How do we prepare our children -- particularly our daughters -- to thrive in the economy of tomorrow?

We need to provide the best education within our means, which includes a lot more than the official schooling they receive. The best education I've received has come through good relationships, strong mentors and leaders who took the time to give me sound advice.

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One of those leaders is Deidre Paknad, CEO and cofounder of Workboard, Inc., a provider of productivity management tools for managers.

I have five kids: three girls and two boys. So when I had the opportunity to speak with Paknad, I wanted to find out what leadership advice she would give to my daughters. She’s been one of my professional heroes since I met her in 2012 at the IBM Sales Summit, just after IBM acquired PSS Systems, the company she had built from the ground up.

We hear a lot of stories about how CEOs bail after a big acquisition. But Paknad did the opposite: She transformed from entrepreneur to “intrepreneur,” spending three years showing IBM how to sell a complicated combination of software and services as a solution to legal departments, inside some of the most elite companies in the world.

Workboard is the third technology company Paknad has started. (The first one was CoVia Technologies, formerly Glyphica.) Given the many programs that have recently proliferated to introduce girls to coding, science or other professional skills, I told Paknad that, as a parent, I wanted to get together a “program” for introducing girls to leadership skills.

Here’s a recap of her ideas.

Lane Severson: How can parents provide leadership lessons to their daughters?

Deidre Paknad: Sports can provide early leadership lessons. When girls play team and individual sports, it helps reinforce that practice improves performance, you can build skills and that you can recover from errors. You get another “at bat” after striking out. It helps us learn how to rely on others, how to pat them on the back when they make mistakes and cheer their successes -- which translate directly to actions of leaders.

If your girls are lucky, they’ll have great coaches that teach them the value of being coached and coaching others. Sports also help us learn not to be poor losers (or poor winners) and provide a first taste of winning and losing as a team.

Ultimately, playing sports helps girls develop endurance and physical strength and to experience competition: these add to her lifelong skills portfolio.

For young girls and parents of young girls, I think it helps if we are observant of the messages we send our boys and girls. Are we guiding our girls to be “nice” (quiet, polite, less extroverted or brash, less physical, less competitive, more pleasing to others than true to themselves) and our boys to be powerful and real (physically strong, to be themselves, extroverted, competitive, “boys will be boys”)? You’re training your kids: what do you really want them to grow up to be?

It’s important that we make sure girls learn to play with boys in elementary school and that they don’t learn how to defer their intellect and competency to those same boys once they’re in middle and high school. As a business leader, your team and your competition will include men and women. Confidence in one’s intellect and competency are prerequisites to success.

LS: You’ve said in an interview with Dr. Maryann Baumgarten of Lit Up Leadership that leadership is “scary stuff,” but that as a leader, “your fear is your responsibility." What practical ways have you learned to deal with the fear that comes from being in leadership?

DP: I try to make a conscious choice to go from “fears” to “fierce.” It helps me shift from a vague sense of anxiety, to taking clear actions to address, overcome or respond to the risk that triggered the initial fear.
For me, awareness was key. Without it, I fell into a pattern of reacting to how I felt, rather than clear thinking. 

The simple realization that fear-driven decisions and behaviors weren’t good for my business helped me tremendously. I try to do some physical activity where I give my attention to examining what I’m feeling – whether that’s fear, anxiety or euphoria -- at least five times a week. (Yoga, cycling, long walks all work for me.) It’s an opportunity to look my fears in the face and put them in their place.

LS: Do you think there is a “bossy backlash” for women and girls? If so, how have you dealt with it?

DP: Both men and women can find it disconcerting when a woman uses the same leadership traits, speech and behaviors that are rewarded and valued in men -- it’s something I’ve experienced so often, I could write a book on it! The issue of leadership traits is complex, in part because we have deeply ingrained models for what exemplifies leadership that are very male-identified, while we have few reference models for women leaders, yet very entrenched models for “traditional” women’s traits.

In general, I try to keep the following in mind as these dynamics unfold:

  • Because there aren’t many reference examples, whatever leadership style a woman has is going to be unusual to others, so you might as well be yourself! There isn’t a “man’s” way to lead, or a “woman’s” way -- there’s just the way that reflects our individual personalities, experiences and maturity. Authenticity is the only choice for a true leader.
  • Don’t focus on the reactions of others. Those are their limitations coming through, not yours.
  • "Straight talk” is what other people will find most unnerving. It’s a requirement of leadership, so prepare for illogical reactions and be more practiced in your delivery to increase your impact.
  • Assume that lack of thinking or fear, rather than ill will, is what drives this kind of negative reaction. And then, if the person is important to you, find the most effective way (which is often not confrontational) to help expand their thinking. Remember: Just the fact that they reacted does not make them inherently important.
  • Deliver. It erodes biases of all kinds and provides examples of what women’s leadership looks like.

LS: How have you attempted to cultivate leadership in the women that you work with? What should young women do if they are looking for a mentor?

DP: I’ve been hiring smart young women and supporting their growth and achievement for decades. When I started my first business in the summer of 1996, I hired eight summer interns from schools like Yale, Cornell, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, UCLA -- all of them young women. I’ve worked with one of them almost continuously since; others went on to become lawyers, doctors and scientists. Over the years, they’ve sent very poignant personal notes on the impact of that summer.

This summer at Workboard, we had three young women interns, including a brilliant but quiet data scientist, at a time when being a young woman in tech might actually be harder than it was 10 years ago! Providing opportunities to excel and recognizing achievement are the contributions I can and do make to women’s career velocity. I’m proud that the Workboard team reflects the world and our customers, with a team that is 50 percent women.

Earlier this year, I published an article on finding and being a mentor and I think it’s very fruitful to have mentors. It’s important that those mentors be both men and women.

LS: What do you know now about leadership, that you wish someone had told you back when you started your career?

DP: Start sooner. Believe in myself.

LS: If you could give one piece of life advice to my daughters, what would you tell them?

DP: Do your best, always. That’s all you really have, and it’s all you really need.