Natural Leader

Rayona Sharpnack is a teacher and a mentor to some of the most powerful women in some of the most important companies around. Her message: Don’t worry so much about what you need to know. Instead, figure out who you need to be.


For Rayona Sharpnack, sports was always a second language that her body spoke fluently. She grew up pitching and batting against three older brothers in rural Susanville, California. “There weren’t many other kids around, and there were hardly any girls,” she explains. “So if I wanted to play with the guys, I had to be good.” And she was incredibly good. As a sinewy 11-year-old with stubbornly curly hair, she set a Junior Olympic record by throwing a softball 189 feet. Five years later, the driven teenager won her state’s tennis championship in both doubles and singles. In college, she earned a physical-education degree at a time when few women entered the field, and in the early 1980s, she became the first player-manager of the most profitable franchise of the International Women’s Professional Softball League. Today, still a muscular and graceful athlete at age 49, she is a shortstop for the California Express, a women’s professional softball team that took second place in the league’s 1999 world championships.


Sharpnack describes her athletic talent as a meld of instinct and preparedness — both mental and physical. “When people watch me play, they might think, ‘How did she know to go there?’ ” she says. “It’s almost as if I’m moving to the ball before I see where it’s headed. Some of that is the dance of the body coupled with experience and working on instinct. But more than that, it is a state of being — a complete focus and presence of attention that I have to maintain every moment that I’m out on the field.”

That insight is precisely what Sharpnack applies to her other career — teaching leadership to businesspeople (mainly women) inside some of the most powerful companies in the world. Leadership isn’t about doing, Sharpnack insists. It’s about being. You are more likely to succeed if you concentrate on transforming your mental framework, rather than on memorizing mechanics. Her approach revolves around self-discovery, and her personal history in sports is merely a reference point. For the real lessons, she sends participants into their own psyches to explore their views of the world, their companies, and themselves — and how those perceptions shape their behaviors and opinions.

That philosophy has become the core curriculum behind the Institute for Women’s Leadership, which Sharpnack founded in 1991. Most of each three-day seminar on “breakthrough change” involves conversation. Drawing on her academic background in linguistics, business, and psychology, Sharpnack guides participants through a process of unlearning what they assume to be true about what they can (and can’t) accomplish. All of this talk, participants agree, changes how they walk the walk of leadership.

“Quite simply, it was a life-changing experience,” says Vivian Groman, 43, a senior VP of finance and corporate administrative technology at Charles Schwab Corp., who took Sharpnack’s course in 1997. “You walk in with a challenge, some mountain that you don’t think you can climb. When you walk out, you’ve built a higher mountain that you know you can climb.”

Sharpnack primarily targets women simply because she thinks that they have a natural affinity for her leadership methods. And she has a big-picture theory as well: The more women that she trains to lead critical, business-changing projects, the more women will get promoted, and the more the balance of power inside companies will shift. So far, her model has produced compelling business results. Women at Schwab felt that the training was making such a difference in the company’s competitiveness that they asked Sharpnack to share the class with male colleagues too. The feedback from the coed course was so positive that Schwab added the class to its regular HR-training offerings.


Between the company-specific sessions and the open courses that she has led over the years, Sharpnack has amassed an alumnae base of several hundred women from such companies as Apple Computer, Boeing, Compaq, the Gillette Company, Hewlett-Packard, Levi Strauss & Co., and Wells Fargo. Her alums are some of the most impressive and successful change agents in business today. (See “Leadership Moments,” pages 272, 276, and 280.) Some women even admit to carrying Sharpnack’s softball card in their wallets like a sort of leadership talisman.

In a series of interviews with Fast Company, Sharpnack shared her insights about the dynamics of leadership and change — from how to build a “cathedral of change” to how to have a “conversation for action.”

How to “Be” a Leader

What is different about your approach to leadership?

For most people, leadership is about “what you need to know” and “what you need to do.” But sells more than 1,000 books that will tell you what you need to know and what you need to do. We work on who you need to be, which we call the “context.” It’s the being aspect of leadership that enables breakthroughs in what people do and what they learn. In my classes, I’m going for those “aha” moments, which are really the ignition and illumination of the genius of the participants themselves. That experience is much more meaningful and relevant than trying to learn someone else’s shtick or methodology for leadership.

