Not long ago I sat down with freelance writer Corine Garcia for this interview. The article originally appeared as a blog post at Womenetics.
Years ago, as a teenage mother without a college education, one could only imagine that Gloria Feldt felt somewhat limited in career options. But with the right amount of optimism, the proper use of power and her penchant for saying “Yes” to every opportunity, Feldt paved her way to leadership success as the former president and CEO of Planned Parenthood.
Now, after recently being listed as one of “America’s Top 200 Women Leaders, Legends, and Trailblazers” by Vanity Fair magazine, Feldt’s latest bestselling book “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power” offers well-founded advice to other women.
Womenetics: Vanity Fair named you one of “America’s Top 200 Women Leaders.” To what do you attribute your success as a leader?
Gloria Feldt: My grandson Michael recently interviewed me for his college essay and asked, “Grandmother, what factors do you think most contributed to your success in spite of the challenges you faced as a teenage mother without a college education when you started out in your career?”
I blurted out, “I was either dumb enough or lucky enough to say ‘Yes’ to almost every opportunity.”
It took a question from an 18-year-old to make me realize the power of optimism. In the form of saying ‘Yes’ to job offers I hadn’t sought and challenges I hadn’t imagined I was capable of meeting, I had profoundly influenced my career path. My penchant for seeing the possibility of a pony when others saw only a little pile of you-know-what in their path also helped!
But I wasn’t consciously aware of this power and that I had used it to positive effect until Michael asked his question. It’s a sea change for me to assert that my own agency — being optimistic and taking the risk to say ‘Yes,’ rather than pure dumb luck as I usually tell the story — has fueled my success. Even though I exhort other women to do just that.
I reveal this for two reasons: 1) to emphasize that it’s a lifelong process, and one can always learn new things about leadership; and 2) to illustrate that the main thing holding women back today is that we often fail to realize and embrace the power in our hands.
Womenetics: How did you develop and cultivate your leadership skills?
Feldt: Woody Allen has said that 90 percent of success is showing up. I don’t think leadership is a big, mysterious thing. A leader is someone who shows up and gets something done. After I said yes to opportunities, I showed up, studied the situations and got things done. And I learned from each experience, whether I was successful or failed miserably.
One of the nine “Power Tools” I talk about in my book “No Excuses” is “Wear the shirt.” That means to wear the shirt of your convictions. Let people know what you stand for and be accountable for what you intend to do. Telling people what I intend to do holds me accountable, so I have to face whether I did well or poorly. By wearing the shirt, I grew my skills. And I grew courage muscles too: the courage to take responsibility, the courage to put forth a bold and audacious vision, the courage to stay true to my convictions when others opposed me, and the integrity to admit if I was wrong, learn from it, and get up and try again.
Womenetics: Did you have any outside leadership training?
Feldt: I would give credit to the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute’s remarkable International Leadership Forum that I was fortunate to find just at the moment when I needed to learn from successful executives across many sectors of business, government and nonprofit organizations. I remain in touch with people I met there and who have mentored and advised me over the years. It was important to my success that I talk not only to the people in my field, but also to learn across disciplines, especially to get new insights for big and seemingly intractable problems.
Womenetics: Do you think leadership is an innate or learned skill?
Feldt: Both. Anyone who has more than one child knows how different personalities emerge from the same genetics and same environment. And anyone who has taken leadership roles knows the importance of learning every day.
Women leaders seem to have an insatiable desire to keep learning, which is a good thing. I was a teacher before I was a CEO and before I became a writer. Perhaps that’s why I’m now most passionate about teaching women in workshops and keynote speeches about how to use the 9 Ways “Power Tools” I share in “No Excuses.”
Women must learn to use the power we have in our hands if we are ever going to get a fair shake for ourselves and make the leadership contributions of which we are capable.
Womenetics: Can you explain what you mean in your book about women redefining power? Why is this important?
Feldt: I found in my research, in interviews with women across the country and by looking into my own experience, that many women have an outdated definition of power, created by men in a traditional hierarchical world. It’s the “power over.” And that’s not functional for men or women any more.
Women would tell me they don’t like the idea of power, and I realized they were talking about not wanting power over others. Why should they? Women have borne the brunt of that negative kind of power for millenia. It implies that power is a finite pie and if I take a piece, there’s less for you.
But once we redefined power as the more expansive “power to,” I would see women’s faces relax and they could wholeheartedly say, “Yes! I want that kind of power.” Power to is not a finite pie. The more there is, the more there can be, and I believe women inherently understand that concept. “Power to” is innovation. It’s how you make life better for your family, your company, the community or yourself.
“Power over” is oppression. “Power to” is leadership. Women will truly transform the world for much better when we redefine power in this way.
Womenetics: Why are women stuck in 18 percent of leadership roles, as you claim?
