Leadership is a Group Activity

I was born at a time when Gloria Steinem’s name tripped off the tongue of every woman as part of the second wave feminist movement. I had many strong female role models, including my own family. Our voices, those of my generation and my mother’s generation, shaped a new narrative for women, breaking barriers and paving the way for women to take their place as leaders. Our declaration has always been at the center of it:we are stronger together than apart.  

“A dream you dream alone is only a dream; a dream you dream together is reality.”  John Lennon

Today, women of all generations are facing similar divisive forces but on a new battleground.  The doors may have been opened, but the culture remains the same.  Galvanized, we understand our movement is bigger than any one of us.  

I recently went to an event where men and women gathered to listen to a known leader in the women’s movement, Valerie Jarrett.  And during the event, audience members asked questions, made comments and talked about their experiences.  In the moment, one woman reached out to another from across the room and offered an opportunity to be a part of her company.  The overall experience was like I was in a giant invitation to be a part of something bigger.  The invitation created space for more of these micro gestures of support and change.  

Group of Leaders in the Women's MarchUpon reflection, I realized women and leadership have a style we have learned from years of experience and history related to our role as caretakers and matriarchs of our families, community leaders and organizers, and in our participation in the women’s movement.  

So…What have we learned?

Leadership is a group activity.

What does that mean?

A leader is what galvanizes a group into action, but the group must want to believe in the dream.

  1. A leader believes the group has the answers.  It requires an invitation and the ability to step back and trust what happens.
  2. Leadership is about abundance.  It is the opposite of limited resources.  It is the belief that the group is resourceful when working together or with other groups, and through that, we find abundance of both resources and answers.  
  3. Leadership is about resilience, but not just personal resilience.  Resilience of the group means that at any one time when one person is down, another offers a hand in support, and the group is stronger for it.
  4. Leadership is about optimism.  The energy and strength of the group is what allows us to rise above any challenge.  As Heraclitus wrote in ancient Greece, “The sun is new each day.
  5. Leadership is about empathy. The ability to see a situation with clarity and suspension of judgement. A means to understanding difficult problems from all sides. To appreciate diversity. To learn.
  6. Leadership is about a cause. You can’t be a leader if you don’t believe in change.  Leadership is the ability to provide the space for the group to pause and take notice, be present and see clearly the difference between the noise and the truth. To be a part of the change they want to create.Group of women at the women's march

The women’s movement has an agenda. It is a cause. And, it has also provided us a perspective on leadership that is not necessarily gender specific but has many female role models.  However, at the heart of this cause, is changing the culture of individualism and self-service to that of harnessing the energy of the group. By removing the conditions that divide, we can  reach across to invite others to participate. It is the profile of a leader who understands issues of bias and inequality have no place in their organizations. In fact, they truly believe diversity and equality are a core competency and a right and what makes groups stronger. And leadership does not have to be lonely.  

“If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together”  (African proverb)   

Where have you seen examples of this type of leadership?

Lipstick on a Donkey: The Ugly Truth About Company Culture

We are living in bold times.  Where what we imagine is no longer imaginary; it’s reality.  With the speed of technology and constantly changing competitive landscapes, organizations need to be innovative, in front of trends and intimately involved with their customers.  They need smart, emotionally intelligent, critical thinkers, who are passionate about what they do.  Not afraid to take risks, fail and learn – Not afraid to challenge the status quo, not afraid to ask for change…

I hear leaders echo these sentiments, or at least some combination of them, yet they exist in companies that struggle to create the conditions necessary to retain the kind of talent they are looking for.  Their culture is perfectly designed to behave the way it is behaving perfectly.  And then, I hear leaders tell their organizations things like this:

“I’ve said it before we have a fantastic team, and I am truly impressed by the behavior, the dedication… We have a culture of honesty… I want to retain all those elements while creating conditions to improve…”

The Ugly Truth

Lipstick on a Donkey.  Why is it so hard to be honest?  If you want a company culture designed to attract, retain and grow smart, emotionally intelligent, critical thinkers who are passionate about what they do, then you need to treat them as smart, emotionally intelligent, critical thinkers, who passionately understand that shade of lipstick just isn’t working.

They also are not afraid of looking at the donkey without lipstick.  They are not afraid to examine the culture, the beliefs, behaviors, habits and rituals… They want to change the conditions.

What do we mean by conditions?

These are choices we make about policy, process, organization design and talent that either make your desired company culture possible or make your desired culture impossible.  It shapes how people in the organization lead, manage and work.  It is the difference between a company positioned to grow and one that staggers and fails.

