Am I My Own Worst Critic?

This was my favorite talk of GHC Day 1 (and I’m normally not a fan of panels!).  This panel featured seasoned software developer Ariane and two other women in the IT field:  Kaycee and Dawn.  The moderator, Tammy Hughes, began the panel by sharing some statistics, such as the following:

  • Both women and men perceive men as more intelligent (even when they are not)

Tammy explained that most of the statistics she shares are in the middle of the bell curve (most men and women; not discussing outliers).  The idea is to create visibility because “you cannot manage what you cannot see and don’t understand“.  We can use this information to determine how differences play out in the workplace.


We’re on the therapist’s couch; let’s go back to our childhood!  Tammy began by polling the audience on which toys or activities they remember playing with as children.  My seatmate, Gayle Lewallen, and I fondly recalled reading (Roald Dahl, in particular.  We both loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda).  Gayle grew up with older brothers and therefore, enjoyed playing with their blocks and cars.  I enjoyed playing with stuffed animals, dolls, and activity books.  When Tammy polled the audience, the following answers emerged:

  • Reading!
  • Biking!
  • Legos!

Tammy said that Legos always comes up when she poses this question to a room full of engineers.  These were the responses recorded in studies:

  • Boys:  soldiers, weapons
  • Girls:  dolls, houses
  • Both:  Legos

Tammy described an experiment where children of either gender are placed in a room full of various toys.  The researchers then observe which toys the children gravitate to.  This experiment has been repeated in various countries.  Regardless of demographic, economic status or culture, the results showed that boys gravitated to 3 main things:

  1. Speed!
  2. Power!
  3. Noise!

Girls, on the other hand, gravitate to toys that involve:

  1. Caring
  2. Relationships

Once again, individuals differ in their preference; what we are discussing here is the middle of the bell curve (most boys and most girls).

Tammy emphasized that “it could be the same toy.  It’s what they do with the toy.  One father said to me, ‘Yeah, my son plays with Barbies.  First, he takes their heads off and then he pulls their arms off …'” (audience laughter)

Tammy reviewed findings from the experiment (this was my favorite part, as I found it extremely insightful and valuable):


  • Focused on competition:
    • Us vs. Them
    • Me vs. You
  • Winning is important!
  • Boys spend 50% of their time losing
  • That is, they learn how to take a loss (drop it, learn from it and move on)
  • Boys learn how to “not cry”
  • They take it one step further and learn how to mask all emotion entirely


  • Focused on collaboration
  • “Be nice”
  • Critical feedback from another violates the female culture in a way that is not seen in the male culture

Tammy discussed a coach who had seen both the Men’s and Women’s Field Hockey teams to the finals.  When asked whether he observed any fundamental differences in coaching each gender, he laughed and said, “Oh yeah!”  He found that he could not replay the video of the game after the fact because “none of the women would look at the video“.  When he eventually convinced them to do so, he noticed a curious phenomenon when he described an error:

  • All the men thought that the coach was talking about someone else
  • All the women were convinced the coach was talking about them
  • The women at fault also say, “My bad, guys, I’m sorry” when the coach explained their error
  • This did not happen with the men!

Panel Discussion

We then moved on to a discussion with the panelists on how often they encounter self-criticism.  Kaycee reviewed her initial communications with her immediate supervisor.  She often found herself talking about her errors.  This led to her manager having a negative view of her competence.  Kaycee concluded, “I learned to monitor the internal insecurities that I share with others.”  She is now more careful of what she self-discloses, instead of sharing the monologue in her head that constantly criticizes her performance.

Ariane shared a story about leaving her jacket behind on the plane.  Her first thoughts were:

  • Oh my God, you’re so stupid!
  • How could you forget your jacket?
  • It was a present from your husband!

Ariane stopped the flow of mental criticism and asked herself, “How would I react if this were another person?”  She realized that there were several extenuating circumstances that led to her forgetting her jacket:

  • The flight was a red-eye
  • She was operating on 3 hours of sleep
  • She only had 20 minutes to make her connecting flight

Ariane concluded, “The fact that I left my jacket behind is kind of understandable.  I happen to be a human.”  She stopped condemning herself for being a “crummy person who doesn’t love her husband“.

