There really isn’t a word that accurately describes the feeling of walking into a room of over 1000 women.

Part of me was surprised – I mean, I’m so used to conferences being a room filled with mostly men. Another part of me was filled with anticipation - I’d been looking forward to this day for weeks.

It was the 2017 Women’s Leadership Forum, hosted by the Ad Club.

Regardless of how I felt walking in, it’s easy to articulate how I felt walking out:

Emboldened. Activated. Reassured.

One talk among many that day left me feeling particularly energized. It was given by Madge Meyer – a public speaker, author, and former EVP and Chief Innovation Officer at State Street, with a long career at organizations including Merrill Lynch and IBM.

Madge offered concise, yet profound lessons to the room, good and sound advice for both men and women.

1.    Speak Up

Early in Madge’s career, at IBM, she was told by a manager that she’d be no longer invited to his meetings. Why? Her quiet and shy personality.

“You never ask questions or make suggestions. You occupy a seat, and never give me any value.”

Though she was listening, albeit passively, it wasn’t good enough. This is an important takeaway for anyone (talking to you, ladies) who may feel nervous about speaking up in a meeting.

Madge asked her manager for a second chance. She promised to ask at least one question, and make at least one good suggestion every meeting. She was allowed to return.

Studies show (and so does women's collective experience every day) that professional women are actually penalized for voicing their opinions more frequently.

“Male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. When female executives spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished them with 14 percent lower ratings.”

Read more in this NYT article.

The article describes a speaking-up double bind that harms organizations by depriving them of valuable ideas.

While before, Madge would attend passively, she began attending actively – and her success in doing so was predicated on her ability to listen the right way.

2.    How to Listen Well

Madge pointed out that many suffer from selected listening in meetings.

We can all likely relate to this. Who hasn’t interacted with someone who spends entire conversations just waiting for their turn to talk?

For Madge, the difference between passively and actively attending was to cultivate the skill of listening well – focusing on what someone really says, and asking intelligent questions.

She shared the tenets of Ting – the Chinese word for the art of listening, which consists of four elements in its Chinese character; ear, ten eyes, a heart, and a king.

Listen with your ear, but with 100% attention and focus (ten eyes), wholeheartedly, and as if listening to your King.

Wouldn’t that make for different meetings…

3.    Tell People Who You Are

One particular story I enjoyed from early in Madge’s career focused on a series of achievements she made in highly complex technical roles. With degrees in mathematics in chemistry, she worked in… well… literal rocket science.

Despite outstanding work, she found herself passed over for promotion in favor of her male colleagues multiple times. Frustrated, she went to her brother for advice.

What he said to her resonated with me, and the rest of the room, as I saw heads nodding in agreement:

“You’ve got to tell people who you are, otherwise, why would they listen to you?”

Being a Chinese immigrant, she possessed a cultural expectation that her accomplishments would be enough to get her promoted. Her experienced was proving this not necessarily true in America. While she did not want to brag, she realized the importance of outside recognition.

“You must show your value to the business. Doing a good job is not enough.”

Years later, as a manager at State Street, Madge ensured the work her team did was recognized consistently, to the tune of 32 industry awards.  

It's critical to toot your own horn. Be your own advocate.

4.    Never Accept No

Whether it was “you’re no longer invited to this meeting” or “you will never become an EVP” or “the answer is no on this project” – Madge persisted.

In one story shared, Madge had identified a massive cost-savings opportunity for State Street. While it would require some significant change, it would save the organization millions. Her proposal, however, was rejected by a committee who told her – Madge, the answer is no.

Expecting a fight, they were relieved to hear her say “OK” in the meeting, and walk out.

Where she was headed, however, was directly to her manager. She confidently brokered a deal (seriously, love this woman) – to let the results of a test dictate the viability of the proposal. If she couldn’t save the company $10M, they could fire her.

Yeah, she bet her job on it. No pressure. Casual.

Madge ended up saving the company $42M (boom), and earning the trust she so well deserved on her path to EVP.

In this story, she mentioned a piece of advice from her parents:

“When the boat hits the shore, you don’t keep trying to move forward. You turn right or left.”

Never accept no for an answer. Go around, and find a way to make it a yes.

5.    How to Innovate

All of these stories, weaved throughout her experience, built a strong foundation for Madge’s unique understanding of the concept of innovation – something she consults organizations on now. At the end of her talk, Madge shared a kind of alphabet of innovation, at least from A-G.

Innovation is:

Anticipatory, not reactive.

Business focused, not technology-driven.

Creative destruction, not guardianship. It’s very easy to hold on to the old way of doing things. Change is a risk.

Distributive leadership, not command and control. Companies that are top down must consider a culture of innovation, letting all people bring ideas to the surface.

Execution, not just inspiration. Madge recalled a Japanese saying:

If you have a vision with no execution, you have a day dream. If you have execution with no vision, you have a nightmare.

Fast and flexible, not fixed or frozen.

Global mindset nor parochial thinking. Leaders must move past only what they're comfortable with, and reach beyond boundaries.

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I could not get enough of Madge’s easy humor, or her confident humility.

I realize “confident humility” may be an oxymoron, but what I witnessed was a delicate balance of touting her remarkable success, sharing lessons born of mistakes, all delivered with an empathy that left each of us feeling that her journey was – or could be - our own.

 

For more, listen to Madge’s podcast “Innovation is Business as Usual” and read her book The Innovator’s Path.

Thank you to the Ad Club of Boston for having me at the 9th annual Womens Leadership Forum – Stories told, by women bold.

 

 

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