Presenting at the Microsoft Global Women’s Conference

James Gray at MS Women's Conference

On October 23, 2013 I had the honor of speaking at the Microsoft Global Women’s Conference in Redmond.  It was an amazing day presenting to over 7oo people and learning from the inspirational women at Microsoft.  This was my first time attending this global event and I did not know what to really expect.  Preparing for the event and what I learned after the event was equally important.

It was a woman colleague that inspired me to submit a proposal to speak at this conference and I was surprised when I was selected for two sessions.  This gave me an opportunity to take the audience through the Career Strategy Framework using examples to reinforce the concepts.  The first session was a journey in self-knowledge using Know and Target to discover your life priorities, personal profile and a value proposition that addresses an unmet need.  The second session explored developing a unique career plan by using Plan, Develop and Sell to architect a direction, competency plan and marketing engines to communicate your message.   Both sessions reinforced the need for a Relationship process to inspire people to support your cause and an Insight process to navigate your journey.  Preparing for these sessions gave me an opportunity to shape my content for a women’s audience and reflect on the critical issues that still challenge many women in the workplace today.

It was coincidental that the September 2013 edition of the Harvard Business Review focused on the biases that hold female leaders back and how to overcome them.  The HBR Spotlight was an opportunity to reflect on biases that exist in the workplace and determine what small actions each of us may take to help women succeed in life and at work.  I recommend that both men and women read these articles.  While the three HBR articles explored biases and barriers for women, there was one theme that applies to us all.  In the article “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers” Ibarra, Ely and Kolb remind us that “successful transitions into senior management roles involve shedding previously effective professional identities and developing new, more fitting ones”.  Like it or not we all have a “perceived” identity and our ability to shape that requires us to be intentional of how we want to be described when someone says our name.  I reinforce these concepts in Know and recommend people document a personal motto, brand statement and legacy statement.  Understanding how others see us often requires us to ask people and sometimes that is uncomfortable.   Engaging others in your cause and using relationships to guide your career journey is the essence of Relationship. Changing our identity often requires us to been seen in a new light and demonstrating new competencies.  Develop urges people to be intentional about their competency development and Sell reinforces the need to increase awareness to your target audience.  This reality is what drove me about a year ago to pursue a master’s program in analytics as I plan for my next transition at Microsoft.

What Is ImportantI developed the Career Strategy Framework seven years ago and its foundational basis was “life” success and happiness where “career” is just one part of a larger life story.  I challenge people to think broad about their life when they begin refining a career strategy otherwise you will find yourself bolting on your life strategy and that may not fit quite well.  When I present the Know concepts I share the simple picture above with success factors that align to the priorities that are most important in my life.  The two success factors “Stay Healthy” and “Build a Happy Family” come before “Manage Career”.  This does not imply that Manage Career never comes before the other two in the course of a busy week, but it’s a conscious positioning of priority.

As I refined the content for this conference I reflected on the point that Sheryl Sandberg makes in the best-selling book  Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg states “I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is”.   I believe this is true although my view it’s the most important decision we make in life.   During my presentation I highlighted that we may not know who or when that person may come into our life but when they do we should be willing to explore that with all of our heart.  I closed with a personal story of how I met my wife in a crowded airport and did some crazy things to meet her again.  That was over 22 years ago and five children later.   I reminded the audience that we need to explore both our partners and careers.  We may not know what the future holds but it’s when we are willing to explore life with courage and creativity that life’s greatest treasures are possible.  As I thought more about this theme, it reinforced that the one contribution I can make to possibly two unknown women is to model the behavior of a supportive husband for my two boys to see in daily life.  We all have opportunities to become better partners by thinking what we can do to help more around the house, become more engaged with daily family activities and support the career aspirations of our partners.  My wife has been a mom working in the home for most of our married life and three years ago she started her own business as a certified doula helping other mothers and their newborns.   That has required changes and more work on my part but it’s created a more fulfilling and balanced life as a husband and father.  Supporting my wife in her journey outside the home is the least I can do after many years flying around the world.   The knowledge I have gained preparing for and attending the conference will be also helpful as I look to guide my three daughters through life and a career.

I have to say the conference event was an experience.  As I looked around at the more than 2,000 attendees there were only a handful of men.  It was a feeling that I have never experienced.  Could this be what a woman feels like in a male dominated field, event or meeting?  I was intrigued as this event would be great for men too.  In fact, we are missing the boat if men are not more aware of what actions they can take to support the development of future woman leaders or change their behaviors to become a better partner.   As I got ready to take the stage I found my heart racing as I looked out into the audience of around 700 women.  This was new experience and after two back-to-back sessions I was having the time of my life.  During a break as I stood in the lobby there was a woman who came up to say hi.  At first I thought she was just trying to make me feel at home within this crowd of women.   We spoke for a few minutes and then she looked down and started to tear.   I was not quite sure what was coming next.  She went on to say that she heard me speak last Spring and that I inspired her to change her life.  In fact, see believes that I helped her save her own life.  I was speechless and shocked.  She realized that she was not living the life she wanted and took some time to reflect on that.   She adjusted her work style, joined a health club program where she lost more than 50 pounds, eliminated the need for medicine and was recently married.  As I drove home that evening I realized that there was likely nothing I would ever do in my “day” job that could even compare with that impact.   Give to others unconditionally and you will receive many times over.   I was never expecting this and it will give me motivation continuing to help others for many years to come.

Yammer at WoCo

Over the last few years people at Microsoft have encouraged me to write a book.  I have always laughed and never took it seriously since I never set out to do this.  Since then I have heard this from multiple people so the signals are too strong to ignore now.   One of the Yammer discussion threads during the event included a comment that my framework was extremely insightful and that the Microsoft library had my book.  I don’t have a book so perhaps this is just another subtle sign calling me to pursue this in earnest.  I struggle pursuing this given the demands on my time and that this is not what I do in my “day job”.   As I write and speak about strategies to achieve career and life success it does keep me motivated to improving my own game.  If spending more time in this area improves my life and even one person similar to the woman I met at the conference then its worth it.

As I reflect on my day at the Microsoft Women’s Conference I am inspired by the amazing women at this company and how dedicated Microsoft is to supporting the success of its employees.  I thank the conference planners and audience for having me and I will be back at the next one even as an attendee.  As a manager I have the responsibility to support diversity, equality and developing the leaders of the future.  As a husband I have the responsibility to lean-in and support my wife at home as she pursues a career.   As a father I have the responsibility to model the right behavior for my boys and support the development of my three girls so they are ready for careers in the future.  As a human being I have the responsibility to take out time to help others in this one life we live.   This conference was a reminder and an opportunity to check-in on all of these important responsibilities in life.  Our careers are just one part of our life story – start telling yours today.  Anything is possible…just believe!

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