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Q&A with Professor Maura O'Neill

03.02.20

Changing Your Path and the Importance of Courage

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Professor Maura O'Neill is a Distinguished Teaching Fellow at the Haas School of Business and was a recipient of the Earl F. Cheit Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2015, 2016 and 2017. She is also the Faculty Director for the Berkeley 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?

MO: Madam C.J. Walker and Oprah Winfrey are notable females whose business acumen and social philanthropic contributions inspire me every day. Both were born into poverty in the rural South, at a time when there weren't many female role models and young girls weren’t encouraged to dream big, particularly African-American ones. They both seized an entrepreneurial opening to build a game-changing business. Madam Walker founded a beauty business employing more than 20,000 Black women and taught them how to budget and build their own businesses. She became the wealthiest African-American woman and a significant philanthropist when she passed in 1919.

Of course, everyone knows Oprah. Regardless of the color of our skin or our gender, she is an incredible entrepreneurial and business role model who has also helped us navigate the personal challenges of family and professional life. Considering, what I know for sure, is that life doesn't spare any of us.

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

MO: There are two: one that others impose and one inside me. Sadly, that rarified air of top leadership has been a club that has not often welcomed girls. Some of that was explicit and some because they just wanted to hire, promote, appoint, or fund people just like themselves. Sometimes they knew it and sometimes they didn't. We are learning that unconscious bias is in fact, unconscious. Sometimes I understood that. I didn't like it but I didn't take it personally. Other times, I thought, 'I must not have the right stuff' or 'If only I had X more whatevers.' Even to this day, I can't always tell you whether it was that I didn't have the right stuff or that they just didn't feel comfortable putting a woman or someone with my background in that role. Which brings me to the second barrier- that one inside of me and most women. The stepsister who lives in our ear and whispers to us, either about our worthiness, that is, unworthiness, or telling us 'just help everyone else achieve their goals and you will get picked someday.' Didn't they tell us that credit isn't supposed to matter?

Having identified both of these, I am also happy that I have worked hard to slay those dragons or at least try to keep being bold, despite those barriers. Courage - it's essential. Always.

Some might say that the decision to marry and have children can be a significant career barrier for a woman, and for many, it can be. Maybe the partner they chose didn't support their biggest hopes and dreams, or they didn't see a partner or kids as an important part of their day to day life, or they couldn't see how they could get the highest or broadest professional goals without being more singularly focused. I have a deep respect for those choices. For me, both brought joy and perspective in my life that I believe actually enabled me to take the risks I did. Of course, none of us will ever know what would have happened if we took a different path.

What are some traits that you think great leaders possess?

MO: Great leaders possess at least three characteristics: boldness, adaptability, and resilience. And wrapped around these are courage.

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

MO: I think the biggest challenge for all women, but particularly for those still changing their path: the myth that you don't have the right stuff. Ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things. Who ever heard of most leaders before they pulled off something incredible? They were just like you and me. Remember that.

I am a voracious reader of biographies. Whether it is Thomas Edison or Madam Curie (one of the only winners of two Nobel prizes), we all have self-doubts and setbacks. Some at the beginning of our lives. Some in the middle. And for some of us, our greatest achievements don't even come until later in life. Martha Graham, who had as big of an impact on dance as Stravinsky on music and Frank Lloyd Wright on architecture, was poor and unknown at age 41.

Never stop believing in yourself. Never stop learning. Take a spoonful of humble pie every morning and you will do breathtaking things.

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

MO: Women can and must do two things in order to make a substantial difference in the way we all do business: First, raise your hand. That is, take that opportunity to try something big and bold. Step up because you can have much more influence, formally and informally, if people look to you as a role model that they admire. Second, introduce early and in every way, graciousness. We have tried the 'gouge your eyes out' or 'win at any price' and where has that gotten us? A society where we have the lowest trust of business and institutions (public and private) that we have ever had. This produces lower financial returns, higher turnover, sicker employees, less satisfied people - nothing much that is good.

I hope that women (and men) will embrace graciousness- seeking to listen and help more, being more empathetic, and creating solutions that create wins for more. Trust will go up. We will enjoy going to work more. And guess what? People will like working for us more, and our companies will make more money.

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

MO: The reason I love teaching in Executive Education is the transformation I see in our participants. I try hard to create a 'change your life experience' whether I have the honor of working with a group for one hour, one week, or more. It is a precious time when each participant takes time away from their work and family. More than a 'feel good' time, we want them to get results- to shed some bad habits, gain some new skills, garner the courage to embrace awesome dreams they may have been carrying around or that their organization wants for them, and take the first tentative or even bold steps. The unsolicited emails I receive weeks, months, or years afterward about how their professional and personal lives have blossomed are the best gifts I ever receive in my life.

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