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Some crazy dreams do come true when you persevere!

A short story about a real Sky Ladder

A couple of years ago I saw a Netflix documentary about fireworks artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s Sky Ladder. To say that it moved me is a huge understatement. The final scene of the documentary inspired this short story. It speaks about the fact that some crazy dreams do come true when you persevere. And it also speaks about what those who stay by your side during the process go through while you try to fulfill your dreams. I never interviewed Qiang’s wife or anyone else involved in the project so, although the facts about the story are true, everything else is the result of my own imagination. It this were a movie, you’d read a note at the beginning that says “this is a work of fiction based on a true story.”

You may not know (or care) but I’m originally, a fiction writer. Poetry, short stories and novels have been my passion since I was very young. I decided to share some of my short stories in the Red Shoe Movement blog because I believe in the power of fiction to help us see the world through someone else’s eyes and experiences. It helps us discover aspects of ourselves and of humanity that we don’t normally access through non-fiction, and much less through the conversations we have at work. Our workplaces and professional lives could use a little more of the delightfulness we derive from reading short stories and novels. The kind of reading you probably allow yourself to “indulge in” only over your Summer vacation. Well, that’s about to change. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Why is it so hard to make your dreams come true

Introducing a short story in your work day!

Sky Ladder

She had put up with his dream for over twenty years. This outrageous dream of creating a ladder that would connect the Earth with the Universe as some kind of symbolic gesture. Of all the impossible projects Cai Guo-Qiang had ever concocted —most of which he had brought to life, she had to admit— this was by far the most absurd.

She had been there all along. Supporting him while discovering gunpowder as his artistic medium and while he used it to expand the Great Wall of China in a dragon-like pattern across the dunes in the Gobi Desert.  Because that’s what he did. He created art with fireworks. Big, large-scale, unbelievably humbling fireworks.

She stood by him when they left China for Japan and when they moved permanently to New York. She raised his kids and dealt with his ever-increasing fame. His career retrospective at the Guggenheim and his role as director in the visual and special effects in the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Summer Olympics.

But no success was ever enough. Satisfying enough. Grandiose enough. It was the Sky Ladder that kept him awake at night when everything else was going fine. She wished he’d give up. He had already achieved so much. He had attempted this feat several times before and she had witnessed how each failure had crushed him. She didn’t think she could take one more failed attempt. Not when so much money and time was going into every one of these efforts.

Make your dreams come true through perseverance

But now Cai’s grandmother was approaching 100 and he wouldn’t let go of his obsession. As if igniting this ladder would create a path for her to walk up to Heaven.

She was tired of being okay with everything. Of being by his side come what may. She felt she had earned the right to say enough. But he was unstoppable. Nothing she could say would deter him from his dream.

He continued searching for the perfect location and paradoxically, decided that it would be his small childhood fishing town. He brought experts from all over the world to direct the project. But the village people would build this sixteen hundred feet-long ladder, which would be carried up by a massive hot air balloon.

Cai worked day and night with the energy of a teenager. Nobody could match his intensity. She knew that. She saw his exhaustion and his resistance to give into it. To even show it for fear of bringing the others down. He kept at this ridiculous idea for months and months. Telling everyone this time it would work. It had to. It was the last chance he had to fulfill his promise to his grandma, who had heard him talk about this project since Cai was a kid.

And so, the day came. Or more specifically, dawn came. He had decided to light up his ladder in the wee hours of a Summer day to avoid being penalized by the Chinese government. In the night sky, the white, hot air balloon climbed slowly carrying with it the long, thin ladder over the water. Cai lit a match and slowly, each rung caught fire creating an opening in the dark sky. The small group of family and friends who had gathered to witness this miracle was spellbound as the magnificent ladder, most of them had worked on for months, climbed into space. A ladder made of fire just as Cai had dreamed for so many years.

She held her breath. Her heart beat so fast she thought it might drop to the ground. The silence around them was only made louder by the crackling sound of the explosions above them.

Then she saw Cai climb the ladder. This immaterial ladder that was being drawn out of the darkness for a few moments until the fire consumed it. There he was, climbing into space freeing his soul. The soul he had been attempting to liberate ever since he started using gunpowder as his artistic medium.

She was desolate, left alone on this earth.  Without the man who had given her purpose, the man who had taught her that there were no impossible dreams. Just dreams that had not been made possible yet. She put her hand over her mouth and wept with a grief she had never known. Her body trembled. She felt weak at the knees.

And then Cai put an arm around her.

 

Sky ladder in process of burning- Can Guo-Quiang studio.

