Leanne Meyer: “You own you own career; nobody else has time to care”

Confident is not how you feel. Many of us spend a disproportionate amount of time ruminating on how not confident we are. We assume that one magically gets to a place where they consistently feel confident. However, research shows that the only difference between a confident person and one who isn’t is that the confident […]

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Confident is not how you feel. Many of us spend a disproportionate amount of time ruminating on how not confident we are. We assume that one magically gets to a place where they consistently feel confident. However, research shows that the only difference between a confident person and one who isn’t is that the confident person moves to action, regardless of how they feel. Learn to be terrified but do what’s required anyway, as it’s the only way to be confident.

I had the pleasure to interview Leanne Meyer. Leanne is the Executive Director of the Accelerate Leadership Center at the Tepper School of Business and Program Director of the Carnegie Mellon Leadership and Negotiation Academy for Women. Leanne Meyer’s work focuses on assisting leaders navigate critical inflection points where many have outgrown their professional identity and, given the demands and responsibility of their roles, need to change their perspectives regarding what is important and accordingly, how they spend their time and what new skill sets and behaviors they develop. Leanne’s journey began in South Africa where she was specifically influenced by the events in her home country, which ignited her interest in the possibility for human change and transformation. She has spent the past twenty plus years applying and building her change-agent skills in South Africa, England, Ireland, and now America. Leanne’s calling is to help leaders make sense of their lives through the reclamation of passion and purpose. Leanne holds a Master’s degree in Industrial Psychology.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Leanne! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Like many of us, my career has not been linear. It has been a circuitous journey, allowing for travel, pursuing opportunities, having children, and in a 25-year marriage partnership allowing each other at times to follow our passions and interests. The most helpful analogy I have found to describe this process is a spiraling staircase — metaphorically climbing, turning again and again (sometimes slowly), each time with a new and higher understanding or consciousness — closing the gap between potential and practice. Always taking that forward motion to a successful expression of myself and my family).

Regardless of which country we lived in, or what role I had, or whether I was an entrepreneur or firmly embedded in large institution, the constant themes of my work have been around understanding what makes people do what they do, and then identifying ways for how they can be more fulfilled, achieve their full potential, and function at their best.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

I think in the most simplistic way, the first difference is one of perspective — length and width if you will. The executive role is looking further into the future, working to understand a particular competitive landscape to ensure long term sustainability. As well, it’s about working more broadly on strategy, and that includes taking into account the impact on multiple internal and external stakeholders, defining the context in which to operate, and reorienting around priorities as opportunities or challenges arise.

Secondly, the focus of work tends to be at the vision and organizational culture level — working with stakeholders to create, align, and execute on a vision and ensuring that the organizational culture supports the achievement of the vision. How are the stakeholders living out the values of the organization? How are they holding one another accountable in service to the mission and purpose of the organization?

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being an executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I think for many (and especially women) who feel unbelievably crunched for time, as they juggle multiple and often conflicting roles across the gamut of their work and personal lives, there is a sense that rising into more senior positions will place too much strain on an already at times precariously packed existence. And so you may hold back and tread water for some time in your career. However, the truth is that the more senior the role, the more you have control over your own schedule and the rhythms of the organization, as well as access to and authority to deploy resources in service of achieving company goals. There is no doubt you will still be working hard and carrying organizational responsibility, but you may be surprised with the flexibility to “manipulate” time in service to living and working in ways you aspire to.

Also, not enough is said about the tremendous success of quiet leaders. A lot of people believe that to be successful as an executive that they have to be a charismatic extrovert where in fact there is plenty evidence quite to the contrary.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Men do not face the “Double Bind.” When women act in ways we stereotypically associate with male leaders, they are often seen as “too aggressive,” but if they lead in ways expected of women (read feminine), they’re seen as less confident, less competent, soft leaders — a “damned if you do and doomed if you don’t situation.” Especially for women moving into senior leadership positions, behavior and comportment seen as firm, decisive, and fully engaged in men is experienced as “aggressive,” “overbearing,” or “too emotional” in women. Unfortunately, a woman finds that she is seen as either too feminine, meaning weak, or she is seen as too masculine, meaning too strident. This double bind leaves women in a frustrating, talent-robbing, and identity-debilitating limbo.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your Center?

The mission of the Accelerate Leadership Center is to develop leadership, interpersonal, and communication skills for our graduate students here at the Tepper School of Business. Evidence suggests that empathy is the leadership skill most strongly and consistently correlated to growth, productivity, and earnings per employee. Our challenge as a center was how to teach empathy to a student body whose average age is 27. We needed to ensure that the training did not boil down to a list of transactional behaviors aimed at acting empathically rather than working to truly get into the head of another. Surprisingly, our research pointed us to the “arts.” Good art asks questions. And it’s through inquiry that we learn more about ourselves and the world around us. The result, that alongside our more traditional management and communication training, we now offer an additional leadership development pathway and curriculum that incorporates art, poetry, design, literature, and theater. The surprise has been in seeing how readily our students have engaged these activities amidst the demands of a very robust analytical education.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

My biggest concern going into the position was how much I would miss immersing myself in work I cared about — identity development of leaders and women’s leadership development. What surprised me, however, was how much I enjoyed looking up and out into the world more. My work involves identifying ways to ensure long term sustainability and relevance of a relatively new entrepreneurial Center, aligning our goals with the Tepper School’s new strategic direction, resourcing our team to best add value and be competitive with other top tier schools, and positioning our unit relative to multiple external and internal stakeholder expectations. This has demanded far more creative energy and insight than I anticipated, for which I am grateful.

