'I raised my hand': Four leaders discuss the lessons they learned along diverse career paths

Author: Carol Elliott

The three panelists settling into their chairs on the Jordan Auditorium stage shared athletics as a common background. But almost as soon as introductions were over, it became clear that it was their leadership experience that would make for a lively evening.

“Lessons in Leadership: From the Locker Room to the Boardroom,” held Oct. 16, featured four participants – three panelists and a moderator – who brought a wealth of frank insights about what it takes to lead a team:

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Muffet McGraw, the Karen and Kevin Keyes Family Head Women's Basketball Coach, is entering her 29th season as head women's basketball coach at Notre Dame and her 34th season overall. She is the only NCAA Division I coach ever to be named a consensus National Coach of the Year three times (2001, 2013, 2014).

Cathy Engelbert, who played at Lehigh University under McGraw’s coaching and helped the school to the 1986 East Coast Conference championship, is now the CEO of Deloitte and was named to Fortune’s 2015 list of “Most Powerful Women.”

Ruth Riley (EMBA ’16) retired from the Women’s National Basketball Association in 2014 and is one of nine women in history to earn an NCAA title (2001 as a co-captain at Notre Dame), a WNBA title (2003 and 2006 in Detroit) and an Olympic gold medal (2004 with Team USA in Athens, Greece).

Anne Thompson (ND ’79) has worked as a journalist for more than 35 years, and currently reports for all of NBC’s major platforms, “NBC Nightly News,” “Today,” MSNBC and NBCNews.com. Her coverage has focused on major environmental issues, as well as the Catholic Church, including extensive reporting on Pope Francis’ recent trip to the U.S.

Thompson led the panelists through a thoughtful, wide-ranging discussion about their career paths, how leadership opportunities during the college prepared them for their leadership roles now, and particular challenges they’ve faced as women in leadership positions.

At the close of the event, the audience of 200-plus students, faculty members, alums and members of the community came away with a collection of statements to ponder that reflected common experiences, but also distinct differences. A few examples:

·        “We need to stop telling our daughters how pretty they are and start telling them how smart they are.” (McGraw)

·        "I took some risks. I did raise my hand. That's why I am where I am today."  (Engelbert)

·        “Every woman who succeeds must reach her hand back to help other women.” (Thompson)

·        “I define success as leading a life of significance that impacts others.” (Riley)

McGraw spoke about teaching players to overcome conflict – which, she said, women hate – by focusing instead on the aspect of competing, which she sees as vital to developing a team as well as an individual. “How are you going to make someone better if you don’t go all out?” she said.

Engelbert described learning to “raise her hand” and take risks with her career, but also shared her view around the importance of building a diverse culture, given the challenge of leading one of the largest professional services organizations in the nation with 70,000 professionals in nearly 90 U.S. cities and India.

“Some of our success with women’s initiatives is because we include men in the conversation,” she said, stressing the need for an organization to keep all employees engaged in building a positive culture.

Riley, who is well-known for her humble style, talked about her role as captain as primarily involving helping teammates learn to cooperate and communicate. She currently serves in a leadership role for a number of social ventures, including No Kid Hungry and Inspire Transformation, a social organization in South Africa. She also is an ambassador with NBA and WNBA Cares, the community service arms for both professional basketball leagues.

“What I hope people took away from our panel is that as women, we need to take more ownership in our individual paths to leadership, be more courageous once we are in those positions, and both men and women alike need to be more intentional about developing future female leaders,” said Riley. 

“Having self-awareness of and consciously working on the inhibiting tendencies that we as women generally exhibit is essential to leadership development,” she added. “The best leadership style is the one that is authentic to your personality, there is not a singular prototype to what a great leader should look like.  Lastly, true leadership can only be executed with humility, you can’t lead others if you are focused on yourself. "