Natural Leader (Continued)

Confidence and Competence Risk is uncomfortable, of course. How do you persuade participants to face that discomfort head-on?


Confidence and Competence

Risk is uncomfortable, of course. How do you persuade participants to face that discomfort head-on?


Women in particular tend to have confidence issues. So I’ll go around the room and ask people how many of them would like to have more confidence as a result of being in the class. Almost all of the hands go up. I say, “Okay, I’m going to make you a deal. I’m going to make you a counteroffer. I’m not going to promise to give you more confidence. I’m going to promise to give you more competence. And I’m going to ask you to look and see where confidence comes from.” Then I ask how many of them think of confidence as a prerequisite — how many of them will do something if they feel confident enough to attempt it. All of the hands go up. Then I ask them what they are confident about in their lives and how they got to be confident about those things. Whether it’s horseback riding or shipping products or developing software code, they all got confidence by doing something over and over again. Oh, so then confidence is an aftermath, not a prerequisite? Bing, bing, bing, bing!

Then it hits them: They’ve been spending their whole lives waiting to be confident before trying something new, when they couldn’t possibly be confident until they’re competent. That’s transformational, because it suddenly sheds light on whole arenas of restriction and impediment that have nothing to do with anything other than the context from which they’re viewing the situation or their lives or themselves.

We’re in the organizational- and community-leadership business. We want to enable people to lead change, but you can’t lead change unless you’ve got a profound sense of appreciation and respect for learning. And you need to have something to aspire to that’s bigger and more compelling than what you’ve got.


Pulling off change is one thing. But how do you make sure that your amazing work gets noticed?

Women often find themselves working in organizations where they deliver an enormous amount of value that doesn’t get registered. In sports, of course, you have a very handy object called a “scoreboard.” And what it does is register? It shows progress being made and value being delivered. So if you get a hit or score a run or make an out, it’s registered. Organizations don’t have scoreboards — they have financial statements. And those are a very narrow picture of what’s happening. So we work with women to create registers, to create scoreboards. They could be in the form of butcher paper. They could be in the form of a report. They could be in the form of an audio tape.

One participant I worked with sent out a voice mail asking her direct reports to get back to her with results that they had produced the previous month on a new product launch and what those results allowed for: What do those results make possible now in terms of the product? What can we do better or more easily? What will this product contribute to our customers? She put all of the responses on a cassette tape and gave it to the CEO. She asked him to listen to it on his way to work. He was touched by the quality of his people and by the good work that they were doing. But he also appreciated that level of insight into strategy. And he registered the accomplishments of her entire team. It only cost 99 cents for a blank audio tape — and took five minutes. So registers can take any form. But if you don’t have a register, there’s no place for your work to show up. That’s a big part of the disconnect with women: Their value isn’t registered, so they’re not moving up in the food chain.What are some other relatively easy-to-change practices that perpetuate gender inequity?


Well, in the case of the advancement of women, a lot of organizations have unconsciously perpetuated a military model of command and control. If you actually look at how those organizations are set up and how they get work done, they look a lot like the 12th infantry in Vietnam. A lot of metaphors and a lot of strategies are based on beating down the other guy and on channeling information very carefully to a small number of people.

These are the kinds of things that affect women’s advancement. The criteria that companies use for selecting board members or senior executives are often based on traditional, military models: How many years has this person been in the field? Has she made her way up the ranks? They’re not always looking for the most innovative thinker, or for the most provocative-but-reliable manager in terms of developing people while delivering the goods. Those kinds of criteria don’t necessarily arise, so it begs the question, “Where are you looking to recruit for your board or your executive team?” And generally, I don’t take issue with the fact that companies are looking for good, solid business performers. I just think that they define strong business performers through very small lenses.

How much progress has been made toward creating a more equitable workplace for women?


