Unleash your creativity: Saying Yes to Change

You know how for the last few years there’s been a whole conversation about how women should learn to say no? Well, today I’d like to invite you to unleash your creativity by learning when NOT to say no! Come with me!

Between February 4 and 6 2014 there was a transportation strike in London during which some Tube (subway) stations were closed. If you are a commuter, you can empathize with the pain our friends across the pond must have felt. For two days, the Underground stopped and people had to figure out a different route to get to work.

As we all know commuters are masters of efficiency. For years they’ve studied to the millisecond the best routes, shortcuts and timesaving schemes until they arrived to the “perfect” one. So, having their routine suddenly interfered with created more than a bit of anger.

When the dispute was over, most people went back to their old routine. But a substantial minority did not. In what turned out to be an unplanned, yet, a great social experiment, about 5 % of commuters discovered a new, more effective (or maybe more pleasurable) way to get to and from work every day. Why do I tell you this story? Because it reveals that sometimes, to unleash your creativity, you need a major, unexpected disruption.

Necessity is the mother of invention inspirational quote

You don’t need to wait for a disruption to practice your creativity. You can set your own disruptions deliberately.

Rejecting change may get in the way of unleashing your creativity

The reality is that most of us resist disruptions even when they pretty small. They entail changes in our plans, routines or expectations. The train is late; your client cancels and appointment; it rains the day of your annual picnic; your favorite coffee house is closed when you’re craving a shot of espresso, and a million other circumstances that face us daily.  Suddenly, we become children ready to throw a tantrum and it’s all you can do to hold the fumes building inside and not give into the tantrum completely.

But what would happen if at the moment the disruption takes place, right when you hear that the flight is cancelled for instance, you said, “Wow, the news sucks but let me think for a second about how to do something unusual with this circumstances.”

It’s not easy to change direction when things don’t go as you expect. Sometimes, the emotional toll is hard to deal with. But the saying “necessity is the mother of invention” is true. Many great innovations were born of mistakes, of disruptions and /or extreme situations where people were forced outside of their comfort zone. That’s what pumps your brain to come up with new solutions. That’s why disruptions can seriously help unleash your creativity and we’d all be better off embracing them.

Being more creative is about embracing change. Pictures taken at a recent Red Shoe Movement Signature Event.

A few weeks ago, I had a trip planned to Europe. The night before my trip the friend I was visiting had an emergency and asked me to cancel the trip. I immediately agreed that this was the right decision and called the airline to cancel the flight. It took me a bit longer to align my emotions with the new circumstances. We had put a lot of energy and expectations into planning this trip and the fact that I knew cancelling was the right thing to do, it was still not enough to get me out of the funk.

So I gave myself 24 hours to process the change of plans and then I bought a ticket to Seattle. Look, my bags were packed, my calendar cleared, my mind prepared for a week off. A friend of mine had just landed a new job there and I had never been to town so I said, why not. 48 hours later I was on top of the Space Needle, having a fabulous time.

Not only did I visit with my friend and enjoyed some quality time with her, I also did some serious sight seeing. But most importantly, the change of scenery enabled me to pivot from a big disappointment quickly, and make new plans rather than wallow on what should’ve or could’ve been. My conversations during the trip informed new projects I had been thinking about and the trip in general lifted the cloud that came over me as a result of the unexpected change of plans. It allowed my creative juices to flow again.

Asking questions like this one can also help unleash your creativity

Unleash your creativity on demand

There’s a story about Keith Jarrett the famous, talented jazz musician, who is always extremely meticulous about his instrument when he performs. One time in 1975, he accepted to play a concert in Cologne, Germany, despite the fact that the Opera House got him the wrong piano, one only intended for rehearsals. That concert was recorded and surprisingly, it has become the best-selling solo album in jazz history, and the all-time best-selling piano album. What Keith Jarrett did when faced with such a disastrous situation was magic. He turned lemons into lemonade. How ready and open are you to do the same? How creatively do you react to adverse situations?

No doubt that the more you practice, the better you become at turning the unexpected disruptions into sources of creative solutions. The problem is that you never know when or what will go wrong so it’s hard to practice with random life occurrences. But what if instead you set your own disruptions? If you’re looking for a great way to unleash your creativity on demand, here are 5 ideas to consider.

