You need to turn the org chart upside down and realize that you can’t accomplish anything without the people doing the actual work. You are at the bottom not the top. The first time I saw this done at a leadership training, it was like an epiphany. It made so much sense. A CEO is a generalist. She or he hardly does any of the real work of the organization if it’s running well. Almost everyone knows more about their jobs than you do, so you are dependent on them rather than the other way around.
As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gloria Feldt. Gloria is co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a national nonprofit organization whose mission is gender parity in leadership in all sectors by 2025. She is an acclaimed motivational speaker, a women’s leadership development expert for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. A former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Vanity Fair named her to its 200 Top Women Leaders, Legends, and Trailblazers, Glamour to Woman of the Year, and Forbes to its 40 over 40 List. She received the City of Phoenix Martin Luther King Living the Dream Award and will receive the 2019 World Woman Global Voice Award for extraordinary work for women around the world. She and her husband Alex Barbanell share six children and 15 grandchildren
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in small Texas towns in an era when women weren’t given aspirations for careers at all. In fact, it you went to college it was to get your “Mrs.” I married my high school sweetheart at the age of 15, and we had three children by shortly after my 20th birthday. Then I woke up. My son, my youngest child, calls himself “Mom’s lightbulb.” I started to college when he was four months old and it took me 12 years to finish. During that time, I became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, where I learned about social justice movements. I learned about how to make change, that society and organizations can change. That led me to another lightbulb moment: I realized that if there were civil rights, then women must have them too. But all around me, the women were doing the work and the men were the leaders, getting the credit, the pay, and the high level positions. I decided at that time that my mission in life would be to work for women’s equality in all aspects. Everything I have done since then has been consistent with those values.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most incredible thing that happened since I started leading Take The Lead was our public launch event in 2014. We held it in collaboration with Arizona State University in the 3000 seat auditorium on campus. We had some great speakers like Morgan Stanley Vice Chairman Carla Harris and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, but the most amazing thing was that 500,000 people around the world tuned into the livestream, many hosting their own events around it, even though we had little money with which to advertise it. The enthusiasm was so palpable that I knew we had tapped into a deeply felt desire by so many women and also men who support gender equality to do something concrete about the disparities they saw all around them.
That was the good news. On the other hand, we had started the organization on a shoestring and had only begun to develop the full range of programs to fulfill our mission. We were totally unprepared for the response. So since then, we have had to be like the ducks, whose feet are paddling rapidly under the water while appearing to be gliding effortlessly on the surface. We have mostly caught up now, but it’s a stretch every day!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I made the mistake of thinking my predecessor at Planned Parenthood would have left instructions about what to do. Instead, I walked into an office that didn’t have a shred of paper on the desk (pre-computer, remember!) nor any information anywhere to be found. She did leave a box of IUD’s with a note to return them for a refund. But that was it. She wanted Odessa, Texas in her rearview mirror. She’d moved to Boston and didn’t return calls. The only other person in the executive office was Mary, the bookkeeper, a woman with Texas big hair and a hilarious sense of humor (the nameplate on her desk read “Sexretary”), but she wasn’t much help.
I learned not to assume that about which I had not explicitly asked or communicated. I learned how to dance as though I knew how and sure enough pretty soon I had figured it out. But not until after I broke out in hives every day for the first month from the stress of not knowing what to do.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
It didn’t attract me — it found me. My first CEO job was somewhat accidental. as I had been planning to be a high school social studies teacher until I was unexpectedly recruited to be the executive director of Planned Parenthood in West Texas. To my surprise. I discovered I have the CEO brain. That is, I am willing to take almost any level of responsibility in order to have the ability to think up a big vision and put together the resources of all kinds needed to make it happen. And so, 30 years later, I retired as President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s national organization.
I thought I wanted to only be the CEO of my own life after that, but within a few years I had failed retirement and co-founded Take The Lead whose mission is nothing less than gender parity in leadership across all sectors of the U.S. by 2025.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
An effective CEO creates meaning and vision for the organization first and foremost, in a way that everyone associated can see themselves in the story. Everything else emanates from that. The second thing that is especially true for executives but also for almost everyone else is that the world turns on human connections.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
What I enjoy most is making things happen. Especially things that other people say are impossible. As the saying goes, the impossible just takes a little longer. When people say we can’t possibly reach leadership gender parity by 2025, I laugh. Because I know we are at a strategic inflection moment when change can happen and can happen fast — with the right inputs and the sustained commitment by people to make it happen.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
The biggest downside of being an executive is that people watch everything you do or say and imbue it with meaning, often way beyond your intent. So an executive has to be very careful to communicate so she or he can’t be misunderstood. I find that stressful because it means I can’t make that flippant remark that so easily rolls off my tongue, or the joke that is quite amusing to me but someone else might interpret as offensive or disparaging.
Of course, some might say the downside is that you are always serving “at the pleasure of” and if you get crosswise with those whose pleasure is paramount, you are at risk of losing your job. But if you worry about that, you will have no enjoyable days. You have to learn to do what you think is right, communicate it as best you can, and know that if you get fired for that, it’s OK.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO. Can you explain what you mean?