Imagine any one of these commonly talked about values below represents what you desire in your culture.

  • Collaboration
  • Innovation
  • Courage
  • Speed

Now, ask yourself: What would need to be true in order for these values to exist?   What are the obstacles that make living that culture impossible?  What belief is behind the policy choice, process choice, or talent choice?

Now, let’s examine one.


What makes collaboration important in this culture?  Why, where, when, how and who needs to collaborate?  The Why is most important.  You may discover that collaboration is not an enabler for success in the type of company you have.  It may conflict with another value you have.  Do you have systems and processes that support collaboration?  Are you designed to work as teams?  If not, do individuals have the similar priorities and objectives? Do they have enough shared interest to invest themselves in collaboration?  Do you have talent in your organization that likes to collaborate, or is that profile non-existent?  Does your talent have the skills to collaborate effectively?  Do they have a healthy relationship with conflicting ideas?

I think you get where this is going.  Take a value and get curious.  Figure out what the implication is to how you lead, how you manage and how you work. Then, identify if this value really fits with what you are trying to do as a company.  Does it enable you to achieve your strategy, or is it less important than something else?

Most of all, wipe off the lipstick.

Where Are You in the Expatriate Journey? 5 Stages of the Journey

A Roadmap of Expat Acculturation

You made it happen. You are now living abroad. You have deftly completed the tasks on a long checklist from having a garage sale back home to figuring out how to open an electricity account in your new home country. You maintained a brave face so far, as the journey that has been paved with twists, turns and the occasional bump in the road. Some you anticipated; others, not so much. Or… maybe you dream of living abroad someday, or just arrived to your new country, or perhaps a few years into your new reality. No matter where you are in the expatriate journey, an understanding of the stages of the expatriate integration process will help to serve as a guide throughout your experience.

  1. Pre-departure: Am I really doing this?

As you prepare for the departure date, you are mixed with feelings of excitement, sadness and a fair bit of exhaustion, as you try to tie up the innumerable loose ends. Bittersweet conversations with friends who are so excited for you, the awkward feeling of goodbyes and your internal realization – this chapter of life is coming to an end. You are surprised by the strength of the occasional wave of emotions you feel, but you put your game face on, board the plane and jump into a new reality.

  1. Honeymoon: Vacations never felt like this

Your expatriate journey begins with the honeymoon stage, where you are constantly stimulated by a barrage of new experiences: sights, sounds and smells that feed your insatiable curiosity. Your excitement is palpable as you explore your new environs and carry out everyday tasks. You are left with the same thought over and over: “Wow, this is where I live?” You are truly impressed with yourself and how you have handled this momentous shift; however, the initial elation ebbs after the first month or so as uncertainty shows itself from under your adrenaline-filled armor.

  1. Culture Shock: Is this really happening?

The “newness” of your transplant home is wearing off, and some of the same things you found so intriguing a few weeks ago now grate on your nerves. It starts slow, but builds as you increasingly can’t help but question the seemingly illogical way things are done, comparing them to the “way they do it back home.” You feel fatigued trying to communicate in a new language and successfully navigate the cultural labyrinth without offending the locals. Minor frustrations build inside you until you feel anger boiling beneath your trying-to-be-calm exterior. You probably thought it would not happen to you, but you have entered the second phase – you are in “culture shock.” Don’t be discouraged; everyone has these feelings to different degrees, but the way you cope in the face of these challenges will define your expatriate experience.

  1. Transformation: Finding your groove

The transformation stage is longer than the culture shock stage, but with some time, frustration and longing for something familiar are replaced with a true appreciation of the lifestyle and culture of your new country… You are becoming an expat. To make this transition much easier, there are important coping activities and tools that you can practice and utilize. For example, you should establish new routines, introduce yourself to your neighbors, make new friends (not just other expats!), and participate in local activities (clubs, events, celebrations, sporting events, etc). This transformative stage will be an incredibly rewarding process as you learn and experience the cultural richness of your new home empowering you with a deeper understanding of your own cultural identity.

  1. Integration: A whole new reality

You have accepted and embraced your new lifestyle by successfully bridging the cultural chasm that once existed. While you will never be a native, you have transformed yourself into an expatriate, a citizen of the world. There will be the occasional frustration, but all in all, you are generally happy and at ease in your new life. Some expats will never reach the final stage as they remain stuck in the transformative stage, isolated and unwilling to accept and embrace the cultural nuances of their host country. Others take it to the other extreme rejecting their own culture, which can be equally divisive to long-term happiness. For expats on short-term assignments, achieving full-integration poses to be a challenge since often they leave while in the Culture Shock or Transformation stage.

