I’ve been an executive for 24 years, having achieved my first VP title in 1999 at 28 years old. Like most modern executives, I had very little time or tolerance for a learning curve. Pressures of both boom and bust times, heavy competition, and fast-evolving business models and technologies left no room for that. In my father’s day, the MBA or Executive MBA was the golden ticket – offering the planning structures, iconic and long-lasting case studies, and business bibles to last decades. But not for my generation, and certainly not for the ones following me.
As a consequence, and also as my preference throughout my career, I leaned more on other executives and less on textbooks, case studies, and courses to guide me to clarity around business decisions and strategic thinking. It’s always felt natural to have a quick meeting, send a quick email, or grab a coffee for a quick dose of facetime support. I naturally gravitated to those within my network, or people within the networks of those I trusted. I always walked away one step closer to answers, having gathered knowledge from real-world anecdotes and others’ experiences. To this day, I credit that style of support with my rise into the C-suite, with having saved my former company from bankruptcy, and also with the founding of Athena, my current venture – a learning platform for top women leaders.
I found myself constantly seeking to learn from others who had been where I sat. From others who got to where I wanted to go. As soon as I reached the VP ranks and the C-Suite, it became essential that I widen the breadth of my business acumen, to think bigger, more holistically. To understand all the things because suddenly, I was expected to hold the entire business in my hands.
Two recent experiences have me thinking about this more, increasingly proud of the model we are building at Athena. I joined an Athena Learning Circle and was placed in a virtual breakout room of four people. There I was: learning about mega trends affecting business globally and locally; in a breakout room with three other executives who happened to be Black. There I was, the minority, observing and taking part in a lively discussion with women who don’t necessarily get to have this kind of raw discussion with other women – let alone women of color.
We weren’t discussing matters of race or DEI. We were talking about the intersection of business and health. But I could feel and subtly grasp how our unique origin stories, our varied careers in a variety of industries, brought dimension and depth to a topic we created, veering from but inspired by research conducted by the incomparable Andrea Bonime Blanc on global risk. Together, we discovered an angle around megatrends that Andrea had not fully explored, and we were excited.
It was nothing short of remarkable. My experience was further amplified when we reconvened and I heard the incredible conversations from the women in the other breakout rooms. What a great opportunity for Andrea, too, as our Learning Circle Expert as she later gets to review and ponder the ideas expressed in the Zoom chat. As she shares her real-time research and the wisdom gained, we share back real-time insights as executives “on the ground”.
This has me thinking: could communal learning – via thoughtful cohorts of executives – be the replacement we’ve all been seeking for the traditional MBA?
The second recent experience was not mine, but told to me by a long-time Athena member over lunch. A newer Athena member had reached out to her through our community and asked to speak with her for some quick real-time business guidance. Tangentially, they learned together that one of them has responsibility for an obscure product set in the exact space another member had just bought a company (specifically, water infrastructure software). They now have their teams talking about potential collaborations!
This may not seem particularly earth-shattering, to think of peers collaborating and discovering together. But for women like me, who have been in the executive realm for 24 years (or even sadly women who have been executives for 3 years), it still feels special and unique to collaborate at this level with other women. And when we gather not in a closed, small classroom cohort but rather digitally, we are fully discoverable to each other, we are one degree of separation from anything we need to explore. And that exploration happens not just with another executive, but with a woman executive.
This got me thinking. What if: 20 years ago, when my first order of business when I took over as COO of Taos was “keep us out of bankruptcy”. What if: instead of interviewing a variety of lawyers who all were trying to convince me I needed to hire them (which of course I wanted to avoid). What if: instead, I could have quickly found a peer to talk to – operator to operator. With this question, I went to the Athena directory and searched. Eight women popped up who had experience guiding a business through bankruptcy, which I narrowed down to six who were in my business model and industry. Amazing. If only I had this powerful community back then.
We all know business isn’t fiction – the decisions we make every day have very real outcomes, and we don’t always have a formula in business for the “right” answer. Things are often gray, subjective. We need to make the best calls we can, with the information we have before us.
Learning in a group setting, or just operator to operator, gives leaders the support they need to gain real-time feedback and work through challenges together. It’s an opportunity to learn collaboratively – sourcing knowledge from across all industries, functions, titles. Rather than executives learning in a vacuum – with only the leaders at their business or within their particular “back yard” – communal-style learning offers the opportunity to connect the dots in a way that textbooks cannot deliver, and that humans are not likely to achieve on their own, at a speed that is required in today’s fast-changing world.
Business is happening now, not in a textbook from 10 years ago, or a case study that has taken 3 years to get through the proper levels of approval and perfection. As the pace of business has evolved in the last decade to be reactive to consumers, global events, PR fiascos, geopolitical struggles, and the rapid advancement of technology and data, so too must decisions and the sharing of information evolve. Information shared between peers is what leaders are seeking as they make decisions – and, as Harvard Business School recently pointed out – it’s critical that this circle of executives presents a broad, fresh range of perspectives.
In other words: wide, stronger networks may lead to more relevant information. Harvard Business School states: “If you have a very large network in which everyone knows each other, you essentially have access to the same, recycled information. It’s more important for your network to provide new resources and have strong relationships that rest on a willingness to help each other.”
Just like it’s important to diversify the boardroom, from ethnicity and function to cognitive abilities and age, diversifying the pool from which we source knowledge can lend equal benefits to our learning.
Successful leaders also understand that networking is one of the biggest drivers of career advancement, including achieving a board seat. People tend to hire who they know, who they trust, who they have interacted with before. Communal learning allows for an ongoing, rich networking experience where the pressures of day-to-day business are put aside and leaders can instead collaborate, discuss, and relax as they engage in discussions together.
A recent HBR article highlights how the pandemic has impacted the networks of professionals and how these networks are critical to continuous learning and problem-solving. It states: “Our recent research shows that our professional and personal networks have shrunk by close to 16% — or by more than 200 people — during the pandemic.” The same article later notes that: “Maintaining connection to the outer rings of your circle is critical for innovation, creativity, problem solving, and employee well-being.”
Cohort learning offers a path to networking and learning simultaneously, reinforcing that those executives who come together to solve problems and learn together likely have stronger outcomes.
As I continue to engage my networks and the Athena community for group learning, I’ve seen what we used to refer to as “more brains are better than one” come into play more than once. I’ve seen solutions to problems crowdsourced; group sessions leading to one-on-one mentoring and support offline; and some super intriguing and engaging Socratic-style discussions that have altered my perspective on everything from business fundamentals to societal issues.
I can’t help but believe it’s true – people coming together to reason, problem-solve, and enlighten one another is perhaps the most future-proofed version of learning we have in today’s fast-evolving world. And, it’s one of the most powerful ways one can stand in their leadership and stand in their power as we head into the second half of 2022.
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