Magic happens “when some friends and I started talking.” #wordsandmusic

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On Sunday night a few friends decided to get together to host a special evening with food, music and poetry. They called it #wordsandmusic and I’ve been thinking about what they did to get it so right.

“It all began when some friends and I started talking” says Meg Wheatley, one of the authors who has most shaped my definition of leadership.

While her quote refers to social change, it’s equally relevant when it comes to dinner parties. Because a conversation has the ability to gather magical momentum whether we’re talking about starting a movement or hosting friends.

First came the inspiration of Lionel Bastos (who I’m delighted to say will perform once more at our Women’s Leadership Conference this year with Wendy Oldfield) Now I know that Lionel is a great musician and also that he has retained his humility and remains a mensch. But I could never have guessed at his sensitivity as creativity coach as he shared the stage with Mandy Collins. He knew just how much to support and how much to let go – a rare talent

Then of course was the courage of the evening’s convenor Mandy Collins who took action and turned Lionel’s suggestion into reality by acknowledging that it was time to let the world hear her original music and her voice.

There’s something powerfully generative about doing what makes you scared. Mandy said she was terrified but by facing her fears and going where her creativity needed her to go she unleashed a special kind of magic. She did so with a gentle presence and musicality that saw her harmonise easily with one of SA’s best musical talents.

Poet Ruth Everson brought a gravitas to the evening with her courage with words that made us all feel that truth is the only option. What better gift could a poet give? The fact that she was Robyn Clark’s English teacher was one of the many delightful little connections which lit up the gathering like the fairylights in Mandy’s garden,

Clive Simpkins was the perfect MC. ( one member of the audience tweeted that he was “starstruck to have met him) As much facilitator as raconteur, he was perfectly tuned in to the atmosphere and to what needed to be said when. (Not only to all the performers but his easy reference to many members of the audience too made us feel we were at a big dinner party rather than an event)

There was also gratitude aplenty – I’ve hosted many events and I can’t tell you how often speakers forget to say thank you to the host.

But not this time. Everyone was beautifully aware that we’d been invited to something intimate and special and we were more than happy to pay for the privilege of being there. There was also a spirit of collaboration – not one of the performers tried in any way to overshadow any of the others

I left wanting more and inspired that there’s a group of people up the road from me who are genuinely committed to creativity and collaboration.

If you’d like to lead like Mandy and start your own conversation, this is the simple guide I give at many QualityLife events which #wordsandmusic followed so instinctively

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The PHD (pull her down factor) – How mothers can help their daughters change the world

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There’s one particular theme that has recurred in my work with women in leadership that I have resisted and challenged for years. And this is the complaint – reinforced by countless women – that the women they encounter in organisations are far less supportive than their male colleagues.

Surely we can’t generalise about more than 50% of the world’s population? Surely there are good women and bad women in the same way that there are bad and good men?

And is it reasonable to expect unconditional support from a sisterhood just because we belong to the same gender?

Even the editor of a South African glossy magazine who is a role model for many young working women, wrote in a recent editorial that “more men than women have had an empowering impact on my career.” And I couldn’t help feeling she’d let the team down with her comment.

Many men I have spoken to assure me that women tend to romanticise the ease of male relationships. “Do you really think we’re part of a supportive congenial network and that you are the only ones who suffer with politics?” they counter.

The only advantage they seem to share is that they don’t expect a brotherhood of loyalty. They know that politics is part of organisational life and that’s that.

But my reservations aside there are just too many women referring to the “pull-her-down” (PHD) syndrome as one of the main challenges facing women in organisations for me to continue dismissing it as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And despite my intellectual discomfort with sweeping generalisations, I haven’t forgotten the “mean girl” dynamics I had to contend with at primary school. And now that it’s my own daughter’s turn to navigate the teen years, I watch her struggle with the same issues I hoped that I had left behind me forever.

It seems that there is no girl or woman who isn’t familiar with the patterns of inclusion and exclusion that leave us hurting and our mothers helpless. So what is it? Does it exist? Why does it exist?

Feminist author Elizabeth Debold suggests that the roots of this behaviour go back further than we might imagine. Research on female primates show that many of our evolutionary foresisters spend their time grooming others to avoid being picked on and holding grudges against each other that make reconciliation impossible, all to gain an advantage in sexual reproduction!

But Elizabeth (who joined us via Skype at one of our women’s leadership conferences a few years ago) also believes it’s possible for us to grapple with our primitive drive to compete with each other so that we can realise a higher potential. (Which I can’t help thinking is a human opportunity rather than a particularly female one)

The challenge is that there is very little advice on what to do and how to behave in a way that builds resilience and compassion at the same time. Usually the values we encourage at the dinner table are very different to the ones that are celebrated on the playground.

So what can we do to help our girls develop a more positive way of relating to each other?

