I’ve just returned for a one-week intensive training course called the Women’s Campaign School for Women at Yale University. I was one of 78 motivated women that made up the 21st class of this leadership program. The Women’s Campaign School at Yale University is a non-partisan, issue-neutral, leadership program, whose mission is to increase the number and influence of women in elected and appointed office in the United States and around the globe.
My classmates came from all walks of life. We were incredibly diverse in age, race, political beliefs, work experience, and geography. We had participants who came from as far away as Australia, Japan, Estonia, Guatemala, London, Puerto Rico, and Texas! In fact, we represented 24 states, 10 countries, and 5 continents. The one thing we had in common is that we were women with a strong interest in making a positive difference in the world by impacting legislation and having a seat at the table where important decisions are made.
Pain, pain, pain, pain, pain….
I won’t sugar coat the experience for you. It was a difficult week. I had to pull everything out just to reach the finish line. We worked from 8am until midnight for four days straight. We hardly had any breaks between information-dense lectures. At night, we were randomly assigned to study groups of 13 members and were tasked with a real-world assignment to create a campaign for one of two candidates in the 2016 Wisconsin senatorial race (Rob Johnson versus Russ Feingold).
On Friday, we had to give a 45 minute team presentation to a judging panel.
Highs and Lows
There were many highs, like learning from speech coach Deb Sofield, laughing with humorist Gina Barreca, being uplifted by Joel Silberman, and being inspired by Allida Black, foremost scholar on Eleanor Roosevelt and co-founder of the super PAC, Ready for Hillary.
There were also many lows for me during this week-long “exploration” into the world of political office and public service. Many of them were manufactured inside my own head. My inner critic had a field day with my self-confidence and began to shred it to pieces. I was humbled when I compared my “processing speed” with that of my classmates in their 20’s and 30’s with their lightening speed research and production capabilities. They were deep divers and had no fear of political water!
Twice I seriously considered packing up my things and leaving the conference. But I held it together and made it to goal line. I got my certificate of completion on the Friday. Promptly on Monday morning I added this new educational achievement to my LinkedIn profile.
Why did I do it?
You might ask WHY I attended this course? For two reasons really.
- Women are underrepresented in our government, in corporate board rooms, and in the executive office. While we make up more than half the population and half the workforce, we still do not have the access and the power to influence significant change. Someone has to step forward. Why not me?
- A good friend planted a seed in me a few years ago. After hearing me speak on stage at a very large charity event, Annie told me that her entire table commented, “She should run for public office.” At the time, I thought they were insane. It takes a lot more than strong public speaking skills to be successful in politics. Doesn’t it?
Then I met the amazing Patricia Russo, Executive Director of the Women’s Campaign School. Pat was a panelist on a panel that I was moderating for the Connecticut Women’s Conference a few years ago. Our tongue-in-cheek theme for the panel was “If Women Ruled the World…” which was catchy enough to draw interest and a crowd. Pat told us about the mission of the WCS and I was intrigued. It sounded like a great leadership training program, regardless of whether I decided to run for public office or not.
Then I learned that my esteemed friend, Teresa Younger, was on the board of directors for the WCS. I met Teresa when she was executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women in Connecticut. Now she is the CEO and President of the Ms. Foundation for Women. In my opinion, Teresa embodies all the positive attributes of a true leader! Watch her acceptance speech.
Clearly, all roads were pointing to the Women’s Campaign School. So I applied and got accepted to the program for Spring 2015.
Here’s just some of what I took away from my experience:
- It’s harder than it looks. I was floored to learn about the science and strategies behind running campaigns and winning elections. It’s much more sophisticated than it looks. It’s an industry that attracts very intelligent, competitive and driven people with very specific skill sets. The level of targeting and data analysis and research that’s part of campaigning surprised me. In fact, it’s very much like running a big business. One guest lecturer likened it to running a $20 million Halloween Store. You open it up quickly, sell as much as you can, and then close it down at the end of the season; only to get ready to open it up again next election cycle.
- It takes a lot to get the job. Being elected by the people is no easy way to get a leadership job. Imagine having to raise millions of dollars, hire and pay a team to position you for success, recruit hundreds of volunteers, personally make phone solicitations for 6 hours a day, 5 days per week for months on end. Then you have to subject yourself to media and opposition party attacks on your character, your family, your voting record, your clothes and your personal appearance. Now it’s really getting personal! It’s like running the gauntlet. At times, it may feel like being a gladiator in the arena and having to “kill”your opponent. After all, only one of you gets to win. You have to have an incredibly strong motivation for wanting that job. Teflon coated self-esteem is required, as are a very talented and dedicated campaign team and tons of money, or people willing to give you their money.