Few things accelerate your creativity as saying yes to change. Try it! Photo insert credit: Pnina Yuhjtman.

Here are 5 disruptions to unleash your creativity:

1Assign the role of contrarian to someone in your group. It’s natural for a group of people who work together to try to arrive to agreements, and that’s fine. In the end, we need to push towards one common goal or project. But that one common project could be much more creative if you consider as many different points of view as possible before settling for the best idea. If you make sure one person has the role to come up with what’s wrong with what everyone agrees on, it will force the group to continue improving on the idea.

2Interrupt yourself strategically. Rather than working on a project from beginning to end without taking a break, stop. Set up an alarm at a random number of minutes and no matter where you are at stop, get up, take a walk, make yourself a cup of coffee or make a phone call. (Or rather than ignoring it, follow your smart watch instructions to get up and walk 250 steps every hour!) Interrupting your thinking flow makes you come back to the project with new eyes.  Now you may think you get interrupted a million times by beeping sounds from your electronic devices anyway. Not the same thing. Those interruptions are counter productive as they don’t allow enough time to dive into a project. The idea is to dive in deep and then stop. So silence your devices and just set up your alarm. You can do this with anything: while writing a blog, creating a presentation, developing a product, etc.

3Change roles. Try to rotate roles even for a day. Ask your boss for the opportunity to spend a day, a week or a month in someone else’s shoes. It could be in a different function, or location. Talk about a real change of perspective.

4 Shake up your flex-policy. A great way to unleash your creativity could come from reversing the days you work from home and from the office. Or, if you have never taken advantage of this policy, it may be time to try it. This simple change will likely throw your routine off and it will force you to come up with creative solutions for everyday problems.

5Pick a different route or way to get to work. Create your own transportation disruption and either chose a different route to get to work or a new mode of transport. Do you usually take the train? Use your bike. Do you normally drive? Ask a colleague for a lift.

Lateral thinking is a great strategy to foster your creativity!
Inspirational quote

Test your comfort zone often…

Even small disruptions like going to the bathroom on a different floor can elicit new conversations with people you don’t usually see. And who knows where those conversations may lead?

If you really want to unleash your creativity, it’s important to embrace change and say yes to those things that make you uncomfortable. They may prove to be the spark you need to take things to the next level.

 

 

An example of how to leverage your personal traits in your job

Katie Beirne Fallon went from working for President Obama to heading Corporate Affairs at Hilton Hotels. How did she do it? What traits did she bring with her? Here’s an example of how to leverage your personal traits in your job. Read on!

Katie Beirne Fallon is the Executive Vice President and Global Head of Corporate Affairs for Hilton. She has a peculiar background: She was Senior Advisor and Director of Legislative Affairs for President Obama. She was the President’s Chief Liaison with Congress. Before serving the Obama White House, Katie was the Staff Director of the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center in the U.S. Congress. She also worked for Senator Chuck Schumer. How, I wondered, did she transitioned to her current role at Hilton? What were her personal traits that she carried from job to job?

Katie Fallon in red, is a perfect example of how to leverage your personal traits in your job. Here with Hilton's top executives at a 100th birthday celebration media event.

Katie Fallon in red, is a perfect example of how to leverage your personal traits in your job. Here with Hilton’s top executives at a 100th birthday celebration media event.

Mariela Dabbah— Which of your personal traits have helped you the most to navigate the major crises you confronted in your career in corporate affairs?

Katie Fallon— My old boss likes to say I’m very balanced.

MD— You mean, President Obama?

KF— Yes. (Laughter.) From growing up in a large family (I’m one of eight kids) and from having a growing family myself, I have the ability to ask what’s really important and to allow that perspective to keep me calm and build my patience. I allow it to give me clarity of vision on how to approach a problem without the anxiety of worrying about what would happen if I fail.

MD— Even when you are in the middle of the crisis you are able to tap into that peaceful place?

KF— Yes, and again, I credit the household I grew up in. (Laughter) Because I needed to be the mediator of the family, the person who injected a joke when things got tense… I took that with me. I think that’s one of the main reasons I entered politics. Because I liked negotiating among strong wills and different personalities.

MD— What number child are you?

KF— Second oldest. And my sister and I were born the same year, so we are only 11 months apart.

