Getting to the top and staying there

This February the AmCham members (all female but 2 males) gathered for the first Women in Leadership event of the year. The working underlying theme of such events is the theoretical understanding of reducing inequality. We started about three years ago, with the discussion around women in the workforce and how most working environments are not optimised for an average schedule of a working mom. Three years later the conversation has moved into the domain of social psychology: how to get to the top and stay there. Estonia has more women graduates in tertiary education than men, but only 3 well-known female startup founders. In other words, there are a lot of skilled women on the market but at some point we/they become invisible.

Everybody who took part in the events is wondering by now – are we lacking the tools or the skill to use them? How do we empower ourselves and others around us to become influencers in our domains? Or is the very question flawed to begin with? For example, this paper quotes a research which found that “female leaders tend to be more democratic and participative than male leaders, whereas male leaders tend to have a more directive, top-down leadership style than women.” Perhaps it is not through participative democracy we get to the top, but through a directive set of steps, for which we are in need of… male mentors?..

Elizabeth Horst, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn, sets the tone of today’s conversation by sharing her experience of being mentored. While on the way to her mission in Pakistan, she was taken to lunch by two senior female colleagues who coached her in being successful. As trivial as it may sound, Elizabeth highlighted that without her asking, her colleagues wouldn’t know she needed their mentoring.

Mentoring can happen at any stage of one’s career. Annika Arras, the Director of the European Women’s Academy (with an extensive background in politics), says that being a mentor helped her being a better mentee, and shared that she feels she got more out of these sessions than the latter. Annika mentors others because they ask for it. Very much in spirit of Toni Morrison, whose quote Kathleen Naglee, the Director of the International School of Estonia, brought up in response: “Your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

Most participants, including myself, would probably stumble with the very ask for mentorship. It is a long-term commitment where you need to respect another person’s boundaries of time and on top of that they just might not be interested in working with you. Many things have to come together: I need to have thought my ask through, I need to be prepared to follow-up gently, and I need to be able to take a “no” courageously. This is how it looks in theory from Yale University.

I asked Annika how she would recommend to ask for mentorship. Her suggestion was similar to that of Yale University, with an addition that if you invite another person for coffee, you should pay for it of course.













A different type of mentoring, which involves sharing experiences that we have gone through with someone who is new to that, called peer mentoring, is also available. It is common for a startup world, where founders who have undergone fund raising, for example, would share their experience with pre-funding founders. It is also frequently practised at Superheros – a leadership program for girls led by the CEO Eva K. Ponomarjov. Like Elizabeth Horst, Eva advises to learn how to ask questions, instead of keeping them inside. Leadership is a marathon, not a sprint, she says, where one has got to have grit.

Grit: a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective. | Source

 To quote Angela Duckworth, a researcher of grit, “Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Grit isn’t how intensely, for the moment, you want something. Instead, grit is about having what some researchers call an “ultimate concern” – a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do. And grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow. Talent and luck matter to success. But talent and luck are no guarantee of grit. And in the very long run, I think grit may matter as least as much, if not more.”

Passion doesn’t equal love

Elizabeth Horst shared that in her opinion passion doesn’t equal love. We frequently hear about being passionate at work, and Elizabeth highlights that passion is not love but the energy one brings to work. 50% of her tasks she doesn’t love, but she loves bringing love to work.

Before starting Superheros Eva discovered a void going through her LinkedIn resume: successful accomplishments but nothing soulful. She got frustrated and realized that the fear of failure to do something she loved, not liked, was too great. Getting to the top was getting to the top of her potential, without the little voice saying: “Should I do something different?” She chose to go public with voicing her dream and her promises; the latter she couldn’t take back and the former helped her to stay honest with herself.

Annika admitted that leaving the Reform Party was the toughest decision she made. She also realized that at the age of 25 she promised her husband to open a restaurant by the time she would be 30. Then she turned 30 and realized that dreaming was not enough and that she needed to act. This is how her restaurant, Kuldmokk, came into existence.