I tell women, especially those who are reluctant to take on higher level positions because they worry about taking care of their kids or whether they can handle the additional responsibility, two things. First the higher you go in an organization, the greater control you have over your time and attention. You have more flexibility in negotiating and shaping your role and what you will delegate to others as well. Second, that it is just plain fun to be able to see the whole picture of an organization and influence its culture, direction, and strategies.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Let’s start with the challenge of getting into the C-suite to begin with. Women face implicit bias every which way, from hyperactive attention to their appearance to the behavioral double-edged sword: if you come across as tough and strong, you’re too tough and aggressive; if you come across as soft and approachable, then obviously you aren’t tough enough to do the job. Then there is the much-blabbed about “glass cliff” syndrome, the idea that women get brought into top positions to clean up the messes men have made and those situations are often fraught with probability of failure from the get go. In turn, when a woman does fail, all women are tarred with the view that women aren’t up to the CEO job.
Those challenges are very real. Nevertheless, as I found to my surprise when researching my book, No Excuses, the biggest challenge is now in our own heads. We’ve opened doors and changed laws but women aren’t walking through those open doors fast enough to get to gender parity in leadership for anywhere from 70–200 years, depending on which study you want to believe.
At the same time, we now know the business case is clear. Companies with more women in leadership make more money. Women are more prepared for 21st Century jobs than men are because we have been earning 57% of the college degrees for decades. Women have the power of the purse if we choose to use it because we make over 80% of the purchasing decisions. And then there is of course the power of simple justice. Equal opportunity for any gender is just the right thing to do. Therefore, this is an amazing moment for women — if we choose to take it.
Yet women’s culturally learned ambivalence about power and the negative treatment we get when we are or overtly try to be powerful hold us back. It’s this relationship with power — almost a spiritual factor, rarely acknowledged by the metrics or even the philosophers, which I’ve witnessed in myself and countless other women and observe repeatedly in questions after my speeches that lead me to believe women will stay stuck in our own half-finished revolution until we redefine our relationship with power so we can embrace it with authenticity, intention, and joy.
That matters for two reasons:
First, we will be able to excuse and justify the lack of progress by pointing outwardly at the barriers and biases rather than owning our part of the responsibility to take the harder road to push forward courageously.
Second, until we can stand confidently in our own power, we won’t be able to lead ourselves or others effectively, and the vicious cycle of fewer opportunities and fewer women willing to take opportunities will continue.
If we miss this amazing moment, both women and men will remain constrained within our gender stereotypes, within the lives of limited possibilities, lives that keep us from achieving our full human potential.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Oh, if only I had been intentional enough to be able to answer this question! I have always plunged in and done whatever needed to be done, and have given little thought to what I thought it would be.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
One of my dearest and wisest mentors, a man who had served in multiple presidential administrations and seen many ups and downs in the country, used to say, “Unwarranted optimism is warranted.” Optimism is one of the most important traits that a successful executive needs. She/he/they must believe in the possibility of success even in the face of chaos or setbacks. This in turn takes vision to see what can be, courage to articulate a vision to people who might not be ready for it, and the willingness to take action. I also think you have to genuinely like people, all kinds of people. And to hold yourself and others accountable. Finally, a successful executive not only can survive in ambiguity, but thrive in it. Complexity and the knowledge that there is rarely one clear and perfect answer just makes the challenges more interesting.
So people who need safety, stability, clarity, and predictability should not become executives.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Identify your own points of power or the particularly strong assets you bring and hire people whose strengths complement yours rather than mimic them. The more diverse a team is in talents and perspectives, the stronger it will be.
Also be yourself. As Dr. Seuss says, nobody is youer than you. Learn from everyone but don’t try to be anyone else except who you are.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My first boss Mildred Chaffin was director of the Head Start program where I taught for five years. She not only tapped me to take on roles I would never have had the vision to ask for, but also — unasked — wrote a recommendation for me literally on her deathbed.
I had heard she was ill and went to visit her in the hospital. As I was leaving, she called me back and handed me a sealed envelope. When I got home, I opened it to find her letter of recommendation. I broke into tears. But at that moment, I was back in college working toward my teaching degree. I had no idea how important that touching act of generosity would become very soon.
Because that was the only full-time professional job I had ever held, her one powerful recommendation was essential to securing my first executive director position, that in turn led me to the next four decades as a CEO. It’s a role for which it turns out I am well suited, but I would never have known it if that one person in a similar position hadn’t seen leadership qualities in me that I couldn’t see in myself because I had never seen it among women in my family and only rarely in the culture at large. Her example motivates me to write endorsements for people who request them from me, and yes, sometimes without being asked.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I feel fortunate to have been able to make my life’s passion for women’s equality into my life’s work. I realize that few people have that privilege. I don’t doubt that the more women and men share power in every way, the world will be a healthier, happier place for everyone.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- That it is really hard to keep your energy focused on the right things rather than worrying about whether people are doing things right. Management of one’s energy is really important so you don’t let the small things sap you. When I became president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a woman who had been a peer local affiliate leader warned me, “Don’t let them tire you out.” She was obviously prescient because it turns out that some years later, she was one of the very people who did sap my energy by trying to sabotage an important program. I fought to save it and won, but I exhausted myself and the internal squabbles drained too much attention away from many big external challenges that were more deserving of attention.
