Laughter, Learning and Leading

An interview from the 1999 Deloitte & Touche Women's Conference

The following is an excerpt from an interview at the 1999 Connecting for Success conference, where Sarah Weddington was the keynote speaker. In this interview, she shares her thoughts on professional women in the workplace.

What is the toughest challenge for professional women today?
Professional women are just tired. With the pace and the demands of business today, and the responsibilities they juggle, nothing is easy. Not long ago I was sitting on a plane listening to the safety instructions about putting on your own mask before helping a child seated next to you. At that moment a question struck me. Where do we find the oxygen to not only keep going, but to also give oxygen and energy to others? You know, the people we like best are oxygen givers. They're the leaders: the ones who give to family and friends, colleagues and clients.

So what is the answer?
Three things: laughter, learning, and leading. Professional women are serious because we have had to be, but we must also keep ourselves going. Laughter causes us to take in extra oxygen and is a very effective healer. For me, laughter is not a natural thing, but I have learned to laugh over the years. She who laughs lasts. And last we must.

I also believe that we never stop learning. There is so much to be learned as we go along, and those lessons give us energy. Here's an example of something I have learned. I used to try to get everything straightened out. But, as I've gone along in my professional life, I've learned to set specific goals. You know, life is like the jagged line on a hospital EKG reading. When that line is flat, you're dead. So instead of trying to straighten everything out, I have learned to direct my energy toward the issues and problems that are most important. I think that we, as professional women, need to choose what we want to do efficiently, then focus our energy. Quite often, that also means we have to quit doing something else. I have learned that it is where we put our time that makes the difference.

These days more and more women are rising to leadership positions. Good leaders both give energy and receive it so how do we become leaders? I suggest that we become leaders by practicing leadership. Women often want to do only what they can do perfectly, which often hampers their progress. To advance and lead, we must dare to go a little faster than we can control. We must also learn to get back up when we fall. The first time I tried to write a book, I struggled terribly because I was trying to write a perfect book. Once I started "practicing" writing, I found I could just write it. We become free to do a lot more by practicing.

We can also acquire leadership skills by using a critical eye, by watching other leaders and learning from what they do well-and what they don't. Presentation techniques are a good example of an area where we can improve our skills by watching others. In this way, learning fosters leading.

Right now there are so many talented and ambitious women in the pipeline for leadership that getting women into these positions is no longer a problem. Rather, we must help them find the energy to last. An organization is only as strong as its component pieces. We strengthen women in an organization by making them more effective. That's how they will last.

Let's talk a bit about your career. The Roe v. Wade decision was such a high-profile case, and you were just 26 at the time. Did you feel you were in over your head?
Oh, yes. You know, it was my first contested case. Before that had handled wills, divorces, cases like that it was clear that was out of my depth.

How did you turn that challenge into success?
I threw myself into preparation. Role playing and practice were essential. At some point, I decided that although I might not be perfect, no one else was either. But I was so committed and so well prepared that I knew I would do my best.

It has been my experience that women tend to have unrealistically high standards. We want to be perfect and are quick to be critical of our weaknesses. Instead we must look to our strengths. Men, on the other hand, tend to assume that much of what they do is a game, and that someone else will have what they need. Our standards of preparation are often higher because we are still unusual in many professional settings.

We stand out more and are used to our advantage because it gives us the opportunity to receive greater recognition for our accomplishments.

You said in one lecture that the practice of law has given you a voice. How can women in other professions find their voices?
l come from a field where preparation is taken very seriously, and I think that applies to other fields as well. We all have different voices for particular situations. So, how we speak and lead in a given situation will vary according to our individual strengths, the group were speaking to and the tasks to be accomplished. Often being heard depends on being able to evaluate which voice is appropriate. And, of course, you must choose your battles carefully. Leadership studies show that groups who do not know each other, when asked to select a leader, will pick as leaders those who have contributed the most to a discussion. So by speaking up, we can position ourselves for leadership and use our voices to sell ourselves.

What advice do you have for women working to advance in their professions?
We all need a strong personal and professional support network. It helps to know that friends and family will still love you even if you don't make partner. Colleagues and mentors are very valuable, too. In my experience, most were men, and I'm impressed that Deloitte & Touche has done so much to foster female colleagues. With women in a position to mentor others and affect change, the possibilities for networking and advancement are far greater. Often key position are filled through who do you know who can...?" types of conversations between colleagues. That's why networking is so important. A contact a day paves the way.