We’ve been heating up the water for a long time, and the glacier is finally moving. I would like to see us doing much more to celebrate the accomplishments of women leaders, rather than continuing to focus on the obstacles that women face. It’s not that we should ignore the deficits, it’s just that there’s an enormous amount of great stuff happening that doesn’t get any airtime. Going back to my sports background, I compare it to the 1950s, when it was an unequivocal “medical certainty” that a human being could not run a mile in less than 4 minutes. But Roger Bannister didn’t believe that, so he ran it in 3:59:40. There was all this fanfare about it, and it was the best thing that could have happened. Another guy did it about a month later, and a few more a couple of months later. I think of women’s accomplishments in terms of the sub-four-minute mile. We have to publicize the breakthroughs so that we can change perceptions about what can be done.

That’s why the Institute for Women’s Leadership has started a consortium for breakthroughs in women’s leadership. I was so sick and tired of reading analytical reports and overwhelmingly negative statistical evidence and not reading much of anything about people getting out there and putting ideas into play. We’re recruiting 6 to 10 companies to commit the next two years to causing a breakthrough in the advancement of women in their organizations. They will share best practices with one another and leverage resources, so that if one group of women is great at mentoring and the other group of women is great at recruiting, then each company will benefit from the other’s expertise.

At the end of two years, I want to publish the progress results using a breakthrough strategy, which is what all of our work is based on — breakthrough change, rather than incremental change. We can’t just crawl person by person up the ladder and say, “Well, we got one more off.” Give me a break. We’ve got millions of transistors on a little piece of silicon that you can barely even see. We’ve got people walking on a space station up in the sky. There’s no reason that we can’t achieve breakthroughs in the work of advancing women.


Cheryl Dahle (, a Fast Company senior writer, is based in Silicon Valley. Contact Rayona Sharpnack by email (, or learn more about her work on the Web (

Sidebar: Leadership Moments

What if I didn’t see the glass ceiling?

Oceana Lott
Manager, training and development
Levi Strauss & Co.
Personal breakthrough: Beat the “glass ceiling” mentality
Attended Sharpnack’s Session: Spring 1999
Age: 38


Herstory: “The program gave me a blueprint for how to pull off breakthrough projects. But more than that, the program gave me back my soul — that essential part of me that had always been out on the edge, vital and enthusiastic. I learned how to be that person more often, whereas before the program, it was a fluke when the real me showed up.

“When I took the seminar, I had just relocated to a part of Hewlett-Packard that was particularly challenging to me as a black female. (Lott recently left HP to join Levi Strauss.) And while I was able to do the kind of work that I love there, it seemed to me that the ceiling was really, really low. I felt squished. It seemed as if everything I was doing that was compelling to me had a really high personal cost. I found myself adapting to what I thought the environment was like — basically adapting myself out of my authentic self.

“During the course, a discussion emerged about the story that we have collectively created around the glass ceiling. I was able to see that it is a story about context that somebody made up. And when I looked at it on a different scale, things actually changed. The glass ceiling surrounding gender issues was not as absolute as I had always thought it was. Once the ceiling began to crack, so did my belief system about what was true and absolute. I had felt that I was personally experiencing the glass ceiling because of several different bad encounters. But I had actually chosen that disempowering story as the explanation.


“That is not to say that the statistics are not true. But the question of whether or not you’re experiencing the glass ceiling as an individual is up in the air. If you believe that you are, and you string together lots of events in support of that story, then that’s the story you get to carry around with you — living every day believing that you’re limited in what you can accomplish. And I had to ask myself, To what degree is this true solely because I think it is? Are there times when I don’t take risks or when I approach someone suspiciously? How does this belief lead to behavior that proves the belief? I realized that to overcome obstacles and remain true to myself, my story had to be about possibilities, not about limitations.

“I asked myself, What if I lived my life as though I didn’t believe in the glass ceiling? What if we all operated as if it were a nonissue? How would that influence our ability to move forward in the system? Of course discrimination exists. But what Rayona teaches is that it’s up to you to interpret that discrimination and put it in context in your life. Individuals are in control of their contexts. You get to write the story that you’re living.”

How do I design a breakthrough product?


