Female Senators Have Mentoring Figured Out

A most interesting piece in Time magazine this week about female senators — specifically, the ones who kick-started the end of the governmental shutdown by taking the lead in a male-dominated Senate and finding a way to resolve its stalemate over spending, the debt ceiling and Obamacare.

74879113-- female leaders; Time MagWhat’s really worth noting in the story are the special networks and practices in place — some more formal than others — that these senators have set up over the years to encourage, support, mentor and coach newcomers to their female-politicians’ ranks. This foundation of support established by and for female senators even crosses political aisles.

… the private gatherings among the sisterhood are a source of both power and  perspective. They occur every few weeks or months, depending on the need. Venues include the senators’ homes — and occasionally the unlikely confines of the Capitol’s Strom Thurmond Room, a space named for one of the chamber’s most  notorious womanizers. … Once a year, the group also dines with the female Supreme Court justices. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence, holds regular dinners for women in the  national-­security world. Even the female chiefs of staff and communications directors have started regular get-togethers of their own. … It’s a diverse group, ranging in age from Feinstein, who is 80, to [Sen. Kelly] Ayotte, [R-New Hampshire], who is 45. Feinstein makes herself available to every new female senator who wants advice on how she runs her offices.

… Close political alliances have developed among several of the women. [California Sen. Barbara] Boxer has taken a special interest in Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren — both are  liberal firebrands. Democrat Claire McCaskill, who hails from a red state and faced a tough re-election campaign last year, made a point of courting Republican friendships early on. Sometimes, those friendships trump party … .”

Richard Wellins, senior vice president of Bridgeville, Pa.-based Development Dimensions International, clued me in to this story. Before we launched into an interview (for an upcoming news analysis), he wanted me to know about it, and what it says — not only about the power of women to find common ground and bring opposing parties together, but about their power in establishing the kinds of systems and practices their followers need if they’re going to survive in a still-hugely-male-dominated political beehive.

“They’re practicing a lot of things around mentoring that corporations aren’t doing” and probably should be, he told me.

After reading it, I had to agree. Employers would do well to tear some pages out of our female senators’ notebooks on how to help high-potential, high-performing women progress and survive in pressure-cooker environments. (This news analysis I wrote a while back for HREOnline explores just far we still have to go in helping female top talent succeed.) Only in these top, richly deserved leadership positions will their unique abilities really stand a chance of making a meaningful impact on the business.

Just how meaningful? How about something on par with what Time describes as the female senators getting “the lion’s share of the credit for starting the process to break the weeks-long stalemate … “??

I reached out to Ember Reichgott Junge for her take on the story and the subject of the strengths women bring to government. Here’s what the former Minnesota state senator, author of Zero Chance of Passage:  The Pioneering Charter School Story and an outspoken advocate for women in politics had to say:

Research from organizations like the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University  has shown for years that, when women are elected to office, they are more collaborative, more inclusive in their leadership and more willing to compromise to achieve their goals. We have seen this in state legislatures over the years, but not as much at the federal level because only recently have women reached a critical mass in the U.S. House and Senate.

I personally experienced this [female political edge] in 1991 in the Minnesota legislature as author of the first charter school law in the nation, which prevailed by only three votes over intense opposition. The bipartisan champions were all women — I was joined, as the Democratic senate bill author, by Democratic House author Rep. Becky Kelso and Republican co-author Sen. Gen Olson.  Chartering would not have passed without significant bipartisan support led by this trio of women.

There is another lesson from this story. Frankly, I thought we failed when the compromised version of the bill was passed. Minnesota chartering advocates were deeply worried that the bill was so compromised that no schools would be chartered. We know now that, without compromise, no bill would have passed and chartering might never have happened. Two years later, the legislature improved the law, making it a model for the nation. The lesson here? Compromise is not defeat. As former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe wrote in her book, Fighting for Common Ground, “compromise is not a capitulation of one’s principles.  Rather, it is recognition that not getting all that you may want may be the only way to acquire enough votes to achieve most of what you seek … .”

Here’s another example. When I was elected to the Minnesota state senate in 1982, there were only 10 women state senators of 66. When I retired from the senate in 2000, there were 22 women senators — of both parties. Along the way, some interesting things happened. During the early 1990s, an era when domestic violence and sexual harassment were not taken seriously, women of both parties banded together to propose and unanimously support a resolution for “zero tolerance for violence.” It passed overwhelmingly. Around the same time, the senate women saw the need for investment in early childhood services and crime prevention. We organized a senate presentation in which we asked several criminal offenders to talk about their abuse as children and how it impacted their lives. In just two years, women changed the entire agenda of the Minnesota senate. Instead of spending one dollar for crime prevention for every four dollars spent locking people up, we insisted that spending of new dollars for those purposes be reversed. That year, we succeeded in convincing our male colleagues to spend at least $2 for crime prevention for every new dollar spent for incarceration. We also successfully proposed the creation of an Early Childhood Committee. Women literally changed the agenda of the senate by moving issues known only as ‘women’s issues’ to a top priority that every senate candidate extolled on literature in the next election.

My experience with my women colleagues underscores the fact that we are relationship-builders. We are problem solvers.  It is not about ideas that are right or wrong.  It is about finding common ground and building new possibilities.  It is about finding the ‘next right answer.’

My public service experiences, of course, are from 1983-2000. In the last decade, we’ve seen the emergence of strong ideologies in both parties.  We have a very narrow ‘middle’ now. On the extremes of the parties, ideology will trump the ‘next right answer.’ But in the center, innovative solutions will emerge. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, my long-time friend, is such an example.  She has maintained course in the middle, building relationships with members of both parties. She intentionally asked [Republican] U.S. Sen. Snowe to be her mentor. As more women like Sens. Klobuchar and Snowe are elected around the country, the more we will move back to governing rather than finger-pointing.  Women, I believe, will lead the way.

These are the same leadership qualities that serve women well in the business world.  In the past, these qualities were viewed as weaknesses, making the woman leader appear indecisive. But as more women ascend to CEO positions, especially in the nonprofit and foundation worlds, they are accomplishing significant change. Collaboration, inclusiveness, problem-solving, and civility are now regarded as leadership strengths.