The name of the game in software is risk.  Risk can bring both reward and failure.  We need to be prepared for both.

Next post:  Let It Go!  (with apologies to Frozen)


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Demonstrating Value – Part 2

Therese Huston polled the audience to find that 50% of us were managers and 50% were independent contributors.  She organized a technique which I last heard from my Organizational Behavior professor, Rhona Berengut, at the Schulich School of Business in York University.  To ensure that you take action with a piece of information, use the What | So What? | Now What? technique.

Women, compared to men, receive vague feedback:

  • You had a great year
  • You’re an asset to the team


  • Your ability to debug across the whole stack meant we shipped our key feature in July

Therese explained that 60% of men receive specific feedback, compared with 40% of women.  This disparity intensifies when the feedback is negative.  For example, the statement “You’re too aggressive” is given to

  • 24% of men
  • 76% of women!

Therese asked, “What is the one word that comes up most often as a negative quality in women’s performance reviews?”  Some answers were:

  • aggressive
  • bossy
  • pushy

The correct answer is abrasive.  Therese humorously illustrated this with a slide of a dishwashing sponge (green side up).

One reason for vague feedback is protective hesitation.  Many women report to male managers.  Studies have shown that giving negative feedback to someone of a different race or gender can be especially uncomfortable.  Managers state, “I don’t want them to take it the wrong way.”  They fear being accused of racism or sexism.  This hesitation results in men unconsciously helping men move up the corporate ladder (since specific feedback is easier to address and correct).

Now what?

Companies are taking steps, such as creating requirements for performance reviews to be of equal length for both men and women.


One audience member said she would not even entertain the feedback that she was “too aggressive”.  When she received this feedback in real life, her response to her male manager was , “That sounds like a gendered comment.  Would you say that if I were a man?”  Her manager realized her point and stated, “You’re right!”  They went on to discuss specific examples and outline what she could do differently next time, in order to avoid being perceived as aggressive.



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Five Ways to Tap Into Your Power – Take the Lead! Part 2 with Mary Alice Callahan


Mary Alice asked, “How many people here would say, on a scale of 1-5, ‘I am the queen of strategic relationships and networking?”  There were not many 5s and this is typical.

Why are relationships important?  They can move you forward at work.  Mary Alice presented some relationship trivia.  Who makes up the majority of your network?

  • Smart people
  • People you see regularly
  • People you are related to
  • People you affiliate with

I guessed, “People you see regularly” but it turns out the correct answer is People you affiliate with, which is why some people call it a “man’s world”!

Approach every interaction by asking “Am I approaching this with

  • Integrity:  grounded in my own values
  • Authenticity:  with genuine intent
  • Reciprocity:  add and receive value

People think, “Why would senior management want to talk to me?  They don’t know me.”  The truth is senior management is interested in talking to us because we are the pulse of the organization.  When it comes to growing your network, people are surprised at the number of people they are already connected to.  “My head’s down, I’m working really hard, maybe I need to pick my head back up and look around to see who the key stakeholders are.”

It’s not about 6000 LinkedIn connection.  1 relationship can be worth a pound of gold.

Mentoring vs. Sponsorship

Mentor and Mentee:

  • you
  • development
  • career
  • mentees:  confidentiality, commonality, ask how you can help them (reciprocity)

Sponsor and Protege:

  • enabling job opportunities
  • has more confidence in you than you have
  • behind closed doors bringing your name to the table
  • proteges:  no B players!  Be less focused on titles

Blogger’s aside:  In Strong Medicine by Arthur Hayley, the protagonist, Celia Jordan, makes the statement that she is “hitching her wagon” to her immediate boss, Sam Hawthorne.  Sam advocated for her career progress when she was not in the room and was instrumental in her meteoric rise (she eventually became president of the company).  Sam’s actions make him a sponsor, as opposed to a mentor.

The Best Brand of You

  1. What do you love about work?
  2. What were your successes in the last 3 months?
  3. Why are you great at what you do?

Decode your power.


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Persuade Like An Entrepreneur

Great talk title!  It reminds me of Muhammad Ali’s quote “Float like a butterfly, sting like a honeybee” which is probably what the speakers were going for!  I was particularly interested to hear Christina Tan speak, as we share the same alma mater (the University of Waterloo).  Her co-facilitator was Jamie Crabb, who works for Patreon.

