October 29, 2008

History Lessons

Eleanor Roosevelt's Career Offers a Roadmap to Leadership

It has been nearly 80 years since Franklin Roosevelt won his first of four presidential elections, launching his wife, Eleanor, onto the national political stage. Eleanor used her position to build a powerbase from which she not only rewrote the traditional role of first lady, but also rewrote history. By capitalizing on the naturally feminine of characteristics of nurturing and inclusiveness, too often dismissed as "weak" in male-dominated circles, Eleanor pulled together coalitions that gave voice to society's most disenfranchised members--minorities, women and the poor--and led sweeping political and social reforms that continue to shape our world.

In her book, Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way, author and consultant Robin Gerber explores the tactics and strategies Eleanor Roosevelt used to effect tremendous change. Along the way, she provides clear direction on how women today can apply those same tactics to meet their own personal and professional goals.

What makes Eleanor Roosevelt's story still relevant to women today?

It's relevant because she faced the same kinds of challenges women are still facing, such as trying to do things that were not really considered acceptable for women to do. Women today are still fighting sexism in the workplace. They understand trying to accomplish something and having their paths blocked. Eleanor Roosevelt showed such perseverance in the face of those obstacles that her success is still a model for today.

Using communication, interpersonal relationships, taking risks--all hallmarks of leadership today--she found her way around those obstacles. She also figured out how to handle criticism, which is something most women still have difficulty with.

How did she shape the way that women are perceived in politics and business?

Primarily, she reshaped the idea of first lady, which is arguably a political job. Just as we've seen with Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin, women are still hitting roadblocks when they try to move into areas that are dominated by men.

How did she shape women's perspectives of themselves?

As women read my book, I think it really resonates with them because she had such a difficult young life. She had a very sad childhood. She was not particularly loved by her mother. Her father was an alcoholic who died quite young. Then she had to deal with Franklin's infidelity. Her ability to rise above all of that and still be a positive and powerful person really gives women hope, and it changes their perceptions of themselves. They think, "If Eleanor Roosevelt can do this, what can I do?"

What are the key strategies that she used to build her powerbase?

I think her most effective strategy was communication, both oral and written, and her strength was going out and meeting people face to face. I always advise women to get out of the office. Communication was key for her.

She also built great networks and relied on people to give her advice from every corner. She had networks that reached into the black community, into the women's community, into poor, rural communities. She was always reaching out, and always inclusive. People who met her routinely said that they immediately felt like they knew her.

How can women adapt those strategies to address core issues in the workplace today?

When she started writing for the Woman's Home Companion, her first column in 1933 was entitled "I Want You to Write to Me." She was committed to not just talking at people, but asking them to talk to her. Soliciting input from everyone around you is a critical element to effective leadership because that generates new ideas, and when people feel like they have input, it helps create buy-in for your vision.

Another important element of leadership is maintaining optimism. The country was coming out of the Great Depression and moving into World War II, yet she always maintained an upbeat, we-can-do-it attitude. That is extremely important today. No one has ever gotten anything done by saying it can't be done. Burying the word "can't"-- eliminating it from your vocabulary--is a strategy she used that I still recommend today.

Finally, I think her history presents an important lesson in persistence. That was a real strategy of hers. If something is important enough, you can't be backed off from it. Not by criticism, and not by fear.

The book places great emphasis on developing mentors and building networks. Why are these important, particularly for women?

There is already a network in place in every company, but it tends to be a male network. So you either have to get into that network or create a network that is powerful for you. I always say never go to lunch alone and don't be afraid to ask someone to help you.

Successful leaders also have strong mentors, and most people have more than one mentor at a time. These should be fluid, flexible relationships based on where you are in your personal development and where you want to go. When choosing a mentor, don't look for anyone based on gender. Look for what they can offer you in terms of meeting your goals. If you want to be a project leader but have never done it, build a relationship with someone who has. Ask them how they got there, what challenges they faced in their own path and what they learned along the way.

The fact is that there are more men in power in the financial services industry than there are women, so it would be foolish not to use men as your mentors. Working only with women would be too limiting, just as men often foolishly limit themselves by not including women in the decision-making.

Much of Roosevelt's strength was developed during times of great financial and social upheaval. We're facing similar challenges today. How can advisors turn the current market climate into an opportunity, to not only support clients and sustain their business, but also grow their business during this upheaval?

Have confidence in natural women's strengths, such as building relationships and keeping good lines of communication open. Women are good at that. Women are also good at building alliances because of their ability to be relational and to think in terms of win-win situations. Men tend to think in terms of win-lose, but this is a time when win-win is going to be much more productive.

Clients want to be reassured. They want you to tell them that their whole world hasn't turned upside down. This is the time to lead by displaying confidence and showing them, as much as possible, that it is still business as usual. Make them feel good about putting their money with you by staying calm and not panicking.

I think Eleanor would definitely counsel staying calm and working together while watching for opportunities. That was very much her style.

In our next Synergies Series teleconference on November 19, Robin Gerber will discuss some of Eleanor Roosevelt's specific strategies and provide tips on how to incorporate those ideas into your own business.

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