This story comes to us from Maggie Ruvoldt, senior vice president of business operations at 2U, who shares her lessons learned about women’s leadership and allyship to celebrate and provide a resource for Women’s History Month. Interested in hearing more about Maggie’s journey as a woman in leadership at 2U? Tune in to her welcoming remarks at this year’s Simmons Leadership Conference on April 16.
The past decade has been a time of enormous change and growth for me. As 2U has grown from around 100 full-time employees when I started in 2010 to more than 3,500 today, we have stayed true to our mission-driven culture and commitment to offering a workplace where everyone can feel empowered to be themselves and belong. Our culture reminds me each day that diversity in all its dimensions strengthens us as a team and me as an individual. It has inspired me to give back to my 2U community by paying forward the opportunities I have had through mentorship and allyship.
In my 10 years at 2U, I’ve learned countless lessons about women’s leadership and allyship. Here are five lessons that I hope you can learn from and use as resources during Women’s History Month.
Mentoring circles are extraordinarily powerful.
I have had the opportunity and honor to mentor many people throughout my career, but I didn’t realize the true power of mentorship until I started Mentoring Mondays. The idea for Mentoring Mondays was born after I attended the Simmons Leadership Conference in 2013—a one-day professional development conference focused on women’s leadership—and manifested itself as a mentoring circle of women with roles across several functions at 2U. We came together monthly to focus on professional development and on supporting each other in our various endeavors. Communication between group members was constant—we kept in touch via email, Google Groups, and Slack between meetings, and discussed topics like finding your voice, negotiating, and finding a sponsor. It was somewhat of a precursor to the development of the Women’s Alliance Network, a business resources network designed to help define and create a culture of gender equality at 2U. Today, I can look across the company and see so many members of Mentoring Mondays driving our business and company culture in key ways.
While I was the one who initially brought us together and started the conversations for Mentoring Mondays, the group itself became the dynamo. The interaction among members, the willingness to share experiences, and the advice and power of a strong cohort of women colleagues who cared about each other’s success allowed us to have a distinct impact on members and the company as a whole. An example of this is the growth of Lauren Woodfork, one of the original Mentoring Mondays members who is on the Black Engagement Network (BNet) leadership team and assumed an instrumental role in corporate diversity and inclusion progress.
You get more out of mentoring than what you put into it.
Whenever I see time on my calendar with someone who is looking for mentorship, career advice, or a sounding board, I know it’s going to be a good day. Those conversations combine the two most energizing activities for me—paying it forward and self-reflection. Every time I get the opportunity to spend time with someone talking about leadership or professional growth, I learn something new about myself. Whether from questions I am asked or in preparing topics to discuss, it is an excellent way to step back from the day-to-day business work and dedicate time to fostering my thoughts about leadership, careers, or professional development. On several occasions, I have been thinking through a challenge at work only to find a mentoring conversation was the fresh perspective I needed to envision the solution needed.
Being an ally starts with listening and continues with being authentic.
To be an ally, I need to understand the experiences of others—those we have in common and those unique to another person’s experience. To do so, I’ve learned that you need to truly listen. Listen without an agenda, without assumptions, without thinking of what you want to share or say next. Listen with the most open mind possible and with the intention of nothing other than understanding.
This is especially important when listening to other women. There is such depth to the intersectionality of our identities. We may share one dimension but not others and knowing that the shared experience of our gender may interfere with learning about how the intersectionality of identities such as race or sexual orientation keeps me open to better understanding.
Sharing my authentic self and what I have found challenging is critical to becoming a better ally. A willingness to share my own story (I hope) fosters a space in which other people can be themselves with me.
I had one powerful learning experience several years ago when sharing the story of adopting my children. I thought that experience would only speak to heterosexual women who experienced fertility issues, but a colleague reached out to me to ask me to speak with some of our LGBTQ+ employees about adoption. It was an emotional experience that enabled me to connect with a different community through my personal story and to understand their experience more deeply.
You’re going to get it wrong sometimes.
There have been many times when I have said the wrong thing or made an assumption when acting as an ally. Those moments have been the most important learning experiences for me. If we, as allies and leaders, are not willing to get it wrong (because we will get it wrong), we will not be able to have the conversations we need to have and the learning opportunities to support open dialogue. It is the responsibility of all people in a position of influence to have these conversations and to use whatever privilege they have to start those conversations no matter how uncomfortable it feels to take that risk of getting it wrong.
Self-confidence is your second best leadership skill. Self-awareness is your first.
My mother taught me that it is important to believe in something in your life, and the first thing you should believe in is yourself. It is a powerful touchstone message that has defined who I am as a person and as a leader. My self-confidence enables me to take risks, to use my voice, and to ask for help when I need it. All of those qualities are critical to good leadership and enable me to seek out true feedback on how I can support my team more. Which leads me to my last lesson learned.
Self-confidence without self-awareness is dangerous in people and leaders. Knowing where we need to grow helps us build better teams around us and to be open to direct feedback. The best leaders I know realize they need more than a look in the mirror to know where they need to work on themselves. Their self-confidence enables them to be open to that feedback. Their self-awareness enables them to seek it out. The combination enables them to incorporate it and keep evolving.
When I accepted my first role at 2U, I had no idea what this decade would hold for us as an organization, for the landscape we’ve helped shape, and for how I would evolve. I am excited to see what the next years bring and grateful to my colleagues for continuing to challenge me to grow as a leader and an ally.
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