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Northwestern, University of Chicago Focus On Women And Leadership

Chicago-area scientists, clinicians, engineers gather at career development retreat

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March 5, 2014 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Leadership, like scientific discovery -- with all its messy highs and lows -- moves forward in far from a straight line, according to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s (RIC) Joanne Smith, M.D.

What is much more certain to Smith’s success as a leader is a crystal-clear vision that is inextricably linked to the joy -- or esprit -- of doing what she does best, aligned with what is best for RIC and its patients, Smith stressed in her keynote address Feb. 20 at the Chicago Collaboration for Women in STEM Career Development and Leadership Retreat.

On a cold rainy day far away from the everyday stresses of high-achieving careers, Smith, president and chief executive officer of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, opened her very personal address on leadership by paying tribute to an audience of women who also know quite a bit about success.

The women -- who work in the biological, engineering, medical, physical and social sciences, at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, Fermilab and other leading Chicago-area institutions -- filled a Naperville hotel ballroom.  

Offered for the second year in a row, the retreat was sponsored by the Chicago Collaboration for Women in STEM (CWIS), a joint initiative of Northwestern and the University of Chicago.

A top priority of the provosts of both universities, Northwestern’s Daniel Linzer and the University of Chicago’s Thomas Rosenbaum, the collaboration was founded in 2011 to provide strong institutional support that will make a real difference in advancing the careers of women faculty in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). 

“One unassailable reason for the collaboration is that even with all the progress in gender equity to date, women faculty in STEM still are relatively few, even at universities such as Northwestern and the University of Chicago,” said Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, associate provost for faculty at Northwestern and co-leader of the retreat.

Smith’s keynote address and dinner preceded the next day’s retreat sessions, which involved lots of interactivity for the attendees and covered such topics as assertiveness and negotiation training, “mentoring up” and role-playing for confidence building and dealing effectively with the media.

Based on overheard conversations at the reception following Smith’s keynote address, the retreat got off to a great start. Much buzz was generated by Smith's sharing of the personal ups and downs of an extraordinary journey to the highest rung of leadership at a hospital that is celebrated globally for its innovative and interdisciplinary treatment of complex conditions such as spinal cord injury, stroke, traumatic brain injury, amputation and chronic pain.

The title of her address, “Journey to Leadership: Observation, Data, Struggles and ‘Esprit,’” aptly summarizes Smith’s talk.

“The secret of leadership, in my opinion, is to live in the spirit of who you are, inextricably aligned with the lifeblood of your organization at the right moment and time,” she said.

That means having a crystal-clear vision of what you want to make better every day, even if you aren’t sure how to do that. “And it is keeping your compass pointed in that direction every day,” she said.

Such esprit, Smith said, is the ultimate destination of a leader. 

“It is knowing that what you do as a leader is aligned really well with what you are good at,” she said. “It’s very personal, soulful and passionate, and the people around you are naturally attracted and motivated by that energy.”

That doesn’t mean a carefree approach to management. 

“Esprit isn’t all about being happy, about life without worries,” Smith stressed in her remarks, reflecting on personally wrenching personnel decisions and other tough leadership calls, even admitting to “train wrecks” along the way.

But when you fail, it is best to fail fast, she said. While certainly taking time to listen deeply and learn from her mistakes, Smith said, she doesn’t let setbacks distract her from implementing a vision that gets at the heart and soul of what RIC is all about.

After many discussions and much soul searching and planning, guided by Smith’s determination that outcomes for patients need to be even better, the vision that now guides everything that RIC does can be boiled down to one simple word: “ability.”

As a result of that vision, RIC’s planned 1.2 million-square-foot hospital, scheduled to open in July 2017, will be renamed The Ability Institute of RIC.

“Don’t you love the name?” said Lindsay Chase-Lansdale in her introduction of Smith.

“It symbolizes a first-of-a-kind institution where clinicians, patients and researchers will live together 24/7 to bring about better outcomes for RIC patients,” Chase-Lansdale said.

Smith completed her residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine before joining RIC in 1992 as a practicing physician. In 2006, she was promoted to president and CEO of RIC. She also holds an MBA from the University of Chicago.

