[Q&A] Wendy Manning: Leadership Begins with Self-Knowledge

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Wendy Manning oversees web strategy and integration for The Boeing Co. in Chicago. In her career she has held marketing leadership positions at Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, the Rush System for Health, Loyola University Medical Center and others. She received a B.S. in Business Administration from Bradley University and earned an M.S. degree in managerial communications from Northwestern University. She serves on the board of the Chicago Foundation for Women and previously was a board member for the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights. She holds an adjunct faculty position at Wright, a personal and professional development organization in Chicago, and is a director of the Women’s Leadership Programs there.

At Boeing and other companies for which you’ve worked you’ve held leadership positions. How did you become an effective leader?

My focus always has been on knowing myself.  That is how I become a better leader.  It is a continuing process. One of the things that helped me as a kid was to try out leadership roles. Take on projects where you have to put forward your gifts or develop your gifts. That’s where it begins.

Carrying that forward to my 30s, I realized that I was not as effective as I want to be as a leader but I was not really sure what was blocking me from putting more of myself forward. I needed to find personal growth opportunities where I could see where I was doing well and also where I was shooting myself in the foot. What has helped has been becoming more of a learner. The better I’m able to understand my behavior, the more I’m ready to lead.

Are there born leaders?

I don’t think so.

How are leaders created, in your experience?

I think it’s totally a developed skill. There may be a range, so my development and the types of things I develop may be different from the next person. But really, I think everyone has the potential to be a leader. Where are you leading people?  If I’m not aware of the power of leadership and know where I’m leading others, and if I don’t understand what or who wields the power, I’m not going to be an effective leader.

How are your leadership skills put into action at Boeing?

I don’t know if it’s a result of my position in marketing but I have to leverage people to get things done, so I have to understand the skills around the table. As a leader one of the things I like to say is, “I’m a piece of tile. I need to figure out what kind of caulk I need.” In other words, I know who I am and what I’m good at and what I’m not. So depending on the project, I have to hire for my deficits. That can be irritating because I’d much rather surround myself with people like me, but instead having people who are great at things I am not good at and who are not just like me is grist for the mill.

Are leadership skills easy to develop?

No. As an example, I’m a creative thinker. I tend to have at least one senior person on my staff who is very linear. People like that make me more linear and I hope to make them better at creative thinking. I know that I’m better at linear thinking because of the people I surround myself with, and the awareness that that’s not my natural born gift.

Do you feel the business world’s historical discomfort with women in leadership roles is changing?

It’s hard to say because I am not just a woman but also African-American and that compounds my situation. It’s like I’m in a different culture in the business world. My family did not have people who were in corporate America. There were people in business, but not like in my world here [at Boeing]. There’s a whole lot that is different about me and how I approach things.

I believe there is a growing sense in the corporate world that we need all different kinds of people and opinions at the table. That’s great. Most companies and most people say they work hard to make that work. So there’s not an intentional suggestion that, “Hey, your skillset is different than mine.” But you still may find yourself in a position where women aren’t considered the best thing for an organization. To that I say, “So what?”

If you’re waiting for permission, you’ll be waiting a long time.

Is that passivity a problem for many women?

I think it is. It’s a problem for me, and I know better! I still find myself waiting for someone to say it’s OK to speak up, or to do this or that. One beautiful thing about having a support system is having people who can help you come up with little bite-size ways of introducing change into a system that does not seem receptive. You can get coached on how to do that. Experiment and see what works!

You mention support systems. As an African-American woman, role models can be scarce. How did you find your supporters?

I used to ask myself, “What does an African-American woman leader look like?” I’d look to anyone who was black and a woman and say to myself, “I’m going to do just what she did. I’m going to read her bio and get it all down and make a checklist.” There came a point where I decided that that thing I was looking for outside of me was is in fact just like me. She looks like me. She looks like me in my struggle. She looks like me when I’m glorious. Focusing instead on my internal sense of what’s right, if you will, was really giving myself permission to try and to fail at different things.

You said your family and environment weren’t really tied to the corporate world. Why do you think you have succeeded and are where you are today?

I was interested in business; I always found it fascinating. I did have one uncle involved with Eli Lilly and it seemed like he always was getting to do cool stuff. In high school, when I was deciding what I wanted to do, I thought I wanted to be an engineer. I liked logical things and I like math and science. But I had an English teacher in high school who said, “Yes, you are good at those things. But you’re also good at interpretive thinking.” So she instilled the insight that I also could be something different [than an engineer].

