Understanding Power & Leadership: R. May Lee

The IPWS Leadership Summit powered by IE Business School was held on Friday June 2nd, where we had the chance to hear from an impressive line-up of high-calibre speakers. One of our speakers was R. May Lee, Dean of School of Entrepreneurship and Management at ShanghaiTech University, who delivered a compelling Closing Keynote as she spoke about many aspects of power and leadership in her own life and career.

IPWS Leadership Summit
June 2nd, 2017
Closing Keynote – R. May Lee

Thank you. I’m truly honoured to be here among so many great women, the speakers, the participants, the award winners, and the organizers. Congratulations to the winners and to Tiziana and her team for putting together such a great event.

When I told my 11-year-old daughter IPWS asked me to speak today, she replied “Mom – you know I think you are great but they invited you because you are old and can share stories.” After thinking about it, I realized she had a point.

I care deeply about healthcare and reproductive rights for women, about equal pay for equal work, and ensuring women can reach for and attain the highest heights. I’ve protested, marched, signed petitions, served on boards, given advice, and worked on countless task forces – too many to count. And throughout, I have almost always declined to speak in public about these topics. Not because I don’t care – but because the fight for equality in the 70s embodied the right to choose – what kind of lives we wanted to lead – and my stories reflect my choices. I own those choices and they aren’t necessarily right for others. Why did I change my mind?

First, Hillary lost the election. In addition to finding the language, behavior, coverage, and entire election outcome unacceptable on so many levels, what most disturbed me most was the overt and accepted level of misogyny expressed at every turn. If this was a referendum on gender equality, we failed miserably. That means I need to do my share and get back into the battle, expanding my impact and helping where I can add value. Second, my daughter has a point – being old gives me the perspective and ability to share stories, not as stories but as illustrations of some broad principles.

My goal for today is to share some concrete tips learned over the course of my career. Additionally, I would like to use my position as the last speaker to do some “reframing” where I take familiar formulations and look at them through a different lens.

Lesson #1: You have “power” from Day One
I want to reframe the discussion away from “getting power” and towards how we gain additional power and, just as importantly, how we WIELD power. Let’s not start with the assumption that we don’t have power. We do. We commonly speak of power in the context of high-level positions. But don’t underestimate your personal power – your presence on this earth gives you the power to impact things around you, big and small.

My first job out of college was working in China for a small consulting firm. My clients were CEOs such as Hank Greenberg from AIG, the head of McKinsey, and others. I used the opportunity to observe and learn from them. Watching them wield power taught me several lessons – about what kind of leader I wanted to be, what kind of employee I wanted to be, and what kind of person I aspired to be. You don’t need to be around the CEO to learn these lessons. Just look around at your immediate manager and her/his manager – watch, listen, analyse, and consider how you might behave in her/his shoes.

Lesson #2: Reconciling advice on emotions and the workplace
What is the role of emotions in the workplace? We hear all sorts of things on this topic, e.g. your emotions provide strength; don’t cry in the office; cry in the office…! When I think about emotions, I think about them in three buckets:

Self-awareness: We heard Lorna, for example, talk about acknowledging and dealing with one’s emotional state as the basis from which to make decisions and manage. The research here is unequivocal. Emotionally self-aware individuals perform better in the workplace on every metric. BUT, working through emotions and becoming self-aware should take place outside of the office. You can do it with your friends (more on that later), through meditation, coaching or therapy. They all work. Pick the one that works for you.
Use your positive emotions to your advantage: If you feel passionately about an issue, use your passion to persuade people. Use your happy energy to build bridges and alliances.
Negative emotions such as anger or frustration over disagreements are more complicated. In general, I suggest working through your emotions out of the office to figure out how to work through the situation in the office. How you resolve sticky situations depend, in part, on your organization’s culture. I “grew up” at Goldman where direct confrontation and loud arguments were a regular course. Other places aren’t like that.

Finally, as Tom Hanks said in “A League of Their Own”: “There is NO CRYING in baseball.” Similarly, I’m of the view that one doesn’t cry in the office about work-related matters. I understand people may disagree with me about this and I am willing to entertain the possibility that things are different now. In my experience, however, bursting into tears in front of one’s superior, rarely leads to an optimal outcome.

Lesson #3: Understand the currency of your company
To get promoted in an organization, you need to know what the organization values, how it measures outstanding performance, and how it rewards high-performers. Otherwise, you risk wasting energy and effort on things no one cares about.

