Written by Janece Shaffer Tuesday, August 28 2012
Tires squealed and adrenaline surged as 20 corporate women from across the U.S. took part in a one-of-a-kind, life-changing leadership development program - an experiential program that literally put them in the driver’s seat of some of the world’s fastest cars and pushed them to confront their limits and then accelerate far beyond them.
The first-ever “High Performance Women Corporate Challenge” presented by Porsche and Womenetics had engines racing and hearts pumping at the Barber Motorsports Track near Birmingham, Ala. on August 15 and 16.
The elite group of women were nominated by leading companies like Zurich, UPS, CNN, BDO, The Coca-Cola Company, The Home Depot, Turner Broadcasting, Ernst & Young, AON, AT&T, Georgia Public Broadcasting, Warner Brothers and U.S. Bank. After being divided into four teams and receiving key classroom instruction, the women were ready for the track. Some were initially quiet and nervous; others were eager to get behind the wheel. But regardless of their emotions, one by one, each woman buckled herself into the driver’s seat and steered the ride of her life. Through the hairpin curves, floored accelerators, the lightening straightaways, squealing tires, quick stops and resulting high fives, they were guided by 10 of Porsche’s top professional drivers including two women: Pattie Mayer and Lea Croteau.
The participants were truly challenged. The women embraced the exhileration of competing as teams on a timed autocross course, the threat of spinning out on the skid pad, the extreme conditions of an off-road excursion and the knuckle whitening thrill of riding with professional drivers who reached speeds of more than 120 mph. As they circled the track under the hot Birmingham sun, you could see their confidence growing, their nerves transforming into pride.
What did they learn from their time on the track and how do they apply those insights to their professional lives? One woman responded: “Behind the wheel you are taught to focus way down the road, and the same should be applied in business as well. Don’t lose yourself in what’s happening right in front of you but keep looking far ahead to where you want to go. It’s the difference between managing and leading.”
Another woman added, “In my field I am the expert. They look to me to have all the answers, and I am taught to not be vulnerable. Here I came into a situation where I had to be vulnerable, where I didn’t have all the answers, and that was very different for me – to give up that control.”
Still others learned from the experience: “Look where you want to go.” “Trust – trust the machine and the person sitting next to you, and trust yourself.” And, “If I focus, I can do this. Whatever it is, I can do this.”
Others repeated the advice of the Porsche driving instructors: “A squealing tire is a happy tire” and “Best is the enemy of better.”
One thing that was heard over and over again: “This is the most exciting thing I have ever done.” One woman even went as far as saying, “I am turning in my resignation and becoming a professional driver.”
Real world professional driver Pattie Mayer offered her take on the difference between training men and women on the course. “Women come from a different place. Men come in thinking they know all of this, and so what we can teach them is limited in some ways. But women come in with a ‘teach me’ attitude and with all of this joy. Their learning is off the charts.”
In addition to the time on the track, the program also included an elegant dinner on Wednesday evening at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, home to a world-class collection of antique and modern motorcycles and racecars. Tim Quinn, Vice President, AfterSales Porsche Cars North America, and Elisabeth Marchant, founder and CEO of Womenetics, welcomed the group. Dr. Lois Frankel, a leader in the field of women’s advancement and celebrated author of four books, including “See Jane Lead” and “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office,” was also on hand to offer remarks and to help the women make the connections throughout the program between what they learned on the track and how those hard-won insights might fuel their careers.
Frankel began her talk by sharing her initial response to the invitation from Womenetics Vice President of Content and Programs, Ellen Adair Wyche: “I thought she is either nuts or this is the best idea I have ever heard. What a brilliant idea to bring women together on the Porsche racetrack to learn about high performance.”
By Thursday afternoon, when our 20 “drivers” crossed the checkered flag, they had indeed learned about high performance. The 20 women who participated in the first “High Performance Women Corporate Challenge” left the program with swagger, self-respect and the knowledge that they are capable of more than they imagined. They know now that they can literally “throttle it!”
More from Dr. Lois Frankel
According to Frankel, “The messages you received in your childhood continue to affect your career today.” She expanded the concept by asking, “What were the rules of your households? What did you do to gain acceptance and love?” If you were taught to be nice, to play nice, you might struggle with owning your power or finding your voice. If you were raised in an environment where women were powerful, you might find scenarios where that isn’t the case frustrating or difficult.
Frankel identified some of the obstacles to women’s success.
- “Women will tend to turn down opportunities if they are not 150 percent sure they can succeed.” She continues, “When leadership is necessary, you don’t always step up fully to the plate. And people smell that in us.”
- “Women are great at building relationships and horrible at managing them.” According to Frankel, “When it’s time to cash in on the relationship – asking for a favor – we won’t do it. It seems smarmy to us, but there is a quid pro quo inherent in every single relationship. Men recognize this, but women do not.”
- “Stop being a girl.” Frankel described a scenario where a group gathers in a conference room for a meeting. There are chairs around the table and some along the wall. Inevitably, the women will sit along the wall. She compares this to the Burnt Toast Theory - women tend to leave the good toast for everyone else.
- “Women are afraid of failure.” She suggested that women should take a page from the men. “Men don’t always see it as a failure. Instead they think, ‘That wasn’t a bad shot. It just didn’t go where I wanted it to go.’” She adds, “Leaders make mistakes, and making mistakes isn’t the worst thing in the world. Don’t apologize. Nice girls apologize. Just say, ‘Here’s what I learned, and here’s why it won’t happen again.’”
Of course, Frankel is the first to admit that she is a “recovering nice girl,” but she urges, “If there was a time in history that cried out for women’s leadership, this is the time. You have an obligation. Look around the world - there is poverty, famine, war, corporate greed.” She concludes, “They are going to share the power because you are going to step forward and take risks. You are the natural leaders for this day and age.”
More leadership insights:
Karen Head provides her own brand of experiential learning with Equinection, which uses horses to help people gain insight to their abilities and inner strength.
Tara Sophia Mohr's "10 Rules for Brilliant Women" offer inspiration for stepping up to the leadership plate and elevating the women around you.
Brigid Moynahan, who has excelled as an executive coach for 24 years, believes a little confidence can go a long way - it might even take you to the next level of your career.
Janece Shaffer, senior editor of Womenetics, is also an award-winning, professionally produced playwright. Her plays have been produced in theatres across the country including the Asolo Repertory Theatre, Alliance Theatre, and Taproot Theatre. She also has more than two decades of experience in the communications field and has held communications positions at Emory University, The NAMES Project Foundation/AIDS Memorial Quilt and the Alliance Theatre. Shaffer holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in communications from Georgia State University.