While standard “cross-cultural training” programs and off-the-shelf “fact sheets” on particular countries provide value, they do not fully prepare one for the array of personal and professional challenges associated with relocation abroad. Early on in my expatriate experience, I wish I would have experienced the power of coaching. I enlisted a coach mid-way. Here’s what I found (and now practice): “the power of coaching provides a personalized approach that makes it possible for you to rediscover your identity and allows you to engage your healthy sense of curiosity to become a contributing member and leader within your new community and workplace.” This changed everything for me.

Each person’s experience is unique, and there are no hard and fast timetables to adjusting to your new life, but there are tools and strategies that make this process faster and easier. This incredible experience is as much personal as it is geographic; your journey will be defined by how you react to the more challenging moments.

Stay tuned for Part II, the author’s personal expatriate experience….

About the Author:

Michelle Sullivan is co-founder and Managing Partner of Dragonfly Consultants and is an expert in Cross-Cultural Communication. As an executive coach, she works with individuals and organizations in the areas of Expatriate, Repatriate and Intercultural challenges. Michelle is Certified in Human Synergistics Organizational Culture model (OCI) and tools and leverages Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions in her coaching and leadership work with her clients.

Michelle holds and MS in Global Business & Leadership and has guest lectured at the University of San Diego on the topic of working in cross-cultural teams and abroad.

She’s held corporate leadership roles in global environments for over 20 years and lived, worked and studied in Mexico, Argentina, Ireland and France –  living in five countries in six years with her husband, who is a dual US/Irish citizen. Michelle currently splits her time between California and Mexico.

My Name is On the Label

My Name is on the Label: (My name is courage. My name is math whiz. My name is loser. My name is fat. My name is old. My name is strength.)

Let’s start with something simple: Math.  For many years, math and science were the domain of men.  Girls grew up believing they were not supposed to be good at Math. They were encouraged into Language Arts, Social Science and History.  And this twentieth century cultural phenomenon created a generation of women who believe they have no aptitude for Math. The most important word here is “believe.”  Because, we know the truth is that women can do Math!

I was that generation. Until 11th grade, I always received good grades in math. But, I grew up with the idea that I should be good at English, History and Social Science, not that I could be an engineer or a scientist or a mathematician.  On the other hand, I also grew up with a mother who worked and broke barriers for women entering the workforce.  So… I also believed I could have a career; I could be successful.  Ultimately, I am happy with my career path. However, I can’t help but wonder how my generation contributed to the void in STEM careers for women.

We are influenced on many different levels to wear labels that shape who we are. Like the example above, there is a cultural/societal element.  There is also family.  And finally, there is our genetic blueprint.  All of which create the complexity of who we are and the narrative in which we live.

Some of these labels we wear proudly and boldly; others work quietly in the background. They sometimes work together harmoniously, but often they undermine each other.  They feed the voices of our inner critic.  And they become the affirmations that foster our positive mental energy that allow us to move out of our comfort zones. The question we have to ask is: What labels are you living with today?  How are they influencing your choices and decisions?

Are they stopping you from doing or being what you want to do or be?


Are they enabling you to defy your own expectations ?

About the author: Adrienne Seal is a co-founder and Managing Partner of Dragonfly Consultants.  She is an ICF professional certified coach.  She is known and appreciated for her insight into human nature and team dynamics and her thoughtfulness and innovative approaches to coaching, organization effectiveness and culture transformation.

All Talk or Do you Really Live it?

Are you an Effective Leader? How do you Know?

Leadership is a topic that has been studied and debated for centuries, and simply one definition of leadership would not suffice. There are distinguishing differences between a manager, leader, and an effective leader, but they are not mutually exclusive. Over time, leadership styles have changed to adapt from a stability model to change and crisis leadership; some willingly and some hesitantly. The greatest leaders are high influencers, relationship builders at all levels, and are highly adaptable to diverse situations and personalities and can be extroverted or introverted. Effective leaders exhibit an advanced level of emotional and contextual intelligence, and encompass both management and leadership competencies.

To lead high-performing teams, you must first create a motivated team. Many managers do not realize that directive and authoritative leadership is not effective in the modern business world and is counter-productive. I believe that we are people, not workers, or simply a number, and in order for an organization to be profitable and competitive, it needs to be high performing. In the long-term, leading out of fear in an environment of low morale will not prevail. Employees need to be motivated to be high performing, and in order to accomplish this, the organization needs to employ effective leaders – leaders who “lead by example, who walk the talk.”

