One of my favorite things about attending the Commision on the Status of Women at the U.N. is the chance to make real connections with women from around the world who are passionate about their vision of the future, and are working hard to make those visions a reality. At CSW 2019 I was able to interview Leslie Grossman, the Faculty Director of the Women’s Leadership Program at George Washington University. I asked her to share a little bit about herself to start off our conversation.
“My name is Leslie Grossman, and I fulfill multiple roles, as most women do, from the faculty director for the executive women’s leadership program, at George Washington University, as well as being an executive coach working with women, and men who are supporters of women. I am a serial entrepreneur, as well as an entrepreneurial coach helping women find their place. I am also a mom and a grandmother, which are both important roles for me. I have two kids and three grandchildren. I work in programs to help move women up into leadership positions, working together to build stronger communities and relationships among women.”
As we talked I had a couple of questions for Leslie, beginning with the idea of how we, as women, can help each other to succeed. How can we work in partnership instead of falling prey to the narrative that we are in competition? Leslie is passionate about these kinds of ideas, and about improving our ability, as women, to work together to achieve great things. “The GW program and the women’s leadership exchange programs were based on the idea that we all need to have a vision—of our lives, our career, and our family. If we are clear on what we want we can make it happen. But these things do not happen in isolation.” So how do we make our visions a reality?
Leslie maintains that there are some very specific steps that we can take to help ourselves and others succeed. The first thing we need to do is to identify the vision—what do we want to see happen, in our lives, in our communities, in our families, in our businesses? We need to be as specific as possible. If we know what we want our lives to look like, we can set up the path to making it happen. Leslie said, “Often we start things and then we don’t create a vision of how it is going to happen. We are sometimes guilty, as women, of just taking things as they come along, rather than setting the vision of where we want to go. The Harvard Business Review did a study of women in the corporate world, and one of the startling differences is that men always set a vision of where they wanted to go, and women didn’t. Or if they did they kept it to themselves for fear of being thought too forward or too demanding. We need to change that trend.”
This leads to the second thing we need to do, which is to share our vision. Share it with our neighbors and friends, our sisters, with anyone who can help us make it happen. In Leslie’s book Link Out, she discusses some of the ways we can create lasting relationships that help us attain our goals in a community based, sustainable, and generative way. The foundation of this ability to achieve our vision is creating lasting and authentic relationships—this is not networking, Leslie is careful to point out, but an honest interest in the goals of others and a willingness to help each other, to serve, and to accept help in return. It is a collaborative and reciprocal relationship. It is moving past the cultural conditioning that tells women that we are asking too much if we engage in the types of relationships that ask something from someone, and fail to realize the vast resources that we have to offer in return.
As we talked I was struck by the power of being able to move from a traditional view of business relationships that emphasizes networking—making superficial connections with as many people as possible—to building lasting relationships, using the inherent gifts of women which include nurturing and serving one another. We can leverage those gifts to build strong communities based on real and authentic relationships. If we can do that, it could have a profound impact on how we, as women, put ourselves forward into the different spaces and places of influence. Leslie went on to say, “We have to realize how much we have to give, and that it is ok to ask for ourselves. But we also need to recognize that one of the most authentic ways to ask is by sharing our vision, and inviting others to share theirs.”
So how do we move from this predominantly business-minded model of networking, one in which you try to gather as many superficial connections as possible into a deeper, more authentic type of relationship? “We need to value quality relationships—in this case it really is quality over quantity. One of the best ways to get started is to be curious about others, to ask them questions about themselves and their vision of the future. It is all about getting to know others with a sincere, caring interest.” As we talked I recognized that some of my most rewarding relationships have come from these types of places of authentic connection. The more we know about others, the more equipped we are to connect their needs with what we have to offer and to recognize if they can fill a part of our own vision. Not in a self-centered way, but from a place of concern and interest, a place that says “I see you, I know you, I value you and your vision—how can we help each other?”
So what does this type of partnership look like? As Leslie and I talked I was struck by a couple of things. As the mother of four young adults who are all dating and in the stage of life where they are meeting a lot of new people, and exploring new relationships, I love my husband’s dating advice, which he freely offers to our children, but applies in these situations as well. He is fond of telling our children two things. The first is that you will always have an interesting conversation with someone if you are curious about them. Ask them questions and be genuinely interested in the answers. Listen. The second thing he likes to tell them, and something I have found myself repeating to my university students as well, is that we need to learn to thrive in the awkward. There are going to be situations and interactions that are new and uncomfortable, but if we can look on them as growing experiences we can step outside our comfort zones and connect with people on a deeper level. If we avoid discomfort we are not protecting ourselves, but instead we are cutting off our own potential, and limiting our ability to engage in meaningful conversations and relationships.
One of the things Leslie shares with her students in leadership training is that many of the ways they can make a difference require courage because we are not comfortable doing them. “We have to live by the mantra, get comfortable being uncomfortable.” It is important to recognize that growth requires discomfort. Growth requires giving up the idea of perfection. Growth requires that we allow ourselves to make mistakes and learn from them, otherwise we will be stuck in the same spot forever. One technique Leslie shares with her students is that of amplification. We, as women, need to amplify each other’s voices—if women support other women, if we work together to make ourselves heard, then our dreams become more visible, more achievable, and more real. So how do we do this? We need to gather a support network of other women—as Leslie said, we need to build circles of women, whether that is a figurative circle, or a literal circle like our ancestors used to create with a sewing circle or a quilting circle—a group of women that care about each other’s success, about our visions for our own lives, our communities, and our families. If we can do that, if we can overcome the cultural influences that are telling us that we need to compete with one another and instead speak out on behalf of other women, we will be heard.
If you are interested in learning more about women’s leadership, or hearing more of our conversation with Leslie Grossman, look for our upcoming Big Ocean Women podcast, everywhere podcasts can be found, May 2020.