It Takes Two to “Lean In”.

Created on 2015-04-17 14:58 Published on 2015-04-17 14:58

I recently attended a trade association conference in Washington, DC.

I met a woman who had recently joined the organization as a dues paying member and had spent real money to step outside her daily business role for a week to travel to across the country to participate — to lean in. Her academic degrees, the focus of her business, and her international experience are not only fundamentally important to the organization’s goals and strategic needs, but they are research skills and academic authority sorely lacking among its membership.

You’d think she wouldn’t even have to lean in. You’d think she would have been grabbed and embraced, especially by an organization whose leadership is made up entirely of accomplished professional women. This story doesn’t end that way.

Instead, as a new member, my PhD friend was ignored by the association’s leadership and excluded from key conversations. Her scientific expertise, from an important agricultural university, was not recognized. Her status as a female scientist and entrepreneur was not valued. She was relegated to the B team and sent off to talk to congressional staffers with little guidance and no sense of being part of an organization she should represent proudly.

So, sure, this happens. It happens to guys and gals of all sorts who join a new group and have to earn their stripes over time. Often trade groups and professional organizations begin to rely on the old boy / old gal network of familiar personalities, old allegiances and hardened points of view. New folks are not really needed, they think, beyond collecting their membership dues and adding to membership counts to publish in the annual report.Fair enough.

This note is not about organizational behavior of dominant trade groups toward their membership (although I could share a few notes on that topic for this same organization). It’s about what happened when a group of smart, strong accomplished female leaders failed to recognize one of their own — and lost out dearly because of it.

Because my new colleague was extraordinary.You’ve heard about her business and academic credentials. What you don’t know is how effective she was in meetings with congressional staffers. In her first set of meetings, she was able to read the room, understand the subtext of every comment, and bring a tremendous amount of presence and authority to every conversation. When we were speaking with women, this effect was compounded.

Of course, I am pretty much a knucklehead who had to learn these same skills the hard way. Here was a wing man who could do it with no effort. I know a skillset I need when I see it. We quickly became an effective team of two. I showed her the ropes of getting around the Hill, committee politics, and party rabblerousing. She made routine meetings powerful, meaningful and memorable for many tired, overworked and underpaid congressional staffers who often feel about constituent meetings the way you and I get feel about a long morning commute.

Meanwhile, the band played on for the leadership of this organization. They played favorites with scheduling meetings, trampled through technical issues when a summary or personal testimonial would have been more helpful, and showed off to their membership at the end of the day how many meetings they had got at the White House for themselves. Go Us!

I quickly went through all of my Hill contacts went from office to office making cold calls to introduce my PhD to key policy staffers who I knew would use her as a resource for understanding agriculture science issues. We abandoned the organizational script and talked about our stories and our expertise instead of droning on about goals and policy initiatives. I probably got more heartfelt thank-yous from congressional offices in one day than I would normally get in a week of meetings. Go Us!And my PhD learned quickly how she fits into the advocacy ecosystem, where she is most valued, and that she doesn’t need to be a dues paying member of any club but her own to have a significant impact on framing agricultural policy.

I don’t know why it turned out this way. I don’t know why any organization, but especially a female-led membership organization, would not welcome and elevate a new member with so much to offer. I know I spent the day putting her ahead of me, using her to supplement my lobbying skills just as I was supplementing hers. I know I learned insightful things when we debriefed each other about each meeting, and that she quickly understood how we would approach the next meeting based on who would attend.Yeah, she leaned in. But so did I. And that thought might make for a really good book.

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