North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL


June 4, 2010

Business Advise: A lesson for women in leadership - working with the Good Ol’ Boys

FULTONDALE — A quick trip down the road to Auburn took me to the Women’s Leadership Institute. The Institute, established by Auburn University, has the distinct purpose of taking a proactive step to close the gender gap found for women in politics, corporate boardrooms, the administration of business and our educational institutions.

Keynote speaker, the Honorable Sue Bell Cobb, spoke to the challenges and opportunities for women in leadership, and her significant litany of accomplishments shows that it can be done. Chief Justice Cobb is the only Democrat on the nine-member court, and is the first woman chief justice.

How did she get there? Not by fighting against the system, but by working within it. Her best reminder of the day was, “Qualifications are the only thing that matters.”

This is not to say that networking and swimming the channel of the Good Ol’ Boy Club isn’t very important, but that your qualifications will get you in the door.  According to Cobb, don’t approach the club by trying to bust through it. You have to navigate it.  

Well, how do you do that?  First, according to Judge Cobb, “Do more than is expected.” For Chief Justice Cobb that meant working 14 circuits in 40 out of 67 counties. In her words, “Stand for something. Make a decision. Choose your purpose and be unapologetic and outspoken.” As a judge, you must make a decision, which is why you wear the robe. As a leader, you too must make a decision or the effort may founder on the rocks. Her challenge to leaders is to take a stand and be a person of conviction.

Second, seek out support, and seek it out from men who have daughters. What great advice this is! I see this in my own home and family where the relationship between the father and the daughter is a critical gift that helps her define faith, leadership and accomplishment.  

Judge Cobb also points out that successful women leaders can cross gender lines. This means that they are able to work with, have fun with, and accomplish much with men and women. Great leaders are people that are not just respected, but liked too. They are uplifting and encouraging. Strong leaders know that anger is useless, and humor is key to building a strong team.

This also plays into another important ingredient for a strong female leader. She needs to know how to widen her comfort zone. Don’t get offended so easily and for goodness sake, lighten up. The good ol’ boys can teach us a thing or two about this, and they certainly know how to have fun AND accomplish much.

But, it is also important to know the difference between friends and allies. No one agrees all the time, even friends. But true friends stay with you through thick and thin, and you don’t have as many friends as you think. Most of your “friends” are really allies, and that is OK to know, and more important to understand. Remember, loyalty works both ways, so “dance with the one who brung ya.” No one is successful in isolation. You must remember all of those who helped you to achieve that success.

Leaders must be risk takers too. Whether in politics, running a company, or leading a team, it takes a brave soul. This is a place where women leaders can really shine. We are by nature consensus builders, and this ability can earn buy in to a plan and ownership of an outcome in a solid way. In Judge Cobb’s  words, “the rooster crows but the hen delivers.” What does that mean? It means that men tend to vote for the right now. Women tend to vote for the future. They see the vision, the purpose behind the design, and the legacy sought after. Women leaders are therefore vital to sustainability in an organization.

Here is another good tip: Finish what you start. I preach this at my house all the time. No one cares how smart, cute, wealthy or you name the great trait, which you are. If you don’t do something with it, and finish what you start, who cares?  Judge Cobb asked, “How do you finish a whitewater raft race?” Stay in the boat.  

In all, time well was spent on this trip to the Women’s Leadership Institute. The big lesson for women leaders is really quite similar to the words for our male colleagues: Find your mentors, set your goal, and seek out partners. Remain full of purpose and conviction, but don’t let that keep you from having some fun. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “I have never wanted to be a man, but I have wanted to be more effective.”  

And remember, take care of your customers, or someone else will.

You can find additional readings on my blog at Teresa Vise works for Sanofi-Aventis Pharmaceuticals and supports the Fultondale Chamber of Commerce.

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