What do you mean by “context”?


Context can be an individual’s mind-set or the organizational culture. It includes all of the assumptions and norms that are brought to the table. Context is perception, as opposed to facts or data. People don’t go off and design their context — they just inherit it. So take anything from racism to sexism to what you think you can and can’t do: It’s all pretty much inheritance. It’s conversations, oral tradition, all that kind of stuff. When you slow down enough to examine those ideas, you might realize, Oh my gosh! I’ve been operating as though everyone else knew more than I did, just because back in grade school I was put in the bluebird reading group, instead of in the faster robin group. So it might be that kind of a deep individual insight that allows you to see that your whole context has been that you’re a second-rate player.

Most change programs inside of companies don’t work because they address content (the knowledge, structure, and data in a company) or process (the activities and behaviors), but they never address the context in which both of those elements reside. The source of people’s action isn’t what they know but how they perceive the world around them. And that’s a very different thing to work on than knowledge or information.

How do you change the way that people perceive the world?

I’ll give you an example from my life, something personal rather than professional. When my daughter Chelsea was eight, I coached her softball team. On one of the first days of practice, I have everyone try to do some batting. I take a really soft, spongy ball, and I toss it to the first girl. She’s standing maybe 10 feet away, I’m throwing baby tosses, and she screams and hides her head. So I say, “Hey, no problem, Suzy. Go to the back of the line. That’s fine. Betsy, you step up.” Next girl in line. She does the same thing — buries her head and screams. So I’m realizing that this is going to be a really long practice if we don’t do something different.

I go out to my car where I have my handy whiteboard markers in my briefcase. I take the bag of practice balls and draw four smiley faces — red, black, blue, and green — on each ball. When you look at a ball, all you see is one smiley face. I go back out and call the girls back over: “Okay. We’re going to play a different game this time,” I say. “This time, your job is to name the color of the smiley face. That’s all you have to do.”


So little Suzy stands up, and I toss a ball by her. She watches it all the way and goes, “Red.” Next girl, Betsy, gets up there. Betsy goes, “Green.” They’re all just chirping with excitement because they can identify the color of the smiley face, so I say, “Okay. Now I want you to do the same thing, only this time I want you to hold the bat on your shoulder when the ball goes by.” Same level of success. Excitement builds. The third time through, I ask them to touch the smiley face with the bat.

We beat our opponents 27 to 1 in the first game. I can’t tell you how many Little League baseball games I have been to where parents and coaches are yelling at the boys, “Stand up straight. Hold up that bat elbow. Dig in that back foot. Rotate those hips.” They’re giving all kinds of detailed instructions to get the kids to change their actions — instead of doing what I did, which was to work hard on shifting the kids’ perceptions. When you shift people’s perceptions, their actions follow.

How would that approach play out in a business setting?

A few years ago, one of my students, a marketing director at a high-tech company, applied this concept in a really powerful way. She worked for a software developer, and it was company practice to send out documentation with all of the company’s new software releases. She and her team were brainstorming ways to cut their budget. They looked at every way they could think of to reduce costs: Switch to a lower grade of paper, use soy-based ink, choose a smaller font, do more with graphics, cut down on words. She realized that the context for the conversation included the assumption that they had to have documentation. So they came up with the idea to send postcards to their customers. These cards had four options. The first one was, “Don’t send documentation. We don’t read it anyway.” The second one was, “Don’t send documentation. We’ll use tech support.” The third one was, “Don’t send documentation. Save a tree.” And the fourth one was, “Please send documentation.” Only 5% of their customers wanted documentation, and the company saved $400,000 that quarter. Now, that’s an example of hearing context and shifting people’s perceptions of how to move forward — and then linking it to the bottom line.

Cathedrals of Change, Conversations for Action

Having a breakthrough idea is a great start. How do you turn that idea into action?


Relationships are absolutely critical. And typically, a relationship is viewed from a personality context: Do I like you or do I not like you? Are you my type of person? Is your style a good fit? We don’t go there in our program. I mean, it’s always a bonus if you can get personalities to mesh, but it’s not a prerequisite to being able to lead profound change. What is a prerequisite is having a relationship with a foundation that is strong enough to build what I call a “cathedral of change.” And a lot of people are trying to build cathedrals on these puny little foundations that won’t support the structure.

