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.

There Should Be More Girls

image

Tonight when putting Katharine (6 1/2) to bed and talking about her day, she asked me an important and hard to answer question.  “Mom, why aren’t there more girls in my mountain biking camp?”  First of all, mountain biking camp!  I know, only in Park City does a 6 1/2 year old have a bike nicer than I did at age 25, and get to go to a camp to learn to ride trails that I only got brave enough to take on 15 years ago.

She proceeded to say, “Having more girls would be more fun.  Plus mom, we can do anything that boys can do.”  Proud mommy moment.  After a few minutes, I realized that I had never answered her question.  Why aren’t there more girls?  I proceeded to tell her that at my work, I often times am the only girl so I know how she feels.  I shared with her that it would be more fun if there were more of us (not stated to her…and more productive, and more diverse in opinions, and better for business).  I told her that the good news is that I work with a ton of girls.  In fact, at my company, there are more girls than boys (we are over 60% female).  She gave me a bright-eyed smile.  I told her that in my office there are actually about 600 girls.  She proceeded to ask me if there were only a few boys because that would be “cool”, to which I said nope, about 500.  She was pretty jazzed that at my work the girls outnumbered the boys.  We talked about it more and I told her that it was actually really great that there were all kinds of people at my work…boys, girls, young people, old people, white people, black people (I know in Utah!).  She thought that it would be “better if in her mountain biking class there could be all kinds of people too.”

But, I never answered her question.  Why aren’t there more girls?  I want to protect her from some of the truths that are probably behind that question.  Maybe more parents believe their boys should be mountain bikers than girls?  Maybe society teaches little girls to choose ballet camp instead (trust me Katharine wants to do that too, and Matthew has never asked).  I avoided the question, hoped to teach her that girls can do anything boys can do, and vice versa, and hoped that what she remembers is that having all kinds of people in all things makes everything better.

Commitments: Shape the Future Through Lessons Learned

Over the last two weeks, I have spent time setting my work goals for 2015.  I like this process every year as it is a time to reflect on where I have come over the last year, and it helps to drive clarity as to what I want from the next year. This year it is particularly gratifying as feel like I am coming off the best year ever for my team (thank you to any of you are reading this!).  As I set up for an even better 2015, I reflect on the lessons that I have learned this year.

1.  The Power of Attitude.  However cliche this may sound, I continue to be reminded as each year passes how important my daily attitude is to accomplishing things.  This year a handful of work challenges reminded me of this more than ever.  It is hard to maintain a positive attitude each day, and everyone has ups and downs.  This year, more than once, I stepped away from my desk when I had a bad attitude and it helped tremendously.  And, those times I didn’t, it dramatically impacted the effectiveness of my decision making.

2.  Worrying Won’t Get You Anywhere, Acting Will.  I am a born worrier.  My grandmother was a worrier, my mom is a worrier, and thus, I am a worrier.  Often times, when I am left with downtime, I fill it with worries.  At the end of the summer, I was driving myself crazy worrying about how back-to-school was going to go, and how I was going to handle another year with Jon traveling.  Finally, I just decided to act.  Today, we have some help now with the kids a few days a week after school and I feel more balanced because of it.  It wasn’t a hard solution, but one that I couldn’t see while I was worrying.

3.  Ask for What You Want.  You can call this “leaning in” or simply being clear.  One of the hardest things about this lesson, and unfortunately what I have struggled with before, is that you have to know what you want to ask for it.  Without asking for it, the people around you will not infer from your actions what it is.  You have to make it explicitly clear.  When you do this, it will be hard, but it is a critical step in reaching your goals.

Most days I feel stronger than I did a year ago, and I believe recognizing the lessons of last year will help make next year even better.  My commitment for today is to shape the future from the lessons of the past.

My Top 10 Lessons in Making Organizational Change Succeed

This week at work I heard the phrase “just because you didn’t plan well, that doesn’t make it my emergency.”  It brought me back to my last job where seemingly everything was an emergency due to lack of planning. We were launching 300-400 different products every year and most of them got out the door only with sheer grit and determination at the 11th hour.  There was no plan on what to launch, why to launch a particular product and how to launch the products successfully.  They had been amazingly successful despite this based on some amazing products and an amazing team who was committed to putting in the effort required to make it happen despite the barriers in their way.  This approach brought a lot of good:  a camaraderie within the team, a commitment level within the people to succeed, and an amazing creative spirit to solve what seemed to be unsurmountable problems.  With those good things, came many bad: higher costs of manufacturing, excess inventory costs, incomplete retail launch plans due to insufficient time, ineffective marketing plans given limited lead time for planning and perhaps most importantly – organizational stress and pain.

So, the senior leadership team set on a journey to introduce business and marketing plans to this team.  And, when I say journey, I mean journey…an ever-winding journey.  Our goal was to evolve to a company with a plan so that our launches would be more successful and our business more successful.  We talked a lot about doing this while maintaining the strengths that the organization demonstrated throughout its history.  It sounded good, and per all of the business school lessons and the experience our management team had in prior companies, it should’ve worked.

What I underestimated, and can only see clearly in arrears, is how the culture of this company impacted the degree of change that would be accepted.  The culture was built as an entrepreneurial startup team – doing anything needed to make things successful.  It was built for variety, unpredictability and wacky, late stage brilliant ideas winning the day.  Even the slightest move toward an annual operating plan felt so imposing to this team.  Their skills were not set up to succeed in this environment and it not only felt overwhelming, but it did the exact opposite of what we desired.  We simply doubled the pain.  Now, there was a fair amount of organizational stress and strife about the product planning process in addition to the stress (and cost) we incurred for late-stage changes that put our shipment dates at risk.  So – double the pain, no gain.

Ultimately this journey was one of the factors that made me leave this job.  Sitting here 5 years later, after hearing someone refer this week to a lack of planning driving unnecessary organizational stress and cost, I wonder out loud (is that possible on a blog?) what lessons I have learned (mostly through mistakes) in the last five years about introducing change into a team or company.  Nothing like a list to make you think about it.

My top 10 lessons in Change Management:

  1. Don’t underestimate the story of an organization. This story often time helps you uncover the culture, the values that the team lives by and the strengths the organization has to help you succeed.
  2. That said, don’t be scared of change.
  3. If people don’t understand the reason for the change, the context as to why it is important, and they don’t buy-in, the change will not be broadly successful.
  4. Just because something is written in a textbook or theoretically the right thing to do, doesn’t mean it will work.
  5. Having a plan is important….being willing to adjust the plan as it meets barriers is essential.
  6. Creating allies in your change, particularly those with high organizational influence, is critical for your success.
  7. Don’t just change for change’s sake. You don’t have to make your impact through large change and innovation. Strength is often found in accepting what already is and making minor improvements that drive high value.
  8. Be inquisitive in everything that you do.  There is most often a great rationale for why things are as they are, and understanding this rationale will help necessary change be adopted more smoothly.
  9. Every person accepts change through the lens of their personality. Identifying an individual’s state of mind and meeting each where they enter a conversation on change will help reduce fear of change.
  10. There isn’t one way things should happen. Your way is often wrong, and can be made better through leveraging the strengths of the people around you.