An Evening with Thought Leader Robin Chase, Founder of Zipcar

Last night I had the chance to re-connect with Robin Chase, Co-Founder of ZIpcar and Buzzcar (and a fellow Wellesley alum) at the opening night reception of the Springboard Annual Forum. There we had a half-hour fireside chat discussing her past, present and future initiatives and the change she would like to see in the world.

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3 Tips To Get You Started on Your Path to Thought Leadership

I was on the phone today with a new client — a woman who runs a large trade association. During the 2 years since she was hired, she has had her head down focusing internally. Now, with the organization on a sound financial footing, she’s ready to be a part of the larger conversation in her field – to “be the voice for this sector.” She has a chance to build the organization’s credibility in their community and get “a seat at the table where decisions are being made.”

Like most leaders of organizations she admitted she has some challenges to overcome: she is not a great public speaker, she has little time and few resources and her board is not yet aligned with her external focus. However, as a visionary leader, she is quite clear that she needs to play a much bigger game for herself and her organization. So, she asked, “How should I get started?”

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How Do I Find My Presumptive Bravado?

When is it okay to declare yourself an expert? How do you gain the needed confidence to own your role as a key influencer in your niche?


“Good to hear from you, Roberta, how’s the job hunt coming along?” I asked my childhood friend when she called me recently from Ohio.

“Well, it’s pretty certain that we’re going to need to leave Ohio if I want to find my next position,” she replied.

“Why is that?” I inquired.

“Well, the jobs I see listed here in Ohio are jobs I can do, but every job I see listed in New York, Boston or DC are jobs I would be excited to do, so those are what I’m pursuing,” Roberta admitted.

“What if instead of looking for a job, you pursued a thought leadership strategy that brought folks to you?” I asked.

“What would that look like?” she asked.

“What if you started a blog, or guest blogged, tweeted or wrote a few columns or whitepapers about what you’re an expert in?” I suggested.

“I’ve thought of that, but I’m not sure that I would have enough to say that I could write something every day,” she replied. “Besides, I have to admit, I’m not always comfortable putting myself in the ‘expert’ category – I either think there are lots of other folks who know what I know, or I think that what I know is pretty obvious.”

“Are there people interested in hiring you for your expertise?” I asked.

“Yes,” she agreed.

“And don’t you have a masters degree in your field of specialty?”

“Well, yes.”

“And you’ve worked in your field for a long time?”

“About 25 years,” she admitted.

“It’s probably okay to declare yourself an expert at this point,” I said with a laugh.

Our conversation went on to other topics, but when I got off the phone, I was wondering to myself why we do that – why are we not ready to declare ourselves experts when, to the outside world, we have already arrived?

Don’t Be a No Show

Courtney Stanton, a project manager at a video game company in Boston identified this phenomenon as all but ubiquitous among the women in her industry when she put together the No Show Conference, a brand new game developer conference, and reached out to others in her industry to participate.

“When I’d talk to men about the conference” she wrote in her blog post following the event, “And ask[ed] if they felt like they had an idea to submit for a talk, they’d *always* start brainstorming on the spot. I’m not generalizing — every guy I talked to about speaking was able to come up with an idea, or multiple ideas, right away…and yet, overwhelmingly the women I talked to with the same pitch deferred with a, “well, but I’m not an expert on anything,” or “I wouldn’t know what to submit,” or “yes but I’m not a *lead* [title], so you should talk to my boss and see if he’d want to present.”

When my friends at the National Women’s Business Council and I started the first venture conference for women,Springboard, we saw some of that same behavior – we would speak to great women entrepreneurs and recommend they present at the conference, but some would demur and we found ourselves having to convince obviously qualified CEOs and founders to pitch.

Find Your Presumptive Bravado

Patti Smith, the 70’s rock legend who opened the door for Madonna and Lady Gaga, was asked for her secret to success, and she replied, “There was something in me, some kind of presumptive bravado that told me that, ‘I could do that.’” (emphasis mine)

So what does it take to have, (or encourage others to have), presumptive bravado? External validation, nomination and support, including champions and fairy godmothers.

External Validation 

Credentials, awards, a book contract, an invitation to speak or present – often it is the external designation that can overcome the inner critic. It was certainly true that when Wiley accepted my book proposal, I could no longer doubt that I could write a book. It became an imperative.

Nomination

In politics, and in venture forums, it helps to have others nominating or designating candidates. When we ran the first Springboard conference, we asked bankers, lawyers, accountants and early stage investors to nominate women to present at the event. This helped us to uncover a number of folks who wouldn’t have heard about or otherwise chose to present.

Support 

What Courtney found when organizing the No Show Conference and what we found when organizing Springboard, was that you need to offer potential presenters mentoring, practice sessions, and one-on-one slide deck reviews with people who have presented before at these sorts of events. Support looks different in every situation but is critical to overcome the common ‘I can’t do this’ thinking.

