Lessons for Women in Leadership from ‘Hamilton’ the Musical

I finally had the opportunity to see Hamilton the musical a this spring at the amazing Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City. After all of the hype, I was worried that I would be let down….but the show didn’t disappoint. From the opening scene, where the characters were introduced through the opening song “Alexander Hamilton,” to the closing scene where Eliza Hamilton sang about telling her husband’s story in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?,” I was captivated.

Since seeing the show, we have listened the songs on repeat with our children, and have had many a discussion about what it means to “not throw away your shot” at something, and why the King of England sings funny songs about coming back to him. But, more than that, what I have reflected on within the music are the lessons that are present for women in leadership. On this July 4th, I thought it only fitting to “tell my story.”

Don’t Throw Away Your Shot

This theme (and song lyrics) are present throughout the story. Early in the show, Hamilton commits to not throw away his shot through one of my favorite songs of the show. His commitment is to make a difference and to shape the future of our country. This motivates him to make the decisions that ultimately lead to his death in a duel with Aaron Burr.

The lesson for women in leadership (or for everyone in leadership) is to take the shot. As I work with up-and-coming people within my team, I often see women who are highly skilled not raise their hand for new opportunities, whether it be new projects or promotions. I also coach managers about how to have the conversations that they are having with both their male and female talent about opportunities. They need to sound different. Research from Bain & Company and LinkedIn in early 2017 shows, via a survey of 8,400 professionals, that “women are less likely than men to seek out an opportunity if they knows their supervisor might not be fully supportive.” In other words, women aren’t willing to take the risk at the new opportunity for fear of failure or upsetting the apple cart.

“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat! Just get on.” – Sheryl Sandberg

This is particularly important early in life/career. Jack Zenger, an inspiring author and researcher, and CEO of Zenger Folkman (who I happened to meet via a board where we were both helping advance women in leadership), comments that this confidence gap early in a career is particularly stark between men and women, and thus early opportunities for growth may be missed by women not “taking their shot.”

Credit: ZFCO research

Hamilton would advise differently to women in their careers. His advice would be to take your shot when you have it. He stayed true to his advice through the entire musical except at the very end where his shot (literally) could have saved his life.

Talk Less, Smile More

In the song “Aaron Burr, Sir”, Aaron Burr gives Hamilton the advice “to talk less, smile more.” He proceeds to say “don’t let them know what you are against or what you are for.” Hamilton won’t have it. This perspective couldn’t be more opposite of his belief to take a stand. As their relationship continues, Burr’s philosophy ultimately drives Hamilton to support Jefferson for President (despite their disagreements) versus supporting Burr, who he believes stands for nothing.

Although smiling (and listening more) is a good lesson especially as it enables you to gain perspective from others, I am with Hamilton here. It is critical to take a stand for what you believe in. More often than not, I see women in business struggling to bring their unique perspective to the table. I have particularly seen this as I have moved up in my career. Women, myself included, see role models for success in business around us (mostly men). Although learning from others’ successes and failures is important, it is critical to maintain your unique perspective and approach. This is a fine line, learn from others, but be yourself.

Diversity of perspective is critical in decision making. In order for organizations to make the best decisions, differing perspectives need to be valued and encouraged. If I could write the lesson in leadership, it would be “talk less, listen more, but take a stand.”

There is Room for All

Aaron Burr sings in “The World Was Wide Enough” about his duel with Hamilton. The song begins with an emotion-fueled countdown to the shot, and Burr closes with a somber ballad about how he “should’ve known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.” In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s visionary scene, you feel the emotion in Burr’s voice. Fear first, regret second.

As I think about becoming an executive leader, I remember moments long ago in my career where I felt like it was either me getting the opportunity or someone else, and I found myself thinking of it competitively. Often this created internal storytelling, me thinking about it as “her/him” OR “me”. This competitive energy, although good when it comes to business challenges, is ineffective when directed towards people. The storytelling got particularly bad when it was two women vying for the same opportunity. I had a feeling that only one of us would be allowed at the table, as our styles and perspective were so different from what was “valued.” I have learned over time how ridiculous this was, as it not only hurt my effectiveness, but also limited bringing diverse perspective to the table in so many teams.

There is so much room. Instead of being competitive, my job is to support and help strong, confident, smart, resilient women (and men) up the ladder with me. No fear, no regrets.

Thank you Alexander Hamilton, and Lin-Manuel Miranda for these leadership lessons. Happy birthday America.

Commitments: Help Utah Female Professionals Succeed

campus-fall-1

Recently, my friend pointed me toward an article in the recent Utah Business magazine that gave the facts on the employment of women and men in Utah and their current wages.  The data was sourced to the U.S. Census Bureau 2008 – 2012 American Community Survey.  And, it made me sad.  Out of just over 1.2 million employed, civilian workers females made up 44.4% of the workforce and earned a median $20,053 per year (compared to males at $39,880).

