Stories from the Room
While it feels that the world is standing still in some respects, there is so much good happening ‘in the room’ at WOMEN Unlimited, Inc. (WUI) We know it’s important for you to hear what your key talent is experiencing in her development journey – especially now.
When asked about participant feedback and how things were going, Amy Gonzales, VP of Global Learning at WUI shared, “When the pandemic hit, we knew we needed to do more than simply move from in-person to virtual learning experiences. We are thrilled to see that the cadence and competencies of the program redesign aligns so well with what these leaders need today.”
We asked three Program Managers – representing Boston, Orlando and Princeton regions to give examples of what they are seeing in this new phase of business where emotional resilience, critical competencies and strong business networks are helping participants thrive as new paths are forged. The Program Managers lead the development journey and are there to support and guide their participants along the way. They witness the challenges and significant leadership shifts that program participants experience.
What has shifted since Covid changed our world?
Our Program Managers collectively agreed that participants have become more adaptable to the current needs of their company and for their team. They are learning to be more agile and risk tolerant. As Amy pointed out, “Every day, they are living it. We’ve changed our focus to look at what risk means today – for themselves and their companies.” She went on to say, “The experience is helping participants get out of “reactive mode’ and make a bigger difference.”
At the beginning of the pandemic and amidst the WFH initial plans, it was not unusual to hear participants express their preference to pause their development and wait until this was “all over.”
The women initially struggled with the change and uncertainty they were facing. But, with strong support from their Program Manager, their mentors and peer teams, they stuck with it. Now, they report that those relationships are invaluable to them as they navigate the necessary shifts – which include having a positive mindset and creating new ways of doing business. The bottom line: Participants are developing a strong virtual presence to lead others, strengthening their engagement skills and discovering a new confidence that helps them to manage effectively in a rapidly changing business environment.
“Most companies’ approach has shifted to look at post-Corona plans. More than ever, organizations need leaders who are able to work with risk. Additionally, we see participants learning to strengthen their agility, to pivot and to be more comfortable with uncertainty.” remarked Rebecca Feder, Princeton Program Manager.
Peggy Jackson, Program Manager for Orlando programs, pointed out that participants have shed “past resistance of ‘what was’ and they’ve shifted into active learning. They are eager to keep moving forward. And, most importantly, they recognize the importance of connection now.”
She shared the example of a participant, an IT leader, who already worked remotely, yet she felt it was hard to connect with those working in an office because she was missing the “drive-by” and “water cooler” opportunities. She had been making some inroads by being more intentional but when the pandemic hit and her company went to 100% virtual work, she realized they were all in the same boat. She felt that she had the power to help herself and others stay more connected. She committed to reaching out to a different person every day, whether by email, LinkedIn or phone. She’s now connected or reconnected with dozens of colleagues and other contacts inside and outside her organization and her network is stronger than ever. She reports that this has helped in execution of teamwork and others have thanked her for inspiring them to do the same.
Peggy observes a heightened “level of acceptance rather than resistance. The biggest focus for them is how can they connect and how can they lead.”
Another story from the room is of a leader in pharmaceutical sales. She realized the important emotional component of what her sales team was going through, no longer being out on the road, connecting with customers and other people as a part of their normal way of doing business. Discussions with her LEAD Peer Team helped her identify tangible steps she could take to reach out, connect, create space for her direct reports to feel heard and supported. They now discuss how they can be productive in this new way of working. She says her team feels closer than ever and their sales results are phenomenal.
Laurie Witt, Boston Program Manager, said that for her participants “agility and adaptability are a necessary day to day need.” Laurie adds, “We’ve been emphasizing ‘assume positive intent.’ People in this #newnormal/Covid space have lots going on, so it’s very important when kicking off meetings or calls to have empathy and ask how people are doing. This shows the human side of the leader and the participants have expressed it has really helped them build tighter relationships.”
She cited a story where a participant learned to exercise the notion of positive intent. Here’s the message she sent to Laurie:
Not sure if you remember, but in our last session, during the mentor workshop, we discussed that I was recently passed over for a promotion. You, my mentors and peers, gave me some advice about how to approach my director and his boss. I needed to reiterate that I was, in fact, qualified for the promotion. I cited examples of that and put forth a path which included taking the emotion out of my approach. I wanted to drive with an actionable plan. Well, I did that and then a few weeks after that meeting, my director’s manager got promoted in the merger. He called me shortly afterward to ask me to lead a part of his new organization and said that he has been so impressed by my accomplishments and said that our last meeting stuck with him. He recognized that I had been performing higher than my pay grade for some time. So very exciting news despite everything else happening in 2020!
One of the Biggest Shifts – Integrating Corporate, Community and Personal Values
Program Managers pointed out that almost universally, their participants are coming from a more unified place. They notice that there is a tendency for “everyone’s whole self to show up.”
While the pressure to be ‘on camera’ more often these days can be challenging, it’s also
opened up the chance to show a sense of vulnerability, authenticity and confirm what is valued – beyond the work.
Participants are talking about “what their companies are doing to acknowledge what’s happening in society.” Peggy summarized. An interesting offshoot of this awareness is a greater focus on “the emotional health of others” both within and outside the organization.
Rebecca’s program participants want to “play a stepped-up role as leaders and citizens. The unprecedented year we are having creates very real challenges. Since the start of the program, our participants have seen Covid related deaths and illness in their families, have been directly or indirectly impacted by racial injustice, experienced stress in relationships and in caring for children and elders. The issues are not just things that we read about ‘happening elsewhere.’ That said, our attendance and engagement throughout the program has been very strong despite the demands on people’s time because of the tight and supportive relationships that have formed across their cohort and especially within the peer teams and
mentors. Networking has helped women stay focused on what matters most, and manage the ambiguity and risk.”
Final Observations from ‘the WUI Room”
When talented leaders carve out dedicated time to focus on themselves – especially in this very ambiguous and stressful period – taking a break from WFH efforts and managing a multitude of family commitments, it really shows.
Rebecca sees her participants as very willing to “lean in and step up to rich development opportunities.” Participants are noticing “roles have less clarity than ever, and leaders are not defined by titles. They are defined by what they contribute.”, Peggy shared.
Laurie points to “three shifts” that are helping these talented women be more impactful leaders:
- They are more “transparent and authentic.”
- They have realized the importance of “being intentional” in reaching their goals.
- They are learning to “leverage the experience and insights of others,” not just with other program participants, but with corporate leaders and role models.
While everything is being tested in this period, we’ve seen the positive impact that these leadership experiences have had. There is a significant increase in interaction and connections with peer teams, mentors and managers. Looking forward, we’re excited about what’s next and partnering with you! Developing Leaders Who Deliver Results.