Some crazy dreams do come true when you persevere

Nothing more inspiring than reading some of the crazy dreams that came true for you through perseverance and the support of those who love you. I know I could use a lot of that inspiration in my daily life. So, would you please leave me your comments on the story you just read and/or examples of your own dreams-come-true? I’m excited to read them!

 

How Latina Speakers Are Born – The Mariela Dabbah story

I frequently get asked how I became a speaker. There aren’t that many Latina speakers out there so I understand that regardless of the topic of my presentation, my audience is curious.

A Latina speaker is born

I came to the U.S. 25 years ago with two suitcases, a Master’s Degree in Philosophy and Literature and a new husband. The first job I landed, as secretary at a bilingual book distributor, sealed my future. It was such a small business that I got to do everything and develop a whole array of skills. Four years later, when the owner decided to retire, my now ex-husband and I bought the company in monthly installments.

Mariela Dabbah Latina speaker presents at high school in Texas

Mariela Dabbah, Latina speaker, presents at high school in Texas

As we distributed books to schools we quickly realized immigrant parents needed to be made aware of the importance of being involved in their kids’ education. We developed a series of workshops to teach parents a wide range of topics from how the education system worked to how to encourage their children to do homework. And everything in between.

Observing how easily parents shared their struggles with me, I discovered that I had a knack for connecting with my audience. And the best part: I enjoyed speaking in public. And that’s how I became one of the few Latina speakers in the country.

Mariela Dabbah’s path to become one of a few Latina speakers was full of twists and turns

I spent several years presenting parent workshops across the country. My most defining moment as a speaker was a training I did for the Yup-ik community in Alaska. I did a ton of research before I ventured across the continent to a little community called Napaskiak whose inhabitants still survive on fishing and hunting.

Latina speaker elicits reaction from audience at Tesoro Corporation | Audience reaction to keynote presentation at Tesoro Corporation, event organized by NSHMBA

Latina speaker elicits reaction from audience at Tesoro Corporation

Librarians and parents flew in from all over a school district the size of the state of Ohio. They came to hear me, a Hispanic speaker who didn’t have any children, speak about parent involvement. I spoke in English with a Spanish accent and we had interpreters translate everything into Yup-ik. It was during that trip that I fully grasped that I was able to reach any audience regardless of culture, language or background.

And for the first time I also realized that I wanted to have a career as a speaker.

Mariela Dabbah: From writing to public speaking

The reality is that it’s not easy to make a living as a public speaker. Much less so if you are one of few Latina speakers with a narrow focus. So I needed to expand the topics I covered and gain credibility in the space. I began teaching a course at a local college on how to get a job in the U.S. and soon realized that, much like with education, there was a need out there for immigrants to connect the dots. To understand how the system worked.

Mariela Dabbah Latina Speaker

Mariela Dabbah Latina Speaker

It was easy to see that writing a book on the subject would give me the credibility I needed. I developed the right connections until I was offered the chance to write such book: How to Get a Job in the U.S., Guide for Latinos.

As soon as the book was published I started doing workshops and presentations at community colleges and libraries, which helped me shape and refine my public speaking skills. Simultaneously, I began contributing media segments on CNN, Univision, Telemundo and other media to continue raising my profile as a speaker.

Shortly after, my publisher asked me to write a book to help parents understand the education system and I wrote: How to Help Your Children Succeed in School. After that came, Help Your Children Succeed in High School and Go to College and Latinos in College: Your Guide to Success.

Mariela Dabbah motivational speaker presents to parents with McDonald RMHC HACER scholarship

Mariela Dabbah motivational speaker presents to parents with McDonald RMHC HACER scholarship

By then, I was such a familiar face in Hispanic media that McDonald’s hired me as their spokesperson for their RMHC /HACER scholarships. I traveled the country doing parent outreach presentations in Spanish and English in front of hundreds of parents. That work helped me raise my profile as a Latina speaker to the next level.

Read about how motivational speakers make money

Hispanic speaker who speaks to anyone who will listen

Every one of my books opened up an entire new world of possibilities. Each one provided an additional layer of understanding and empathy towards yet another audience. From jobseekers to immigrant parents trying to help their kids, to students as young as third grade all the way up to graduate school, to Latinos who worked in large corporations (The Latino Advantage in the Workplace) to women looking to succeed in their careers (Find Your Inner Red Shoes.)

Mariela Dabbah, Hispanic Motivational Speaker, signs books at Harvard Business Club

Mariela Dabbah, Hispanic Motivational Speaker, signs books at Harvard Business Club

Learning about the experiences of different people is the most fascinating aspect of my work. On the one hand it forces me to be a lifelong learner and on the other it enables me to easily connect the dots. Because I’ve researched and worked with people at such a wide range of life-stages I can see the larger picture.