MD— Given that you are 6’1”, do you think your height has something to do with your ability to see things from above the fray? To always keep a perspective?

KF— I never thought about it that way. When I was a teenager I had a tough time being so tall. I was 5’8” at 13. I slouched and wore flats… But now I own it. In reflecting back, I recall many moments when being the tallest one in the group or on a team, people naturally turned to me to come up with a plan of action or to respond to their questions. So I think it helped me develop my leadership skills.

Katie Fallon learned to negotiate various points of view at home. She's one of 8 kids.

Katie Fallon learned to negotiate various points of view at home. She’s one of 8 kids.

MD— Your last job was working at the White House for President Obama. What skills did you develop there that have prepared you to lead corporate affairs at Hilton?

KF— When Hilton’s CEO, Chris Nassetta, offered me to leave public service to come to work for Hilton, he used an analogy that the hospitality industry —and Hilton in particular —replicates the structure of a political campaign. You have all these properties all over the world that function as local campaigns and the general managers of the properties are like campaign managers.  “Imagine the potential you could have if you could get all our Hilton hotels to advocate for the same thing. To implement the same changes. To drive social impact. To run global campaigns around corporate responsibility. It could be even more impactful than what you’re doing in politics,” he said. That’s what won me over.  I have to say the changes we have done in two and a half years have been larger than what I’ve made in a dozen years in politics.

I don’t think I’d be able to have this impact, however, if I hadn’t had the prior experience. Particularly because there was so much friction and tension in the legislative and advocacy world in the last decade that I had to learn how to navigate very different, polarizing perspectives to get things done. And in a different context, at Hilton we have a variety of stakeholders all aligned to different goals: Owners, suppliers, franchisees, different countries with different regulations… So to navigate all these various perspectives in service of our vision I use a lot of what I learned.

From NASA to CEO of Girl Scouts, don't miss another inspiring industry-changer!

MD— So what specific traits did you bring from politics?

KF— Putting myself in other people’s shoes so I understand their position, which is a skill I built in my time in politics. Going back to my family, I grew up in a very mixed household, with several very conservative members. I’m one of the few who had more progressive views. Having deep respect for my parents and my siblings’ different perspectives allowed for a civil discourse that ended in us understanding each other.

In the hospitality business we only succeed as a company if we treat each guest as the individual human being they are. That’s going to be our secret sauce in the future too. When you think about that as a massive scale, at Hilton we can catalyze not only our workforce, but also the 166 millions guests from last year alone. Each one of them can make those human connections when they travel.

Respecting each individual as a human being has always been at the core of Katie Fallon's attitude in her personal and professional life.

Respecting each individual as a human being has always been at the core of Katie Fallon’s attitude in her personal and professional life.

Discover your blind spots with this exercise, an alternative to the Johari Window!

MD— Do you think you developed a very thick skin by working in politics and that you apply that in your current job?

KF— Yes. Absolutely. In politics you wake up every morning expecting a crisis. And you had to steel yourself to be able to respond and be confident that your instincts will be sharp. And you are bound to get it wrong. If everyday you deal with a different issue you are bound to make mistakes. I came into politics as a perfectionists and it was hard to adjust to that reality. But you have to bounce right back. Because you have to put your game face back on the next day.

I had the benefit of having bosses who reinforced that in me because nobody understands better the challenges of being publicly scrutinized than elected politicians, so I had bosses who helped me develop that perspective. And over time I became easier on myself.

In my Hilton job, we have different things happening every day and sometimes I get it right and sometimes I get it wrong. Thankfully, I have a team of people around me who are not afraid to question me and I’m not afraid to take their feedback.

An example of how to leverage your personal traits in your job, Katie Fallon went from the White House to Hilton Hotels.

An example of how to leverage your personal traits in your job, Katie Fallon went from the White House to Hilton.

MD— Do you feel that in the last couple of years since you’ve been in this company you’ve seen a clear trajectory for women to the C-Suite and strategies in place for that to happen?