It is difficult to make people care about your idea and draw resources towards it.  Presenting your pitch in a structured and persuasive way can address this challenge.  The art of persuasion is not specific to entrepreneurs; they just happen to be really good at it (the successful ones, anyway).  Jamie stated that when she needs to persuade her CEO to pursue a course of action, she and team have to gather so much data.  I was reminded of Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It:  Life of Working Mother, Kate Reddy.  Kate is a fund manager and her husband, Richard, explains to her that there is a difference between persuading her boss and persuading her in-laws.  He states that with her boss, if he buys her data, he’ll buy her analysis.  But with family, it’s a different story.

Entrepreneurs are consistently drawing in resources:  money, time and support.  They are skilled because their audience often doesn’t feel like they are hearing a pitch.  Workshop participants were asked to create their own pitch.  I discussed the Systers Wiki and why the blogs and notes within would be useful to participants who could not attend a particular lecture.

Christina played a video of one of the founders of Grobo (an automated gardening app) presenting his team’s idea.  She dissected his pitch into 6 parts:

  • Problem – people no longer trust the food they eat
  • Solution – grow one’s own food (but this is difficult to implement!)
  • Value Proposition – Grobo (the automated gardening app)
  • Competitive Advantage – modular design
  • Market Size
  • Target Customer

To be continued …



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Thursday Keynote – Debbie Sterling

Debbie Sterling is the founder of an award-winning multimedia compnay that features the first girl engineer as a superhero.  She was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Moment.  She also received the 2015 Presidential Ambassador Award for Global Entrepreneurship.  She will be featured in the Women’s History Museum.  I agree  with the emcee, Ana, that she seems a little young for all this! (since she was featured in the Top 40 Under 40).  I have heard Debbie deliver the opening keynote at the 2014 Texas Conference for Women and was delighted at this opportunity to hear her inspire us again!

Disrupting the Pink Aisle

Debbie began by holding up a GHC 17 card.  She turned it around and read, “I am a pink aisle disruptor!”  The audience cheered.  Debbie then showed us a picture of herself as a little girl.  She was dressed in a Disney Princess outfit and a thought cloud showed her fantasizing about Snow White.  She was into dolls, dresses and princesses.  But she was also into other things.  The next photo showed her playing trains with her young male cousin (and forcibly taking his train track away from him, resulting in a physical squabble in which he was injured, requiring the family to rush to the emergency room!  But, as Debbie said, that is not the point of the story).  A thought cloud showed her cousing thinking about Thomas the Tank Engine in the same way that she fantasized about Snow White.  Her question was, “Why were those his trains?

Fast forward to Debbie’s high school years.  Her yearbook photos show that she was on the Science Olympiad and the Math Team.  She was also an “angel”, as the cherubic glow on her curly hair demonstrates.  The course of her life changed when she got accepted into Stanford University.  As someone who went to public school in a small town, this was a big deal!

When Debbie walked into her Mechanical Engineering 101 class, she saw that there were 4 women.  She almost turned around and walked out.  She stayed and found that she enjoyed problem-solving so much that she eventually declared Engineering as her major.  There were, however, challenges.  She had not taken engineering during her K-12 education.  This caused her to be behind the other (mostly male) students who had enjoyed a more privileged education.  As the only girl in all-guy groups, she often found herself steamrolled and talked over.  And although she pulled several all-nighters, she was only able to score C’s.  She felt that she was not good enough and not smart enough and there were times when she just wanted to quit.

The day I graduated was the proudest day of my life,” Debbie said, showing us her graduation photo beside her proudly-beaming mother.  “It was hard but I stuck it out.  I did it!  And as a result, I felt invincible!”  I recalled her using this same word at the 2014 Texas Conference for Women, with equal enthusiasm.  This experience and epithet are clearly dear to her heart.

Steve Jobs delivered his infamous Commencement Speech the day Debbie graduated from Stanford.  The two words she remembers most are Never Settle.

