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How Women Leaders Can Become Game Changers

'You can learn something in every environment if you ask yourself, "What am I learning here?"'

When Dr. Pamela Trotman Reid became president of the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford CT in January 2008, she undertook a transformational mission. Her challenge was to change the perception of the school as a small, insignificant Catholic women’s college.

Transformational leaders bring change by motivating and empowering their followers, who join in pursuit of common goals while developing their own leadership capacities. In the closing keynote at the Women’s Leadership Institute at Amelia Island FL in December, Reid reflected on leadership in relation to her experience as president.

“I wanted us to go from good to great in the sciences, education and health care,” she said. Despite coming to Saint Joseph in the financially challenging year of 2008, she has led the school to:

• create a school of pharmacy, its first doctoral program

• triple the size of its graduate program in education by introducing off-site classes throughout the state

• raise funds to dramatically expand its school for children with disabilities

• establish Connecticut’s first master’s degree program in autism and applied behavioral analysis

refocus its program for adult learners

• gain more recognition for the success of its undergraduate programs, which enroll only women.

Reid has also built strong connections in the state and local community and been honored in the 2013 Global Educator Award from the World Affairs Council of Connecticut and elsewhere. She is a developmental psychologist with a national reputation for scholarship on race and gender.

Changing the game

A Saint Joseph faculty member gasped aloud when she presented her plan to start a school of pharmacy. The board was skeptical when she proposed locating it in downtown Hartford, which they considered to be too dangerous.

But they hired the dean, built the facility, hired faculty and recruited students. Pharmacy students came from Florida, California and all across the country, when previously 95% of its students had come from Connecticut. The first pharmacy class will graduate this spring.

“It was a game changer,” Reid said, a bold act with effects throughout the university. Introducing a doctoral degree and a national constituency changed faculty attitudes about what else Saint Joseph might accomplish.

“Every one of you can be a game changer,” she told the women leaders gathered at Amelia Island. “You have ideas. What do you do with them? Do you implement them or stick them in your back pocket?”

Be out front and take responsibility, she advised. “Grab the controls of the runaway train.” She shared her ideas on what a leader needs to change the game.

People. You can only lead if someone wants to go along with you. According to an African proverb from Malawi, people who think they are leading when nobody is following them are merely taking a walk.

Position. You can lead from where you are; a title is not sufficient or necessary. But stay alert for opportunities to move up. Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust had been a professor there for many years before the opportunity opened for her to be president; the board needed to appoint the opposite of controversial outgoing president Larry Summers.

Power. Women have the most trouble with this one. Power can come from authority, expertise, admirable qualities or the ability to give out rewards and sanctions.

Politics is in everything, even your family. Try to stay informed and be alert to situations that may turn into problems. Be willing to take calculated risks.

It’s sometimes better to apologize after the fact than to ask permission in advance, which she did when the Archbishop called to complain about her having awarded an honorary degree. “It’s a judgment call,” she said

Think of position and power in terms of what influences others to go in the direction you want. A lot depends on how they see you and how you see yourself. As a child she formed a two-person club with her best friend, Sheila. As the oldest in her family Pamela always got to lead, while Sheila was a youngest and was used to being led. No surprise that Pamela was the leader of their little club.

Sheryl Sandberg, currently the chief operating officer of Facebook, was not saying anything new when she published Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (March 2013). The book examines workplace, societal and internalized personal barriers to women’s leadership and encourages women to pursue their ambitions. Others had said it before, so why did her book get so much attention?

Sandberg was seen as credible because of her business success, which resonates with corporate men, and her famous mentor: Larry Summers, her Harvard senior thesis advisor, for whom she later worked at the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury department. “How we’re seen determines our success,” Reid said.

Traits women leaders need

“You no longer have to be tall, cute or male to be a leader,” she said. You don’t need a particular career pathway; some presidents come from faculty, others from student affairs or business. Her administrative career took off when she was appointed to an interim position at the graduate school of City University of New York. People were surprised she did it well, because they did not envision women as leaders.

Leaders do need certain traits, especially women:

Vision. Have a clear sense of what you want to do and how to get there. “It’s critical to have ideas and stand up for them. You have to think it’s possible to do it before you can convince others,” she said.

Persistence. When you hit a brick wall, figure out how to get around it. It may mean adding new people to a committee that opposes you, or moving to a different school or job.

Self-confidence. What you think of yourself and your ideas will affect how others see you. Set aside any habits of putting yourself down. Men regularly overstate their abilities and experience; women do just the opposite.

Kenexa High Performance Institute’s white paper “Women Leaders’ Career Advancement: A Three-Level Framework” addresses three levels of influence on how women move up in their careers. First, the individual level involves career planning, seeking opportunities, networking and self-promotion. You need to do your own PR.

Next comes the immediate work environment. This includes mentors and sponsors, critical job assignments and support from one’s immediate supervisor. Since many men are uncomfortable giving women direct feedback, you may need to ask what you can do to improve.

At the broadest level, organizational context includes policies for flexibility and work/life balance, objective personnel practices and a supportive culture with regard to bias and gender stereotypes.

Consider all levels when you are deciding whether to stay or move on. “You can learn something in every environment if you ask yourself, what am I learning here?” she said.

10 Tips to grow in leadership

She offered 10 recommendations for women leaders:

Know yourself and your strengths. You’ll get more return on effort if you build on your strengths rather than focusing on improving areas of weakness.

Volunteer and self-nominate. All the committees tend to have the same members because they are made up of the folks who volunteer. Chairs are made the same way. Once she created a committee of herself and her friends to address an issue.

Set your own goals. Remember to dream. Do more than the required minimum to get where you want to go.

Develop your skills and your network. “Academia is a small town. Everybody knows everybody else,” she said. Get someone from a different school to recommend you.

Act like a leader. Sit at the head of the table and speak up at meetings. People recognize those who do.

Adopt mentors and advisors. “It’s not like marriage. You can have more than one,” she said. Try to get some variety in the voices that guide and support you.

Think about priorities. Take a step back and reevaluate. Your priorities may change from week to week. Does the time you spend with family and friends reflect how important you say they are in your life? “It’s not a priority if you don’t make time for it,” she said.

Know the rules and learn the history. “Know the rules even if you plan to break them,” she advised. You can get a lot of credit for knowing school history and building on it. History will give you the answer when people say what you’re suggesting was tried 15 years ago and didn’t work.

Learn how to share the work and the credit. Women do well at sharing the credit but not as well when it comes to sharing the work through delagation.

• “Always aim high, work hard and care deeply for what you believe in,” she quoted Hillary Clinton at the 2008 Democratic convention. “And when you stumble, keep faith.”


Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2014, January). How Women Leaders Can Become Game Changers. Women in Higher Education, 23(1), 1-2.

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