Women Leadership Summit – June 2013

It sounds wild, and it was. It was hot. Literally. The air conditioner wasn’t working, but I didn’t mind, because what happened on Wednesday night at the gym of Regis High School in Manhattan was just that riveting. I left the Women’s Empowerment Summit feeling like my brain had been seeded with diamonds.

I know Yao Huang, one of the founders of the event (and of The Hatchery, where, among other things, tech companies can pitch to investors) through Science House, where I’m the EVP for Business Development. Yao wants to see more women CEOs in the Fortune 100. Right now, only 3% of the top leadership roles belong to women.

“It’s time to talk about power,” Yao said, adding that the summit was just the beginning of a movement that will include a takeover of Bryant Park in September.

The lineup included Frances Hesselbein, who served as CEO of the Girl Scouts for many years, Christine Comaford, whose brain-based approach to leadership has served presidents and many CEOs, and Carole Hyatt, bestselling author and entrepreneur. They were absolutely spellbinding and the knowledge they shared was incredibly valuable in a way that can be instantly put into practice. The moderator was Gabriella Stern, deputy managing editor for The Wall Street Journal Digital Network.

Here are a few key takeaways from the event:

Focus on task, not gender.

Frances Hesselbein started off by reminded the audience that mission has no gender. Women bring a very special dimension to leadership, and this dimension is increasingly in demand. While she was the CEO of Girl Scouts, she was also served on an otherwise all-male board overseeing the development of two big nuclear plants. During her seven years of work in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on this project, she never walked into a meeting thinking, “I’m a woman,” but instead went in because she had something to contribute.

I’ve had this experience myself, while serving as futurist on a project at NASA Langley’s think-tank, the National Institute of Aerospace. I was the only woman on a team responsible for running complicated financials and assessing the viability of a science park project in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. Though I wondered in the beginning how I’d be treated, I soon forgot that this thought ever crossed my mind as the project became one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.

In this new century, there’s an opportunity to play a significant role in leadership, and we must choose our battles wisely.

As we focus on tasks, Hesselbein continued, we move past old language and barriers to access to develop a new level of inclusion and performance. We need “the passion and patience for the long, exuberant journey of men and women all sharing a vision for the future.” Part of this future is digital, and Hesselbein, who has worked in 68 countries, now mentors 400 leaders from 40 countries via Google Hangouts and Skype.

When Hesselbein shared this quote with the audience, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who got choked up.

Competition is collaboration

When Carole Hyatt started a business with her friend Joan, they both had separate skill sets. Over time, they became familiar enough with each other’s skills that it was less clear who should take on certain projects. When Carole wrote a book, Joan wrote two books. Carole would go home and complain about Joan to her husband.

Then one day, on Carole’s office couch, Joan died.

Before she delivered the eulogy at Joan’s funeral, Carole had to do some serious soul-searching about what her relationship with Joan meant to her. It was only then that she realized that the competition between them was really in their mutual best interest, and drove them both to new heights of excellence.

Give people what their brains need

Christine Comaford’s new book, Smart Tribes, is a must read. I can’t wait to get through my copy and share notes with you. In the meantime, here’s a tip from Christine: if you can give people what they need, you’ll excel.

People want safety, belonging and/or a sense of mattering. When you can successfully develop the ability to tell which of the three is plaguing someone–anyone–whether a boss, neighbor, friend, peer or direct report, you can deliver relief, thus liberating the person from the shackles of the brain’s desires so they can do their best work.

PS. While the event had a tequila sponsor, it’s summer, so please don’t worry schoolboys being corrupted by learning about the shift to new leadership characteristics. Also–for those who are concerned in comments below about liquor companies sponsoring serious events, I’m certain that the group would welcome your contributions or suggestions for other sponsors!

@RitaJKing Science House

Image: Yao Huang, Christine Comaford, Frances Hesselbein, Carole Hyatt and Gabby Stern.