Debbie and her friends joined the workforce and started a tradition called the Idea Brunch.  She showed us a photo of them hanging out, a friendly, affable group of people surrounded by typical breakfast foods, such as bagels and donuts.  In addition to consuming food, they would also discuss the big ideas on their minds.  It was one such brunch that planted the seed out of which GoldieBlox would bloom.  Debbie’s friend, Christie, bemoaned the lack of women in her engineering classes, an experience that Debbie could certainly relate to.  Christie grew up with 3 older brothers and spent her formative years playing with their hand-me-down construction toys.  The question that was always in her mind was, “Why were those my brothers’ toys?”  The following thoughts exploded in Debbie’s brain:

  • “Oh my God, this is what Steve Jobs was talking about!”
  • “This is what I was born to do!”

This was accompanied by a slide that showed the woman stick figure with an idea light bulb over her head, a construction wrench in one hand and a wand with a star in her other hand.  It was an illuminative and illustrative depiction of Debbie’s state of mind.

After the brunch, Debbie raced up to Christie and delightedly explained that Christie’s comments had cemented Debbie’s life purpose.  She was going to create engineering toys for girls!  Would Christie want to come in on this idea?  Christie’s response was lukewarm.  “Yeah, maybe.”  In the excited throes of creation, Debbie did not pick up on this.  She woke up at 7 AM the next morning, incredibly eager to go to Toys R Us and disrupt the pink aisle.  She figured that since this was 2011, times would have changed since she was a kid and perhaps the toy selection for girls had improved.

Debbie showed us a picture of the “Pink Aisle”.  Things had not changed that much.  The shelves were still crammed with bright pink jars of playdough, dolls in gauzy pink dresses and other pink toys.  Debbie referred to the “Blue Aisle” as the aisle with interesting toys:  math, science and construction-related.  There were some toys that the aisles had in common but the creators felt they had to color the containers pink in order to make them appeal to girls.

Debbie said, “I knew that this is what I was meant to do but what if I fail?

Debbie held a full-time marketing job and decided to make this her side hustle.  On evenings and weekends, she read every pice of research on gender, play and toys that she could find.  Her conclusion:  the idea that “girls don’t want to build things” is not biological, but cultural.  She also observed young children at play.  Boys would enjoy building a huge block tower and then slamming it hard against the wall and watching it fall apart.  For them, this was a lot of fun!  Girls, on the other hand, used Legos to create scenes and tell stories.  This was Debbie’s big “Aha!” moment.

After 9 months of side-hustling, Debbie decided that “If I didn’t jump in and do it full-time, it wouldn’t happen.”  With a great deal of support from her family, friends and husband, she decided to quit her job and devote her full attention to making GoldieBlox a reality.  She had enough in her bank account to support her for a year.  Since she was living off her life savings, she didn’t have a lot of money to spend on creating expensive prototypes.  This turned out to be a good thing.  Her financial limitations enabled her to rapidly prototype GoldieBlox using thread spools and other around-the-house items.

Debbie packed up her prototype and went to the New York Toy Fair.  She thought it would be a lively and fun atmosphere.  It turned out to be “a lot of old, white guys in suits.”  They looked at her prototype in perplexity and then said, “You can’t fight nature.  Girls want to be princesses, not engineers.”

I heard the audience members behind me gasp in disbelief and say, “What?  What?” as if they couldn’t believe their ears.  This made me realize that we have come a long way.  When I first heard Debbie tell the above story at the 2014 Texas Conference for Women, there were no such reactions of disbelief.  The response was more of amusement, as in “Oh yeah, we’ve heard that before.  Ha ha.”  It may have been that the demographic may have been older and more used to hearing these ideas during their formative years.  The current generation finds such limitations unbelievable.  This is refreshing!

Although the New York Toy Fair did not work out the way Debbie hoped, she did receive interest from a group of young millenials, who formed a team behind GoldieBlox.  Debbie showed us a collage of familiar faces:

  • Hillary Clinton
  • Sheryl Sandberg
  • Mayim Bialik
  • Pharrell Williams
  • and many more

She explained that although she did not know any of these people, she wanted to get them behind GoldieBlox and she used social media to engage interest.  This worked and GoldieBlox made the final interview rounds of Y-Cominator (a toy design contest).  Even Christie came back on board, saying “Hey, I think I’m ready to be a part of GoldieBlox after all!