Diane Rooney
Founder, Rooney Consulting Group
Product breakthrough: The Oral-B CrossAction Toothbrush
Attended Sharpnack’s session: Winter 1997
Age: 51

Herstory: “Several years ago, I was working for Oral-B, a dental-products division of the Gillette Company. I was in charge of a team that had been assembled to create a breakthrough product. No one knew what it would be, or how my team would do it, but the 11 of us took on the assignment. Out of the then 250 employees in Oral-B’s California offices, 41 had taken Rayona’s class, and more than half of the breakthrough team had taken it.

“At that point, the toothbrush category was pretty mundane. Most improvements were incremental changes in color, packaging, or features. We knew that we wanted to invent something that would be a leap ahead in design and effectiveness. One of the questions that we started with was, What if we designed a toothbrush based on the way that most people actually brush their teeth (in a back-and-forth motion), instead of on the way that dentists recommend people brush their teeth (in a circular motion)?


“That led to the conclusion that the best way to arrange the bristles was to have tufts of varying lengths at opposing angles. Of course, that idea was hugely unpopular with the manufacturing group. Toothbrushes had been manufactured the same way for years: Pour the mold for the handle, drill holes in the head for the bristles, insert the bristles up and down. What we were asking for would require new solutions.

“Although the company leaders in Boston supported our project, they were hesitant to apply the same kinds of revolutionary thinking and tactics to the rest of the corporation. Gillette is a huge, multinational company, and there was a tremendous sense of ‘this is not the way we do things.’ But we just kept directing people back to the clinical tests and showing them what the benefits could be for consumers.

“In the end, the brush was a huge success. Through rapid prototyping, we cut the time that it took to create a working test toothbrush from three months to five days. As a result, we tested 56 different prototypes. Through our clinical studies, we were able to show that the new brush cleaned better. We also filed 23 patents on the CrossAction Toothbrush, more than for any other Oral-B product. In its launch year, the brush generated $53.4 million in sales, despite the fact that we didn’t initially introduce the brush to many international markets.


“The project ended my career in big companies. I left Oral-B to go to a startup and then later became a free agent with my own company. I keep coming back to the fact that Rayona’s course gave me a sense of my own voice and the confidence to use that voice.”

How do I take the next step?

Robin Selden
VP and general manager, Core Technology Group,
FaceTime Communications
Marketing breakthrough: Led her company to dive into a new product category
Attended Sharpnack’s session: Spring 1995
Age: 39


Herstory: “When I took Rayona’s class, I was a marketing manager of technology at Adaptec, a company that makes storage interfaces for computers. I knew that my long-term goal was to be COO and president of a high-tech company, but I wasn’t sure what I had to do to get there. Rayona’s class is all about believing that no goal is too wild to achieve. So I mapped out where I wanted to be and worked backward to figure out what kinds of projects I needed to work on in order to get there.

“One opportunity that I could take advantage of at Adaptec was to take the lead on a product launch, which I hadn’t done before. At the time, the company didn’t produce any multimedia products, and I was convinced that that was where the market was going to go. There was a technology protocol called FireWire that I was particularly interested in. It allowed you to stream video and audio from a digital camera to your computer. The protocol wasn’t being used very widely then, because not many consumers had camcorders. But I was willing to bet that if prices dropped, people would want to hook up their cameras to their computers.

“I spent a lot of time researching the market to build a case for our senior management team. That was probably the toughest part of the project: the pressure to stay on top of the market and make accurate predictions. Once I had won the confidence of my team and the rest of the company, I didn’t want to make a mistake and lose that. I was asking my team to trust me to expand the company’s brand, and that took a lot of relationship building.


“We created video cards that fit into the PC slot, and we also wrote the compression software. We developed the physical cards and the code itself, both of which were new processes for the company. I had to find distributors and suppliers outside of our network, and I had to sell the idea of the market potential at each level.

“The business was started in 1996, and we launched our product the following year. Adaptec was the first in the market to provide a complete hardware and software solution for FireWire. When the camcorder market took off and prices dropped below $1,000, we were well positioned to take advantage of it. Revenue-wise, that product didn’t represent a huge share of Adaptec, but it did allow a new successful business to grow within the company.

“The best lesson for me was that, because I’d taken Rayona’s class, I knew that it was time to leave Adaptec after the project was completed. I’d gotten the experience that I needed, and I was ready to take the next step.”