Yahoo! hosts Breakthrough Leadership Lessons from Top Women Execs

On January 10, Yahoo! 's Employee Engagement and Diversity team hosted a wonderful 2-hour panel session on Breakthrough Leadership Lessons from Top Women Execs. For meeting space reasons, attendance was limited to directors and up across all Yahoo! groups, and it was a full house, with quite a few of our male colleagues as well. The content was so relevant to our WIT discussions, we wanted to share with all of you right away.

The session was kicked off by Tim Parsey, Yahoo!'s SVP of Design, who told an excellent story about his "aha" career moment of seeing what a high-powered female executive can accomplish when given the reins. Tim handed off to panel moderator Rayona Sharpnack, CEO & Founder of the Institute for Women’s Leadership, for introductions of the 6 panelists:

Before the panel questions started, each panelist gave some of her personal background and lessons learned. Amity talked about her experiences as the first woman partner in PWC's Swiss M&A organization. They'd never had to deal with moms at work, so she had to write the division’s maternity policy! Anita's story was around being promoted to a VP role very early in her career, and having to consciously alter her approach so that her youth and introversion would not be a handicap. The key anecdote from Cisco's Kathy Hill focused on having the confidence to seek executive roles in the face of skepticism, and also not being afraid to make an industry jump in order to start over. Michelle talked about how she was with Microsoft for 10 years, but in that time, she took on 10 different projects. Each time she successfully finished a project, she was given the choice to stay and maintain it, or move on to a new project, and she always chose the latter. Penny, originally from England, talked about being a CEO with 2 young kids and later, with health problems. As you will see below, she had some strong views on work-life balance! Finally, Telle Whitney, CEO of the Anita Borg Institute (ABI runs the acclaimed annual Grace Hopper Celebration) recounted her story, where the influence of mentors was key in getting her into C.S. and then into ABI (she was recruited and mentored by the legendary Grace Hopper).

The panel discussion kicked off with the topic of "executive presence" and how that term is often mentioned as something women need to develop before they can move up. In Amity's opinion, the keys are: 1) Articulate your goals and objectives. 2) Take on challenging projects. 3) See differences in people as opportunities to leverage. Differences distinguish you from the crowd, she said…"people will remember you " and respect that you were able to get a seat at the table. Kathy emphasized that in order to stay at the table, you need to be prepared with smart questions every time there is an opportunity for you to participate.

The next topic was leadership across organizational boundaries. Anita talked about how in her early career, she learned results are not have to also be known. She went on a campaign to connect with people, and used her introversion as a strength, focusing on her ability to connect 1:1 with people, rather than forcing herself to extrovert and connect with groups.

People do have very different strengths, and the panelists discussed situations where their personal style was different than their team's. Kathy recounted the challenges of having to, as an extrovert, connect with lots of introverted engineering leaders. Penny pointed out that "diversity of style is powerful"- it takes confidence to run a team that's very different. It's a mistake to only make hires you feel comfortable with. Rayona closed out that question with a comment on how important it is to be authentic in your communications.

Penny was up next for the inevitable work-life balance question, and she firmly asserted that "balance is a myth" if you are going for a high-level position "in this competitive world". Anita's advice included "Find something to look forward to at least one time per week; have your priorities established. " She still seemed to see hope for balance; as did Michelle, who puts health first, and who learned to schedule time during the weekend and quarterly mini-breaks to make herself unwind. Both Penny and Anita advised that having day-to-day logistics support from your significant other can make going for an executive position easier. Rayona reinforced the importance of actually scheduling down-time…or else it doesn’t happen. Kathy's long-term perspective was comforting: " A career is a long road, and there are stages; things will change."

The panel talked about the differences between mentors and sponsors; the latter actively "push, protect, promote" and the former give advice. Telle's view over the years has evolved to: "Mentoring is a spectrum"; there are peer mentoring groups and topic mentors too. "Mentoring comes in many shapes and sizes; find your fit". But go out and get some! Penny added that we should not be afraid to be mentors ourselves.

The last moderator question was on "What qualities are needed for women to succeed as execs?" Telle recounted that she hears often from the GHC participants "I just want to be recognized for what I do". But hard work is not enough. Telle recommends reading "Ask For It" to learn to ask for what you want. Asking is a significant difference between men and women. She told a story about learning she was making less than her male counterparts; when she asked, she was told "it was because you didn't ask for it." She feels a second necessary quality is to be able to communicate effectively about your technical work. Rayona confirmed that it's a cultural norm for women to talk about what we want to do, rather than our accomplishments. Kathy did a "do-over" of her previous introduction, to model highlighting accomplishments instead of what she does for her work. She followed by saying that It's true that as women we hesitate to mention numbers, but we need to be prepared to do this. Penny recommended reading "You Just Don't Understand", which points out that girls communicate to create connection, while boys communicate to create status and distinguish themselves from others. We have to learn to speak the latter language too.

In answering the audience questions at the end of the session, the panel gave a long-term perspective on the prospects of women for technical and executive roles. The next generation will be more global, and more oriented to doing what they love and taking the road less traveled. There may still be unconscious bias in today's "man's world", but it's not a conspiracy. Women will have succeeded when men are supporters of women's careers as much as women, and if we get all the supportive men we know to go out and recruit others, we will change the status quo. It is key to help younger women get into technology. Only 22% of CS grads are women now, but the payoffs from being in technical careers are big: female Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) grads earn 30% more than average (interestingly, all the panelists had a strong math background). The panelists exhorted participants to be brave and go for their full potential - "Jump and invent water on the way down". All the panelists were clearly women who had done just that, and the payoff was big.