During a recent workshop on women’s leadership at F&ES, Theres W. Stiefer, director of executive education at the Sam M. Walton College of Business, told a group of Yale students that great leaders are able to tell stories, ask questions, and find value in other people. And, she said, they are able to find value in themselves.
Before the workshop, Stiefer sat down with three students from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies — Julia Golomb M.E.M. ‘14, Susannah Harris M.E.M. ’15 and Rebeka Ryvola M.E.M. ’15. During a far-ranging conversation, she urged them to find mentors, to never discount professional opportunities, and to find ways to be heard in the workplace. And she challenged the students to view themselves as more than simply “women in leadership.”
”I think that we are siloing ourselves by calling ourselves ‘women leaders’ or ‘women in leadership,’” she said. “Call yourselves leaders, because that’s what you are.”
Below is an edited transcript of their discussion.
JULIA GOLOMB: Could you tell us a little bit about the sorts of things you’ll be discussing while you’re at F&ES?
THERES STIEFER: One of the things that I was asked to do was to create a workshop in which we will look at what do we need to be doing for ourselves and for others — as leaders, and as women. And how do we define leadership?
I have a background in what’s called “Appreciative Inquiry,” which involves appreciating and valuing who you are, valuing others, and having a sense of inquiry about everything around you. Having a sense of wonder about the questions… Because it's not about the answers, it's about the questions. We can open people’s capacity to think and change and be empowered and do different things if we can ask the right question.
SUSANNAH HARRIS: What do you think is a valuable use of our time here to prepare ourselves to be women in leadership positions in the environmental field?
STIEFER: Well, find mentors. In fact, I would say, find several. And mentor each other. You know, a lot of times we think “Oh, a mentor needs to have more experience.” I say, mentor one another, because each of you has different strengths and skills.... And it would be really nice if you could also mentor the next group coming up. Mentor up, mentor sideways and mentor down.
But then I would also tell people to stand in the future. Stand 10 years in the future and look back, and write a headline about yourself: “Suzanne did this.” Look at the great work that you may have accomplished. Because if I stand [in the present] and look forward, I’m going to see a bunch of barriers. “Well, I've got to graduate. Then I’ve got to get a job. And then I want to have children…” There are all of these things and we begin to put walls in front of us. But if I stand in the future and look back, then the view becomes very different. The view becomes, “Well, look at what I’ve done.” And the barriers aren’t there because we’ve already accomplished what we set out to accomplish.
You can’t boil the ocean, right? You can’t say, “I’m going to go out and I’m going to make sure the whole world has renewable energy.” But you can say, “Here’s one piece of it that I did.” And it's almost like pretending that you've already done it, and then you can figure out how to get there.
REBEKA RYVOLA: How do we plan for what we want to do if we’re not really sure what we want to do, or if it looks like we can’t do what we want to do right away? How strategic should women be in the environment area, where the path is not so clear-cut?
STIEFER: One important thing is to never discount anything. You may not want to go to work for Honeywell, for example. But there may be an opportunity there, and you may learn some incredible things and skills there that you can then apply in the field or area that you want to go to. I think we have to be open to absolutely everything. Because there are amazing opportunities through doors that we don’t even know exist. And we have to be willing to at least entertain the option of doing something that may not be our passion right now. But we can learn a lot from it.
HARRIS: There’s a concept I have heard about [which suggests that] many women work hard but are not really working “smart.” They put their nose to the grindstone, work really hard and assume that the recognition and vertical mobility and opportunities will just come with that. Meanwhile, there’s a tendency among men to instead work strategically and make sure that the projects are high-visibility, so that they do get recognition and can keep finding new opportunities within their field.
STIEFER: Here’s the only advice I would give on that: Have an opinion. A lot of times, we think, “Oh, if I go out and farm 50 acres and then I come to work and I spin and work hard then somebody’s going to recognize this.” And, you know, a lot of times that’s not what happens. I mean, all of us should work smart. And for me that includes making sure that you have your own opinion about everything that you do. So when you go to a meeting, make sure that you are heard. A lot of times we sit back and we listen and we think, “Well, I’m not the expert, I don’t know about this.” That’s where that need for inquiry comes in. Ask questions, because asking questions is having an opinion. And develop your ability to say, “Hey, look what I’ve done.” Because we don’t do that enough either. And that’s important, too. You have to toot your own horn.
RYVOLA: I’m curious to know what you think about the whole “Lean In” thing, and then the “Lean Out” and then “Lean Back”… Everybody is going crazy about this “leaning” that Sheryl Sandberg started. Should women be doing everything? Should women not be doing everything? It kind of builds off of your question, how should we be trying to balance all these things in our lives?
STIEFER: I appreciate that Sheryl Sandberg stood up and said this. But I think that you are penalizing yourself if you call it “balance.” I don’t think we can “balance” stuff. When you balance something, to me, it’s like you have to take away something to add something else. And I don’t know that we have to do that. I think that we can lead lives that are blended, where there is harmony in who we are and what we do. When I think about my life, I didn’t give up my career and then go have a child and then have pets, etc. I don’t say, “Gosh, am I going to eat tonight? Or am I going to play with my Labrador?” I don’t give myself those questions.
We can have careers, we can have families, we can have plants, we can have community service, we can have our church, we can have all of these different things. We just have to know that they don’t have to balance, but they have to somehow work together, almost like a school of fish. You know, if you've ever seen them in the ocean, they don’t bump into each other, right? They all move in harmony. And so I think that once we can get to that point in our life and say, “You know our lives can be like that.” And you know that we can work to make that happen. Then it makes things a little bit… I’m not going to say “easier.” But they start to make more sense.
GOLOMB: I think it comes back to what you said earlier about asking questions. Of having a vision and inquiring, “How can I make this vision possible? What pieces need to come into play for that to be possible?”
STIEFER: Yes, exactly.
HARRIS: Do you have any goals for your visit here?
STIEFER: Anytime I go somewhere, if somebody learns just one thing, I’m satisfied. But I didn’t come here to just give out information, you know. I came to learn from you all, too. I always feel that anywhere I go, if I just learn one more thing for that day, then that to me is a successful day. I wake up in the morning and I think, “What am I going to learn today?” And then my final thought before I go to sleep at night is, “What did I learn today?” I won’t let myself go to sleep until I have answered that question.
RYVOLA: Have you learned anything while being with us today?
STIEFER: Oh yes, I’ve learned a ton of stuff. What an amazing and humbling experience to come here, and to spend this small amount of time with you all. Just to think that these are the women and people who are going to change the world, even if it’s in small ways that I’ll never get to see. To know that the things that you want to do are just amazing.
One challenge I would make is this: We call it “women’s leadership.” But I would really challenge you to remove “women” from that and just be leaders. Just be a leader in your field. Otherwise I think that we are siloing ourselves by calling ourselves “women leaders” or “women in leadership” or whatever. Call yourself leaders, because that’s what you are. You are experts in what you are doing. Now just create your own points of view.