May 14, 2012 12:06 am

Female focus

Lisa Gold Schier©Tyrone Turner

Lisa Gold Schier says there are not enough women in top leadership positions

Lisa Gold Schier lives in Washington DC, and is a senior vice-president at the American Bankers Association, an industry trade group. The 45-year-old is originally from Pennsylvania and previously worked at US Bank, a retail bank, in various divisions. Her current career is very different from her early one – after studying exercise physiology at Pennsylvania State University she worked at a rehabilitation centre before finding her way to mortgage banking.

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When I signed up for the Women Emerging in Leadership course at Darden School of Business, I was looking for the intensity of being immersed in a programme for a week. I wanted to be away from home and work, and to develop relationships with female role models.

During the course at the University of Virginia school, some of us would go for a run at 5.30am and then do a mini-bootcamp before meeting for breakfast at 8.30am. We would work until 7.30pm most days. The course emphasised the value of wellness and I liked its approach to creating a work-life balance.

My overriding wish was to learn from others in leadership roles. I wanted to understand which leadership attributes other women had deployed. A few months previously, I had completed a leadership course with peers in the financial services industry, but I wanted to build on these skills, absorbing external perspectives. My group was so diverse – some were from financial backgrounds, others from the military, fundraising, tech and non-profit organisations. A mixture of case studies and role-playing made it feel like we were experiencing real-world situations.

It was important for me to go on a women’s leadership course – there are not enough women in top positions and they face unique challenges. I saw it as an opportunity to learn how other women deal with such things. For example, women tend to have mentors, not sponsors. Sponsors are people within your organisation who believe in your abilities and actively advocate for you. While most of us did not acknowledge having formal sponsors, we learned that many of us had informal ones and that we need to do more to cultivate these relationships.

Women tend to be very good at pointing out their faults. This course made us focus on the positives. One valuable lesson was the self-reflection exercise – we had to ask friends, family and colleagues to identify times when we were at our best. I discovered that people see me as a confident leader who can get results, someone who can bring a group together to form consensus. I did not think people would point out that they enjoy my sense of humour – that was nice.

The course made me think about how others perceive you and how I want to be perceived. I learnt that people will take different things from my leadership style – learning to consider my audience was perhaps one of the most important lessons. Now, when leading meetings, I try to understand the differing personalities and I will provide more opportunities for all to have input.

I had hoped to make contacts and I did. We are connected through LinkedIn [the professional networking website], as well as having shared our contact details. We ended the week with an exercise where we had to tell the class about two things we needed help with – one in work and one in life. I am not a good cook, so I asked for easy recipes that would make me look like I had thrown together something fantastic.

I also asked for advice on better utilising networks such as LinkedIn.

I was slightly worried about being away from my family – my 10-year-old son was asking why I had to go away for a week. But it was important to gain this experience.

I was a little concerned that because it was a small group of 11, I might not find people there I could learn from. My husband suggested that my interactions might be more intense and hence more productive – which turned out to be true. The size of the group was not as important as the interactions between the group and the professors. The format was extremely effective.

Another benefit of the format was how well we got to know the professors. Coaching sessions with them were invaluable. It was particularly rewarding that the professors and my classmates all took an interest in each other as individuals and as leaders. We have now developed a new network of friends and mentors.

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