KF— Yes. I’m part of the executive committee that sets our goals every year in terms of women recruiting and women in leadership roles. We co-create the goals with our board which is 44% women. The executive committee is responsible for making sure their functions are tracking those goals. We have a deliberate focus to hold each other accountable to the goals we agreed to. To use myself as an example I may be one of the few women who gave birth while being on an executive committee.  I serve in several boards and in one of them they told me they think I’m the only board member who gave birth while serving on a public company board. The fact that they instituted a parental leave policy on the board because of me speaks volumes. When I told Chris (Hilton’s CEO) that I was pregnant he cried. I was worried about the conversation as we were heading into our 100thbirthday celebration, but he was emotionally happy for me. And you can tell from the way the team looks after me when we travel, and pass my baby around on the plane…

MD— So you could truly say, they walk the walk.

KF— They do. They walk the walk. But it’s more than that. I couldn’t do it without them. They are my family.

An Alternative and Informal Way to Johari’s Window: Discover your Blind Spots

Being aware of your blind spots is always useful. But to grow in your career and particularly when you work with others it’s invaluable. Check out this alternative and easy-to-implement method to Johari’s window.

For decades, many people relied on the Johari’s Window technique. Created by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in 1955, it’s an exercise where subjects pick a number of adjectives from a list that they feel describe them. Then, the subject’s peers are asked to choose an equal number of adjectives describing the subject. These adjectives are introduced into four quadrants (see image.)

  1. Open Area: Includes adjectives that were selected by the subject and his/her peers.
  2. Blind Spot: Includes adjectives only selected by the peers.
  3. Hidden or Façade: Includes adjectives selected only by the subject.
  4. Unknown: Includes the adjectives nobody selected.
Johari's window quadrants. Check out this alternative and easy to implement method to Johari's window.

Johari’s window quadrants

An Alternative and Informal Way to Johari’s Window

This exercise is aimed at increasing your self-awareness, learning how others perceive you and discovering any blind spots.

It came to mind as I was recently listening to Shonda Rhimes talk about developing memorable characters.  I found it fascinating that one of the questions she tries to answer about them is “what don’t they know about themselves.” In other words, one of the most successful creators of contemporary TV dramas focuses on her characters’ blind spots in order to advance the plot.

I couldn’t help thinking that this would be a very useful alternative to the Johari Window when asked in the context of one’s career. An informal way to discover blind spots that may be interfering with your growth or with achieving certain goals.

So I put my little theory to the test with a few friends and colleagues. What follows is what I learned in the process. Warning: Read on before you try this at home.

Blind Spots: Discovering them helps you grow

Blind Spots: Discovering them helps you grow

To Discover Your Blind Spots, Provide people with a very specific question

It’s a mistake to think that you can throw out a question such as, “What do you think I don’t know about myself?” and get useful answers. (Not for nothing, the Johari technique offers 56 specific adjectives to choose from.)

Although it may seem like a specific enough question, it’s really not. It opens the floodgates for people to discharge any old grunt they have with you and tell you things they don’t like about you. (Which you probably knew anyway.) So, it’s important to say something specific such as, “When it comes to my professional life, what do you think I don’t know about myself? Things I may do in an automatic way that may be a blind spot of mine?”

Clarify the reason why you are asking the question

Many people may think you’re fishing for compliments. One of the people I asked recorded five long messages describing my personality. And although it’s always uplifting to hear people you admire say nice things about you, that’s not what you are going for. To grow, you not only need a steady diet of cheerleaders and people who’ve got your back, but you also need to know what you don’t know.  And who’s in a better position to share that with you than those same people who will give you the shirt off their back? So, you have to be clear about the reason you are seeking these insights in order for everyone to feel comfortable providing them.

Discover your Blind Spots with this Alternative and Informal Method to Johari's Window.

Discover your Blind Spots with this Alternative and Informal Method to Johari’s Window.

Before you ask, prepare yourself to truly listen

Even before I offer a simple framework to help people give you the feedback you seek, a warning. You shouldn’t embark on this journey unless you have a thick skin and have learned to take criticism in stride. Asking for this kind of information is a risk both for the person asking and for the person providing the answer. You may hear things you didn’t expect to. Some stuff will be great and other stuff will probably be uncomfortable, surprising, or painful. But if you ask for it, you have to be ready to take it. You can’t get upset or start giving the person counter feedback, which they haven’t asked for. Think about it this way: This person is taking a risk by offering insights they think you are not aware of. They do it because they care about you and your growth. Don’t penalize them for being honest.

