Regions Central Virginia

Becoming leaders

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Print this page By Paula C. Squires

What makes an effective leader? It starts with self-awareness – knowing who you are and accepting your strengths and weaknesses, a sold-out crowd of women were told Thursday at a leadership summit in downtown Richmond.

Sponsored by the Richmond Chapter of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW), the summit in the ballroom of the Residences at the John Marshall drew 130 women and a roster of 150 reservations, with only a third of them members of CREW. “We drew women from other professions,” said Andrea J. Harlow, the group’s immediate past president and the leading organizer behind the summit.

Women’s leadership skills jumped to the front burner of the national dialogue with the March publication of “Lean In,” a best-selling book by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. In the book, Sandberg encourages women to “lean in” to their leadership skills so they can reach the top levels of the workplace.

While there may be obstacles going up the corporate ladder – with Sandberg noting that women tend to be promoted because of achievements while men move up because of promise -- the summit focused on women’s responsibility to hone their skills. 

“Women have good leadership skills, but we don’t always use them,” said Harlow. A lawyer with Williams Mullen in Richmond, Harlow said her interest in leadership was sparked when her firm held general and one-on-one coaching sessions in leadership skills for some of its staff, with Harlow completing a year-long program. “It’s an important issue at our law firm.”

CREW’s national organization recently did a white paper on the evolution of leadership among women in the commercial real estate industry. The paper drew on a survey of 234 network members and 16 executive-level women members that included a leadership potential assessment tool. The results showed that among the 234 CREW network members, the average highest ranked competency was monitoring quality, followed closely by focusing on the business.

Among the 16 executive women, the average highest ranked competency was persuading and influencing followed by meeting customer needs and communicating.

The paper noted that women, who make up about 47 percent of the workforce in the U.S.,
hold just over 51 percent of professional, management and related positions and 34 percent of senior management positions.

The summit’s keynote speaker, Jean B. Gasen, executive director of the Center for Corporate Education at VCU’s School of Business, said self-awareness is key to leadership.  “If you know who you are and you know what your values are, you can lead much more effectively. People see you as being genuine and authentic.”

Figuring out core values and “what you really stand for can be a scary prospect,” Gasen added. Yet the journey can bring “acceptance of the good, the bad and the ugly … You have to open yourself up to how others see you,” she added, and be willing to make changes if you don’t like the feedback, to be an effective leader.

Connecting with others and choosing teams wisely also are important. “If you are weak in one area, pick someone with those skills to be on your team. Be vulnerable and say, “I’m not good at this, but that person is.”

Even something as simple as a person’s walk — rushed and hurried with head down — can send signals about leadership, Gasen said, as she demonstrated the hurried way in which she used to walk.

These days, she slows down, holds herself up and smiles, because she wants to be approachable.

During a breakout session, Plum Cluverius, an executive coach and consultant, talked about the importance of leadership presence. “Why cultivate it? To motivate others and be more effective,” she said.

She likened a person’s leadership presence to an emotional wake. “Every time we connect with someone, we leave something behind. That person either feels better or worse, or neutral.’’

In a nutshell, leadership presence is the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others in order to motivate and inspire them to share a desired outcome, Cluverius said.

Good listening skills and positive body language all play a role.  In fact, Cluverius noted that that 93 percent of a person’s credibility comes from their physical presence, with studies showing that a person’s words account for 7 percent while body language is 55 percent and voice tone is 38 percent.

Theresa Schnabel, vice president of facilities management for MeadWestvaco, found a listening exercise one of the best takeaways of the summit. “As leaders we think we have to have the answers. The inclination is to solve problems. If someone tells you something is wrong, you feel you have to solve the problem, instead of just being a good listener.’’


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