When the unexpected happens, how can you do your best to bounce back?
That was the question that Gloria Larson had to ask herself, when in 2008, a year into her tenure as the president of Bentley University, she was faced with the prospect of shepherding her students through the worst economic crisis the country had seen since the Great Depression.
To lead effectively through the recession and help the school’s students figure out their place in an inhospitable job market, she relied upon the lessons she learned working as the deputy director of consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission, in the Massachusetts state government serving under both Republican and Democratic governors and as an attorney in the private sector.
To weather uncertainty, Larson, who is also the author of PreparedU: How Innovative Colleges Drive Student Success, says that you must have confidence in yourself and your ability to adapt to new circumstances and seek out new opportunities.
“I encourage young people who are sort of feeling like they’re stuck in a rut where they are working, not to necessarily change companies or change organizations,” she says. “Embolden yourself to go to the right folks and suggest that you might move into a different part of the company, so that you could take your skills in a different way. [Show them] that you’re open to those new learning opportunities.”
Larson shared her insights with Entrepreneur about how to best advocate for yourself, how to build effective teams and why you need to follow your passion wherever it takes you.
When was a moment in your career when you had to advocate for yourself? How did you approach it?
One of the things that I learned early was how critically important it is to have confidence. To believe in yourself and to learn how to position yourself diplomatically for success, so that you are getting the right assignments, the right promotions, the things that you deserve because of your competencies and your knowledge. But so many times — and this is certainly true of women — too often we don’t sing our own praises. We don’t learn very well or early enough in our careers that it’s perfectly fine to say what you’re good at, and to ask for opportunities.
I’ll tell you a lesson that I learned the hard way. When I moved to Boston in order to join Gov. William Weld’s cabinet, I was in one position that matched my FTC experience. I was secretary of consumer affairs and business regulation. The governor called me into his office in the early 1990s and said that the secretary of economic affairs is leaving to take an outside private sector post and I’m wondering if you know anyone who would be up to this position.
I named five other people and never once named myself even though it was my dream job. I knew the narrative and the strategy and the vision behind that position and I so wanted it. But I was very reluctant to put my own resume on the table. Gov. Weld stopped me midway and said, “You know, Gloria, I called you in here because I thought you were the pitch perfect person to take on this role. And now I’m pretty sure you’re not.”
And I took a big gulp, reorganized my thinking and said, “Do you mind if I have a little more time for us to talk about how I might fit this role?” and he gave me that chance. And then he gave me the job. I thought about that over and over again when I sort of felt that loss of confidence, whether it was in my law firm pitching clients or here in this job — this was a very radical shift.
I learned that there’s a great way to advocate for yourself and to ask others to advocate for you without losing your diplomacy skills, without sounding like you’re overbearing and tooting your own horn. I tell this story often to young women because I so want them to learn the lean in principle. Of course the business world needs to do much more to structure the promotion of women in more effective ways and to offer more flexibility. It’s just a two-way street. We need to learn to be our own best advocates in the right ways and the business world needs to know how to better support us along the way.
When was a moment you made a mistake? How did you move forward from it?
I certainly made lots and lots of mistakes along the way. When I was first out of law school and working in a senior staff attorney position and we were doing a major national rulemaking, I didn’t correctly footnote all the sources. I didn’t cite all of the citations necessary in this incredibly large national undertaking. I had to redo all of the work. It took me an extra month of time but worse than that, of course I had to immediately ‘fess up.
And one of the things that I learned from that is, you’re going to make mistakes, but I think it’s [just as important] how you grab control of a mistake. Own it and don’t pass the buck. I think it’s incredibly important and I find this particularly in the position of a CEO, and the role that I’m in now, I own mistakes other people make. And instead of passing it off on others, I learned to own the dilemma — whether it’s a challenge or an actual mistake — and the best course of action is to offer a course of correction as soon as you possibly can. People will give you some latitude to fix mistakes if you own it, are personally accountable and have a plan to attack it and address it.
Why did you want to launch Center for Women and Business at Bentley in 2011? What have you learned from putting that together?
We think we’re really onto something here with respect to how early you should start to engage women in believing in themselves, but also giving them tactical capabilities. [There is data that says] within the first couple of years, young women who are coming into the workplace with confidence lose it, because the subliminal bias is just as strong at the entry level as it is in the boardrooms.
I think I was for too long too focused on women in the C-suite and on boards and when I was sort of losing touch with the fact that there were many young women who were checking out before they even got to middle management, at least mentally if not literally leaving the workplace, because they were already not getting the right assignments and their voices were being overridden or not heard at all. Or they weren’t getting the promotions and opportunities to spread their wings at the same rate that their male counterparts were. And so our ability to focus even earlier than when you enter the workplace — when you enter college — feels like an aha moment to me because I don’t know any other [schools] that are really doing it to this effect.
You steered the school during the height of the financial crisis. What did you learn from weathering that transition?
There is data that suggests for a number of young people who came out of school in 2008, 2009, 2010, that for some of them, there’s a lag that they’ll never recover from because they were forced to take jobs that didn’t fit what they were studying. So now that things have settled back into a more stable economy for college graduates, I’m hoping more and more schools have learned that students still need the incredible strengths that come from the strong liberal arts background, [but those skills] should be coupled with learning actual professional skill sets.
If you’re a freshmen now, you don’t know what jobs are even going to be out there [when you graduate.] Because brand new jobs are being invented regularly. I just feel so strongly that you have to prepare yourself to be adaptable, nimble, and have the capacity to start day one with real-world skill sets. That could come through inviting industry on campus, doing internships, study abroad. There are a lot of ways to apply what you’re learning. And I just would love to see every school develop their [area of] expertise.
What is your best advice for someone about to make a big career shift like you did from law to the public sector to leading this educational institution?
I often have that impostor syndrome in my head like, “Oh, I’m not qualified to do this, I can’t do this.” My husband consistently says to me, ‘jump in the deep into the pool, you know how to tread water. Don’t hold on to the side. You’re going to be fine.’
Not everything is a straight line, ladder climb from one position to the next to the next. And I think in my case, I now see it more like this Rubik’s cube or a multi-dimensional chess board game. It is that jungle gym. Sometimes I’ve moved laterally in order to move up. And I’ve never had a master plan.[My career decisions have] always been based on following my passion. If you are open to making a change, it’s because something has really gotten you excited and maybe you’re no longer learning new things or feeling energized by your position that you’re currently in. And if something excites you enough to contemplate making the leap, to me it’s a sign that you’re open to change. And it’s then summoning the confidence and knowing you are going to have to learn a lot of new things.
Over the course of your career, how have you grown and changed as a leader?
I have definitely grown more confident. I think I am a much better listener than I was originally. I’m a very enthusiastic, positive and upbeat person and so I always felt like I needed to just immediately start talking, as opposed to listening. One of the things that I think is now one of my best competencies is that I’m a really good team builder.
I know how to put groups together in ways that take all the different capabilities and [help create] a team that’s better than the sum of its parts. I think that’s been defining for me, as a leader. You may be the person who carries the vision in the narrative, but building a strategy involves the village. If you can build successful teams that can build and execute successful strategies as a team, if you are more open to bold ideas from others and you believe in your own ability as a leader, that’s when you ultimately have impact on people and on the entire organization and on the customers and clients that you serve.