“I find Dr. Smith’s combination of credentials to be an excellent symbol of our collaboration between Northwestern and the University of Chicago,” Chase-Lansdale said.

In her remarks before the keynote address, Mary Harvey, associate provost for program development at the University of Chicago, gave a series of thanks to those who have supported and participated in Chicago Collaboration for Women in STEM activities, particularly to Northwestern’s and the University of Chicago’s provosts.

A co-leader of the retreat, Harvey cited how much the women had done to make the collaboration successful, “from their research accomplishments, to the mentoring of the next cohort of outstanding women scientists, to keeping pressure on us to do better.”

She hoped that the CWIS retreats “will take place into the future as far as we can imagine.”

The next day the women had many active learning exchanges in the following retreat sessions:

Negotiating Effectively for Yourself

Women generally do not negotiate for themselves as much as male colleagues do. Failure to negotiate leads to lower research budgets, fewer resources and missed opportunities. The highly interactive session focused on how to negotiate in a wide variety of situations.

“So few of these incredible women described themselves as experts, even though they are key thought leaders in their research areas," said presenter Victoria Medvec, the Adeline Barry Davee Professor of Management and Organizations and executive director of the Center for Executive Women at Northwestern.

"A goal of my session was to get them to use power words in describing themselves as they go forward," Medvec said.

Assertive Communication Training

Participants learned how to define assertiveness, practiced modeling different body languages and participated in speed scenarios in which everyone got to role-play positive assertive behavior.

“Men tend to play hard, and women generally are not socialized that way,” said presenter Deborah Burnet, M.D., professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Chicago.

“Women on average don’t speak up enough and could benefit from being more clear and assertive,” she said. 

Presence and Confidence Building -- Our Role in the Play

Through modeling techniques, a professional actress and teacher coached participants on how to demonstrate physical and psychological confidence in front of an audience, invaluable skills for teaching, leading meetings, negotiating or giving presentations.

“A stance of openness, compassion and persistent positive presence is the clearest path to effectively being heard and possibly getting what you want,” said presenter Gail Shapiro, senior lecturer, acting program, department of theatre in Northwestern’s School of Communication.

“I offered specific and meaningful exercises to find that path,” she said.

Effective Mentoring Relationships and “Mentoring Up”

Participants learned about core attributes of effective mentoring relationships. In particular, they learned how to use those attributes to both mentor others and “mentor up” -- to guide relationships in which both are being mentored. Written exercises and analyses of cases were used for skill building in this workshop.

“In the STEM fields, mentoring is truly pivotal to career success, yet it has not been typically approached as a skill to be taught and learned,” said presenter Richard McGee, associate dean for faculty recruitment and professional development and professor of medical education at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“My goal for this session was to demonstrate how both mentor and mentee can contribute to a strong, effective relationship,” he said.

Making the Most of Media Interview Opportunities

Faculty learned how to control the narrative in interviews with reporters so what is important about their research is what is actually conveyed to the public. They engaged in role-playing sessions as interviewees and learned how sharpened communication skills could lead to a place on the short list of experts to be contacted on future advances in their fields.

“Most importantly, we teach faculty to practice what they want to say to reporters ahead of time and to get feedback, even if that means running down the hall to a colleague’s office for a five-minute exchange,” said presenter Julie Peterson, vice president for communications at the University of Chicago and the media session presenter.

The networking that occurs through the retreat and other CWIS initiatives are central to helping the women faculty feel less isolated -- a number spoke of being the only woman or among a few females in their department.

The networking also provides great opportunities for research collaborations, mentoring and other professional relationships.

Two years plus into the initiatives of the Chicago Collaboration for Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, Northwestern and the University of Chicago are determined to make progress that will lead to inclusive and intellectually deep environments at their respective institutions. 

“CWIS has contributed to the creation of a larger and more networked community of women scientists in the Chicago area through our programs, retreats and experts portal,” Northwestern Provost Linzer said. “We are committed to building upon that success going forward, with metrics to guide us.”