For example, the currency at Goldman Sachs was relatively simple: the size of your bonus at the end of the year and whether you made partner. Understand the currency at your company (it could be training opportunities, it could be rankings, it could be comp, it could be titles, it could be assignment of mentors, or a combination of these things), and set your own goals. With these basics in hand you can spend time focusing on what you were hired to do.

Lesson #4: We all need sounding boards AND alliances
All the experts recommend building a “network”. More concretely, I suggest building a “tribe” outside of work and a “network” inside of work. These groups comprise different people and generally serve different purposes. Your tribe outside of office should be a group of friends who can offer diverse opinions and perspectives; who can listen sympathetically on the days when you need to vent; and who can act as a sounding board when you aren’t sure what to do. These folks should and will disagree with you because they are your friends and don’t have anything at stake other than being a good friend to you.

At work, you may have a few close “friends” but mostly you want to build a network of co-workers with whom you can work and build common cause. Not just mentors (more on that in a bit) – but as many allies as possible –above, below and next to you in seniority and function. Succeeding generally means having allies in the right places to get things done. Know also your “allies” inside will change – depending on your position, assignment and goals. Sometimes, someone you view as a competitor has interests aligned with yours. Corporations more and more value teamwork. You are going to need to work with all kinds of people and everyone needs help getting big things done. The days of one person going it alone are pretty much over. But just remember – not everyone is going to like you. That’s inevitable and knowing it will happen is part of the path to success and power. The trick is to avoid giving people excuses to dislike you. Women have even less wiggle room than men. The research cited earlier today shows success and likeability are inversely correlated for women.

That’s why having your tribe outside of the office plays a critical role. If I had one piece of advice or general rule of thumb to offer, it’s the following: DO NOT VENT about your boss or co-workers with others at work. It sounds impossible but try and stick to it. This kind of office chatter doesn’t do women any favors. Information travels far, wide, fast and not very accurately.

Lesson #5: What you need to know about Mentors
Everyone says you need a mentor. And it’s true. More specifically – you need more than one mentor if you can manage it. This means having more than one mentor inside the company AND having mentors outside the company who can provide perspective on issues such as promotion, managing difficult situations, and compensation.

Second, mentors have their own agendas. They will help and support you – but it won’t be unequivocal and endless. Set your expectations accordingly. Part of being in power and being a leader means compromising with others to achieve a goal. Sometimes your well-being and interest might be subsumed by another agenda item important to your mentor. If your mentor is forthright and you are lucky, s/he might share that with you or prepare you ahead of time. Third, not all mentors are created equal. My first “mentor” as a young lawyer, “chose” me to serve on a big important industry-wide task force. This person left one week later. So much for mentorship.

Lesson #6: Competency Penalty
When you earn the reputation of being able to get things done, as many of us do, managers give you more…and more…and more. Sometimes the task is in your wheelhouse – and other times it isn’t. It’s nice to be “wanted” but not at the expense of getting one’s own job done. If you are unsure about how to deal with the piling on of work, you have a few choices (not mutually exclusive). First, figure out whether the new assignment allows you to expand your network internally – meet some new people and gain exposure to other influential senior people. Second, consult with internal mentor for his/her opinion(s). Third, try and decide whether the new assignment affects your ability to finish your own core work (this is where knowing what the company values and rewards matters). Fourth, consult your tribe outside of the office.

Lesson #7: Don’t criticize other women
Sometimes, we are our own worst enemies. From the youngest age, we learn to criticize what other girls are wearing, their bodies, or how they talk. And this terrible habit continues into the workplace. We need to stop. Gaining influence and power is hard enough on its own. I’m not saying everyone needs to be best friends. Nor am I saying we can’t disagree about substance. But the old adage of “if you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything is useful.”
When a woman takes a risk and puts herself out there, try and say something positive before engaging in further discussion.

On the flip side, stand up for other women. I was part of a conversation a few months ago about why the LGBT movement has progressed so far in such a short period of time, and gained a level of acceptance women have yet to attain. One of the core figures of the movement offered the following astute observation: “we had allies inside of corporations who stood up for the movement and made the case to the corporates that embracing this cause was right both morally and for business.” In response, one of the leading lights of the women’s movement in the U.S. similarly observed that women inside of corporations have NOT pulled their weight. I can appreciate the complexities of managing a business when one makes it to the top. And, in the end, women at the top will be judged by how well she manages the business for employees and shareholder value (like their male counterparts). I refuse to believe, however, that more can’t be said and done by senior women on behalf of women in the workplace.

