Written by Jan Jaben-Eilon Tuesday, March 27 2012
From coast to coast, increasingly, women leaders are discovering opportunities to hone their leadership skills. The Women’s Leadership Forum at the Olin Business School of Washington University in St. Louis is only the latest.
Smack dab in the middle of the United States, the Women’s Leadership Forum offers a certificate to executives who graduate from the one-day-a-month, six-month program. Olin designed the Women’s Leadership Forum Certificate in response to an expressed need by corporate executives to identify and develop high potential women.
“A few years ago, I saw that women were underutilized. They weren’t maximizing their opportunities,” says Jane Gleason, director of open enrollment of executive programs at Olin. “We held focus groups and talked to high-level human resource people. Fifty percent of women felt the need for more leadership skills.”
Gleason also spoke with executives to figure out what topics the program should focus on. Program content includes building alliances, understanding your value proposition, negotiation strategies, facilitating effective team interactions and managing conflict. Mid-way through the first six-month program, Gleason says feedback has been “extraordinary.”
Sylvan Schulz, vice president of employee communications and culture development at SAVVIS, a CenturyLink company that is a global leader in information technology, has gained real insight from the Olin program. She says that she has learned that “difficult conversations are necessary to move things forward, that there is a better way to drive communication when you dissect it to get at a common purpose.”
She adds, “I also learned that women will advance when we begin helping one another succeed instead of competing with one another. For women to gain positions of power and influence, we need to understand our strengths and the strengths of men to know how to navigate the landscape. It isn’t so much about becoming a man. It’s about becoming a more influential woman.”
One of the nation’s most prestigious programs, Harvard Business School’s Women’s Leadership Forum has gathered executive-level women from around the world. The Harvard curriculum combines topics such as marketing innovation, organizational effectiveness, service excellence and negotiation. Designed for senior businesswomen, including leaders of public and private firms, the five-day program is distinctive for several reasons.
One distinction, according to Janice H. Hammond, the Jesse Philips Professor of Manufacturing at Harvard Business School, who runs the program, is that participants must write a “challenge statement” that talks about some area of challenge they have in their workplace. She then explains that each woman is assigned a board of advisors, which is a small group facilitated by a professional coach.
She continues, “We spend the mornings in groups presenting our challenges and getting advice from other women. Women are asked to look at their strengths and weaknesses: ‘What do you know of yourself that weakens you in what you need or want to do?’ Then they must come up with an action plan, declarations of what they intend to do at the end of the program. The advisory boards conduct follow-up phone calls, sometimes over years, which allows us to get longitudinal information about what happens to these women.”
Like other training at Harvard Business School, the Women’s Leadership Forum uses the business case method, an active learning model that teaches participants how to assess, analyze and act upon complex business issues. The business case method is rooted in real-life experiences, which helps to develop analytical skills, sound judgment and leadership potential within each participant.
“This is not pie in the sky but actual nuts and bolts,” says Hammond. Women focus on enhancing their approach to leadership and expanding their knowledge, skills and confidence as they learn how other successful women have approached key management and leadership challenges. Hammond asserts that the Women’s Leadership Forum at Harvard has “the highest word of mouth reference of any of the executive programs we have.”
At the University of Delaware, the Women’s Leadership Development Program is part of its Institute for Public Administration. Although it was designed to provide opportunities for women in public service to improve and develop their leadership skills, Myrna Bair, program director, says participants include women from the business sector.
There are three phases to the program, but participants do not need to complete all three. Phase one is a one-day workshop covering transformational leadership, characteristics of a leader and practicing leadership; phase two is a two-day workshop focusing on advanced leadership development with an emphasis on personality and leadership and finding your purpose and resonance; and phase three is a 10-session course about achieving leadership through collaboration, credibility, negotiation and influence.
A big proponent of the Myers-Briggs test, Bair says, “It is most effective for people to understand why they are and why they do what they do.”
One of the graduates of the Delaware program, Marjorie Crofts, says not only did she learn about herself, but she learned the difference between a leader and a manager. Crofts, director of the Division of Waste and Hazardous Substances for the state of Delaware explains, “A leader looks forward to what needs to be done better, and a manager just makes sure assignments given are well-done. The higher I’ve gone in my career, the more I realize that I work for the staff versus the other way around. This program drove it home.”
A fellow graduate of the Delaware program is Carlyse Giddens, director of the Division of Youth Rehabilitative Services for the state of Delaware. She explains, “Leadership is about one’s willingness and ability to perform over time. It’s not about me; it’s about the performance of the team, about return on investment. A leader’s success is the success of the team, which is the true mission of an organization.”
Giddens especially liked the fact that the Women’s Leadership program was just for women. She explains, “This created a safe environment. Most of my career has been among men and women. Sometimes I’ve been the only African-American woman, and I always felt I had to be on guard. This training helped me be more open and show my professional vulnerabilities.”
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Jan Jaben-Eilon was a founding staff writer of the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Since then, she has been the international editor of Advertising Age magazine and has written for such publications as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Washington Journalism Review, and Consumer Reports. She is the author of soon-to-be-published (There is) Life After Cancer. Jan and her husband have homes in Atlanta and Jerusalem.