Martha Piper, on how to be nervier

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The Magazine of the Rotman School of Management UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO




The Disrupted Issue


Martha Piper, Co-author, Nerve: Lessons on Leadership From Two Women Who Went First

Q &A

One of Canada’s firstever female university presidents shares insights from her career and her latest book.

Interview by Karen Christensen

You open your book by stating that “women are notoriously ambivalent when it comes to leadership.” Why is that?

That was the question we pondered throughout the book. I don’t think there’s a simple answer, but if I were to summarize what we discovered, it’s that girls and young women are programmed very differently from childhood. It is rare for a young girl to aspire to lead — but we see boys taking charge all the time, on and off the sports field. It all comes down to how you are raised and what you’re expected to do. In addition, sometimes women are ambivalent about leadership because they lack the confidence — and that is backed by lots of research. They tend to underestimate their own skill set and ambition, whereas young men aren’t as reluctant to step up. You and your co-author were the first women to serve as presidents of your respective universities. Were there commonalities in your backgrounds that help explain your success?

We knew each other professionally for many years, but we really didn’t know each other personally until we embarked on writing the book — and we discovered some very / 109

Girls and young women are programmed very differently from childhood.

interesting similarities. We both have two brothers and a sister, and we were both raised in families where our fathers played a dominant role in defining our values and expectations. Neither one of us was necessarily the smartest person in the room. I certainly was not, but I was always driven to do my best to please my family and especially, my father. Indira had a very similar experience, despite being raised on a different continent in a very different culture. We were both extremely fortunate to grow up in families that were loving and supportive right from day one. A lot has been written about birth order, but it doesn’t apply to us: Indira was first born, and I was third. But in each of our cases, we lived in three-generation households. My grandfather lived with us, and Indira lived with a very strong grandmother who was a key role model for her. We both had large extended families, and every Sunday throughout our childhoods, we would all gather for dinner. So we definitely shared the powerful crucible of family. How do you define ‘nerve’ in the workplace?

Nerve requires action, and doing something that is daring and challenging to the status quo. It’s not just about being brave and standing up to criticism but actually taking a position or a path that’s a little different and risky. If you look at the definition of grit, it’s about passion and perseverance; but you can have a lot a grit and not do anything. Nerve requires action. Looking at the journeys that you and others have been on, what is the role of adversity along the way?

I think it’s significant. Everyone faces adversity at some point. The key is how you confront it and what you learn from it. There are plenty of examples in the book of things we had to face, either as young children or later in our lives, and how we confronted those situations. One thing is certain: you can never let adversity define who you are. That was very important in preparing us for leading in complex environments. 110 / Rotman Management Winter 2022

A lot of female leaders come from an all-girls’ educational experience. Why might that be?

Indira grew up in Sri Lanka and her schooling up until university was all girls. And what did she choose to be? A mechanical engineer. I grew up in a steel town in Ohio where there were no private schools — just co-ed public education. And what did I grow up to be? A physical therapist, which was typical for women in the 1960s. We discussed this at length, and I really think her schooling gave Indira the opportunity to be whatever she wanted to be, without all the social demands of a co-ed environment. She was encouraged to lead — she was the class prefect — and teachers encouraged her to be the best she could be in Math and Science. My experience was just the opposite: I shied away from excelling because if you did, you were not popular with the boys. At the time, girls tried to hide their intelligence to gain friends and social influence. And in addition, I grew up in a household where women were supposed to do X and not Y. I always knew I was going to go to university, and at one point I thought I might like to be a physician; but my parents continually reminded me that I was going to get married and have children. I think an all girls’ education can, for some girls, really make a difference in terms of permitting them to be who they want to be without the social trappings that might present barriers. The list of high-achieving women with an all girls’ educational background includes Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Eleanor Roosevelt. Of course, there are plenty of women out there doing wonderful things who didn’t go to all-girls’ schools, but it does make you stop and think. Once someone gets through primary education and starts to have some choice, you found that the choices they make are not be as important as we think in preparing them for leadership. Please explain.

As indicated, I chose Physiotherapy and Indira chose Engineering, neither of which are traditional precursors to leading. Yet we ended up in these high-ranking leadership

No one can have it all. You always have to prioritize and make choices.

positions. I remember when I was trying to support the humanities as president of the University of British Columbia, and I looked at the top 100 CEOs of major companies in North America. A large proportion of them had degrees in the Arts, in subjects like History and Philosophy. Leadership is about thinking, knowing how to ask questions, and having the good judgment required to bring knowledge and talent together, rather than being educated for any specific profession. What does it mean to ‘have it all’ in today’s world?

No one can have it all. You always have to prioritize, make choices and decide whether you’re going to come home for dinner or attend that reception after work. Leaders have to make these decisions every day. No one can do it all, which is why having a strong sense of priorities and being able to delegate is critical. I grew up with a mother for whom the thought of hiring an outsider to make a birthday cake would have been appalling. Today, leaders have to realize that maybe their house doesn’t have to be as clean as the house next door, and maybe it’s okay to get a birthday cake from a bakery. I was fortunate to have a very supportive husband, and Indira had access to a close group of women. She calls them her ‘MenoPosse’, and if she was travelling and needed something, she would call upon them for assistance. Every female leader must figure out a support structure that will allow her to do the things that are most important, and give up some of the rest. I have two daughters with young children and very demanding careers, and they are both facing these same challenges. What is your message for young people in the workforce who are pondering whether to accept a leadership role?

Absolutely, they should do it. That’s the whole point of our book! We want to encourage more young women to step up and lead. Their voices are so important. To enable that, sponsors are extremely important and

maybe even more important than mentors. Doing well in whatever role you’re in will attract people’s attention. Indira and I looked back at our career paths, and there is no way we could have achieved what we did without people advocating for us, nominating us for stretch roles and pushing us. That is so important. Serendipity is important too — and it’s not about good luck. You have to put the clues together and notice patterns of behaviour. Maybe someone is suggesting X and someone else is suggesting Y, but you think, ‘I’d like to do Z’. It’s so important to take risks and not to second guess yourself. We tell the story in the book about a headhunter who would call women up and say, ‘Your name has been put forward and we’d like to look at you for the head of this department’, and the women invariably say, ‘Why are you calling me? I couldn’t possibly do that, but I know someone who could…’ When the headhunter would call a male candidate, he would say, ‘I’ve been waiting to hear from you. Why didn’t you call earlier?’ When you get a call like that, it’s because someone has noticed you. Guess what? You might not get the job. But at least have the nerve to put yourself out there.

Martha Piper, OC, OBC, is a Canadian academic and administrator who was President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia from 1997 until 2006. She was the first and, to date, only woman to serve as president of UBC. She is the co-author, with Indira Samarasekera, of Nerve: Lessons on Leadership from Two Women Who Went First (ECW Press, 2021). / 111

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