Since the launch of the Red Shoe Movement most of my work as a speaker is in corporations around women’s career advancement and success. The topics include networking, branding, women empowerment, career advancement, negotiation, executive presence and work-life integration. And of course, I continue to speak to college students, professional organizations and parents.

Public speaking at Vital Voices El Salvador

Public speaking at Vital Voices El Salvador

Being a Hispanic Motivational speaker

My goal is to inspire my audience to fulfill their dreams. I do it by provoking “aha” moments and by sharing subtle insights, concrete tools and resources. I’ve never called myself a Hispanic motivational speaker even though I get excited when people feel motivated by my presentations. I believe that if you call yourself a Hispanic motivational speaker you set up the expectation that you will only get people hyped up, a feeling that tends to be short-lived. I prefer to offer actionable tools to help people move to the next level of their lives and careers.

Reaching all audiences as a motivational speaker

Reaching all audiences as a motivational speaker

Are you looking to become a public speaker?

If you’re reading this because you’re considering a career as a public speaker — or to be one of the few Latina speakers to boot— I have a few suggestions for you:

  • Think of an area you’re passionate about, like health, finances, love, or beauty.
  • Identify a few topics within the area that really interest you. In health, for example, it could be exercise, or natural foods.
  • Learn as much as you can about your chosen topics.
  • Decide how you will raise your profile and gain credibility as an expert in the topic. It could be by offering a podcast, webinars, publishing a book, writing for highly reputable media, etc.
  • Join your local Toastmasters to develop your skills.
Mariela Dabbah Keynote speaker at Hispanic Retail 360

Mariela Dabbah Keynote speaker at Hispanic Retail 360

  • Start small and practice. As you gain confidence you can venture in front of larger and larger groups. The biggest mistake I ever made was to do my first parent workshop in front of a large audience. I was new to public speaking and freaked out because I didn’t know how to speak while holding a microphone. I spoke so fast, people couldn’t understand a word I was saying so they got up and left. The more people I lost, the faster I spoke until there were only three or four parents left. I was devastated.
  • Talk to colleagues to get an idea of how much you should charge every step of the way. Latina speakers particularly need to consult with white men because they command the highest fees. Develop a group of trusted colleagues with whom you can share this sensitive information.
 Here's an article about How to become a motivational speaker that you might enjoy.

Granted, public speaking is not for the faint of heart. But if you have a powerful message to share and love to be up there connecting with an audience, it’s an adrenaline rush like few others. Prepare for it and you’ll do great!

 

Corporate Mentor, Career Sponsor: Distinctions Matter

An idiom and a corporate mentor are just a distinction away

When one of my Anglo friends uses an American idiom such as, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” she asks me if I’m familiar with its meaning. If I say no, she usually says, “Wow, I can’t believe you’ve never heard it. It’s a very common saying in English,” and she goes on to explain what it means. I usually reply: “How common can it be if I’ve never heard it and I’ve been in this country for twenty five years!” Sometimes, I then share the Spanish equivalent, which in this case would be: “La mona aunque se vista de seda, mona queda.”

Inevitably, a few days later I start hearing and reading that expression everywhere. How could this be? Did it just become popular? No. What happened is that before my friend made the distinction for me, that phrase was just a string of words that I didn’t register as a unit.

Want to promote Latinos up the ladder? Share distinctions between corporate mentors, sponsors, advisors and advocates

Want to promote Latinos up the ladder? Share distinctions between corporate mentors, career sponsors, advisors and advocates

This is important because the lack of distinctions in any area renders us unable to act in that area. In my example, when I don’t understand a particular saying, I miss a reference that almost everyone else gets.  In more important situations, not understanding a specific distinction can keep you from advancing in your career.

Key Distinctions: Corporate mentor, sponsor, advocate, and advisor. Learn how to leverage your career growth by learning what these are and how they can help you. By Mariela Dabbah

Key distinctions that impact career growth:  corporate mentor, career sponsor, advocate, and advisor

Distinctions are not just definitions of words but tools that enable you to see things and to act on them in ways you couldn’t before you understood the distinction. One important distinction that Latinos who may be the first in their families to work in corporate America, frequently lack is the difference between a corporate mentor, a career sponsor, an advocate, an advisor, and a coach. As a result, they may fail to incorporate these critical people into their networks (or think that a corporate mentor is all they need;) and, consequently, they tend to remain stuck at lower levels in their careers, something they could overcome with the right support.