In doing some follow up research, I got a lot more sad at the current state of affairs in Utah for female professionals.  It ultimately makes me worried for my daughter, wanting to figure out a way to help her lean to navigate the workforce reality.  USA Today stated in a recent article that Utah is the #1 worst state for women.  The methodology for their rating looks at wage gap, women in private company leadership, women in state legislature, poverty rate and infant mortality rate.  The article even noted that in Utah, women are holding less than 1 in 3 management positions.

I have been a resident of Utah for about 10 of the last 13 years.  I never thought I would live in Utah.  I met Jon at a wedding in Ohio, and I vividly remember him telling me he lived in Utah.  Utah?  I knew California, Las Vegas, Yellowstone and the Colorado rockies, but Utah?  Weren’t people from Utah either Mormon or ski bums?  Jon didn’t seem like either when I met him, so I went with it.  I was simply a love-struck 20 something, wondering more about where our next date weekend would be than the state of the workforce for female professionals.  I ultimately moved here, have fallen in love with the place, and have led about half of my 16 year career in the state.

Now, I consider myself a Utah local, a professional woman, and one of the apparently few female company executives in the state. I sit here thinking about how my role as a female executive can help drive change.  It is ironic to think this way, because I rarely, if ever, think about being a woman at work.  Over the years, I have come to work, tried my hardest to succeed every day, looked for opportunities to stretch myself, learned a lot, and ultimately tried not to take no for an answer.  By not defining myself using my gender, I have never seen professional boundaries.  This boundary-less world view has by its definition opened up my eyes to opportunities that I would otherwise never have seen.

I want to help, and take a purposeful role in making the future better in Utah for women.  But, I feel stuck.  Due to the fact that I am a working mother of two, and have the job that I have, I have little time to give to anything beyond my family and my job.  I feel guilty and sad to see this state of affairs and not be able to give more to help change it.  That said, this reality I live in of having to forcefully prioritize the time that I have, has been one of the things that has made me successful over the years.  So, my game plan is to help in the way my schedule and life allow.  I figured writing down a few commitments would help me to remember to stay accountable.

  • Raising strong-willed, independent children with Jon who see professional women as the norm;
  • Helping people in my team succeed as female professionals (in particular working moms);
  • Continue building a culture at CHG Healthcare where it is possible to be a successful working mom and a working dad;
  • Mentor people whenever I can find a spare moment helping to guide them through the choices that they need to make;
  • And, most importantly, never give up on my own dreams.  Shape them to be what I want them to be, not what others think is the right answer.

A short but important list that will hopefully help make a difference.

Commitments: Let the Game Come To You

Throughout my career, one of the most helpful pieces of feedback I have received is to “let it come to you.”  My first boss, Joe Haynes, gave me this advice.  I don’t know the origin of the phrase officially, but most often I have heard it used in sports…”let the game come to you.”  About a year ago, after an incident at my current job where I wish I would have applied this feedback, I decided to research a little bit more about this phrase.

One of the articles that I read was a review of Phil Jackson’s book Eleven Rings:  The Soul of Success.  In the review it explained Jackson’s characterization of Michael Jordan’s play.  He described Jordan’s ability to lay back when he wasn’t on his game, and to not force it.  Jordan had a deep confidence in his ability, and he never felt as if he had to prove his greatness.  This was contrasted to Kobe Bryant, who although a tremendous player, pushed hard even when he wasn’t on his game or when the defense had him.

“Jordan was also more naturally inclined to let the game come to him and not overplay his hand, whereas Kobe tends to force the action, especially when the game isn’t going his way. When his shot is off, Kobe will pound away relentlessly until his luck turns. Michael, on the other hand, would shift his attention to defense or passing or setting screens to help the team win the game.”  – Phil Jackson

In my career, I have always been the young one, feeling like the underdog.  I remember celebrating turning thirty professionally.  I felt like I no longer had to explain away my lack of years in life.  For some reason being the young one at the table made me feel like I had to go above and beyond to prove myself and build respect.  I would put the pressure on myself to be good all the time.  When things went wrong, I would overextend myself, giving more than was reasonable and trying too hard.  Let’s call it the Kobe Bryant model.  In hindsight, these moments were times that I should have just backed down…”letting the game come to me.”  This personal reaction, driven often times by a lack of confidence, often hurt more than it helped.

Today, looking back, I am grateful for these experiences as they have helped me to be a better professional, leader and coach to my team.  I have a renewed commitment to “let the game come to me” and to help develop this skill in my team.  Thanks Phil.