Champions & Fairy Godmothers 

Unfortunately, the world is not always set up with the support we are looking for. You may not have any idea who can nominate you or you may not have any relevant credentials for what you’re attempting to do. If so, finding your presumptive bravado might involve designating a friend or colleague who you can rely on to say ‘yes, go for it’ every time you get an opportunity.

For me, it is my friend and mentor Sam Horn, who always stands as my champion, who says ‘You can do this, I believe in you,’ when I get mired in doubts about the value of what I have to say or  hesitate in writing the book now under contract.

Who can be your champion? Who can stand by your side with the cheerleader pom poms and keep you going?

One small caveat here – Sara Blakely, CEO of Spanx, (who turned $5000 into a billion dollar company) would advise that we don’t look for that external validation from a family member or really close friend, because they are often too protective, and may discourage us from taking a risk in case it might not work out.

This happened recently with a woman entrepreneur I am advising. She went to one of her closest friends to share her plans to leave her corporate job and start a new business and the friend spent an hour over lunch telling her not to take the risk. It took me several hours over the next month to undo that advice. If you must share your idea close to home, start the conversation by saying something like… ‘I know you’re going to be worried about what I’m about to tell you, but what I need from you right now is support, not doubts.’ Ask them to think of themselves as your fairy godmother and think about what they can do to produce the pumpkin, mice or glass slippers to make your idea possible.



Go for it!

As my friend Eunice Azzani always said, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room!”

The time is now – to find your own presumptive bravado and begin your own thought leadership. You do have something to say – I know you do. Let me be the first to tell you ‘I believe in you – you can do this.’ Start today!

What Happens When No One is Listening?

Thought leaders are often ahead of their time. They can find themselves ignored, overlooked and even shunned. How do you overcome the naysayers?

 

Imagine if you knew that the world was coming to an end, but no one would listen.

I had the privilege of seeing the revival of the 1985 play, Normal Heart, at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco – a gut-wrenching exploration of the very beginnings of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The play is set in New York City in the early 1980’s and follows the life of Ned Weeks (a fictionalized version of the playwright, Larry Kramer) who witnesses the dozens, hundreds and eventually thousands of people in the gay community, including many of his own friends, who are dying of what was then a completely unknown disease.

Weeks is not the most loveable character – he is outspoken to the point of obnoxiousness, determined to the point of bullheadedness and aggressive to the point of combativeness – but his commitment to his cause is unshakeable. He spends every waking hour writing, speaking, fund-raising, event planning, and rallying others to action; he turns his home into a grassroots organizing office, demands that everyone he knows get involved and calls in every favor owed and un-owed, trying to awaken others to what is really going on.

Yet, despite his fervent and unflagging efforts to bring about change, he is stymied again and again and the rare, hard-fought wins, however important, are always overshadowed by the overwhelming losses – of both political battles and individual lives.

It would have been easy to get caught up in the drama unfolding on the stage – indeed, by part way through Act II, tears were streaming down my face and those of the other audience members around me – as more characters that we had begun to identify with and love, lost their lives to the disease. But what was instructive and part of a larger story for anyone advocating for a cause was watching Weeks’ ongoing struggle in the face of overwhelming odds – in the face of denial, obfuscation, fear, lies, homophobia, unending dead-ends and silence.

To be denied support was one thing, but it was clear that it was the silence that was so much worse.

No one in power would even admit that HIV/AIDS existed for many years, indeed it was 7 years after the first cases appeared before Ronald Reagan publicly mentioned the word AIDS and even today most countries refuse to recognize the devastation that has taken place and is on-going. The statistic that was projected on the wall at the end of the performance told the whole story – 35 million dead, 75 million infected from 1981 to 2012.

So, what lessons can we learn from Weeks’ experience watching otherwise well-intentioned people refusing to act? As we seek to gain traction for our ideas, funding for our projects, political support and the necessary resources to combat an intractable problem, what are some ideas to be gained from the few successes and many losses during the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that might inform our own efforts? Here are a few lessons I gleaned of what to do when no one is listening.

  • Align your own community (as much as possible) at the outset
  • Focus on building a community that will ACT, not just listen
  • Look for unlikely allies
  • Don’t assume everyone who is ‘just like you’ is on your side
  • Realize all voices have a place in fighting for a cause – even the disruptive ones
  • Warriors are good, generals are better
  • Remember leaders (and heroes) need tough skins

Align your own community (as much as possible) at the outset 

The infighting and fundamental disparity of views within the gay community on what to do and what message to espouse went on for years. Should they focus on caring for those already infected, or fight to get money and political support for their cause? Given that so many gay men were closeted, the latter path was fraught with enormous challenges (if someone was ‘outed’ they faced potential job loss, loss of benefits, loss of family support). Even in communities without these identifiable types of peril, disparate views among a community’s leadership or members can destroy the unity necessary to lead to action.

I know that when we co-founded the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, we faced a fundamental disagreement that threatened to take us off course. My co-founder had one direction in mind for the organization, and I had a completely different view. After several months of disagreement, our board sent the two of us out to dinner one night and told us not to come back until we had resolved our differences. Making it through that turning point successfully allowed us to scale our efforts with everyone on the same page.

