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Q&A with Professor Laura Kray

02.27.20

The Nature of Changemaking and the Importance of Advancing Shared Interests

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Professor Laura Kray is The Ned and Carol Spieker Chair in Leadership at the Walter A. Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley, where she has been on the faculty since 2002. She is also the faculty director of the Women's Executive Leadership Program. Berkeley Executive Education met with her to talk about her story to celebrate Women's History Month.

Who is a notable female who inspires you?

LK: I am totally inspired by Gloria Steinem. She is such a visionary trailblazer who, for decades, has been way ahead of her time, patiently showing others a path to a better way of being. Throughout her long career, she has consistently oozed intelligence, bravery, wisdom, and a willingness to speak truth to power.

As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career?

LK: Realizing that, at times, I see the world through a different lens than people who have different life experiences than me. Early on this was confusing and frustrating and even led to some beating myself up. Now I am grateful to have enough experience to understand the social dynamics at play and to take it less personally. People who have only known privilege—and in my academic world this often means having the power to define assumptions and dictate what is and is not legitimate new knowledge—cannot see their own blinders at first. When I was younger, I took it personally (what’s wrong with me?) but over time I have come to see that this is the nature of change-making. Those of us who are defined by the desire to question the status quo have to expect a little bit of backlash or being met by indifference by those who are motivated to not rock the boat.

What are some traits that you think great leaders possess?

LK: Leaders’ trustworthiness in everything they do is absolutely critical. Followers assess their leaders along three dimensions of trust, asking themselves: First, do they have the integrity needed to tell the truth, even when it hurts? Second, are they looking out for my interests? Third, are they competent enough to get the job done? When trust is in place, then a whole new world of possibilities opens up.

What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?

LK: I am heartened by the growing awareness of how gender bias persists in 21st-century society through the cold, cognitive (i.e. stereotyping) processes contributing to implicit bias, we have not yet figured out a foolproof way to counteract it. It is also encouraging to see extreme sexual predators being held to account in the #MeToo era. Yet this dichotomy—either innocent mistakes versus egregious criminality—overlooks the tougher cases of addressing the harmful behavior directed at women that falls into the “grey zone.” Many of these bullying and harassing behaviors reflect “toxic masculinity” motivated by insecurity and threat. I think the discussion around these grey zones is still somewhat of a “third rail” in women’s leadership and diversity, equity, and inclusion executive training programs.

What do you believe women can do to make a substantial difference in shaping the future culture in business?

LK: Work together to effect change. Historically, the shared experience of women in the workplace is characteristic of a tragedy of the commons, with individual actors pursuing their own self-interest in a way that runs contrary to our collective good. This might mean women leaders forging their own path with little conscious regard to how their social capital could be spent on advancing our shared interests. Often these women were in survival mode, so this limited capacity to band together is understandable. Men as a group have more experience in forming coalitions to gain strength—think of centuries of warfare as good training for navigating organizational politics. Women who have made it to the top of corporate hierarchies have often done so with an individualistic mindset rewarded by men. Yet, if every woman leader adopts an individualistic approach, then it rewards an outdated system that was created by men for men. To be sure, I am seeing encouraging advances in women’s political organizing, but we still need to develop stronger instincts around the strength-in-numbers approach to effecting change. We as women spanning multiple generations, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations will go further by doing so together.

What are some notable outcomes that you saw from participants after the completion of ExecEd programs?

LK: One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching the Women’s Executive Leadership program is the experience of witnessing someone who has been suffering from confusion, exhaustion, and/or lack of direction walk away with a new sense of clarity, energy, and purpose. When women at various career stages and in various industries come together for an intensive period of learning, sharing, and growing, we gain more appreciation of the universality of the questions and concerns we face. We remember that leadership is inherently vulnerable, and only worthwhile if it is in service of making the world better, safer, and fairer. It is always amazing to witness “aha” moments when participants see their own experience through the lens of gender. While some of this can be discouraging because it exposes persistent barriers, ultimately it seems to light a fire in pursuing a greater good, with stronger voices.

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