The basic point: Trust is absolutely fundamental to getting anything done. And in organizations, it’s one of the biggest issues that people don’t talk about but that impedes progress. For most of us, trust is like money in a bank account — units in, units out. If you meet my expectations over time, then I’ll put some coins in the bank. Clink, clink, clink, clink — and now you’ve earned my trust. And if you don’t, or if you upset me, then I’ll take some coins out.

That’s one whole dimension of trust, but it’s not the only one. Another dimension of trust comes in when you give trust to people before they’ve earned it. Now, that’s a heroic moment. To give trust before a person has earned it is a very risky deal. And most organizations would tell you not to do that because your reputation is on the line. Your credibility is on the line. You’re gonna trust somebody who you don’t even know? Well, we do it all the time. We just don’t notice it.

Are there things that a leader needs to know?

You have to know how to have what I call “conversations for action.” Everybody spends time in meetings where there’s a lot of talk and not a lot of action. That’s because we don’t identify which kinds of conversations result in performance. For instance, in a football game, you have a conversation going on in the huddle. The quarterback says something like, “Okay, drop back, pass protection, sprint out right, pass on two.” That’s a set of instructions. He’s asking that the front line form a V-shape protective shield around him so that the other team doesn’t crush him. He’s requesting that the two folks on the end go down the field, cut across it, and wait for him to throw them the ball, and he’s promising that he’s going to drop back, kind of veer off to the right, and throw a pass to one of those two people. That’s a conversation for action.


There are other conversations going on at the same time. There are people in the press box who are saying, “Well, there’s Steve Young again. The last time he was in this situation, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Nothing that they say has any effect on the game at all. Then there are the people in the stands who are saying, “Gee, I really don’t like these hot dogs. The ones at Price Club are so much better.” Not a bit of influence on the game. Well, the same thing happens in organizations. People are having conversations for action. They are attempting to move the organization into the future, or to move the product into the marketplace. And then there are the other people who are sitting in the stands or sitting in the press box who are talking about what could or should or would have happened.

In the same way, there are conversations that happen on an individual level that head somewhere, and then there are those that just spiral downward. A couple of years ago, I was talking to a colleague, and I was kind of whining about somebody I worked with who was being an ogre. And my colleague listened and then said, “Okay, I just have one question. What are you building a case for?” And I said, “Well, he’s domineering, and I’m getting screwed over.” And she asked, “Is that what you’re committed to?” I said, “Uh, that would be no.” And she didn’t say another word.

I took out my Post-its and wrote this question: What are you building a case for? I stuck it to my computer. I was so quiet the next week. Whenever I went to open my mouth, I noticed that I was preparing to build a case for something. Now, if I were building a case for the transformation of gender equality on the planet, then okay, that’s a conversation I want to have. If it were a conversation to whine or complain about traffic (about which I can do nothing), then I could either have that one or not have that one. If it were a conversation based on gossip or a rumor, then I wouldn’t have that one. I became hyperaware that everything coming out of my mouth was building a case for something — often, for something that I wasn’t really committed to.

You talk about breakthroughs on a personal level as well as on a company level. How does that happen?

You start out with a commitment to acquire a competency. You want to be good at something, so you kind of existentially declare your commitment by saying, “I want to be something. I want to achieve something.” Then you go into learning mode. As soon as you learn, you’ve got to practice. Only two things can come from practice — failure and success — and they both have to come before any real learning can happen. But we have a love-hate relationship with success and failure — that is, we love success and we hate failure.


That’s more of an adult phenomenon, by the way. When little kids are first starting to walk and to pick up and drop things, they’re fine. There’s no judgment associated with those things. Everything’s an experiment to them. But by the time people get to be adults, they have almost no tolerance for failure. And that is a very, very dangerous context to have if you want to be a lifelong learner, because the only way to learn is through failure. That’s another one of those “aha” moments: when you realize that people work in organizations that religiously try to reduce the risk of failure, when the only way to grow is through experimentation, practice, and risk.

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