January 2024 | 

Come with a Challenge, Leave with a Solution

Come with a Challenge, Leave with a Solution

The number of women holding top executive positions in the U.S. is on the rise. It’s a similar situation across Europe, Asia, and Africa. And yet, as Wharton Deputy Dean and Professor of Management Nancy Rothbard explains, “It’s a stubborn fact of business life that the higher up you go on the corporate ladder, the fewer women you will find in positions of power and influence.”

During the opening session of the Women’s Executive Leadership: Business Strategies for Success program, which Rothbard directs, she outlines common obstacles to career success, including creating opportunities for promotions and stretch assignments, overcoming unconscious biases, and gaining managerial support and recognition. But the session and the program shift quickly from identifying the issues facing its participants to better understanding them and creating strategies for overcoming them.

On day one, coach-led learning groups form and hold their first meetings. These groups not only offer the participants an opportunity to network, but they are designed to explore in great depth the challenges they identified prior to the start of the program. Renée Damato, a director of Wharton Executive Education open-enrollment programs, says the challenges range from how to better position yourself for a promotion, to struggling with work-life balance, to determining a next career step.

“The learning-group work allows participants to walk away with tangible solutions for these issues that have been weighing on them,” says Damato. “Like the rest of the program, the learning groups are not about venting but rather about getting actionable steps for addressing real challenges. Each group is led by an executive coach who is familiar with the issues participants identify, and they meet throughout the week to work on them. Feedback and advice come from the coach and others in the group, who have often faced similar hurdles. This small-group work is one of the most impactful pieces of the program.”

Damato says a common takeaway is understanding they aren't alone in their leadership journey. “Many of the women in the program are in senior positions, and have few if any people to talk with about the challenges they are facing at that level. They don't have anyone to commiserate with or make sure that they're going down the right path. They leave our program with a community of dozens of women they can turn to who are in different industries but similar positions.”

Research-Based, Solution-Driven

The Women’s Executive Leadership program leverages the latest faculty research on leadership and teamwork, decision making, power and politics, negotiations, and more — all with an eye on direct application. Professors Marissa King, whose research examines social networks, social influence, and team dynamics, and Amy Wrzesniewski, who leads a powerful session on job crafting, are new to the program.

Rothbard explains, “These faculty allow us to go deeper on the practice of interpersonal skills that are critical for success. The job-crafting lens in particular is a hands-on exercise that allows participants to think about prioritizing what is meaningful about their current role and then redefining their job to better incorporate their motives, strengths, and passions. That in turn leads to a greater sense of control and satisfaction.”

The Power of Solutions

For Lynn Mertz, senior strategic policy advisor at AARP, that focus on practical solutions was key. “I chose to apply to this program, which is now one of my professional highlights, because of the quality of the faculty, the relevance of the topics, and the intentionality of the program design that fostered networking and relationship building.”

Mertz says the learning groups were key to tying it all together. “They became the space where we could begin to apply what we learned to situations at work, guided by coaches who facilitated the discussion and offered probing questions to help us think more critically and with the new lens of our readings. We identified our strengths and areas for improvement before the program started, which in my group included finding opportunities for public speaking, growing our networks, and being seen as thought leaders in our field.”

She continues, “The meeting with my group at the end of each day became a highlight. We really bonded, encouraging each other, nudging each other to step out of our comfort zone into whatever growth area we had identified. We helped each other reframe perceived problems as well as coached each other on how best to position ourselves for opportunities of advancement.”

To ensure follow-through, the learning groups meet four weeks after the program ends. Mertz explains, “We picked up right where we left off and have committed to continue to meet monthly — the Teams recurring calendar holds are in our calendars! Each of us was able to report an improvement that we experienced, and we voiced what we wanted to take on next. This is creating a sense of accountability for me to take action on my goals, with the support and encouragement of strong, inspiring women who shared a similar experience.”