Lesson #8: Stand up for yourself
One of the prior speakers, Erin, talked about “taking power – men do it and women don’t.” I want to reframe that statement in the following way: once you’ve done the work and earned the power, don’t wait for permission or consent to take what’s yours. This is about making sure you do what you can to get your due. It means understanding the difference between claiming credit and getting credit. It means asking for the raise or promotion if you’ve done the work to deserve it OR asking WHY you didn’t get promoted. Sometimes it means getting recognition from the outside to help you get recognition from the inside. I don’t think it means taking something heedlessly that doesn’t already belong to you.

The antecedent to taking what one has earned, of course, is knowing how to value one’s own self-worth. This is the bedrock of your future success. Goldman Sachs taught me this and, in my view, it’s part of why the firm succeeds. When I arrived, I did the work assigned to me. I worked as hard as the next person – early mornings, nights, and weekends. But I couldn’t figure out why no one ever told me “good job” or thanked me. Nor did I understand how one got opportunities to work on different projects. I spent countless hours worried I wasn’t performing well. I was concerned no one liked or respected me. All of that was a complete waste of energy.

When I worked at Goldman, even the best managers rarely uttered “thank you”. As we used to say on the trading floor, “you are only as good as your last trade.” I figured out the firm didn’t hire people to give them compliments. I saw senior partners receive the same treatment. We all have this image of an idyllic life at the top. It just ain’t so – life is tough at the top.

As a result, I instituted a new rule: every day, I gave myself a compliment when I did a good job. If I was desperate, I could always call my friends – they were always good for a free compliment. I reminded myself this wasn’t school or summer camp. It was work. After a few months, I began to believe in myself in the most basic way. I stopped looking for approval, stopped asking for permission, and valued my own contribution to the firm. My compensation went up. And then it hit me…I had the power to move forward.

Understanding and recognizing your own value also means you can evaluate when it’s time to move on or whether to take a new opportunity. The decision to leave NYU was one of the hardest I’ve ever made in my career – it involved mentors, good friends, students and a mission about which I cared deeply. In hindsight, I stand by the decision even while knowing I could have done some things better. Similarly, I earned the right to go to the graduation ceremony of the inaugural class. I didn’t expect an official invitation. Nor did I wish for any “formal recognition” other than to see the students graduate. I didn’t ask for permission. I just went.

Lesson #9: Don’t give up
You will doubt yourself. You will be afraid. People will say not nice things to you. Some days will feel terribly lousy. Your prospects will look cloudy at best and grim at your deepest point of despair. I wish it weren’t so. But it’s bound to be true for you, as it is for everyone. Recognizing it’s competitive and hard for everyone sometimes helps. Remembering your goals helps more. You don’t get to give up because it’s hard. Everything worth doing is hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Keep going.

This lesson is just another way of saying you need to keep learning and take some risks. Some people describe it as playing another octave on the piano. Some say you should stand as close to the edge of the metaphorical cliff as you can. Others say you should jump off the cliff every now and again.

How does one do this? Obviously, we could think of dozens of possibilities. I offer my experience at Goldman (again) as an example. I was initially hired as a lawyer for the Fixed Income Division. My second day on the job I took the elevator up to the trading floor – stepped out of the elevator, looked around, and went right back into the elevator down to my office. The sheer number of strange and fierce people on the floor overwhelmed me. Even the receptionist barked at people. How was I going to do this job if I was afraid of everything and everyone? I came up with a simple idea: I would force myself to go to the trading floor every day and meet two new people. Initially, I would walk around and around the floor screwing up my courage to meet someone. Some days went better than others. It was a small initiative but led to positive outcomes, most notably a sense of accomplishment and a profile within the firm.

Too often we talk about power as if it’s some abstract concept. But it’s real – just like the structure of a molecule or a corporation is real. Understanding power, using power, and getting to a powerful position require learning and practice – just like anything else we do in life. We learn about power first from our families where we understand the power structure. It’s the same within organizations. You need to take the time to understand the power structure – what and who matters, when and how to get things done; and most of all how to wield power when you get it.

In my opinion, the path to power is truly a journey of owning who you are, making choices and taking responsibility for those choices, and ultimately figuring out what you want and getting it.
You will grow personally to grow professionally. It’s hard work and made harder by the constraints we and others impose on us.

Be true to who you are – learn, listen, re-evaluate and grow. Having power and making a difference isn’t simply about being a CEO or Prime Minister. It’s about telling the world who you are – we know society wants to put us in a box. For example, I’m 80% certain Gianluca spent 30 seconds thinking about what to wear today. I, on the other hand, fussed over it for a few hours: this dress – too corporate; this outfit – too flouncy; this outfit – too boring; and so on. I didn’t want you to put me in a box.

My final words – Go out and make your own box – or boxes! Thanks very much.