What counts is the number you can persuade to ACT

One of Larry Kramer’s biggest challenges was that when HIV/AIDS broke out, there were no established groups within the gay community with the necessary numbers to get the attention of the Mayor. Without the ability to activate 4000 people to call the Mayor’s office in one week, it was all but impossible to get his support. While it is true that sometimes having established organizations already ‘owning’ the message can mean new ideas are more easily squashed, the reality is that with no one to stand with you, making real change (political or otherwise) is almost impossible.

Carly Fiorina, Carol Bartz and Jill Barrad all found that out when they were unceremoniously displaced from their jobs as CEO of HP, Yahoo! and Mattel, respectively. No matter who you are or how far you’ve risen, without the power of a community, you can fall (and become irrelevant) very quickly.

Look for unlikely allies 

One of the successes of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was the willingness of the lesbian community to give their unstinting support to the gay men fighting and dying of the disease, despite the fact that in the past the two groups had not been easy allies. Today, thirty years later, the gay community in San Francisco is hosting a ‘Brothers for Sisters’ event to say thank you, which goes with the corollary to this point – it’s never too late to say thank you to those willing to stand by your side against all odds.

Don’t assume everyone who is ‘just like you’ is on your side 

Because someone was gay did not guarantee they would align with Kramer’s efforts, just as Hilary Clinton could not assume that every woman would support her run for Presidency. Membership in a group – particularly one that you are born into (like being a woman or being gay) – does not confer alignment on that group’s issues. Wooing begins at home.

All voices have a place in fighting for a cause – even the disruptive ones 

Normal Heart is a play about playwright Larry Kramer and his fight for recognition, funding and resources to stem the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but it could just as easily have been the story of any person crusading for a cause – Rachel Carson’s efforts to stop the use of DDT; Nikola Tesla’s fight for the adoption of AC over DC power; Elon Musk’s advocacy of the possibility of space travel to Mars. Every one of these ‘crusaders’ followed a different path and advocated in a completely different way, (some with soft voices and persuasive books and others with big wallets or dozens of patents), and yet each had an important impact in moving their cause forward. Sometimes it takes 5 or 50 or 500 different voices, all advocating for the same change in a different way, before it happens. If you are leading a cause, embrace every one of them.

Warriors are good, generals are better 

As we left the theater, each member of the audience received a letter from the playwright in which he attempted to update, engage and energize all of us to join the cause to raise the funding and build the political will to discover a cure for HIV/AIDS. In that letter, he says, “Please know that there is no one in charge of this plague. This is a war for which there is no general and for which there has never been a general. How can you win a war with no one in charge?”

Thinking back over the last 30 years, he’s absolutely right. There is no one leader who has epitomized the HIV/AIDS fight. While people have heard of Rachel Carson, Nikola Tesla and Elon Musk, who has heard of Larry Kramer, or Paul Popham or Rodger McFarlane, three of the key activists from this fight? Perhaps an epidemic that has claimed 35 million dead (including Paul and Rodger) is just too big, or has gone on too long for one person to be the ‘general.’ Or maybe it’s time for one of our billionaire philanthropists (Bill Gates?) or global statesmen (Bill Clinton?) to claim this as their cause celebre and step into the role of general.

Leaders (and heroes) need tough skins 

Perhaps the saddest part of Larry Kramer’s story was the backlash he faced from inside his own community for his activism. When no one else was willing to write about gay men dying, he put pen to paper; when no one else was willing to organize, he established the first gay/AIDS non-profit in his living room; when no one else was willing to speak out, he went on TV and radio to rail about what was happening and to call for change.

To his surprise, others accused him of being an alarmist, of being too political, too radical, and too confrontational. He was accused of seeking the spotlight and using the cause of gay men dying to build his own celebrity. And when his letter-writing campaigns, picketing and acts of civil disobedience finally did begin to pay off, he was unceremoniously expelled from his own organization and forced to the sidelines.

Communities do not always appreciate their heroes and another word for ‘celebrity’ could be ‘target’. I recall my own experience in 2001, when my efforts to move the needle for women’s entrepreneurship led me to cover stories in prestigious magazines and invitations to speak at top universities. Rather than applaud my success, I faced my own backlash among the members of the organization I had co-founded and led for 8 years – people who were not happy that I was getting the limelight and they weren’t. Given the time, energy, and devotion I had given to this cause, the sniping from my own community was not only disheartening; it was downright shocking to me. But it has also served me well in counseling others who have since faced similar reactions.

Normal Heart is more than a play about Larry Kramer, it is far more than a play about AIDS, it is a play about passion and despair, hope and tragedy, fear and death. It is also a play about leadership of a cause and its lessons are worth learning. Please go see it when it comes to a theater near you. It might make you cry, it will certainly make you think.

And perhaps, with 35 million dead, and 75 million infected, like me you’ll realize there’s no time to waste – the sky really is falling and it’s time to do more than just listen – it’s time to ACT.

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