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Women must abandon stereotypical ideas of leadership to succeed, entrepreneurs tell WSU students
When it comes to leadership in corporate America, achieving gender parity will require a broader, more inclusive definition of leadership behaviors, a panel of women entrepreneurs told a Wayne State audience last month.
Women tend to excel at collaboration, panelists said, but bringing people together to accomplish goals in participative formats does not fit society’s traditional – and masculine – concept of authoritarian leadership. Consequently, girls must be guided from a young age by successful women and told that “feminine” skills such as listening, cooperating, and dividing tasks based on one another’s natural abilities, can lead to personal and professional success.
The panel discussion was part of “Stand Out,” an April 10 workshop on women leadership co-hosted by WSU’s business laboratory, Blackstone LaunchPad, which is funded out of New York City by The Blackstone Group’s Blackstone Charitable Foundation. Moderating the discussion was Margaret Williams, interim dean of the university’s School of Business Administration, who observed that “often the stereotypical perceptions of leaders are not the behaviors that come most naturally to women.” Opening remarks at the workshop, co-sponsored by Kappa Delta Sorority, WSU’s The Front Door, and the women’s professional organization Inforum, were delivered by WSU Deputy President Phyllis Ivory Vroom.
Addressing a predominantly female audience in the General Lectures building, Vroom drew parallels from her own career when describing key components of leadership. Unable to find employment during the “Eisenhower recession,” Vroom applied to Wayne State University in her mid-teens. She rose through the ranks at the university’s School of Social Work, retiring as its dean in 2011. Her skills as a leader, she said, came from her ability to “connect with people and marshal them behind a compelling interest.”
“Some people think of leadership as power over people, but I admire the ideal of servant leadership,” Vroom said. “Success is a generative process, in that leaders are only successful when they cultivate new leaders whose accomplishments are greater than those who mentored them.”
The workshop featured four veteran executives: Nancy Philippart, chair of the Engineering Ventures program within Wayne State’s College of Engineering; Carla Walker-Miller, president and CEO at Walker-Miller Energy Services; Blaire Miller, CFO and co-founder of Eaton Rapids Castings, and Nabelah Ghareeb, chief strategy and administrative officer with The Children’s Center.
Philippart, who is chair of the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan’s board of directors, said Girl Scouts Research Institute in 2008 identified an alarming discrepancy between girls’ self-identified skills and the skills they associate with leadership. As Philippart noted, the study found that only one in five girls believes she has the qualities necessary to become a leader, a disturbing finding that prompted Girl Scouts of the USA to launch “To Get Her There,” an initiative to establish gender-balanced leadership in one generation. Sadly, said Philippart, while the girls surveyed believed they were good at listening and collaborating, they did not associate these skills with the “command and control” behaviors that historically have been the hallmarks of leadership. But leadership must be self-styled and authentic, she stressed.
“Leadership is about practicing,” said Philippart, whose first taste of leadership came in middle school when she ran successfully for a student council position at a teacher’s urging. “You start, you’re scared, but you plunge in and then you find your own authentic style.”
Philippart said she learned early that she could not “emulate men.”
“I’m collaborative,” Philippart said. “I’ve always thought that the strongest testament of leadership is the ability to bring out the best in others so you can leverage the talent of the group.”
Walker-Miller said her first impressions of leadership were “bigger than life” and formed by early workplace experiences, such as the time a male manager threw a chair out of a window in a pique. Naturally shy, Walker-Miller found she had to cultivate her own innate strengths to be a leader, namely “willingness, vision, and compassion.”
Willingness comes from accepting the “perks and the risks” of taking the helm.
“The risk of leadership,” she said, “is that when you lose, you lose big and you lose publicly.”
Vision is a commitment to doing a task “bigger than it’s been done before,” and compassion enables a leader to consider carefully decisions that impact people’s lives.
Echoing Walker-Miller’s call to be open to failure was Miller, who said her associates in California’s Silicon Valley “wear failure like a badge of honor.”
“We haven’t yet gotten in Michigan that failure is a good thing,” Miller said. “You have to be resilient and crowd out all the noise. And you have to be able to pivot when something’s not working.”
How does one afford this failure? By robbing Peter to pay Paul, Miller said.
“Go as far as you can with something, then go back to something that will make money, then try again,” she said. “Jump to the things that make money when you see an idea that’s percolating but isn’t there yet.”
Risk-taking also entails accepting positions or promotions that present a sharp learning curve, Ghareeb said. Her first professional “break” came shortly after college, when she was a financial analyst for Toledo Public Schools. An administrator and mentor took a chance on her by appointing her director of purchasing on a six-month trial basis despite her lack of experience. Ghareeb excelled, and stayed on for eight years.
While Ghareeb said she takes a “conservative” approach to counseling college students about entrepreneurship, encouraging them to get career experience before launching a business, Philippart and Walker-Miller told students to seize upon current conditions that are favorable to starting a venture. Citing resources like Blackstone LaunchPad and college-based groups like the College of Engineering’s Collegiate Entrepreneur Organization, Philippart said “there has never been a better time than now in this university to explore your options.”