Effective leaders know how to adapt to each employee and understand if intrinsic or extrinsic rewards motivate them. One employee may be motivated by an increase in salary whereas other employees may be motivated by recognition for a job well done. Once the motivating factors are determined based on dialogue with your employees, you need to create a personal development plan, which should include incremental goals. The key is to create a “great place to work” where everyone looks forward to coming to work, feeling their work has a sense of purpose and meaning. Once there is a positive work culture, even menial tasks are not looked upon as loathsome.

I have been in situations where morale has been exceptionally low due to several factors such as previous poor leadership, mistrust, downsizing (“do more with less”), bureaucracy, unethical business practices, etc., and I have introduced several methods that were effective. Team building is one of the first steps to creating a motivated workforce. Depending on the team location and culture, determine an exercise that will take the employees offsite, out of their comfort zone, and engaged in interactive activities. In the case where there may be teammates who are known to have interpersonal issues between each other, I suggest pairing them together for a fun activity. It is amazing what an impact icebreakers can have on easing the tension. This allows individuals to view each other in a positive perspective that they perhaps never had up until this point. In my experience, if there are issues in the future, they will be more mindful and not as emotionally reactive; they will become better team players.

In instances where teams consist of varying cultures, it is important to provide cross-cultural training. This helps reduce misunderstandings and how to effectively work with other cultures. For example, as an American working with China, I know that in a meeting, I will have to directly engage with individuals who are below me in position or if their manager is in the meeting. Their culture is not to be forthright even if there is an issue, so I know that I cannot expect them to openly discuss an issue or debate with a superior.

I also established 1:1’s where I would meet regularly with people on my team to have an open discussion in addition to setting and tracking goals and development plans. As a follower, this was tremendously beneficial for me to have with my managers. Depending on the team and employee, I suggest meeting weekly or bi-weekly for 30 minutes to an hour at set times to ensure they do occur. I also encourage you to get creative. Think about taking a “walking meeting.” Not only is this a healthy option, it creates a more informal setting that may foster deeper and more creative discussions.

To keep the team engaged, either creating or revisiting the mission and as a team through participative decision-making is optimal, and having regular team building sessions (quarterly or bi-annually depending on the situation) will ensure this is executed. This is in addition to regularly scheduled team meetings, which should be held weekly or bi-weekly.

In summary, ask yourself, are you an effective leader who is capable of being adaptable, open-minded, and willing to change? Are you truly leading by example? You have more influence than you may realize.

Generational Stereotypes –It’s Hurting Us, Not Helping

Generational stereotypes can be experienced in abundance in our everyday world.  As a marketing strategy, these stereotypes use generalizations to target and sell products.  Later these same stereotypes have been adopted by HR organizations to develop strategies around everything from company culture (how do we create workplaces that attract the millennials) to hiring practices.  Yet with 5 generations working side by side, this exclusionary approach doesn’t solve issues, it creates them.

How many of us define ourselves by our generation?  Do we look across the table at someone of relative age and think because he/she is of the same generation we have the same beliefs and experiences, that we approach the world the same way?  How many of us can relate to someone of a seemingly different generation and think I actually have more in common with that person.

Because we are working more closely together, because we are sharing common experiences at different ages, we are blurring the lines.  Women are having babies in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, sharing new mom stories as if they were all one generation.  People are starting new careers multiple times in their lifetime, reinventing themselves at different ages, going to or back to school at different ages.  These create common experiences across generational lines.

I personally, am tired of checking the box for my age group.  How old I think I am on any day changes and rarely do I see myself as my chronological age.  Therefore, I now declare my age lives on a continuum.  And so I navigate the generations with ease, and I employ ways to connect with people as individuals with interests and experiences I value.  And when a generational stereotype sneaks up on me, and I find myself feeling excluded or boxed in, I use that as an opportunity to open myself to learn something new.  Learning is generationally agnostic.  So I invite others to think about generations as a continuum, one not defined by chronological age, but by how we feel on any given day.  See how it changes how you view the world.

Older gets Older as you get Older

I used to think Older gets older as you get older was just a saying and maybe a way to justify the aging process.  Now that I am in my 50’s I realize it is not just a justification.  I have begun to notice the women around me.  Not the under 40’s.  I see them everyday, the world is designed for under 40.  They are more than visible, but the ever increasing and invisible beauty of the other half of life. 

