We interviewed Leisa Hart, CEO YMCA NSW, for International Women's Day this week and she shares her personal experience as a woman in leadership, as well as her inspiring insights.
Describe your experience being a woman in leadership?
It has never been particularly easy. The subtle gender bias that persists in organisations and in society has at times disrupted my learning cycle and career progression. My motivation to lead and increase the likelihood that others will recognise and encourage my efforts has not always been visible.
My career stalled when I was in my early 40s. My problem, I was told, was that I was too outspoken in meetings and interactions with my peer group, yet my clients and staff respected me and I was one of the top revenue earners for the international IT company I worked for – one of my executive managers who was a Woman asked me in a performance discussion “do you have to work – can’t your husband support the family?”. This was a very bleak period in my working and personal life. I had transported my family to San Francisco for three years and really did not know if I had a job moving forward.
My reputation and confidence grew when the division I was running took on two new clients whose CEOs happened to be women. These women appreciated my experience, knowledge and the skilful way I handled their organisations’ needs and concerns. Each in her own way started taking the initiative to raise my profile in the Silicon Valley where I was working. One had me present to her Board on a number of occasions, and the other refused to speak to my Vice President without me in the room - actions that enhanced my credibility within the company I was working for at the time.
My peers and exec managers began to see me as a trusted client adviser - an important prerequisite for recognition and promotion in the IT industry. These relationships, both internal and external, gave me the confidence boost I needed to generate ideas and express them forthrightly, without being labelled as outspoken.
I have found that integrating leadership into my core identity has been particularly challenging. There are practices in organisations that equate leadership with behaviours considered more common in men than in women. Furthermore, the human tendency to gravitate to people like oneself leads some men to sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise. Women’s leadership potential sometimes shows in less conventional ways and is not always recognised.
What inspires you every day?
I think professional inspiration comes in many forms, whether it’s important people in your life, such as career mentors and influential family members, or perhaps it’s the thrill of being a part of an organisation that is doing something you are passionate about.
For me, however, inspiration comes from solving big, meaningful problems that deliver a social outcome, keep me thinking, engaged, and energised. Looking back over the past 10 years, I can see that I was most inspired and did my best work when I transitioned from my career in IT to the NFP sector where outcomes made a visible difference to people and the mission of the organisation is at the heart of all I do.
Why do you love working at the Y?
I was bought in to help solve a big problem and along the way the values, mission, people and the belief grabbed at my ‘leadership heart strings’ and I became proud to walk alongside all the people that currently work at the YMCA in Australia.
I love the unique culture, the longevity of people who work at the Y, the history and the fact that we are all making new history together.
I love what we do is visible and makes a difference in communities whether they are large or small.
I love that you can start work at the Y at 16 and end up a CEO of an Association.
I love that we have so much potential to unleash.
What would be recommend for others about being your best – the same thing I have told my daughter since she started school – be compassionate, be yourself, don’t be afraid if you don’t understand, ask for help, help others, be brave, be vulnerable, say thank you, say please and always try and have lunch with someone.
How do you get the best out of others?
Make Others Feel Safe to Speak-Up – as a leader deflect attention away from yourself and encourage people to voice their opinions. Make people feel safe to confidently share their perspectives and points of view.
Challenge People to Think - understand your peers and leaders mindsets, capabilities and areas for improvement. Use this knowledge/insight to challenge your teams to think and stretch them to reach for more. Keep people on their toes, never allowing them to get comfortable and enabling them with the tools to grow.
If you are not thinking, you’re not learning new things. If you’re not learning, you’re not growing – and over time becoming irrelevant.
Be Accountable to Others - It may sound a little crazy, but really successful leaders allow their colleagues to manage them. This doesn’t mean they are allowing others to control them - but rather becoming accountable to assure they are being proactive to their colleagues needs.
Lead by Example - leading by example sounds easy, but few of us are consistent with this one. I call it the ‘Royalty’ factor – know that everyone is watching you and therefore you have to be incredibly intuitive about what you say and how you behave.
Provide Continuous Feedback - people want to know that you are paying attention to them and they appreciate any insights along the way. As a leader of people we should always provide feedback and welcome reciprocal feedback by creating trustworthy relationships with our people. Especially our young people. One of the greatest gifts we can give them is understanding the power of perspective and learning the importance of feedback early on in their career.
Properly Allocate and Deploy Talent - know your talent pool and how to use it. You need to be able to activate the capabilities of your people and knowing when to deploy their unique skill sets given the circumstances at hand.
Be a Great Teacher - share what you know, never stop teaching. Use teaching to keep your teams well-informed. Take the time to mentor young people and make the investment to sponsor those who have proven they are able and eager to learn.
Any other comments you’d like to make around being a woman in leadership
When confronted with a challenge, the women I know look for the opportunity within. They see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. They push the boundaries and, when faced with adverse circumstances, they learn all they can from it. Optimism is their mindset because they see opportunity in everything.
While women in general were historically viewed and stereotyped as emotional leaders, I believe they are just passionate explorers in pursuit of excellence. When women leaders are not satisfied with the status quo, they will want to make things better. These women leaders get things done and avoid procrastination. One of my women mentors said, “Women enjoy order and stability and a genuine sense of control. Many women have learned not to depend upon others for their advancement and thus have a tendency to be too independent. A woman’s independent nature is her way of finding her focus and dialing up her pursuits.”
The women I work with at the YMCA are big believers in team building and the enforcement of mission, goals and values to assure that everyone is on the same page with like intentions. This secures a sense of continuity making it easier for everyone to deliver on our belief.