How every woman can build her brand and change the world.
I have big love and admiration for women who endeavor to change the world; and an even greater appreciation for sisters who recognize that women are our best hope for global transformation. Rebecca Sive is one such soul sister. She is a writer, speaker, advocate and thought-leader on power and public influence. She carved a window during her book tour to talk with me about Every Day Is Election Day: A Woman’s Guide to Winning Any Office from The White House to the PTA, and share her insights about the current need and opportunity for diverse women to serve as advocates, powerbrokers and candidates.
A key focal point of your book is encouraging women to seek public leadership. Why?
It’s so important for women to build their personal presence, influence and power in the public square. So much public policy affects the lives of women and girls. Whether it’s making sure our girls come home safely – to Chicago, Nigeria, et cetera – or whether girls have equal access to education or women to well-paying jobs, women’s voices are needed to make sure our concerns are heard and addressed. Of course, sheer equity also demands it. Just like African Americans and other groups who’ve been discriminated against, women have right to a seat at every decision making table. When we sit at those tables, we bring a different perspective than the men do. Whether it’s as a mother, sister, daughter or partner, our unique experiences highlight and deepen any public discussions about matters we care about and that affect our lives.
Public leadership positions often conjure up thoughts of city council or Congress. What are examples of other public leadership roles that women may not consider?
There are so many different ways in which women can become public leaders. Some decide to run for elected office: Congress, city council or state legislature. Others seek appointed office to school boards, park commissions or other boards where important decisions are made about our lives. But, equally important is the role that women – executives, entrepreneurs, teachers, social workers, nurses and other professionals – play as volunteer advocates. Women’s public leadership of advocacy and service organizations is vitally important. And, of course, Chicago has a great history of this. Beginning with the generation of Ida B. Wells and Jane Addams, women have been at the forefront of efforts to better our schools, communities and work opportunities. So, every woman can be a leader; she just has to choose what’s best for her, in whatever place makes her heart sing.
What advice would you offer a woman who has no interest in politics?
When you think about the public role that’s right for you, consider these factors: how much time you have to commit to public service; what kinds of issues interest you the most; whether you like the idea of campaigning, or whether you would prefer the appointive route; what kinds of organizations you like the most; and what kind of public service would work best with your other duties (job and family). There is no one right answer to these questions: it’s for each woman to decide and then ‘just do it.’
So civic leadership is not just a way to build influence within your community, it’s also a savvy tactic for strategic career management. Why are women who have held, or do hold, elected positions more valuable corporate leaders?
As I’ve been touring the country speaking about women’s political leadership and power, I’ve found that it’s important to share this reality: The larger your presence in the public arena, the better it will likely be for your professional career. For example, a friend who’s a business executive at a major financial services firm told me that when she was appointed to a major municipal school board everything at work changed for her. She was then perceived as uniquely valuable and important; that boosted her career in a way that nothing else would. So don’t hesitate, and note that the men with whom you’re competing in the work sector are doing the same thing. There’s no time like the present to get started.
Studies show that women tend to judge themselves as less qualified for roles than men do. We see men run for office because they want to participate and lead, regardless of their career history or experience. But the ‘need to feel qualified’ no doubt influences the number of women who put themselves forward to be considered for public or civic leadership. What are the qualifications for serving in an elected leadership role? How can help women to see that they are, in fact, qualified to lead in roles even when their direct or professional experience is not seemingly related to the area of leadership?
When you think about becoming a public leader, don’t think you have to know everything or that you have to wait to be asked. If you know enough to get started, are willing to keep on learning and know you can do a good job, seek it and tell others who know how talented and committed you are that you want their support. A great example of this is in my book, Every Day Is Election Day. U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (Michigan, Democrat) tells the story of when she first ran for office, at the age of 26, while in graduate school in social work at Michigan State University. She knew that there was a danger that low-income residents wouldn’t be able to live at the local nursing home. She decided to run for office to ensure that they would. She knew enough to know this was wrong, and, once elected, she became a great commissioner because she learned more and applied it to her policy-making role.
In the book The Empress Has No Clothes, Joyce Roche details that the imposter syndrome keeps some women from feeling comfortable in environments where they are different from the others. How can a woman interested in elected office silence any personal doubts?
Of course, each of us sometimes doubts herself and her abilities. That’s a natural human response to imagining and engaging in challenging tasks. In the stories of political women’s success I share in my book, this issue comes up. One of my favorites is about Molly Bordonaro, an ambassador to Malta in the George W. Bush administration who ran for Congress and lost…twice. But she then became an active volunteer for then-candidate Bush. She didn’t let her defeats stop her from doing something she cared about (being in public life and making policy decisions). I also share the great story of a wonderful Chicago woman and friend of mine, Ertharin Cousin, now director of the U.N. World Food Programme and one of the 100 most important women in the world according to Time magazine. She grew up poor in money, but rich in her belief in herself and her commitment to work hard to help others. She’s a great role model for those who might doubt themselves from time to time. No one comes from the wrong neighborhood, family or school. Everyone has a contribution to make to public discussion. And, of course, we are all equally passionate about the things we care about.
In my coaching practice, I’ve witnessed high-performing executives wait a bit later than they should to think about their retirement plans. What they want to do after they have made a living. Can seeking elected office be part of a smart retirement strategy?
Some businesswomen wait until retirement to engage in public projects and leadership, and I think public leadership can be a unique source of satisfaction for women who may have not had a lot of opportunity to express their personal beliefs while working. I also know from so many organizational and political leaders and public leaders that more help is always needed! So, if you’re at retirement age why not make public service a part of your day? The rewards are unique, are important and will bring great joy and to those you help.
I imagine that there are times in a woman’s life that lend themselves particularly well to holding an office. Do you suggest that women select offices based on what is currently happening in their lives? One thing I always talk about in my speeches, and I also talk about in Every Day Is Election Day, is the fact that just as we have many chapters in our work lives and personal lives, we can have many chapters in our public lives. If you’re raising children and care about schools, by all means think about the PTA or the school board. Likewise, if you’re close to retirement age and know that the local community college could do better at career counseling, offer to play a role in shaping its future. There are always important efforts suitable to whatever stage you are in your life.