- That you need to turn the org chart upside down and realize that you can’t accomplish anything without the people doing the actual work. You are at the bottom not the top. The first time I saw this done at a leadership training, it was like an epiphany. It made so much sense. A CEO is a generalist. She or he hardly does any of the real work of the organization if it’s running well. Almost everyone knows more about their jobs than you do, so you are dependent on them rather than the other way around.
- That you can’t increment your way to success. Only bold moves have the power to move people or an organization to achieve. Tip of the hat to one of my mentors, the late futurist Watts Wacker who taught me this when I needed to revitalize an old, complex organization. We enabled people to release what they were worrying about for the short term by asking everyone to answer the simple question, “When you look back in 25 years, what do you want us to have accomplished?” I use the principle to this day; in fact, I just wrote it into a keynote speech for a women’s professional association conference this very day.
When creating the mission and business plan for Take The Lead, I had to combat a lot of small thinking rooted in fear of failure because we were doing something completely new to women’s leadership development — changing women’s relationship with power. We tried to give the program to one university and they declined, saying “But what if we fail?” It didn’t seem to concern them that they were already failing by not moving the dial to more women in leadership. That was the moment we decided to start a new organization to take the bold moves needed to move the dial.
- That every word I uttered and every move I made would be noticed and imbued with extra meaning by others in the organization. So watch it and think three times before speaking or doing anything. When I was teaching at Head Start, I took all 15 children in my class on a field trip one day. A little girl came up to me at one point and said, “Teacher, don’t you wish all these children were yours?” I replied honestly, “No.” She immediately burst into tears, feeling rejected, before I could explain that their parents would miss them and besides, I had children at home. It’s about like that in any leadership situation.
- How much fun and rewarding it would be to be able to have a vision, articulate it to inspire others, and work together with a whole organization of talented people to put together the strategies and resources to make it happen, and then execute it. Being able to have that long view and do big things, even those others might call impossible, might just be the most fun I have ever had. But no one tells you that. You have to discover it for yourself by doing it.
I love it when people say to me that no way are we going to be able to reach gender parity in leadership by 2025, which is our stake in the ground mission. Nothing motivates me more to reach that goal. And that happens fairly frequently. It gets my adrenaline going.
I had to do my own research to survey the current situation and look for the breakthrough strategy that everyone else in the field had missed, and that informed my book, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Mostly the previous research about why women were under 20% in Congress and the C-Suite concluded that women had less ambition than men. Well, I thought that’s just not true, so I dug deeper and identified the missing factor in every woman’s leadership program I studied. It’s women’s culturally learned ambivalence about power. They told women how to be like men to succeed, but that didn’t work because it wasn’t authentic, and women were smart enough not to want the kind of “power over” that men thrived in. After all, women had borne the brunt of many negative aspects of it, like abuse and violence. That plus the implicit bias still in the system reshapes our brains and makes us stand back, be more risk averse, and less likely to self advocate.
The traditional view of power also postulated that it is a finite pie, whereas women who had been socialized to be more collaborative love it when I show them power is an infinite resource and they can always make more pies because there is no limit to human ingenuity. So when I showed them how to change the power paradigm to the power TO, it was as though masks fell off and they would say, Oh yes, I want that kind of power where I can innovate, create, and make life better for my family. That was when I knew I had cracked the code holding women back and that if Take The Lead can reach a critical mass of women to help them embrace their power with the kind of intention, confidence, and joy that I saw in the women in my workshops, and give them the tools to thrive in the world as it is while changing it, we’ll be able to reach parity by 2025, not 2095 which was the most optimistic projection when we started. And what’s the worst that can happen if we don’t? Any progress is going to be better than where we are now. But I want to be able to say “we did it” because reaching gender parity will tie a nice big bow around all the work I’ve done in my life to advance women. And the more individual success stories we have, the more fun it is to keep going.
I used to sew all my children’s clothes, using cloth leftover from my father’s clothing factory. There is something of an analogy to leading with vision that translates to action in the creative process of figuring out how to take a piece of cloth and turn it into something beautiful and useful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’m doing it now, or at least my part in it. Gender equality is the biggest shift for social justice ever in human history because it affects everyone.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My daddy told me, “You can do anything your pretty little head desires.” Took me a long time to shuck the social norms that told me I couldn’t because of my gender, but eventually I found out that Daddy was right. In truth, anything is possible if we make It so.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I would have dinner or a long walk in Central Park with Shonda Rhimes, because of her clarity of vision and values and how she puts them into action professionally as well as personally. I would soak up the way she embraces her power to do good in the world with her inestimable talents. And I would ask her for her influence to help me raise the money we need now to scale Take The Lead so we can achieve our mission.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.