Molly Flynn: Tell me about yourself and your career path.
Mary Shapiro: I grew up in Ohio in a very conservative family and felt like an outsider as a kid. Once I had the opportunity, I moved to Boston. I felt like I could thrive in a new environment and I worked for six years at an econometric forecasting company until my first child was born. I left the traditional 9-5 life to start my own consulting firm. I was hired by Simmons College in their executive education department to consult and within a few years I began teaching in their MBA program. I’ve been with Simmons for over 20 years now.
MF: You are a big proponent of women’s leadership. What kind of leadership consulting work do you do?
MS: Recently, I worked with Simmons and Merck Pharmaceuticals on a women’s executive education program. Merck came to Simmons because they wanted to retain and promote more women into their executive positions. Women held 50% of lower levels of the company, but only about 17% of their senior executives were women. I led a group of consultants in a deep analysis to find out what barriers were happening with the women at Merck. One outcome was a women’s executive education program that I am the faculty lead on that we conduct several times a year for their senior women.
MF: You also recently lead a leadership program for women from conflict and post conflict countries in conjunction with Simmons College, and The Wilson Center. Can you elaborate on that experience?
MS: The Wilson Center, created by Hilary Clinton and Madeline Albright, helps women get involved in public service all over the world. I was part of a team that developed a curriculum that helped 50 amazing women from 14 conflict and post conflict countries (i.e. Cambodia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc) understand the issues that surround rebuilding their societies. A lot of the leadership pieces were based on Simmons School of Management Leadership Curriculum, and included faculty from around Simmons to adapt these concepts to their devastated and often corrupted civil societies.
MF: Often when people find themselves in conflicted or impoverished societies they aren’t even aware of changes that can be made. What kind of leadership skills did these women posses in order for them to find the courage to be an agent for change?
MS: Many of these women were in very theocratic cultures that say women should not speak up publicly, and especially not to men. Culturally they are supposed to stay invisible. For voicing their opinions, they could potentially be put to death or their families could be put at risk. We spent a lot of time emphasizing that they shouldn’t do anything that would put their families or themselves at risk, because if you don’t live another day you can’t continue to do good work. We talked a lot about how to make really small changes, about finding that small crack in the system to fill, and to build on small successes that build momentum and create change.
MF: As a young professional, low on the company hierarchy, how do you be a leader without stepping on others toes?
MS: There is a great quote by Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian activist about this, “You can’t leave footprints if you walk on tip toes.” You need to leave footprints as a way of carving a path for not only yourself, but for others. As young professional women, you’re constantly juggling with what you have the authority to do, while recognizing the hierarchy in the organization.
The first thing you need to do is create a reputation of competency in terms of doing your given job well. A lot of times the boss isn’t aware of the good work you are doing, or how to measure your impact. You need to figure out the value you are contributing, and articulate it so others know who you are and what you are capable of---then raise your hand for new opportunities.
MF: You’re on the board of the Girl Scouts. Why do you think leadership skills are important to be instilled in girls at a young age?
MS: I started as a Girl Scout leader for my daughter and have been with Girl Scouts for over 20 years. Simmons College and Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts researched the leadership outcomes as a result of girls going through the Girl Scouts organization. They surveyed 1500 middle school children: boys and girls not involved in girl scouts (two control groups), and girl scouts. What we found was that the confidence levels of girl scouts were twice as high as boys. The girl scouts held the highest level of confidence, then came girls, then came boys. The 2nd thing that we identified was that Girl Scouts were much less likely to agree with socialized messages focused around the gender roles of boys vs. girls. For instance, girl scouts are much less likely to agree with the statement that there are some jobs that boys are better at than girls, or that boys have more career opportunities than girls. I’m committed to Girl Scouts because I see them as the pipeline for keeping girls from dropping out of in leadership positions, and keeping their career aspirations broad and ambitious.
MF: I took your class in the fall of 2013, and my public speaking skills improved exponentially. Statistically the number one fear of American’s is public speaking. What would your advice be for those people?
MS: You can hate public speaking and be terrified, and still be good at it. The goal isn’t to eliminate the fear. The goal is to use those nerves. Your adrenaline is kicking in, which is a great source of energy when harnessed correctly. You can learn to harness this nervous energy through practice. Practice anywhere: getting up in front of a classroom, videotaping yourself, or even taking an improv class. You will learn the physical behaviors that convey authority and conviction.
MF: There is a notion that says we can have it all, but not all at once. However, it seems like you do. You’re a mom, professor, consultant, on the board of the Girl Scouts, among other things. How do you find a balance?
MS: The word balance implies that you’re contributing equal time to each role. I would say that is not realistic. Many people think compartmentally about the multiple roles that they play.
The first step is to establish yourself in an organization and build the value you can contribute. From there you can negotiate when and where you work. The reason that I have been able to play so many roles is because I negotiated work schedules that allowed me to accommodate my home-life roles. I’d teach and do my meetings at Simmons, but I would do research, writing, and course prep at home. I would pick my kids up after school, and take them to their activities. Once they were in bed, I would go back to my work for a few hours.
MF: You’ve written books about interviewing skills. What is some advice that you’d give to young people preparing for their first interviews?
MS: Create START stories and save them in a digital portfolio: basic Situation, Trouble or opportunities you took on/problem solving, Action you took, Results generated, what were the Transferrable skills. This becomes your personal marketing literature for when you go to an interview, or networking event.
Remember, you’re being interviewed to determine if you have the skills and motivation, and also to see if you will fit into the company culture. You need to ask a lot of questions to find out what that culture is so that you can decide for yourself if you want to be there.
MF: How can young women combat impostor syndrome, and believe in themselves from the beginning?
MS: Social media has taken a devastating toll on our self-confidence. Everyone creates these perfect online profiles and then we compare ourselves to them. We always fall short of those unrealistic expectations. Forget about what everyone else is doing. Remember what you want to be, go after it, and success will come.