Carefully choose those you ask

For several reasons, this is not a question you can just ask just about anyone in your network. So choose wisely who to include in your experiment. These are the parameters you should consider when selecting someone:

  • They should know you well
  • They know you in a professional context
  • You should trust that they have your best interest at heart
  • They don’t hold a grudge against you
  • They are not your siblings 😉
To grow in your career, you not only need cheerleaders but people who tell you what you don't see about yourself.

To grow in your career, you not only need cheerleaders but people who tell you what you don’t see about yourself.

Provide a framework for people to use for their answer

Through the years, I’ve developed a thick skin. It was the only way to survive in business. But I wasn’t born like this. It used to be very hard for me to hear what others had to say about my performance. But as you mature and realize you won’t die every time someone says something negative about you and that on the contrary, those comments help you grow, you become stronger.

So when I thought of going through with this experiment, I just asked the question without giving it a second thought. I didn’t feel that I needed to give my friends and colleagues a framework for providing feedback because I instinctively knew I could take whatever they had to say about me. Until someone brought to my attention that that was one of my blind spots. 1) Not realizing that not everyone is ready to ask a question like this and deal with the answers. And 2) not realizing that not everyone has the necessary emotional intelligence to modulate the kind of feedback they give to different individuals depending on that individual’s temperament. Touché.

So here’s the framework

Send an email explaining why you’re asking the question. “I’m interested in discovering any blind spots that I may be able to leverage for my career growth and I need your help. Would you mind telling me, ‘When it comes to my professional life, what do you think I don’t know about myself? I’m not referring to what some of my weaknesses are, but about any particular behavior, belief, attitude, gesture, etc. that I may be unaware of. The idea is to discover some areas that I may be able to put to better use for my career, and others that I may need to tweak to move forward. In order to make the most of your feedback, please try to frame your comments within one or more of the following constructions:

  • You should consider doing more of…
  • You should consider doing less of…
  • Sometimes you do x… which has y… as a consequence. Perhaps you could consider doing more of z…
  • Under x circumstances you tend to do y. I’d suggest you do more of z/ or less of b”
Learn how to ask others for feedback with this alternative method to Johari's window.

Learn how to ask others for feedback with this alternative method to Johari’s window.

What to do with the feedback

Once you review the feedback, sit on it for a bit. Don’t make any rash changes or decisions. It takes a minute to digest this kind of insights and to understand what you can use and what you can’t. Or what you don’t want to.  Keep in mind that you’re asking people to guess what you don’t know about yourself.

I received a bunch of answers that were not blind spots of mine at all. Things people thought I didn’t know about and which in fact I make overt use of in my professional and personal lives. (Like I was very histrionic, for example.) Clearly, if you had as many years of psychotherapy as I had (part of my Argentine upbringing) or if you have been exposed to coaching or any other practice that develops your self-awareness, it will be harder for others to discover any true blind spots. That doesn’t mean that they are not there.

If done with your eyes wide open, this is an informal way of getting to some valuable information about yourself that can help you unveil where the opportunities for growth lie.

If you're ready to move up in your career explore our successful Step Up Plus program!

Example of Unconscious Bias in Action: What’s wrong with this picture?

Take a quick look at this image. What does it represent to you? No, it’s not a test about unconscious bias in action but it should be. Let’s analyze this example of unconscious bias in detail.

A perfect example of unconscious bias in action. What do you see when you see this pic? Here's the description used by iStockphoto where both the publisher of the article discussed here and the Red Shoe Movement purchased it: A stylized vector cartoon of a Man and woman's feet playing footsie, the style is reminiscent of an old screen print poster. Suggesting Romance, flirtation, love, attraction, seduction or temptation.

What do you see when you see this pic? Here’s the description used by iStockphoto where both the publisher of the article discussed here and the Red Shoe Movement purchased it: “A stylized vector cartoon of a Man and woman’s feet playing footsie, the style is reminiscent of an old screen print poster. Suggesting Romance, flirtation, love, attraction, seduction or temptation.”

Here are a few things that come to mind when I look at it: A woman rubbing a man’s leg under a table. A seductress in action. A woman coming on to a man. And several variations which you can read in the caption (above) used by iStockphoto to describe the picture to potential buyers.

Let’s Add Context to the Picture: Sexual Harassment?

