On a recent November evening, LSU Communication across the Curriculum (CxC) hosted a panel discussion that seems destined to become a regular event on campus. Inspired by the international discussion trend regarding women in leadership, CxC put together a panel of local women business leaders to talk with students about their experiences—from the time when they were undergraduates and interns through their current positions of power. These women gave the attendees tips ranging from what to do and not to do in a job interview to how to keep their jobs and rise to the top. The near-capacity student audience asked questions, listened intently to anecdotes and advice, and later mingled with the panelists.
This panel was a timely discussion given the national popularity of best-selling books like “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” by Sheryl Sandberg and “Pushback: How Smart Women Ask—and Stand Up—for What They Want” by Selena Rezvani. In Sandberg’s book, she makes the point that women are far more likely to be affected by negative feedback and criticism than men. Such negative feedback, delivered maliciously, can cause women to question their authority and credentials and can jeopardize their chances to advance. The tips and anecdotes related by the panelists bear out this assertion. In fact, many of the panelists’ experiences tracked with these two authors’ experiences and the academic studies they cite. Bringing local leaders to talk with LSU students reinforces the importance of recognizing these challenges and finding ways to overcome them.
The panelists, all of whom work in the Baton Rouge area, were Gentry Brann, vice president of global marketing, CB&I; Dima Ghawi, manager of talent development, IBM; Ellen Martin, environmental, health, and safety leader, Dow; Mikki Ceasar Mathews, government banker, J. P. Morgan; and Kathy Victorian, senior marketing representative, Amerigroup Louisiana. Lexi Debrock, marketing coordinator, Postlethwaite & Netterville, moderated the discussion; Debrock is also a 2008 LSU Distinguished Communicator graduate.
These women provided the students in the audience with information that even those of us—both men and women—who had long been out of school wished we had been given while we were undergraduates. They related their own missteps and miscommunications as well as their triumphs. Those anecdotes about communication mishaps were especially enlightening and helpful, letting the audience of juniors and seniors know that even leaders make mistakes from which they learn and grow. These incidents included anecdotes about misunderstanding culture (“only those in the highest positions of power face the door in Japan”), poor listening, project miscommunication, and overlooking typos with significant implications.
The panel tackled a wide range of issues—including emotions in the workplace, appropriate workplace behavior and dress, body language and speech patterns in job interviews, mentorships, confrontations, assertiveness, and social media uses—during the hour-and-fifteen-minute discussion. Students asked questions from the floor and also tweeted their concerns to the CxC Twitter feed, which was monitored live throughout the discussion.
Rebecca Burdette, associate director of CxC, credits both students and potential employers for the topic of this discussion. “We continuously poll students to see what they are interested in learning more about and what skills they feel they need to develop,” Burdette explained. “Employers have also encouraged us to address with students effective communication in the workplace. They see this as critical to students’ post-graduation success.”
Students who attended the event agreed with this assessment. Several cited the panelists’ collective recommendation to “be bold.”
“The panel did a fantastic job of easing several fears about the professional world and simultaneously inspired me to take pride in my ambitions,” Erin Kenna, a senior in mass communication, commented. She was especially affected by Gentry Brann’s advice, adding, “She encouraged us to have confidence and authority as women in the workforce.”
|Panelists advice and anecdotes|
|“If someone becomes angry or upset, use the incident as an opportunity for self-discovery: Ask yourself why the person reacted that way; ask why others are emotional. You may not be able to change the actual ‘why,’ but you may be able to improve your interactions in other ways.”|
|“Use the ‘yes-no-yes’ approach: First, find something good to say about the situation; then state the problem as tactfully as possible; finally, state another positive point.”|
|“Be open to criticism and feedback. Learn from it.”|
|“Body language and voice volume are critical in communication. Avoid distracting behaviors, and speak up with authority—even if that’s not natural for you or you don’t feel it.”|
|“Think about what you’re trying to accomplish, and OWN IT; convey confidence. Don’t let yourself be intimidated.”|
|“Be bold—have courage, hold on tight, but be charming. The balance between boldness and charm is essential.”|
Kelsey King, a junior in mass communication who also worked with the CxC staff to monitor the Twitter feed and tweet for the event, agreed with Kenna. “I enjoyed all the panelists’ advice and really took heart when Gentry Brann said, ‘Above all else, be bold,’” she remembered. “All of the panelists emphasized the importance of having confidence.”
Sarah Corie, a first-year student majoring in political science, found a bit of Kathy Victorian’s advice to be particularly enlightening. “The most important thing the panel discussion taught me is that being an effective communicator is not a characteristic one must be born with,” she explained. “Being an effective communicator is accomplished by practicing and realizing your talents, being willing to learn and grow, and, as Ms. Victorian said, ‘owning it!”
Corie, who was not yet in the LSU Distinguished Communicator program, made up her mind after attending the event. “I heard about the program earlier in the year and planned to find out more at some point,” she recalled. “When I saw on the Feminists in Action Facebook page that the ‘How She Does It’ event was happening, I decided to begin the process of becoming a Distinguished Communicator.”
In addition to educating students about the importance of building strong communication skills regardless of their major, this event was also intended to attract students like Corie to the LSU Distinguished Communicator program which is managed by CxC. While CxC plans to have more events like this one in the future, students who are already in the program know its value.
Tran Tran, a senior in mass communication, enjoyed the panel but is much more focused on the overall benefits she has gained from CxC. “Aside from workshops like this, the program has helped me build a diverse communication skill set and a portfolio of works that I can use in my job search,” Tran explained. “This is a worthwhile program for any student.”
The successful business leaders who gave of their time to talk with these students would obviously agree.