All of the three stories demonstrate grit: Annika, Eva and Elizabeth chose to persevere with their decisions in spite of many things, which came after they made these decisions. “Failures will be inevitable, because how are we able to learn anything otherwise?” – says Eva, admitting she wanted to be perfect until the first failure at Superheros. Annika suggests to log failures in our minds as lessons learned or experiences. In the end, whoever thinks of themselves as perfect has got a problem. Politicians fail often, and they fail publicly. There is always a second chance as long as we are alive.

How do we reinvent ourselves after we fail?

Kathleen asks this question. Annika is fast to respond: “Women hesitate too much, we are never ready, we always prepare. We’ve got to believe in ourselves, don’t accept the status quo or uncomfortable situations. Most people will put us in the box – let us not do the same thing to ourselves and let us dare to change.”

Finding a bigger idea of craftsmanship behind what we do takes mindfulness and a certain degree of maturity in life. Picking one idea to commit to takes mental work. The beautiful thing is that in this commitment we can be free and we can be gritty. An absence of it may cost us hesitation and a lack of morale.


Who was Dorothy DeLay?

Eva quotes Dorothy DeLay in her slide deck and the audience instantly learns that Dorothy DeLay was a violin instructor, who took students without exceptional talent because she believed in exceptional performance. She later on became an influential person in the world of music and a mentor to two generations of players ranging from Itzhak Perlman to Midori and Sarah Chang. She also famously said: “Here’s the empty prairie – let’s build a city.” She was famous to believe that if students didn’t play in tune, it was because they hadn’t learned how. She insisted on experimenting and she would usually find a way.


Where is the top?

“Where is your top? Decide where it is for you.” – advises Annika Arras. For her, it was a place of inner happiness from the realization that she enjoys going to work. For Eva Ponomarjev “the top” is getting to the top of her potential. The Olympic week at PyeongChang brings a marvelous example it.


2951 top athletes and this woman

Elizabeth Swaney, an American athlete of 33 years old, has been freestyle skiing since 2013 with the single-minded goal of making it to the Olympics. She cannot make any stunts in the halfpipe, which is something freestyle skiers are expected to do, but this is unimportant because the real competitive portion of her Olympics came before the travel to South Korea, as she worked her way into the Hungarian team which was nothing short of perseverance.

She really wanted to make her goal and so she figured that in order to qualify for the games she needed to finish within the top 30 of the World Cup skiing events. She picked the events which the top athletes didn’t attend because they were competing at a higher level somewhere else at the same time, and essentially did her best not to fall down. With some athletes pulling out of the Olympics because of injury, and because of some rules to balance male/female athletes on the Hungarian team, Elizabeth succeeded to our great pleasure! The Hungarian skiing federation never saw her skii, as she bought her own ticket to South Korea. We don’t need to invent words to congratulate Swaney on this victory because Dostojevski said it long ago:

“Happiness does not lie in happiness, but in the achievement of it” and “You’ve got the mind to achieve whatever you want.”  

In many ways, I find that the AmCham Women in Leadership events gather Elizabeths Swaneys but before her Olympic success. Not everyone will end up being a CEO, like Elizabeth Swaney is probably not going to do crazy stunts. Most reasonable people would never attempt something that she has because why would you want to look so bad?! She finished last and the person who came before last was 13.6 points ahead of her (and performed stunts). But she truly thought out of the box, and besides, whilst being unachievable for most, her big goal — to compete at the Olympics — was realistic enough for her to work towards it. She also said she did it to inspire people to do freestyle skiing.

Everybody with motivation and resources to work with us on training for picking unreasonable but achievable goals are invited to join The AmCham WiL group on Facebook, or email me personally: oi.ts1521828851ivgni1521828851l@ani1521828851ram1521828851

We would like to make our gatherings more engaging to provide not just theoretical but also practical knowledge, within resources available to us.