Then came the rejection letter.  Y-Cominator felt GoldieBlox was trying to do too much.  Debbie showed us a picture of the rejection letter.  “You have to choose one direction – you can’t have construction and story-telling,” the letter airily explained.  Debbie was devastated.  She felt as if she had let her entire team down.  They dissipated and Christie returned to her job.  Debbie was alone.  The timing could not have been worse.  Debbie was scheduled to meet with her investors the following week.  She had nothing in hand but her prototypes and a rejection letter from Y-Cominator.  No team and no co-founder.

Debbie courageously got herself on a plane and headed to her investors’ meeting.  She found, much to her astonishment, that:

  • they had never heard of and could not care less about Y-Cominator and its opinion of GoldieBlox
  • they were utterly unconcerned about the absence of a co-founder and a team
  • they wanted to meet Debbie!  The brain behind GoldieBlox!  What convinced them was the hundreds of videos of little girls playing with GoldieBlox.  This alone convinced them that investing in Debbie was a good idea.  They welcomed her with open arms and followed through with venture capital

Debbie received the money she needed and GoldieBlox transformed from a thought in her mind to a reality on toy store shelves.  She received a call from the owner of Toys R Us.  He complained that her depiction of his pink aisle was making the company look bad.  Within weeks, GoldieBlox was on the shelves of Toys R Us.

There were still some challenges to overcome.  Toys R Us informed Debbie that GoldieBlox was not selling as fast as they hoped.  The toy was appealing to customers who were already in the store but more advertisting was required to get potential buyers to come to the store in the first place.  Debbie had no budget for advertising.  She appealed to the GoldieBlox following through crowdsourcing, engaging their votes to win GoldieBlox a commercial slot during the Super Bowl.  Out of 5000 entries, GoldieBlox won and was featured during the Super Bowl.  The ad played silently in the background while Debbie spoke.  She played it for us in its entirety at the 2014 Texas Conference for Women.  Young girls run through the streets with wagons and play construction equipment, to the astonishment of both young boys and passers-by.  The girls build rockets that blast off and work as a team to accomplish this goal.  It is a very uplifting advertisement.

Debbie said she wished she could tell the potential investors at the New York Toy Fair, “Boy, were you wrong!”  She said to us:

They’re mired in the past and it’s our job to build the future.

This received tremendous applause from the GHC 17 audience.

Today, GoldieBlox has grown to include:

  • RandomHouse Chapter Books
  • Girl Scout badges (troops can earn their STEM badges by completing GoldieBlox projects)

Debbie concluded:

  • This is the Makers generation
  • GoldieBlox is for all the young girls out there who don’t know that they are engineers yet
  • GHC 17 attendees can obtain a parting gift at

Debbie’s closing request:  Ask yourself – how can I be the spark in a young girl’s life?  All it takes is one small act of kindness, such as the one Debbie’s math teacher gave her when she suggested that Debbie pursue a career in engineering.  This ripple effect is a beautiful idea.  As an American Women in Math mentor, I recently began mentoring a 7th-grade girl who is very enthusiastic about STEM.  It was good to feel that I have met Debbie’s closing request.

Hearing Debbie speak again was a terrific start to the second day of GHC!



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Demonstrating Value

Managing Up: Managing Your Manager with Compassion, Humor, and Data

Stephanie Parkin made us all laugh by warning us never to put the word “humor” in the title of our lectures.  “Why do I do that?  I am not funny!” she fretted, thus establishing a friendly rapport with her audience.

She explained that our manager is not necessarily smarter or more organized than we are, but s/he is definitely busier.  She used to think of her manager as a sort-of “parent” but not anymore.  When engaging her manager, she would go in with her checklist of things she wanted to discuss.  This did not go over well, because her manager had a million other priorities.  She learned to assess her manager’s mood and discuss her top 3 priorities if her manager was too time-starved to discuss the rest.

Stephanie showed some humorous quotes from videos to illustrate each point.  A server administrator complained that his servers would handle the load just fine if they were not carrying the additional overhead of a poorly-designed codebase.  This elicited a great deal of laughter from the audience.

For humor, Stephanie states that self-deprecation is always preferable to sarcasm.  She also cautions us not to take it personally if someone has a different sense of humor than we do.  Observe what works and move on.