And when I went to college and began studying engineering, I really didn’t like it that much. The business school was next door and I thought, “Let’s go try that instead.”

Did that feel like the right place for you?

It did. Immediately. I found I could mix the hard and soft skills. As a marketing person I could be excited about numbers and at the same thing think about processes as they related to people. I took classes in organizational development and I thought it was fascinating to look at development of cultures in a business organization. Business seemed to be a really nice Petri dish for a broad set of skills.

Did you ever feel there were barriers to your development because you are a woman or because you are African-American?

I don’t know that I’d use the word “barriers.” I just thought there was stuff other people know that I didn’t know. It sounds silly now but there was a moment when I started to observe white males [in business] and how they interact casually and in meetings. I remember one time early in my career when I was at a meeting and the president closed by asking, “Are there any questions?” I was trying to figure out a really good question that showed I was listening and while I was pondering, four or five guys popped up and asked stupid questions. I thought, “Gosh, the president already answered that. He talked about that. Why would you ask that?” And the answer was because now the president knew their names.

So while I was waiting to be perfect, others were taking the opportunity to be known. When I realized that, I found that fascinating! Their questions weren’t good but it was a way to make themselves known to management.

Another example: I noticed that when Caucasians say “Hello” they say your name. They said, ‘Hello, Wendy.” I would just say, “Hello.” [Including their names] was a way I could make relationships more personal. It was a little thing, but it was a difference I could erase. It was such a part of the corporate culture and I just hadn’t realized it.

Have you mentioned this to other African-American women and have them say they had the same epiphany?

Yes. Especially the question behavior. And I’ve taken young women aside and said, “When you’re in the meeting, take a look and see who asks questions.” I know now that when you’re a leader and you’re standing all alone in front of a room frying because no one is asking a question, you don’t care if someone asks a stupid question. You just want to know everyone is paying attention.

I’ve spoken with several women who share that desire to be perfect and say they’ve had to overcome it.

Yes. Women can be so hard on themselves. I am. I’m an A student; I’m not interested in getting Bs. Women have to learn that leadership and power don’t just come from how well you perform. That’s table stakes. Still, I think I over-invest in performing well and under-invest in some of the softer skills that I find less interesting.

I’m still that kid who believes that if I do the same work just as well as you that naturally I’ll be rewarded for that and that you’ll notice me for that. While I think that happens, I also need to remember that there’s more to the equation.

Did you always have all the guidance you needed as your career progressed

Never! I’ve struggled with expecting or hoping that someone would take me under her/his wing, thinking that’s mentorship, and I think it is in some ways. Some of the struggle has been to find people more senior to me, who are better at some things than I am, and of whom I could ask specific questions or ask for specific help rather than have the broad sort of mentor-me relationship that hasn’t always worked well.

I also think that by stepping up and taking on things you end up getting mentored. And sometimes it’s the experience of leadership, stepping out your comfort zone, that’s the bigger teacher or mentor. But I certainly have people who invested in me. Sometimes it’s people who say, “I’m going to give you an opportunity.” Andie Kramer, former board chair for Chicago Foundation for Women, is one of those people who have gone to what I think is the next level, which is to not just mentor but to sponsor me. That’s saying to others, “She’s good. Use her.”

I have another person I’ve worked with, Dr. Judith Wright, co-founder of Wright. She founded the Society of Femininity in Action (SOFIA) that I’ve been a part of for about 15 years. She’s another woman who has sponsored me, has said, “Here’s my playground, go run it and I’ll watch and give feedback.”

Both of them have been great. Never stop looking for sponsors, men or women!

And when younger women look to you for mentorship? What do you tell them?

I tell them to get to know themselves, especially the hard stuff. Some of my best information has been to recognize what I absolutely stink at. One of the things that was pivotal for me and that I still haven’t totally figured out is my relationship with authority. When I was younger, I didn’t think people in authority appreciated my awesomeness, I suppose. It wasn’t until I held positions of authority that I understood that leaders don’t know everything. They don’t do everything perfectly. They’re human. That allowed me to be more empathetic. I could identify behaviors to which I did not react well and to realize that others may not know me.  So I need to educate them about how to know me and deal with me in those situations.

The better I understand myself the better I can explain myself to others for them to accept or not.

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