Now some context. This picture illustrates an article about sexual harassment in a magazine for leaders. The title of the piece is: “How to stop sexual misconduct in the workplace,” a problem that has mostly involved high powered men harassing less powerful women.

Yes, it’s true that there are cases of women harassing men. But this particular piece focuses on solutions for the more pervasive situations that started coming to light following the New Yorker revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation. The illustration is a perfect example of unconscious bias on the part of the publisher.

A Great Example of Unconscious Bias: The Red Shoe

I know you probably think I’m hypersensitive because the shoe is red. And you’d be right. I’m hyper observant of red shoes in real life and on print. But that doesn’t make the pairing of this image with the text any righter. You see, it’s part of why things move so slowly when it comes to changing the culture in our workplaces and our communities. We let slips like this go unchallenged.

This particular article was written by two men and a woman. Granted, they may not have seen the picture the editor picked for their article. But the editor did. And the female president of the publication did as well. And nobody thought there was something wrong with the way the picture contradicted the advice they were giving.

This is how unconscious bias works. It’s unconscious. So you must be trained on how to perceive your own biases and on how to perceive those of others in your environment. Then, you must have the presence of mind to call out what you see at the right time. That is, before going to print. Fixing the workplace is a joint venture. We are all in it together all the time. Regardless of titles or job descriptions. In other words, we should adopt the very effective New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority campaign slogan, which has been licensed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: “If you See Something, Say Something ®”

The picture used to illustrate the article we discuss here reflects an unconscious bias and it contradicts the advice in the article. Example of unconscious bias.

The picture used to illustrate the article we discuss here is a clear example of  unconscious bias and it contradicts the advice in the article.

Unconscious Bias in Action: 4 situations where you should say something

1Colleagues talking about women in a dismissive or derogatory way.

They may not realize that their comments reflect a bias against female colleagues or they may be doing it on purpose. Either way, when this happens in your presence, take a stand. Stop the conversation by pointing out that this kind of talk is damaging. Although it may be hard to do depending on the context and the people doing the talking, it’s imperative to find a way to avoid engaging in the conversation. Clearly, the same applies when the derogatory talk involves men.

Read more about how to become a male ally.

2People making jokes about women (or any other non-majority group.)

These may be the hardest situations to “fix” given that jokes often seem to slide by without much contention. But be aware that they are as damaging as the other examples of unconscious bias discussed here. Not only do they frequently offend women but they also perpetuate the stereotypes they portray: Women as weak, submissive, not smart or as sexual objects.

The best way to intervene? Rather than laughing along, just say something such as:  “That isn’t funny.” Then, when the joker points out your lack of sense of humor, you may reply in a kind voice and a serene demeanor: “How would you feel if I made that joke about your daughter or sister? Or if I told her the joke?” This way you bring the unconscious bias to light and give people a chance to put themselves in the shoes of the group that is the butt of the joke. You can apply the same approach to the previous point.

3Advertising by your company that features women who are unnecessarily scantily dressed (meaning, the ad is not for a product you’d use at the beach.)

There are no lack of examples of ads featuring women in sexy clothes, poses or roles to sell products and services. In a great many of them the women are just eye candy.

This is another example of unconscious bias in action that has a pervasive effect on the image of women. Why not question your creative team or your agency about their decision to use sexy women to generate sales? It may mean they are not that creative after all.

4Starting/Spreading rumors about sexual relationships in the office.

Whether founded or unfounded, rumors are damaging to everyone’s reputation but in the end, they tend to affect women the most. Almost inevitably, going forward, others will assume that these women received a promotion through special favors. An unconscious bias that doesn’t affect men the same way. On top of that, this kind of rumors create tension at home for everyone involved, particularly for those in committed relationships. So, as hard as it is to resist the guilty pleasure of gossiping, do. If for some reason, the information about the affair is relevant to you, your best approach is to discover the source of the rumor to verify its veracity and take action from there.

Changing unconscious biases that are so ingrained in our culture is not easy. By being observant and calling out unacceptable behavior and unconscious slips we can all contribute to creating a workplace that is welcoming to everyone. Is there any example of unconscious bias that comes to mind? Share it with me in the comments section below.

Sylvia Acevedo: From NASA to CEO, Girl Scouts

Sylvia Acevedo started off her career as a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs, not your regular first stop for a journey to become the CEO of one of America’s most beloved institutions, Girl Scouts.

