A popular piece recently published by The Atlantic explores the confidence gap between men and women, offering a stack of evidence that shows the price women pay for their lack of confidence relative to their male counterparts. It is a phenomenon that further pushed me to think not only about my own confidence and ability to lead, but about the role design thinking could stand to play in helping realize change.
My thought process on this topic began months ago, when our editor (and, in the interest of full disclosure, my roommate), Emi Kolawole, posed a question here on the whiteboard:
If you were to take on the challenge of growing the number of women in leadership roles, how would you go about it?
Investment in women pays dividends, and study after study bears this out. A report by the National Council for Research on Women (now known as re:Gender) offers a collection of research that shows women fund managers outperform their male counterparts. Meanwhile, the non-profit research and analysis organization, Catalyst, found that Fortune 500 companies with the highest percentage of women board directors significantly outperformed those with the lowest percentage.
This means the cost of the confidence gap is high -- very high. And here is where I believe design thinking can come into play.
As a graduate of the Naval Academy where I pursued rowing and boxing at elite levels, I am passionate about helping women, especially athletes, rise to leadership roles impacting our society. But there is a lot of talk in this space and, to my mind, far too little action. I am actively tracking the movement underway to support women on this path, including an initiative by Ernst & Young, which created a network for elite women athletes. But more can be done.
The design thinking process all but forces you to stop talking about doing something and start doing it. So, rather than wait 10 years to take on a leadership role, it helps you discover options for acting on your intention immediately. Sometimes that means starting small -- very, very small.
Recently, I have been frustrated with my ability to get bogged down in theoretical questions and set aside tasks that need to be done. I needed guidance and leadership, so I applied the design thinking process to help me realize my own personal leadership and self-improvement goals. Rather than outline a multi-year plan I was not likely to follow or seek the guidance of someone else, I resolved to immediately begin occupying a discreet leadership role. I, in essence, developed a prototype.
I spent 10 minutes coaching myself.
Granted, the impact one can make in 10 years of strong organizational leadership is orders of magnitude greater than the impact you can have in 10 minutes by yourself. But if it's between starting down the path to leadership and not starting at all -- why not start with 10 minutes? Eventually, a series of 10-minute sessions can help you develop a program for a full day's workshop, and then that one day can turn into a three-day conference, which can turn into ten months of leadership coaching and eventually ten years of running your own firm. But you have to start.
In my 10 minutes, I used some of my earliest athletic memories, trying to remember how I learned sports as a child. I focused on taking back that sense of curiosity and play and applying it to my process of learning as I transition from 14 years in the military to a new life as a civilian and design thinker.
My 10 minutes of self-coaching ended up turning into a few hours. I practiced mindfulness and applied what I learned as an athlete: the primacy of taking care of my body (sleep, eat, stretch, address my stress). I then established a concrete design challenge for myself: How might I connect the design thinkers I most admire with the projects I'm most passionate about? I brainstormed potential solutions. Then, I focused my intention on one of my ideas and established a commitment to act.
Amber Schleuning, at the VA Center for Innovation, you'll be hearing from me very soon.
Will a process like the one I engaged in magically bridge the confidence gap? Perhaps not. But design thinking is turning my experiences from years of military training and high-performance athletics into action. So, design thinking may not be the only place for women to turn, but it's at least a place to start -- and we must start somewhere now.
See where 10 minutes takes you.