Effective teamwork
  4. Negotiation
  5. Difficult conversation
  6. Leadership presence

The major benefit of this workshop to me come from the significant amount of practices or experiential learning.  

A selected few takeaways for me are:

  1. Awareness. What was discussed in this workshop remains confidential. However, Women in the Workplace report is a good source to gain awareness. Some resources that helped me to gain awareness prior to this workshop are: unconscious bias at work from Google Ventures and managing unconscious bias from Facebook.
  2. Learning by taking risks
    1. When we learn and master new skills, we move from the “do not know that I do not know” happy state of mind, to “know that I do not know”, to “know that I know”, to “do not know that I know”. It is helpful to remind ourselves what we know and consciously put that knowledge into work.
    2. In order to learn, we need to move from a comfort zone to a learning zone by stretching ourselves and doing what at first makes us uncomfortable but beneficial. Seek the opportunities to be challenged.
  3. Fixed vs growth mindset: practice a growth mindset in both personal and professional worlds.
    1. “It is all about the outcome” is a fixed mindset. “I like to be open to try new things, it increases my confidence and helps me to find my passion” is a growth mindset.
    2. “I cannot do this” is also fixed; “I cannot do this yet” is a growth mindset.
  4. Competency penalty: professional women are either liked or viewed as component, but not often both. Accept the reality and embrace this challenge. You lose power if you let your desire to be liked to influence your decision making process. Being liked is a bonus, being respected is a must.
  5. Do not live in Disney films, as a beautiful princess, waiting to be saved.
  6. One needs to define “integrity” for oneself. One needs to build up one’s own vocabulary that will define one’s professional image.
  7. This is not about grabbing power against other men or women. There is plenty of power left on the table. It is up to you whether you want to empower yourself to seek the opportunities and to shine.
  8. Get yourself back to the top of the inbox.
    1. Stop whining when others do not reply to your messages.
    2. “I only reply when I see a second follow-up email from the same person. Then I know this is important for the person.”
  9. While coaching, we tend to stay at the left side of the coaching continuum, e.g., highly-directive, to give answer. We attach too much value to knowing the answer. Instead, we should focus on: how do I understand what other people are really interested in and willing to commit? That moves us from “inform/direct” to “develop, catalyse, spark self-inflection & new insights, reframe”.

A few specific items of feedback given to me:

  1. I can come across as too polite and friendly, using phrases like “would/could you please…”, “may I…?”, or “I would love to honor your request” in difficult conversations that potentially jeopardize my position.
  2. I sometimes tone down what I believe with less powerful phrases such as “I think…”, “you might like to consider…” etc. My mother-in-law once was very amused that how I did not want to hurt an apprentice doctor’s pride, allowed the doctor to enjoy a dose of superficial superiority and to talk in length about what we already know.
  3. My communication is very clearly structured and logical. (Thanks to many years of practice of scientific presentations and discussions.)
  4. It would be helpful for me to practice more concise and direct requests.

Three out of four pieces of feedback touch upon my high level of empathy. My own self-reflection: I offered a hug to the lady next to me who became emotional while talking about her professional journey; I felt painfully hurt (not by the speaker but by the circumstances that injured her), while another lady sitting across the room was in tears and I could not offer some concrete help on the spot. I did speak up but concrete actions are always what I am looking for. Offering some insights in words often felt so weak and powerless to me. Concrete actions! Having a high-level of empathy is not a rebuttal against the feedback above though, as my objective here is not to address my personal characteristics, but to improve the behaviour and language.

To have difficult conversations:

  1. Know what my values are.
  2. Be clear why I am initiating a difficult conversation, for example checking what my emotional triggers are.
  3. What is my desired outcome?
  4. Frame it with an appropriate level and boundary.
  5. Ownership: what is my part in this incident that calls for a difficult conversations, and acknowledge that.

During a difficult conversation, it is important to

  1. Practice turning towards rather than away or against.
  2. Give specific and boxed feedback.
  3. Assume the best intention when unknown.
  4. Ask myself: what do I see that motivates me to give the feedback? It has to be a visible behavior that is agreed on both sides.
  5. Learn to segregate the issues.
  6. Remove judgement.

At the receiving end, it helps to stay engaged and ask for clarification, such as: can you give me an example? Also assume good intention.

About managing relationships in difficult conversations, Dikla suggested to think about:

  1. What did I see?
  2. How did it impact me?
  3. What do I not know?
  4. What is the request that I want to make?

Ladder of Influence:

We live in a world of self-generated beliefs that remain untested and are often wrong. There are observable data in the open window. From that, we select a piece of data, then we add meaning to it. We draw conclusions or beliefs from that slice; then we take some actions or no action based on those beliefs. My takeaway from this discussion is to do the Ladder of Influence exercise frequently. We’d be surprised how many wrong directions we have leaned ladders towards once we examine our thoughts closely.

On Executive Presence, Dikla reaffirmed my belief that leadership presence comes from within. She also taught me that perception is the co-pilot to reality. Sometimes, it does not matter whether I can, what I did; if I am not perceived as X, then I am not X in other people’s views. Prior to this workshop, I had not thought much about perception. This was very thought-provoking. One excuse popped into my mind at the time: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” You can find many other reasons to disagree with Dikla’s point here. But I choose to see the great value of this advice.

On teamwork, I found the Kantor Four-Player Model very useful. There are four different types of roles in a group dynamics: movers, followers, opposers, bystanders. Without movers, there is no direction; Without followers, nothing gets completed; Without opposers, nothing is corrected; without bystanders, there is no perspective. We assign too much value to movers typically. To lead well, it is important to have the flexibility to switch among these roles. It is useful to read the room to find out who is taking up which role and what role is missing, fill that gap temporarily, adjust the role I play flexibly.

On strategic communication: I love the acronym AIM := Audience + Intent + Message. This one is self-explanatory.

I am very grateful to my fellow attendees and our coach Dikla.