RSM Hall of Fame

RSM Hall of Fame

She left to attend graduate school at Stamford and pursue a career in Silicon Valley where she held executive positions at Apple, Dell and Autodesk. Sylvia is a life-long advocate for universal access to education and serves as Commissioner on the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics. She’s an expert in mobilizing communities to increase family engagement in education.

After serving as interim CEO of the Girl Scouts in 2016, Sylvia Acevedo was named permanent CEO in May 2017. Under her tenure, the Girl Scouts introduced a series of badges in robotics, coding, engineering, and cybersecurity.In 2018 she was featured among “America’s Top 50 Women in Tech” by Forbes.

For relentlessly breaking through the glass ceiling and opening new worlds to women and girls, we honor Sylvia Acevedo with the 2019 Hall of Fame.

Red Shoe Movement — There are few women CEOs but there are probably even fewer women who are rocket scientists and who participated in an actual mission. Tell us about your experience at NASA and how that helped shape your career.

Sylvia Acevedo, CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA

Sylvia Acevedo, CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA

Sylvia Acevedo —It was my first job out of college, working as a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The first program I worked on was called the Solar Polar Solar Probe (SPSP). My job was to help figure out the payload and testing equipment that would be carried on a satellite going to the sun. I had to consider questions like how the equipment would work in the intense heat being generated close to the sun, how it would react to the radiation, how its weight would affect the amount of fuel we would need to carry on the rocket. So to answer these questions I had to create complex algorithms. It takes a long time to launch a new space expedition, and this solar probe finally, decades after I worked on it, launched in August as the Parker Solar Probe.

I also got to work on the Voyager 2 mission, which at the time was passing by Jupiter and its moons Io and Europa. This was a long-range program, which continues to this day, sending automated spacecraft to outer planets to record data and send it back to Earth. The Voyager was transmitting amazing images and data, and JPL needed engineers to analyze them. There were some images coming back from Jupiter and its moons that we had never seen before—just amazing stuff. I really enjoyed my time at NASA—it was such an exciting time to be there doing that work.

After the Voyager 2 had gone by Jupiter, I realized that it was going to take years before it went to the next planet and the next project I was on was going to take decades. So at that point, I realized, “OK, this was great,” but I was ready to go get my master’s at Stanford. Once I had that degree I had the background in engineering and the mathematics expertise to pursue a career in Silicon Valley.

It was a lifelong dream to work at NASA and a true honor to take part in such fascinating and world-changing projects. And the work I did on Solar Polar Solar Probe and Voyager 2 had an incredible impact on the way I think and approach problems. I had to consider the breadth of the universe and the complexities it contained. I didn’t just have to think big—I had to think literally as big as the universe! The infiniteness of the questions and the quest for answers to them inspired me—and it continues to inspire me. I also learned the value of “blue sky thinking”—of generating and ruminating on big ideas regardless of practical constraints—and the important role that each team member plays in the pursuit of big goals.

Sylvia Acevedo CEO Girl Scouts

Sylvia Acevedo CEO Girl Scouts

Sylvia Acevedo share traits of great leaders

RSM— What are some of the key traits of a great leader?

SA—I can trace my thoughts about great leadership back to my experience as a young Girl Scout. One of the first leadership positions I held as an adult was when I was still at New Mexico State University. I was asked to join the engineering honor society, Tau Beta Pi, and I was elected president of my chapter. And I thought at the time, and I still think today, that the experience I had as a Girl Scout earning badges, being a cookie entrepreneur, and working as a team with other girls in my troop on projects gave me the confidence to raise my hand, step up, and be a leader.

Great leaders are problem solvers—they are able to break down big challenges into small, achievable goals. They are able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of team members and delegate accordingly. And they are approachable. Open and honest dialogue is very important and helps avoid misunderstandings, build consensus, and bring out the best in everyone so that they can do their best work.

And great leaders stay curious. I had an investigative mind from a very young age—I was always trying to figure out how to get around roadblocks and obstacles that were preventing me from achieving my goals. I think curiosity is an incredibly valuable trait in a 21st-century leader.

Sylvia Acevedo went from rocket scientist to CEO of one of the most beloved American organizations.

Sylvia Acevedo went from rocket scientist to CEO of one of the most beloved American organizations.