It started in my Pilates class where I could almost declare myself as youthful (at almost 54).  Daughters of the 1970’s fitness revolution, some now in their 80’s (Thank you Jane Fonda and Cher), surrounded me.

Class sounds like this, instructor:  “I am going to show you several ways to do this exercise, if you have osteoporosis …if you need more of a challenge…”

I haven’t enjoyed a class more.  We laugh, we smile at each other, and we connect across the room.  There is something magical in being with these women who keep it going and show me there continues to be so much more…

So older does get older.  There is always a woman I look forward to being like 10 years senior to me.  I noticed them at Pilates, and I now see them everywhere.  Look and they become visible.  They radiate beauty, wisdom and emotional strength that only come’s after living an experienced life.

Suddenly I find it difficult to define the middle in middle age, when so many women are choosing to defy it.  Many are reinventing themselves.  Choosing and changing careers, finding their calling and trading in their retirement for purposeful work.

Jane Pauley, recently cited in the Huffington Post has traded in her journalism career for a public speaking career specifically helping women over 50 reinvent themselves.

Pauley;  “Women… are leaning in after 50. They give me hope that as we get older, that my generation may finally redeem our youthful promise and inspire every generation to see themselves and their future in power and positive new ways.”

I realized many of the women I admire most, went through some kind of transformation or reinvention of their careers later in life.  Including my mother.  In her late 40’s she completed her MSW, became a well-respected and celebrated social worker and author, and continued her career well into her late 70’s.  Hilary Clinton, whose post law career has included 1st lady, senator, secretary of state and possibly President has not hit the pause button.

It seems women’s midlife crises has something to do with kick-starting change that often includes taking career risks, following their passion and making a difference.  Not to say they didn’t before the age of 50, but many make a trade in their careers, moving away from something and moving toward something else, recognizing that they desire and need something different out of their lives.  I believe recognizing we are on the downslope makes life precious, yet at the same time we are not ready to slow down.   We become comfortable trusting our experience and wisdom to guide us down the right path.  Our choices are about how we want to live and what we want to accomplish inclusive of career, quality of life, family and overall happiness.

Who says it has to be a man’s world?

“If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”

—John F. Kennedy

I spent this summer in France and had many conversations with friends around our business idea. While explaining what we were trying to achieve, I was very keen to mention that our mission was not to fight for women’s rights but to take an approach where we help recognize that men and women are different.

It is common knowledge that “men do not listen and women cannot read maps” . Our brains just do not function in the same way. And as long as scientists have not found a way for men to carry children, I would say our bodies work pretty differently too. There are of course always exceptions, but when a male friend is actually a good listener, I often hear you say he has a “strong female side”!

So why, when we all know that we think, function, live and love differently, are we expected to work the same way?

Women can multi-task, listen, support each other and according to a UK survey tend to have more warmth, sensitivity and apprehension then men. As per the same survey, men have more emotional stability, dominance, rule-consciousness and vigilance.

There are currently a lot of discussions around how to support women’s access to leadership positions. The common assumption is that women are the victim of gender discrimination which I have experienced myself throughout my career. But how much of that discrimination comes from lack of understanding and comprehension versus a conscious intend to put women down?

Sheryl Sandberg in her book “Lean in”, mentions how successful female leaders are usually disliked in the corporate world. They usually demonstrate male attributes which are not expected from a woman. The question I have is why do women need to have male attributes to succeed in their career? Is the business world so dominated by men that there is only way to climb the ladder, and that is to behave like a man?

I realize that everyone is different and that some women have more male qualities which help them succeed in today’s business environment. I also believe there is a way for women who are less dominant, vocal or outwardly confident to succeed because of other leadership qualities we have long forgotten to recognize in our current male dominated world. I believe we can change business cultures so male and female leaders can learn to recognize those attributes and reward them as they are equally important to the success of a team, a division or the entire organization.

A woman who might come across as being shy or more reserved than a man, but who has the ability to generate trust, connect people together and be a role model when it comes to work ethics will be able to lead a team very effectively. She will be able to inspire others and generate cohesion within her team. A woman with less of an ego will have the ability to recognize talents, develop them and help them rise without feeling threatened. There is also a high probability if that same woman is recognized and her qualities acknowledged, that she will become more confident and therefore more vocal.

A woman who can juggle work, family, friends, sport, and hobbies will be a huge asset to your company, as she will certainly be able to exercise the same skills within her role, if you let her.

I believe there is a way for each company to create a culture where gender differences are understood, respected and embraced. Businesses taking that step should be able to generate higher profitability. After all, it has been proven that happiness increases productivity!

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