- Exhaustion is not a badge of honor, but it’s part of the campaign experience. On Day #1 of the WCS, they began to tease us about how exhausted we would feel by the end of the week. On several occasions, the leaders joked that they would be at the bar having a glass of wine while we slaved away all night on our case studies. The back to back schedule seemed to reinforce the goal to exhaust us. Must be what medical students experience during their residency programs. To be honest, I didn’t appreciate this aspect of the WCS experience. While I don’t mind working hard, I do understand the value of rest, downtime, and connecting with each other. I believe it improves our ability to learn and perform.
- Winning isn’t everything. This was perhaps my biggest take-away at the conference. The message was loud and clear: If you won’t win the campaign, you don’t get to legislate. So winning was everything. Now, maybe I’m built differently, but winner-take-all has never been my modus operandi. I want to see everyone win…through learning and connection, personal growth and skill building. I want to encourage people pushing the boundaries of their comfort zones, taking creative risks, and bringing out the best in themselves and others. Sadly, this was not my personal experience while working with my campaign team on our case study assignment. My group got so caught up in winning the contest on Friday that we bypassed essential team building and leadership steps. We began to task ourselves to victory, losing the connection to our WHY and HOW. At one point, when I asked a question of one of the more outspoken leaders in our group, she snapped back at me, “Don’t think. Just do.” Now, that was motivating. Not! To add insult to injury, my own team “hooked me” during my live presentation. We didn’t rehearsed that. In fact, we hadn’t rehearsed at all. We “winged it” and, surprisingly, our team presentation went very well. I believe that the energy carried it. The judge did ding us for having hard-to-read PowerPoint slides.
- Don’t overlook talent. Because we were in such a rush to win the contest, our team unconsciously choose not to fully explore and leverage the individual talents of the team members. We were working so fast and hard, that some individuals, myself included, felt marginalized. At one point, a colleague and I were asked to sit at a different table , away from the rest of the team, assigned to”do this work.” The feeling of exclusion and disconnection from the group had a noticeable effect on our attitude and work product. I was aware of my own disengagement and that of my teammate who shared the penalty box with me. It was like an out-of-body experience for me. There I was, a seasoned presentation coach, unable to share my talent with my own team. They didn’t care, or at least they acted like they didn’t care. They just wanted to do what needed to be done to WIN the contest.
And the winner is….
On the last day, all six teams presented their campaigns. It was awe-inspiring. There was so much talent, creativity, intelligence, and insight! Wisconsin Senatorial candidates Johnson and Feingold should have been in the room. They would have been taking notes…and hiring people!
It became clear to me that there was no one clear winner in this class of 2015. It wasn’t about winning the contest after all. It was really about applying the skills and knowledge that we had learned during the week, and finding a way to work together to leverage our collective talents, ideas and voices.That’s how you win. Together. No (wo)man left behind.
Surprisingly, the WCS did not announce any winners and no one asked the judges about that. No one missed the winner’s circle or trophies. But a few days after the program ended, my team started sending emails back and forth informing everyone that they heard that Teams 3A and 3B (that was us) were selected as the winners of the contest. Hurrah for us. We won the contest, but lost the point of the exercise.
With diploma in hand, I drove home on Friday night, wondering who I could call to help me emotionally process this experience. With whom could I safely share my feelings of estrangement and disappointment in myself? I felt small and invisible. I felt shame. Would anyone understand that? Was I alone in these feelings? How many of the other 77 classmates were feeling these same things right now? I wanted to hide, to go sleep …for a very long time.
The next day, I jumped into my self care program, starting with morning yoga which was then followed by a therapeutic massage. I was advised by my therapist and good friend, Jolly Lux, to do absolutely nothing but RELAX for the rest of the day. So I sat on a lounge chair in my garden in a semi-meditative state. I had the wherewithal to resume reading the book Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. Her work on shame research, courage and vulnerability and wholehearted living is brilliant! I recommend it to everyone.
THE POWER OF ME TOO “Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.'”
– Brené Brown, Daring Greatly (page 81)
With her help, I was able to slowly come out of my turtle shell and return to the living within 24 hours. She gave me the courage to write this blog (“Own Your Story”) even though some people may get upset by reading a less than a perfectly glowing post-conference report.
But somehow I sense that I am not alone in these feelings. Brené refers to “The Power of Me Too” in her fabulous book.
You might be asking…
Do I regret this experience? No way.
Did I learn amazing things and meet great people? Absolutely!
Will I be running for public office? Who knows. Anything is possible…
Download free holiday cards like this one at http://brenebrown.com/downloads-badges/