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At Linkage's WIL Institute, Women Take the Lead

A woman in orange standing in front of a sign that says women in leadership.

​Taking the stage to address the more than 2,000 women gathered for her opening keynote on the first day of the 24th annual Women in Leadership (WIL) Institute in Orlando, Fla., Jennifer McCollum surveyed the sea of faces at various stages of their leadership journey.

"When we come together en masse like this, the energy is so powerful, it's contagious," said McCollum, CEO of Linkage, a SHRM global leadership development firm committed to advancing women. Noting that the purpose of the WIL Institute is to "change the face of leadership," McCollum told participants that during this four-day learning experience, they would be equipped with actionable strategies to overcome the professional hurdles that are unique to women leaders. As a case in point, she offered the following story. 

'A Cupcake with a Razor Blade'

Twenty-seven years ago, when McCollum was a rising professional, she worked as the manager of Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the Olympic torch relay for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. It was her job, McCollum explained, "to ensure that those Olympic rings and that Olympic flame were associated very closely with the Coca-Cola brand."

In the performance of her duties, McCollum said she found herself on the other side of some members of the Olympic Organizing Committee, who were not always appreciative of Coca-Cola's branding of the games. When the 87-day torch relay was complete and, according to McCollum, successful in "ensuring that reporting by every TV station, every radio station" reflected Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the games, she attended an after-party thrown by her employer.

There, McCollum recalled her boss happily running up to her to tell her that her "nemesis" on the Olympic Organizing Committee had remarked to him that she was "a cupcake with a razor blade hidden inside."

"Would a man ever be described that way?" McCollum asked the Institute's participants. She said that, with time and the wisdom she gained further into her career, she came to see that comment for what it was: an example of the "double bind" that she was experiencing as a new corporate leader.

McCollum explained to her audience that, used in relation to women leaders—indeed, to all women in the workplace—"double bind" refers to the burden of constantly shifting between the competing expectations of women and leaders.

"When we hear the word, 'leader,' " McCollum explained, "all of us conjure up in our mind this aggressive, ambitious, competitive person—usually, a man. But women leaders also have to fulfill the stereotypes of the expectations of women in general that are embodied by traditionally 'female' characteristics—like kindness, cooperation and collaboration."

Women leaders, McCollum said, are often perceived as one or the other—but never both. "If we're too feminine, we're too soft," she explained. "If we're too masculine, we're too aggressive, too harsh."

Taking Time to Learn

If she had the opportunity to advise her 30-year-old self today, McCollum said she would tell her to "take her foot off the gas pedal," and "not assume her hard work will be noticed for what it is, because it probably won't." Rather than never slowing down to catch your breath—as many aspirational women leaders do—rather than never saying "no," rather than doing it all yourself, McCollum said women should "do less and engage more," putting their energy toward building critical relationships with other women—and men—who can help them achieve what they aspire to.

This, she says, is the purpose of the WIL Institute.

"Fifty percent of you say you have trouble knowing what you want from your career because of your workload," McCollum told attendees, citing data Linkage had gathered from participants before the event. "Well, this is what this week is for."

For the next three days of the Institute, McCollum told her audience, they would take time to network, coach and inspire one another to gain the knowledge and skills they needed to fulfill their expectations of themselves and promote themselves as leaders in their chosen fields.

"Confidence matters as much as competence," McCollum said, as she ended her keynote to loud applause, urging her listeners, "If you see a future leader whose light is being dimmed, reach out and help her." 

Barbara A. Gabriel is the managing editor of SHRM's Managing Smart.


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