  1. We need to change the narrative that happens around girls and girlfriends. Yes there might be mean girls who bring your daughter down but focus on the friends who support her too.
  2. In the same way that Hollywood idealises romance, unrealistic images are often painted of “best friends” . I have some wonderful women friends in my life but none of my relationships bear much similarity to the kind between Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson in Bride Wars. Celebrate the small acts of kindness and support you get from your friends and your daughter will start developing more realistic expectations too
  3. Teach your daughter what it means to be a good friend so that she “becomes the change” rather than waiting for the perfect friend. Praise her for loyalty, courage, compassion and practical things too like remembering birthdays and phoning a friend when they are sick to offer homework help
  4. In my work with women leaders I ask them to reflect on who they turn to in times of crisis when they refer to the PHD factor. The answer is invariably “my women friends”. But sometimes we neglect these friends in our busy lives – something of which I am often woefully guilty. But in the tradition of appreciative inquiry practice, what we appreciate appreciates. Our relationships need time if they are important to us.
  5. Remind your daughter to choose friends who are worthy of her and her energy. Whether they are male or female, we need to encourage affirming relationships in our lives while we limit the toxic ones. This way we’ll have more time to spend with the people who deserve us and who we deserve in return.

By developing some conscious guidelines, we’ll start changing the narrative rather than leaving each generation to struggle it out for themselves. After all if we aren’t taught what it means to be a good friend on the playground, how can we expect a leg-up a few years later in the even fiercer battleground that is the workplace?

The PHD (pull her down) factor was the subject of our #welead chat on twitter last night. These chats around leadership are taking place every Wednesday night at 7.30pm CAT in the build-up to our 9th Annual Women’s Leadership Conference on May 22nd and 23rd.

 

What entrepreneurs, bloggers & Rumplestiltskin have in common

My Dad says that much of the work that I do is to create something out of nothing. I’m not sure whether he thinks this is a good thing but it’s a concept I think about a lot.

I thought about it again when I read Matthew Buckland’s article on entrepreneurship yesterday where he describes “the entrepreneurial way “— starting your own company, raising capital for it and do what entrepreneurs do best — create something out of nothing and follow their own destinies.”

In fact  if I was to choose a fairytale character I relate to the most it’s probably the rather random Miller’s daughter in Rumplestiltskin because when there is important work to be done, I know  that, like her, I should lock myself in a dark room and spin straw into gold.

That I think is the challenge of the digital economy. To take the straw that is verbage, information and clutter and transform it into something that adds value to the world.

It’s also the dilemma of the freelancer, the leader navigating uncertain territory, the knowledge worker.

In an age which prizes collaboration and working together, all introverted workers (who thanks to Susan Cain and her book Quiet are now proudly coming out of the closet)  know the value of locking yourself up, facing a dark night of the soul and trying to produce gold.

Gold of course doesn’t need to be lucrative. (although if you’re in business, whether or not people want to buy is a convenient test of whether or not you’ve hit the mark) But sometimes it’s a sense that you are proud of the contribution you’ve made.

Whether or not it’s completely original, as long as it has a unique and authentic stamp to it, there’s nothing to beat the feeling of pride when you’ve created something you’re proud of. Something that makes you feel: ‘I worked hard, this might not be perfect yet but it’s good and I’m ready to show it to the world.’

And this is probably why we should all blogImage

Is there still place for a women’s leadership conference?

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Yes I’m still asked this question, even though leadership conferences with all-male line-ups continue to be trotted out with alarming regularity. So I’m taking the liberty of publishing extracts of this general press statement as a blog post on the eve of the 8th Annual Women’s Leadership Conference.

At a time when many women hold top leadership positions, some might question the value of women’s leadership conferences. However, Debby Edelstein, founder, organiser and chairperson of the 8th annual Women’s Leadership Conference, says in a world where men still dominate the conference circuit, women leadership conferences are essential for mentorship and encouragement, giving women a platform to share their knowledge and experiences.

“There is an inordinate amount of conferences where it’s still regarded as acceptable to exclude women’s voices from the debate. Much of the context that we work within remains patriarchal and unwelcoming to women’s voices,” says Edelstein, referring specifically to a number of high profile conferences last year which boasted a conspicuous absence of women in their line-ups.

“I am exposed to brilliant talent on a daily basis, I’ve been championing the area of women’s leadership for 15 years, and I’m more motivated than ever to show women in leadership how they can raise their profiles to get the recognition they deserve.”

The Women’s Leadership Conference, which takes place on 22 May and 23 May 2013 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Rosebank, provides such an opportunity, however, with one strategic difference: In addition to a strong line-up of highly successful women leaders, this year includes a few top male speakers (namely GIBS dean, Professor Nick Binedell; journalist, Victor Dlamini; CEO of Avatar Zibusiso Mkhwanazi and co-founder of the Citizens Movement, Bobby Godsell).

This is the first time men have been included in the Women’s Leadership Conference, a decision which was made following a survey of the women who took part in last year’s conference. “Although women still dominate the event, placing women speakers and men speakers together on the same line-up entrenches the message that there is an abundant talent of top women speakers who are capable of sharing the podium with their male colleagues, women who are equally poised to speak about leadership issues.

“Importantly, the inclusion of men also helps to ensure the women’s leadership agenda becomes a conversation that men are having too,” she says.