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Five Ways to Tap Into Your Power: Take The Lead!

Presenter Mary Alice Callahan set the tone by introducing herself to our table.  When one of the attendees said she worked for IBM, Mary Alice said she herself was an IBM Systems Engineer many moons ago.  Her ability to connect with each attendee was very gracious.

Presenter Rebecca Shambaugh is the author of It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor.  Elegantly attired in a pink dress, she was a powerful, engaging and energetic speaker with an admirable ability to instantly secure and maintain her audience’s attention.  “Are you women here to feel the power?” she asked.  The audience responded with enthusiastic cheers and applause.


  • What is power?
  • Is it a bad word, indicating manipulation?
  • No!  This is about smart power – being present and intentional
  • In the end, it’s not really about you
  • It’s about the people you’re serving and how you can show up better to serve them
  • Power allows us to effectively influence those around us
  • Focus on creating your best self
  • Everything is in our reach
  • Anything is possible
  • But you have to take action!

Rebecca humorously dispelled the myth of Corporate Prince Charming, who would one day knock on our door and say, “Hi!  I’m here to take you where you want to go.”  This session is about taking a seat at the table and it’s how you fill that seat.  Women need to take the lead and empower ourselves, instead of waiting for Corporate Prince Charming.

This is tricky business because the invisible layer is inside.  Rebecca coined the term sticky floor to indicate the hardwired belief system within us.  She summarized seven sticky floors:

  1. Managing Work/Life Balance
  2. Striving for Excellence
  3. Continuous Learning – Taking Risks
  4. Capitalizing on Executive Presence / Political Savvy
  5. Making Your Words Count
  6. Building Strategic Relationships / Personal Brand
  7. Knowing and Asking for What You Want

If a job description states 10 criteria:

  • Men will apply if they can check 4 out of 10 boxes
  • Women will apply if they can check 9 out of 10 boxes

Women are skilled at talking ourselves out of opportunities.  But failure is good!  We become smarter and more confident.  New circuits are formed as we now know what not to do.  I recalled the anecdote about Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb on his 1000th attempt and informing an interviewer, “I didn’t fail!  I learned 999 ways not to do something!”

We began a worksheet titled Tapping Into Your Power:  Personal Action Planning.  The first question asked us to identify and re-frame a sabotaging narrative.  Mine was, “What if someone doesn’t like it?”  Rebecca’s narrative was “I don’t have anything important to say.”  This made her initially reluctant to pursue public speaking and writing.  She eventually realized, “do have something important to say!  And it’s not fair or right of me to hold it in.”  She identifies herself as an “off-the-scale introvert”, which added to the challenge in putting herself out there.  After a couple of “swift kicks” from her mentors, she began speaking and writing on a smaller scale and here she is, a published author and sought-after speaker at GHC 2017!

Rebecca mentioned that she is addicted to the show Shark Tank.  Building a personal brand is similar to this TV show.  Both require a good answer to “Why would they select you over the others?”  It’s how you show up.  When people show up to connect with you, what are they drawn to?  Is there a true connection and alignment to your brand?

How you make people feel is huge.  This put me in mind of Maya Angelou’s famous quote:

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel.  

Rebecca stated:

  • What are you known for?
  • What do people need to really trust you?
  • Be able to listen, paraphrase and emotionally and intellectually connect

Rebecca shared an anecdote where she kept getting pulled into meetings and she didn’t know why.  A colleague told her, “It’s because you’re a great collaborator, you’re strategic, you connect the dots and remind us of why we’re here at the end of the day.”

Telepathy is not a strategy!  There is no app for mind-reading.

An important part of your personal brand is being aware of what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

Women are often asked to attend senior executive meetings and “report back”.  At the next meeting, don’t just “report back”.  Bring something back in.  Be that person.  This is the difference between being powerless and powerful.

Connect to people who can be your ambassadors.

If you’re on a panel at GHC, you are the “face” of your organization.

If you’re a remote employee, it’s not just about filling the phone with words.  Tonality of voice and inflection count.   On average:

  • Women utter 8K to 10K words per day
  • Men utter 4K to 6K words per day

Be a woman of few words. 

When people know you’re there to help them, they see you as a powerful individual.  Spread the power!

Next post:  Part 2 with Mary Alice

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