Definitions of corporate mentor, career sponsor, advocate and advisor

Recently, a mid career Latina I was coaching said to me, “Until two months ago, I never knew there was a difference between a corporate mentor and a career sponsor.” Naturally, she didn’t have both corporate mentors and sponsors because, not understanding the distinction, she didn’t realize the need for them.

Therein lies the importance of making these distinctions explicit to diverse employees:

  • A corporate mentor is someone you admire and respect in their area of expertise, who can guide you through the unwritten rules of the organization, provide feedback on your appearance and behavior, and help you figure out your goals.
  • A career sponsor is usually a very high-ranking executive, often someone within your organization who values your potential and goes to bat for you. The career sponsor is the person who opens up great opportunities and risks his/her reputation in the process.
  • A career advocate is anyone who sings your praises. They are your cheerleaders and can be at any level of the organization.
  • career advisor is someone you trust outside of your company and even your industry that provides feedback, guidance and objectivity you may not find within your organization.
  • A career coach is someone you (or your company) pay to work with you in specific areas where you need help or that you wish to develop such as presentation skills, communication, or leadership styles.
Making explicit the difference between corporate mentor, sponsor, advocate and advisor to promote talent up the ladder by Mariela Dabbah

The lack of distinctions in one area limits employees’ ability to grow in that area

Each of these individuals has a clear role to play in everyone’s career.  But for Latinos and individuals from a non-Anglo heritage, their importance is heightened given their more recent entry into corporate America and the challenges they still face breaking into the senior ranks. By not being aware of the specific role of each one of these people Latinos might fail to diversify their networks or might remain confident that all they need is a corporate mentor which studies show is really not enough to help you move beyond middle management.

Distinctions like these are needed in many areas of career management: from understanding the unwritten rules of an organization to being aware of how your communication style impacts your leadership opportunities to recognizing how your cultural background influences your attitudes and behavior.

Making explicit what people familiar with corporate culture know implicitly will help fast track many more Latinos  in corporate America.

Understanding Office Politics and Organizational Culture

All too often women who have a chance to move the needle in female representation at the highest levels of decision making pass it up, likely because they ignore office politics. I recently had two separate conversations, one in Latin America and the other in the U.S., with women in senior human resources roles of very large corporations. When I asked them about gender distribution at the top of their workplaces, they both gave me a variation on the theme: “Oh, we are doing very well. We have high numbers of female employees at all levels.” Knowing the reality of most large corporations, and the particular office politics of the organizations these two women worked for, I probed. And probed again. But I couldn’t get them to budge. They were convinced that their companies were doing everything possible to enable women to climb the ladder. That their workplaces were very woman friendly and that everyone who wanted an opportunity just needed to work hard for it. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were so worried about the internal office politics that they didn’t want to share with me their demographics.

Women for Women: Best way to move forward and deal with office politics

Women for Women: Best way to move forward and deal with office politics

Office Politics: Are female leaders aware of them?

Right after meeting with these two women, I met with the executive men above them. You’ll never guess what happened next. In both cases, the men said something along the lines of: “We have a lot of work to do. Yes, we are a diverse organization, but I’d like to see more women and diverse talent in executive positions.”

Office politics: Recognize when men support women in yours so you can leverage the support Photo: Robert Abreu, Goldman Sachs

Office politics and organizational culture: Recognize when men support women in yours so you can leverage their support
Photo: Robert Abreu, Goldman Sachs, a huge supporter of women

Women for women in office politics

Why this disparity in perception when the numbers show that women represent only 16 % of executive positions in Fortune 500 companies and even less in Latin America?  Are the women I spoke to sticking their heads in the sand? Not familiar with their company’s numbers, even though both women were high enough in their companies that they should be? Or do they fear that if they become parity advocates they’ll loose their special position as one of the few women at the senior level in their companies or, even worse, they might get fired?

In a great number of organizations the top management doesn’t see the ROI of having a diverse executive suite. So why not take advantage when the top management is a proponent of the idea? When the highest echelon of a corporation fully embraces diversity and inclusion (and when there’s less office politics to deal with!) it behooves every single woman and diverse employee who is in a position to do something about it should actually DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

Understanding office politics and organizational culture is critical Photo credit: steveboehlke.com

Understanding office politics and organizational culture is critical – Photo credit: steveboehlke.com

What often happens is that women and diverse talent in very high positions hold on to their jobs with a passion, because they know how exceptional (and, frequently, fragile) their situations are. They know how quickly it can all change, because they are actually very aware that the numbers at the top are not good. But not only does this attitude go against their best interest, it also blinds them. It blinds them to the fact that their own leaders are saying: “It’s okay, we want the status quo changed. Help us!” It blinds them to the amazing opportunity to change things for everyone involved, including the company’s shareholders. Yes, it hasn’t been said loudly enough: The ripple effect of women climbing to the highest levels of the workplace can be felt all the way to an increase in the bottom line of the companies they work for and in the societies where they live. Women for women is actually women for everyone.