RSM— Why do women make great leaders? 

SA—It’s a bit of a cliché but I do think women are consensus builders, and that is something we need more of in our leaders today. I think women also tend to have a mission mindset. It’s so important for leaders to have a real understanding of and appreciation for what their focus is, then have persistence and determination in carrying out their mission.

Sylvia Acevedo has brought a powerful leadership style to the Girl Scouts

Sylvia Acevedo has brought a powerful leadership style to the Girl Scouts

RSM— Girls Scouts is responsible for inspiring a great majority of the female leaders in this country. Could you give us some statistics?

SA—Yes, Girl Scout has incredibly powerful outcomes. 50 percent of female business leaders, 73 percent of female U.S. senators, the majority of women who have flown in space, and 100 percent of female U.S. secretaries of state were all Girl Scouts. More than half of the 106 women in the U.S. House of Representatives are Girl Scout alums, and of the nine women currently serving as governors across the U.S., five are Girl Scouts.

RSM—What are some of the skills that girls develop as Girls Scouts that help them pursue leadership careers?

SA—The values of great leadership are imbedded throughout the Girl Scouts experience. You seek challenges and learn from setbacks. You develop a strong sense of self. You learn to identify problems and develop solutions. You build courage, confidence, and character. And you learn to take initiative.

There are some amazing Girl Scouts who are taking on big challenges in their communities to earn their Gold Award, the highest award in Girl Scouting. To earn the award they must identify a community problem, investigate it thoroughly to understand root causes, create a plan of action, build a team of people who can help them achieve their goal, present their plan and gather feedback, and then execute on that plan. Gold Award Girl Scouts use the leadership skills they learn at Girl Scouts to make a real impact, and they go on to do incredible things as leaders in the world.

Don't miss this interview with another amazing CEO, Deborah Gillis!
Girl Scouts White House Camp out

Girl Scouts White House Camp out

RSM—Why is it important to reserve some spaces for women-only experiences?

SA—Women-only spaces and experiences are incredibly important, and that confuses some people who think, “Why are they necessary?” Well, we need those places where we can connect, create, and collaborate, where we can get encouragement, where we can learn skills that we might not have access to elsewhere, where we can get replenished, and where we can hear things tailored to the way women like to learn and lead.

I was one of the few women in tech when I was in Silicon Valley, and in one of my first jobs at IBM, I noticed that the guys would always huddle with the male engineers on my floor, but they would never include me or any of the other women engineers. They would talk among themselves about the agenda, what the boss really wants to hear, and insidery things like that. So I realized that they were exchanging much inside information that we women engineers weren’t privy to. And I tried crashing the party a few times, and they closed up pretty quickly. This was an important realization, the amount of informal networking that really impacts your career that I was shut out of.

There are more women today in all different industries, but I do think it’s still important for us to have spaces of our own where we can do our own informal networking, make those connections, build those relationships, and exchange information of our own!

Sylvia Acevedo visiting school

Sylvia Acevedo visiting school

Sylvia Acevedo reflects on a costly mistake

RSM— In terms of leadership lessons, is there a particular mistake or failure that you now “cherish” because of what you learned from it?

SA—One lesson I learned is the importance of managing expectations in business relationships. In the early days of the internet and the global digital transformation, I was working with Dell in South America. There was one particular deal we were trying to close with a governmental entity and this prospective client was very used to the traditional ways of working with a corporation, which involved having a lot more people on site and considerable investment in brick and mortar plants. We were coming in and pitching a solution that could be fulfilled with only a few people on site—we brought in fewer than ten—because we could do things globally through a dispersed network of team members.

What I didn’t understand was that for this client, the absence of actual bodies in the building was a big deal. Their expectations were not lining up with what they were seeing from us. It was a very large opportunity, with millions of dollars on the line, but we didn’t close the deal because of mismanagement of expectations.

My failure was in not communicating beforehand our vision of the project, the efficiencies we would bring that would actually lower costs, and what it would require on site. To us these things were obvious, but in those days our proposal was still a new way of doing things. The fact that we had such a small in-person team said to them that we had undersized the opportunity and weren’t taking them seriously, so they didn’t take us seriously. We were really speaking past each other. It was a tough—but a very valuable—lesson to learn.

Girl Scouts Daisies

Girl Scouts Daisies