Living the Lessons: The Gift of Collaborative Leadership
[Editor’s Note: I first met Milinda via social media, where we quickly discovered a common passion for and commitment to women’s empowerment, civic engagement and sustainability. A gracious and collaborative leader, she later invited me to participate in a national webinar for Time Warner Cable in collaboration with others from the TWC team, Anna Falth of UN Women’s EmpowerWomen.org, and Karen Peterson of the National Girls Collaborative Project. Always willing to support, uplift and engage with others, Milinda truly personifies what it means to be an authentic, humble and collaborative leader.]
I have worked hard for my career, spending the better part of fifteen years as a single mother, trying to excel at raising my children, while rising up the work ladder at the same time. In my current role as Vice President, Community Investment, Time Warner Cable, I lead a team of 20, including 17 women. We work in a male-dominant industry, but our work takes us out into the community, where our goal is to engage more girls in STEM. Our hope is that in the future, telecommunications and media will show more gender parity across all metrics: number of employees, wages, women in the media, women in STEM, women leaders, women on the board of directors, and perhaps, one day, a majority of women as CEOs.
My role as a team leader is not only to create a shared vision across my group and lead them to outstanding results, but to develop each and every team member to reach higher than they ever thought possible. We spend a lot of time on personal development, and encourage team projects as well as individual efforts. I challenge my team to grow, try new things, make new partnerships, and aim high. My team knows that mediocrity is not accepted – we simply can do better than that – and that leadership, like parenthood, has a goal of building independence and self-confidence.
Like so many girls who succeeded at school, when I first started my career, I was a perfectionist. Working with others was hard because often we disagreed, and I’m sad to say, at that time, I just knew I was right (wrong!). I preferred independent work because it would allow me, and only me, to shine. And since I saw the world as “us vs them”, I knew that if I let someone else shine, then my spotlight was a little less bright. Oh, how wrong I was! It took a trauma for me to wake up.
When I was 39, with two children under five, and going through an extremely painful divorce – truly, I felt as if my world had shifted off its axis – a dear friend had the wisdom to introduce me to the work of Dr. Carolyn Myss. In one of the audio tapes, Dr. Myss spoke about our life’s journey and the lessons we are here to learn, and at one point she says (I’m paraphrasing):
Imagine you have not yet been born, and you decide in this lifetime, you will learn certain lessons. Another spirit volunteers to help you learn those lessons, and you agree that this will be done through betrayal. You both know it in the spiritual world, but you must forget that agreement in the corpus world. So you go down to earth, become human, and eventually meet this other spirit. Now, neither of you remembers the spiritual bargain, but life plays out and eventually, this other spirit betrays you (as planned), and you now experience the beauty of learning the lesson you wanted to learn.
Surely this is the meaning of generosity: can you frame betrayal as a gift and actually thank the other person/spirit, for they are giving you what your spiritual self wants?
This perspective completely changed who I was, not only in relation to my now ex-husband, but in my relationship with everyone, including at the office. It allowed me to stop viewing actions as threatening or meant to cause me harm, but rather as opportunities to learn. I stopped seeing the pie as only one size, asking “how big is my share”, and instead realized that, in fact, when I allowed someone else to have a share, the pie grew bigger. I think when you see human relations in this sense, you realize that one purpose of life is to connect with others and to collaborate in everything we do, for that is how we learn.
In my work, I see two main areas where young women are challenged, or perhaps these are just more obvious to me, because I suffered from both at one point in time:
Not wanting to give up a sense of autonomy/control through collaboration
Sometimes I see female colleagues do this – try to hoard the entire project or refuse to share the credit, or resist leading a team project because “it’s just so much easier doing it alone”. These are mistakes we all make, and we must help ourselves see them as such. Collaborating allows us to tap into wisdom, far beyond our own ken. We have the chance of connecting with others who can serve as our teachers, and indeed, we can serve as theirs – both worthy efforts. And when we make ourselves vulnerable through collaboration – saying I am willing to let you show me a better way, or for us to co-create something stronger – that is when we learn and grow. We form richer bonds. We strengthen our own muscles for connection.
Being fearful of making a mistake
At work, I see so many women at work who are afraid. Afraid to speak up at meetings for fear they will say something embarrassing. Afraid to raise their hand for an assignment lest they fail. Afraid to introduce themselves to higher-up. Afraid to ask for a raise, so they might be paid fairly for their work. Afraid to challenge sexism when it happens so boldly in so many settings. Afraid to name gender inequity when it stares them in the face. We must stop being so afraid. And that is where the words of Dr. Myss help me so, for if I look at that higher-up and recognize them as a spiritual friend meant to teach me a lesson, or look at my boss and see an equal willing to help me grow, it becomes so much easier to speak up. When I shed the external vision and focus on the internal spirit, authenticity enters the room. True collaboration – equal, equitable – happens.
I believe that when we frame life’s challenges as lessons, and view collaboration as required, it allows us to be our authentic selves – to speak up, to recognize that it doesn’t matter if we are male or female, black or white, gay or straight, left-handed or right. Those are all external attributes so we can distinguish one another. What really matters is who we are on the inside, and when focused internally vs externally, authenticity happens. There is nothing more beautiful than saying “I see you”, and truly nothing more precious than being “seen” for whom you truly are.