I’m busy. You’re busy. The world spins on a relentless 24/7 cycle where many of us no longer have two days of weekend to spend time doing the things we love with people we care about – the things that enrich us.
When you think about it, how many weeks do we spend completely immersed in work and family commitments, only surfacing briefly to recharge the batteries for the week to come?
Those weeks roll on into months and years and, if we’re not careful, half a lifetime can pass by without stopping to take a good look at who we are, what we have to offer the world, and how we plan to offer it.
The good news is, we can find those answers and fine tune not only our ambition but the skills we need to achieve it – and it can take just a week.
I have been fortunate to chair Chief Executive Women’s scholarships committee for the past three years. In that time, not only have I discovered the power of a week away, I have seen that gift shared with more than 50 of Australia’s best and brightest women leaders thanks to CEW’s scholarship program.
I have watched our CEW Scholars stop the spin cycle of daily life to discover how a week away can change lives.
The secret? Taking time out to learn, reflect, network and share knowledge gives women the chance to dive into a stimulating and supportive environment where they can map out or accelerate their leadership journeys. Executive education is so much more than those two words imply. It also means time to reflect on your impact as a leader, to hone your skills, broaden your outlook and strategic thinking, and to find new networks.
And never underestimate the strength of widening your networks through executive education. The people you will meet often face the same challenges as you do, and their insights may be the innovative spark that enriches your time away on a course more than anything else.
Every single one of our CEW Scholars, no matter what stage of their leadership journey, has come back and told us of their overwhelmingly positive experience. Many say it was the best educational experience they’ve ever had. And for some, the time away was life changing.
I’ve seen CEW Scholars step back into their daily lives with an assurance about what they’re doing and where they can improve, and with an outlook broadened and enriched through their interactions with some of the world’s top academics and business leaders as well as a new network of managers from different countries and industries. But, most important, CEW Scholars return with a renewed confidence in their leadership abilities and a belief in their own authentic style.
And confidence – or lack of it – is so relevant to a woman’s success. I am struck by this time and again when reading the extraordinary CVs and brilliant scholarship applications we receive. Many are from women who have not yet recognised how talented they are. They have been encouraged to apply by mentors, because they would never have considered themselves CEW Scholar material.
It’s such a common story. Many women, while technically very confident, often take years to be confident that what they are achieving professionally – through common sense, gut feeling, learning on the job, sweating the bad outcomes, not acknowledging the really good outcomes – means they are in fact good leaders. What they need is to take hold of their leadership potential and run with it. And executive education gives them that confidence.
It may seem counter-intuitive that, over the course of a woman’s career life cycle, a short course can have such an impact. But once we leave formal education behind and are forging our careers, it is rare to allow ourselves that time for really intense learning.
Women often find the hurly burly of work and everything else that life sends our way means we place ourselves way down the to-do list of priorities. So it’s easy to forget to take that crucial time to nurture the cerebral: to renew yourself, your learning and development, your plans and your focus.
In my corporate career, I never attended an executive education program, and it is one of my great regrets that I didn’t put my hand up for the opportunity. But I have now given myself the gift of a week away on two separate occasions. Both experiences were transformative.
In 2010, I attended the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York as a representative of the World YWCA. It was an intense week of talks, panel discussions and other networking events where the position of women globally and the actions that were needed to improve their futures were discussed. I met women and men from across the globe and learnt an extraordinary amount about programs, approaches, government interactions and policy. I also heard heart breaking personal accounts from women leading the lives we were there to improve.
Then in 2011, I attended the YWCA’s World Council “Women Creating A Safer World” in Zurich. I can’t over-state the effect that those two short weeks had on my understanding and appreciation of global issues for women and their struggling communities. It transformed my world view, and I came home bursting with strategies and ideas for improving women’s lives and their communities.
It is with this kind of transformation in mind that the CEW scholarships committee has spent hundreds of hours investigating courses and developing a full program of 17 scholarships to suit the needs of modern women dealing with the dynamic and changing needs of today’s organisations.
We have looked at some critical transition points in career cycles where women need the most support: first-time management roles; becoming a manager of managers; and the heady period where you’re on track to a top executive role.
We’ve also looked at the pivotal period when women return from family leave to work in a part-time role. This time of need for flexibility can be make-or-break for many women who need support to stay engaged as part-time managers and to be valued by their organisation for their leadership contribution.
These are all critical junctures in a long career and at CEW we believe that every woman who wants to flourish on her leadership journey should be supported. In 2015 CEW is spending $350,000 to offer that support by sending our Scholars to attend the most effective executive education on offer in Australia, the US, France and Singapore. And, as CEW members around Australia, we encourage the organisations we work in and with to also support women in this way, whether it is through their own diversity programs or by becoming CEW sponsors.
Some of the business schools CEW sends its scholars to tell us they’re grateful as it improves their gender parity in the course cohorts. But what that suggests to me is that either women haven’t been offered these opportunities by their organisations, or they haven’t been asking. It certainly can’t be because they aren’t talented enough – we’ve seen more talented women than we have scholarships for.
Regardless, I am convinced that executive leadership education is one of the most powerful tools for women to get ahead in their careers. So if you are looking to take your career to the next level, think about applying to be a CEW Scholar.
A week away can make all the difference. Your family and your work will be there when you get back.
Liz Dibbs is a CEW member and former Chair of CEW’s Scholarship Committee.
Former Chair CEW Scholarships Committee