Women are still traditionally responsible for taking care of families and communities, and as they take up more leadership positions at work, we need to see a different approach that encourages a more even distribution of responsibilities across the board. “Women’s leadership today is about changing the game completely and creating a different, healthier set of rules and values,” says Edelstein. “This can only be achieved by discussing these issues with our spouses, partners and male colleagues.”

“We want to encourage women to recognise their leadership abilities, to see themselves as leaders and raise the game in terms of the topics they speak about.  The Women’s Leadership Conference creates this space,” concludes Edelstein.

The Dark Side of the Little Red Hen

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Never mind the usual leadership gurus, it’s the story of the Little Red Hen and her can-do approach that has shaped my work life.

There are a few childhood narratives that strike a chord at the right time and have the power to stay with you forever. Together with a few other favourite stories my mother read and told (like Pookie the Rabbit whose whimsical illustrations gave me a love of blue flowers forever) the force of the Little Red Hen remains strong within me.

So imagine my delight to learn in Time that Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the recently released Lean In, was also  influenced by this famous fable. In sixth grade, Sandberg took second place in a Florida-wide oratory contest when she used the folktale of the little red hen to talk about the importance of everyone doing their bit for America.

There’s a strong sense of industry, self-sufficiency and reliance in the tale. When the dog, the cat and the duck refuse to help her make bread “Then I will make it all by myself” said the Little Red Hen. “And she did.”

So over the years whenever I get frustrated that my ideas haven’t attracted the right support or sponsorship, I hear the feisty words of the Little Red Hen and remember “Then I will make it all by myself”.

It’s a liberating way to live. And I’ve launched a few businesses on the strength of this philosophy.

But as much as I love her and all that she represents, I’ve learned that there’s a dark side to the Little Red Hen and her self-sufficiency.

It’s the shadow side of the entrepreneur.

Benjamin Zander  conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of the Art of Possibility told the story of how he once apologized to his students who didn’t attend an important concert because he, as their leader, failed to convey sufficiently how inspiring and beautiful that concert would be.

This I’ve learned is one of the most important roles of a leader – the ability to communicate a vision that takes people with you and allows them the joy of participation.

So I’ve learned that the Little Red Hen is missing a few tricks and these are a few ideas I’d like to share with her:

  1. Yes you’re tough, multi-skilled and resilient but are you a great leader? Take time to share your vision of toasty, freshly baked bread and how delicious it will be
  2. When you invite others to participate in your vision, you’re sacrificing complete control. There will probably be a mess in your kitchen that alone you wouldn’t make. But there’s fun, festivity and a sense of something bigger that can emerge if you tolerate the mess
  3. Don’t take perverse pride out of being a bad delegator. Everyone can learn to bake if you take the time out of your busy day to show them how
  4.  Sharing the bread you’ve baked is far more fun when you do it together in a spirit of love and generosity. Have your friends over and give them a slice

With love and appreciation for all you’ve taught me.

Debby

Leadership Lessons from hairy chicken in the dust

Over 1000 kids having Shabbat supper together last Friday night

Over 1000 kids having Shabbat supper together last Friday night

As my children experience the Habonim campsite that I loved as a teenager, I realize that there is an aspect of this organization that I can grasp only now that I’m not allowed on any more.

When we visited the campsite for DIGS day a few years ago it was quite surreal to see the stark difference between how our kids live in JHB and what the Onrust campsite has to offer.  And even though I’ve been there so many times before, experiencing it through the eyes of a parent gives a very different perspective.

Instead of Blackberries and iPads our spoilt city kids are united in their dustiness. The beach is their mall. Most of them look like they could do with a good scrub. Essentially it’s a village of 1000 run by kids and to the untrained eye it could look a bit like a (harmonious) scene from Lord of the Flies.

But that’s only what you can see on the outside. It’s only many years later that I am fully aware of how a Habonim education has shaped my life –as a channie, later as a maddie and many years later as a Mom and someone who works in leadership and organizational education.

The peer to peer learning; the dedication of the madrichim who work late into the night refining unforgettable learning programs when their channichim have gone to bed; the dynamic methods of teaching which could (and should) inform teaching methods at schools around the country – are all part of the fabric which make up a very unique learning environment.

But there are other more profound influences that are more subtle and harder to articulate. There’s the backdrop of honest and tolerant but rigorous questioning and challenging of ideas you don’t agree with; (more valuable than any debating training) a sensitivity and respect for human rights around the world while creating a sense of pride in who we are and where we come from and an unspoken commitment to paying it forward once you’ve had the benefit of being taught.

And typically enough, the lessons from Habonim are not static. This is the kind of education that keeps on giving and my most recent lesson as an over-protective Jewish Mom has been to learn to trust that my children are strong, competent and resilient and can do just fine without me for three weeks.

But oh boy I can’t wait to have them home

Glossary
channie/abbreviation for channichim – students
maddie/abbreviation for madrichim  – teachers or leaders
DIGS – dignitaries day – when past Habonim madrichim are invited on to the campsite
hairy chicken – famous Habonim Friday night kosher chicken