Susan Duffy: "Pay as much attention to what you do well as to what you want to improve"

Susan Duffy is the executive director of the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College in the US. The centre recently collaborated with serial entrepreneur Sharon Kan to launch the Women Innovating Now Lab at CWEL, a residential programme designed to offer women undergraduates, graduates and alumnae the expertise, inspiration and community to become successful entrepreneurs.

Before joining Babson, Professor Duffy was an assistant professor at Simmons College, the women-only university, and co-owner of a commercial construction company. She also owned and operated a Chinese food franchise.

Prof Duffy has a PhD in management and organisation from George Washington University, where she founded the GWU Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Initiative. In her spare time she enjoys spending time with family, keeping fit and serving on non-profit boards.

1. When did you know you wanted to teach?

The common theme of “educator” is woven through every job I’ve had: I took every opportunity to create educational opportunities for the food service staff in my early healthcare work. I developed extensive training modules for the employees of the Chinese restaurant [I owned]. And I created skill-building workshops for construction workers. In some form or another, I was teaching for almost 40 years before landing my first full-time faculty role.

2. What do you enjoy most about your job?

As the executive director of the CWL, I was given the opportunity, leeway and resources to reimagine the centre. It is just like building a new venture. We saw what existed, knew what it could be, and went about building a new enterprise. The best part is that I get to work with a dedicated team to develop programmes and events that educate, enable and inspire women to reach their full entrepreneurial potential.

3. What would you do if you were dean for the day?

I would take seriously the class divide on academic campuses. Many are aware of the hierarchical culture of faculty systems, from adjunct through to full professor. However, much less has surfaced about the gulf between faculty and staff. Both are essential to a thriving campus with many of their activities inextricably linked to produce student and institutional outcomes. Yet these two groups often function in very separate worlds.

4. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?

“There is no time between friends,” from Mr Malkovsky, my 12th-grade physics teacher. I often turn to this gem when long periods of time go by between connecting with old friends and know that reaching out is worth the effort, no matter how long it has been since I was last in touch.

5. What is the worst job you have ever had?

My first job as a kid was pumping gas at a Sunoco station. I had the first shift on Sunday mornings. It was hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. I was alternately bored and overwhelmingly busy. Two older teenage male buddies also worked there (one was the owner’s son). They hung out in a temperature-controlled office drinking coffee all day and never did a thing to help me. I had yet to develop my voice. Today I would tell them to get their butts outside and get busy!

6. What advice would you give to women in business?

First, strive to be an expert in your field, there is no substitute for competence. Second, there is a good chance that you’re more competent than you give yourself credit for. Our entire culture is set up to focus on our deficiencies rather than our strengths. Pay as much attention to what you do well as to what you want to improve. Third: Make your move, whatever that may be, sooner rather than later. Women frequently set their forward motion switch to “perfect” and work to get things completely figured out before they give themselves permission to advance. While sometimes necessary, the extra time required to take something from “good enough” to “perfect” can mean the difference in an opportunity disappearing.

Finally, educate yourself on gender. Decades of empirical research sheds light on the social constructions of gender, the interpretation frames and often unconscious assumptions all humans make about how men and women are supposed to act in any given scenario. For years the hard evidence of this phenomenon was ignored or chalked up to a feminist agenda. Now, thanks to much more attention in organisations and the media, women and men are opening up their minds to reconsidering how these dynamics are impacting our lives and using that knowledge as powerful self-management and leadership tools.

7. How do you deal with male-dominated environments?

The same way I deal with any environment when I don’t reflect the dominant profile in the room. I’m authentic, I stay alert to, and address, any implicit or explicit assumptions in the air, and I remain vigilant to achieving my objectives. I find climates like this really interesting. As a life-long student of human behaviour, I am consistently amazed at how unconscious we can be to the limitations of our own subjectivity.

8. What is the strangest thing you have done when teaching?

Dressed up in a bright red Ho Lee Chow jacket and Ho Lee Chow baseball cap with a big red Ho Lee Chow home-delivery hot bag over my shoulder to introduce a session on my small business experience as a franchise owner.

9. What is your favourite business book?

This changes all the time. Right now, I have two. The first is Designing for Growth: A design thinking toolkit for managers by Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie. It is an easy to use guidebook on bringing any idea to fruition using a stakeholder-centred design thinking process.

The second is Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. I acknowledge the book’s limitations while appreciating its value to revitalise broad-based discussions of gender in the workplace. Sandberg’s mass appeal to the millennial business school set has inspired a new generation of women and men to examine the social constructions of gender and how they impact us all as employees, managers and leaders. True confession: What I liked most about this book is that it offers an accessible review of gender literature. I am probably one of the few readers who spent more time combing the reference pages than reading the prose.

10. What is your life philosophy?

To live every day with the intention to create a net positive gain for myself and others. That may show up by making someone’s day through an intentional act of kindness or by putting the finishing touches on a significant personal or professional project. I am also aware of my extraordinary privilege and strive to function from a place of humility, generosity and gratitude.

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