Focusing with intention on supporting and empowering women leaders
By Cindy Petersen
As a mother of four amazing children and seven grandchildren, the phrase “the days are long but the years are short” has resonated within my heart and reminded me about how fleeting this life and these moments are. Were it only possible to hold on and savor deeply these moments before, in the blink of an eye it seems, they are gone. This is also how I’m feeling as I ponder my retirement. It does not seem possible that in July, after 20 incredible years, I retired from my role as superintendent of Gateway Community Charters, and yet inevitably the time had come.
As I consider this opportunity to write to address the theme of Empowering Women Leaders, the idea of how quickly time passes creates an urgency to this message of empowering women leaders. I’ve identified four practical areas where I have been empowered and hopefully have also empowered other women leaders (with a little creativity in their titles).
“Nobody puts baby in the corner” (Johnny; “Dirty Dancing” finale). I will never forget the advice a fellow woman leader gave me on this topic. I had been a part of a series of meetings where, by nature of role and knowledge, I should have been leading the conversation and its outcomes. Yet, as I expressed to this friendly ear, I was frustrated and felt “sidelined.” Her advice to me was a huge “a-ha” of how I, in fact, was responsible for the sidelining! How could this be? Well, I showed up to the meeting at the same time as the male leader I felt was sidelining me and I sat on the side. I demurred and gave him the head of the table and the leadership of the meetings. So, for the next meeting, I showed up a little earlier and — as you may have guessed — I sat at the head of the table. By the mere physical presence, I had previously given away my voice and by this new action and presence I was able to step into the leadership that was in fact mine already.
So where are you sidelining yourself? What will it take to get you to the table and off the sidelines? Remember, you do it for yourself and you do it as a model for others. When you take your place at the table — when you find your voice and speak up — you create the space and the permission if you will, for other women to do the same.
“The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Author and management expert Ken Blanchard credits his colleague Rick Tate with the saying “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Unfortunately, the research suggests that women often receive less and less helpful feedback than their male counterparts. Feedback that is timely, well-intentioned and direct is a gift. Feedback should be given frequently and often and, as often as not, is a positive affirmation of what the individual is doing well.
In my career there were very few times that I was provided with direct feedback to help me grow. I remember at one point being called into the assistant superintendent’s office with no real understanding of the purpose of the meeting, only to be told “you’re too intense” and “you don’t have a sense of humor” without any context at all. I did not directly report to her and it wasn’t an evaluation, and I am still confused to this day. (Although, to her credit, I own my passion and intensity.)
So, how might we do a better job of giving feedback? First, we must check our heart and be sure we have a clear and appropriate intention to help the other person. Once our intent is clear and we make it known to the other person, then we move on to give direct, clear and caring feedback. We dialogue with the other person about what we see, hear and understand — we give examples as needed and answer questions and concerns, and we commit to following up and providing coaching, resources and additional feedback, as needed.
If we’re honest, few of us get excited about the opportunity to receive feedback, and for this Brené Brown suggests the mantra, “I’m brave enough to listen.” If we desire to improve and grow, and we stay brave enough to listen and self-reflect, feedback truly propels us on our leadership journey.
“Go ahead and jump!” (Van Halen). Sheryl Sandburg and others have noted the research on gender differences and career advancement. First and foremost, we must recognize that there are cultural and systemic issues that create an uneven playing field, with men still earning on average more in salary than women, and also being offered more advancement opportunities. Studies also suggest that men may be better at self-promotion than women.
So, what can we do? First, as women, knowledge is power. You too need to learn the fine art of self-promotion. As women we need to understand our worth, know what we bring and find ways to ensure our organizations see our contributions. Second, as leaders (male or female), we need to mentor, coach, support and guide our women leaders in building their confidence and owning their accomplishments. Lastly, once we have done those things, as leaders and peers we can help them find the opportunities to “go ahead and jump” with confidence into new roles and opportunities in their career pathway. And if you’re reading this as a woman leader, take this as your sign to go ahead and jump!
“Celebrate good times, come on!” (Kool & the Gang). When we find ways to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of women leaders, we lift them up and we provide models for emerging women leaders. Over the last 20 years of my career, I have watched ACSA grow in this endeavor. ACSA birthed and nurtured the Women’s Leadership Network and encouraged regional and state level activities that brought together women leaders.
In my time in ACSA region 3, we created and nurtured a women’s event for nearly a decade that honored a Region 3 woman leader in the first years and grew from there to honor women leaders from regions 1, 2 and 3. This event was a highlight for the region with approximately 300 women coming together to celebrate. Unfortunately, the pandemic took its toll on the event, but each of the regions is now finding its own way to honor women leaders — and so the legacy continues.
So, what can you do? Don’t wait for state or regional ACSA — affirm, celebrate and recognize women leaders in small and not-so-small ways at the team level, the district level, the county level. It’s up to all of us!
From a retiring woman leader, I remind you — the days are long, but the years are short. Before you know it, like me, you’ll be retiring from this wonderful calling of educational leadership. Your time is now, and you need to focus with intention on what you can do to support and empower women leaders on their journey. We’re counting on you! And for my fellow women educational leaders out there … I leave the “arena” and our children in good hands — you’ve got this.[Note: some concepts included came from or were built on the following resource: https://leanin.org/tips/workplace-ally#!]