When office politics favors women’s growth…

If you are a woman leader, make sure that the gender distribution at the top of your organization is really as good as it could be before you make an assertion that puts a lid on anything that could be done differently. (Any initiatives, processes, or any tweaks in the way your company does things to make it easier for women to reach the executive suite.) And take advantage of your leaders’ support and the favorable office politics to continue to move the needle. There are still way too many organizations where women are a very small minority.

What is Executive Presence? Do you need Executive Presence Training?

Executive presence training

A note by Mariela Dabbah

Following the conversations held during one of our RSM events, several participants emailed us wondering what is executive presence and if there is any executive presence training available.

The answer is yes! In the context of their leadership development programs the Red Shoe Movement offers executive presence training for women interested in continuing to grow in their careers. But what is most important is that you can start training yourself by observing leaders you admire. Observe both men and women. Zero in on the following

  • How do they speak when they address a large group? (Focus on how they end their sentences.)
  • How do they react when faced by an emergency or at a critical juncture? (Focus on how they manage the people around them, the media, etc.)
  • How do they present their ideas to persuade others of their value? (Focus on the way they organize their thoughts, words, slides…)
  • How do they dress in various situations?
  • Are they good listeners or do they tend to speak more than everyone else?

Just by polishing your observation skills, you’ll be on your way to incorporating those traits needed to exude the executive presence needed to grow into leadership positions.

What is Executive Presence? Do you need Executive Presence Training?

by Abigail Kuhn

“Executive Presence: Overcoming the Stigma that Women and Youth Don’t Have It” was an exceptionally popular topic at a recent Red Shoe Movement event in NYC.  Women and men from a wide range of professional levels and a diversity of companies held a lively discussion around the definition of executive presence, what women and younger people should take into consideration when looking to project executive presence and regarding executive presence training. Here is a recap of the session.

So, What is executive presence?

What is Executive Presence? Got Executive Presence? or do you need Executive Presence Training? All your answers are here! Click and Find out!

What is Executive Presence? Got Executive Presence? or do you need Executive Presence Training?

Danielle – It’s hard to define, but a person who can command the room has executive presence, and it is not just based on gender.

Karina – Executive presence is a total package. It is having knowledge about a topic, expressing yourself effectively, maintaining eye-contact with the room, and dressing appropriately for the setting.

The Stigma: What are some of the reasons behind the stigma that women and youth don’t have executive presence?

Several experts agreed that there is a general perception that women are emotional and young people just don’t have enough experience to project executive presence.

Barbara – In a group of people, women will stay quiet, while men will be aggressive.

Jen – Women will think about all of the things that they don’t know (they overanalyze), whereas men just go for it.

Overcoming the Stigma: How can women and youth overcome the stigma?

Yolanda – Dress for the job that is two levels above you.

Janice – Preparation is key, especially if you want to be noticed in a positive way.

Lily – You need to be confident in your own skin and not feel intimidated. Don’t dress for the job that you have, but dress for the job that you want.

Clementine – You need to exude confidence. You also have to dress the part to be recognized before you even open your mouth. Your presence won’t even be noticed if you don’t dress the part.

Karina – Be confident.

What advice would you give to a young woman?

Angela – It is crucial to have mentors.

Jen – Learn how to ask questions.

Kyle – An amazing resource to use is Lavoleague.org (Especially for someone leaving college).

What is Executive Presence? Do you want to find out what are some the qualities that women with executive presence have? Click here!

What is Executive Presence? What are some the qualities that women with executive presence have?

How do you make a point without sounding aggressive?

Amy – Be knowledgeable about what you are talking about.

Karina – Maintaining eye-contact with your audience is very important.

Yolanda- You need to know your part in a meeting. We go back to how important preparation is.

Danielle – We need to treat everybody as equals. After all, at the end of the day, everybody is human.

What are some the qualities that women with executive presence have?

  • Confidence
  • Knowledge
  • Knowing that they might not hold all the answers
  • High self-esteem
  • The ability to listen
  • Calm under pressure
  • The ability to make decisions on the spot (In these situations, over analyzing becomes a handicap.)
  • A firm tone of voice
  • The ability to give directions with clarity