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?

I think this is very context specific. Different executives thrive in different corporate cultures, and different types of executives are better suited to different stages of an organization’s development and life cycle. However, if you prefer to work in isolation or if you prefer to get your “hands dirty” and dig deep into your work or subject area, an executive position may not be the role for you. Meaning in these roles success comes from achieving results through others, not via your own sheer determination and smarts; and it comes from watching your unit or your organization and its people grow to be the best expression of themselves.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Regardless of whether they are male or female leaders, I would share what I have learned from the work of my colleague, Prof. Anita Williams Woolley. That is, if you think successful team building is about ensuring that everyone likes each other and focusing on the interpersonal dynamics of your team, you would only be managing to the margins. It is far more important in your role as team leader to get the key conditions in place for favorable performance. Sixty percent of a team’s effectiveness is determined by conditions that can be put in place before the team even convenes. To be successful, ask yourself these three questions: Do you have the right people on the team? Are team goals clear, aligned and appropriate? Is there high-quality collaboration and communication between team members? I would also encourage team leaders to take their team through a team contracting process (just google “team contract”). This is a very handy tool for sustaining success.

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?

I once read a study about what it takes to have a happy marriage. The one consistency that emerged is that the partners in the marriage rated each other more positively than they rated themselves on every single quality being assessed. The conclusion is that happily married couples write a generous narrative about each other. Their stories give the most charitable explanation for each other’s behavior, and they believe it. My husband has always thought I am more capable than I have ever felt about myself, and this solid support has been a career superpower for me. In fact, we run workshops at the Tepper School with Tepper’s partners’ club, as we believe very strongly that who you partner with and how that plays out has an enormous impact on the success of your career.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Through my work in the women’s space, I believe I have helped many women to (re)claim and sustain their ambition. They would be embarrassed for me to say this, but I have raised my sons to be feminists — to be inclusive in what they do. And I believe for the many students we teach and executives I have coached, they have worked and will work to create environments for all to thrive regardless of difference.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You own you own career; nobody else has time to care. As an executive coach for many years, I gathered 360 degree feedback for my clients. This put me in a position to see the disconnect between how an individual sees their career compared to those to whom they report. One of the greatest misconceptions is the assumption that our superiors spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about and plotting our careers. Own your own career!
  2. Confident is not how you feel. Many of us spend a disproportionate amount of time ruminating on how not confident we are. We assume that one magically gets to a place where they consistently feel confident. However, research shows that the only difference between a confident person and one who isn’t is that the confident person moves to action, regardless of how they feel. Learn to be terrified but do what’s required anyway, as it’s the only way to be confident.
  3. Try curiosity rather than beating yourself up. A career is long. Yet our approach to ourselves is incredibly short term. We quickly go from all or nothing, beating ourselves up at the smallest incidents that we consider to be a failure. What if instead we learned to be curious about who we are, who we are becoming, what we are mastering, where we have made mistakes, how we are growing as a working professional, and what else do we need to learn? As we teach our students, learn how to fail forward fast and move on.
  4. Authenticity is overrated. I know many will object to what I am saying here, however, the clamoring quest by so many (especially women) to be “authentic” may in fact be hurting their careers. The costs frequently outweigh the promised benefits and, from a coaching perspective, get in the way of career growth. They stop us from stretching ourselves and trying on new behaviors that could accelerate our careers, as we hide behind statement like “that’s just not me!” Learn to explore other ways of bringing who you are into your job in a way that’s meaningful to you, while challenging yourself to try new ways of being in the world. Your success depends on your willingness to stretch and grow.
  5. Negotiating for yourself — not just others — will be central to your success. Women often think they are bad negotiators, but this is not actually the case. We are fine negotiators when negotiating on behalf of others. It’s when it comes to advocating for ourselves that things get tricky. Your male colleagues are advocating for themselves four times more often than you, so if you do not want to fall behind equally talented men when it comes to promotion, advancement, and earning potential, you need these skills.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“…working out the fear of success, the fear of failure, and finally burning through to just pure activity.” — Natalie Goldberg. I can assume that if one has read all the way to this point, they are a self-actualizing type — attempting new behaviors, building new relationships, and working to understand themselves differently. As part of the process of working on our personal and professional development, we will likely experience “ungrounded limbo” phases where we will come to realize that the old way of doing things is no longer working, but the new way is not fully operational yet. This can feel clunky, disorienting, and at times unproductive. It is during these “neutral zones” that we can become too heady, and get lost in analysis and fears. It’s vital not to hesitate when we should act! You are one action away from a totally different life.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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