Feldt: There are many historical, cultural and structural reasons why women in the U.S. haven’t reached parity. But there are no excuses not to go forward with intention to accomplish what we want. Legal barriers are down. At least one woman has shattered almost every glass ceiling, and doors are cracked enough to get through them.
We’re better educated than men, holding 60 percent of college degrees. Studies by McKinsey and Co., Ernst and Young and other experts show that more women around the decision table result in better decisions and even a better return on investment. Women have the very leadership skills the world needs right now. It’s women’s moment, but do we know it yet?
Apparently not! We keep focusing on the negative statistics, when we would be better served to focus on the opportunities. I don’t say it’s easy. I say it’s possible and that we not only have the capability, but also the responsibility to our sisters and ourselves make it happen. I say this not to blame women, but rather to inspire them.
Womenetics: What mediums should women use to harness more power and become effective leaders?
Feldt: The first medium is ourselves, and the power we communicate with our self-presentation and speech.
In the film “The Iron Lady,” we see scenes of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher practicing how to make her voice pleasant but strong. I’m not saying women should remake themselves or become inauthentic, but I do recall that when I was writing “Send Yourself Roses” with the actress Kathleen Turner, she emphasized that women spend a great deal of time and money on our clothing but often overlook the rest of our stage presence, and in particular our voice quality.
From the “No Excuses” Power Tool “Employ every medium,” here are a few tips to help ensure you are taken seriously, and that your voice is heard in business meetings or interviews:
- Be the media: Think of media not as an add-on but integral to what you’re doing, even if it’s just internal communication within a company. Use personal, social and traditional media proactively. Beyond your workplace, you can also help support groups like the Women’s Media Center that works to get fair and realistic media portrayals of women.
- Say the first word: Don’t wait to speak up if you have an idea to contribute. The first speakers almost always set the tone and define the whole conversation. Be poised, prepared and proactive. Don’t hesitate or apologize. And for goodness sake, don’t end every sentence as though it were a question.
- Say the last word: Speak it with authority and clarity. Use simple declarative sentences. Don’t hedge your words or use too many diminishing words like “just,” “maybe” or “little.” Speak as though you know you’ll be respected and believed. Sit up straight and make eye contact.
- Speak the language: Understand the conversational rituals that distinguish different types of communications and deploy them to your advantage. This is not about being disingenuous or inauthentic, but rather showing respect for others as well as garnering it for yourself. With men and women in the workplace, I liken this to being bilingual.
Your vision, ideas and plans have the power to shape the future, but not if you keep them to yourself or if you wait for others to set the agenda.
Womenetics: What are the biggest obstacles standing in the way of women leaders?
Feldt: While some external barriers remain, and implicit bias in the workplace still exists, the biggest obstacle is our own ambivalent relationship with power. Companies especially need their high-performing women to stay with them if they are going to be successful, and they know it.
Many women are concerned with work/life balance, for example. But many men today want the same thing, or at least enough that you can use the power tool “create a movement” to get workplace policies that allow for people to have a life and earn a living.
It’s a strategic choice at this point. My goal is to give women the inspiration, information and practical tools to stand in their power comfortably and walk with intention to achieve whatever goals they set and in the end to be able to lead unlimited lives.
Womenetics: How can women use leadership skills in other areas of their lives, aside from work?
Feldt: One of the remarkable things I discovered as I began to study women’s relationship with power is that the dynamics are the same at work, in civic and political life and in personal relationships. It’s important to be aware of that, and then you can apply the same skills in any situation.
Womenetics: Who were your leadership mentors; who has inspired you?
Feldt: I love to talk about the leadership lessons I learned from Margaret Sanger, the founder of the American birth control movement. I’m inspired by the fact that she started with nothing — no money, no supporters, and the laws were all against her — and yet she had the power of an idea that has changed everything for women. There is not a woman today in the workforce who could be there if not for the ability to plan and space her children.
I am also grateful to colleagues from the International Leadership Forum; my first boss, Mildred Chaffin, who saw in me more than I saw in myself; and my father, who always told me I could do “anything your pretty little head desires.” An unusually feminist message for a father in that time.
Womenetics: And last, do you take time for yourself and if so, what do you do?
Feldt: I exercise every day or else I become very crabby. Sometimes it’s hard to give an hour or two to working out, so I often ask people who want to meet with me to do walking meetings, which are much more enjoyable. Since I no longer go to an office daily, I languish in bed in the mornings with my husband, and that feels like a real luxury. Right now, I’m on a mission to get speaking or workshop opportunities at spas so I can combine two of my passions, fitness and sharing what I’ve learned about leadership. Any takers out there, please email me!
Corinne Garcia is a freelance writer and editor living with her husband and two young boys in Bozeman, Mont. She has also written for Women’s Adventure, Christian Science Monitor, Northwest Travel, Pregnancy, Fit Pregnancy and Fit Parent.