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I had a conversation with one of the student entrepreneurs I have been mentoring. He told me that he had started running recently. This was a big change in behaviour because when we met, his two co-founders were encouraging him to run and he was adamant that he hated running. He was absolutely adverse to it. However 10 weeks later, he had joined a learn-to-run group, had gone on four runs, and loved it. What changed? How did the change happen?

It was a number of factors, over time, that led to this transformative change. His friends who were avid runners encouraged him to run. They exposed him to other runners and introduced him to Running Room group clinics (he visited the running store, but did not stay and run). For 7 weeks he was exposed to, practically immersed in, running.

Then his friends stopped bugging him about it. One day, on his own, he went to the Running Room again and joined a learn-to-run group. He is now trying to encourage others to run. He didn’t think he was a runner, but now feels like he is part of the running community.

The lesson from the story – changing your mind (and your behaviour) does not happen overnight.

It requires:

  • supportive mentors and friends who are role models, role models who are friends
  • exposure or immersion into the new community over time
  • access to the right information, tools, and resources to ease you into the new community
  • feeling the range of emotions that comes along with changing your mind – absolute repulsion and denial, reluctance, curiosity, fear, empowerment, courage, joy
  • an underlying motivation leading you in a particularly direction, not necessarily the change itself
  • the time and space to decide for yourself if you want to make the change

As result of the combination of these things, he realized the possibility of being a member of the running community, learned how to enter the community and find his place in it. In this case, his underlying motivation was to be healthier and to be part of a community, not specifically a motivation to run.

Whenever I witness or experience something like this I always see the parallels with other opportunities and situations.

So when I read a headline about “New study shows few Millennial women aspire to be business leaders — but entrepreneurs disagree“, it made me think, do young women think being a leader one day is possible? Do they know how to join the community of people that are respected as leaders? Are they able to find their place amongst other leaders?

“The study, commissioned by communications firm Zeno Group, showed only 6% of the 1,000 Canadian female university graduates surveyed shared aspirations of holding the flashy chief executive title at a corporation one day while only 12% said they’d like to lead their own enterprise.”

“Twice as many women (38%) don’t care about managing or leading others; preferring instead to focus on doing ‘great, rewarding or interesting work.'”

A number of things irked me about the study to which the article referred.

  • It was just 1000 people surveyed, not a rigorous research study.
  • It is a communications firm, they may have other aims for communicating such survey results that they did not mention.
  • They asked if women wanted the Chief Executive title. Holding a CEO title is not the same as leadership.

The problem is not with young women and their aspirations. The problem is in the environment around them. I have experienced first-hand, for myself and in others, transformative change in what we aspired to do and change in circumstances and behaviour. But articles like this are short-sighted and do not help encourage young women to aspire to whatever heights they want to reach.

Having mentors, supportive and encouraging friends and family, exposure to and immersion in the new communities we want to be a member of, the tools and skills to adopt the role we want in those communities are necessary to set the stage for change. Then we need to be left alone to decide for ourselves if we want to make the change.

I had not aspired to be an investment banker. As a student, I had no exposure to investment bankers at all. I had no idea they existed, let alone what they did and whether or not I wanted to be one. But it was a series of steps and changes that led me to my investment banking career – a desire to relocate to London, exposure to transaction-based work in a corporate finance team, and a desire to understand the investment decision-making process and make decisions with real money. In my late 20s, had you asked me if I aspired to be an investment banker, I would have still said no. Ask me if I wanted to make investment decisions with capital and I leapt at the opportunity.

My experience of aspiration and transformative change happened in another situation that couldn’t be further from my investment banking shift. I was an average skier for a long time, having learned to ski in high school, but only managing one ski weekend a year (if I was lucky). It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s and on my career break post-investment banking, that I had the time (and resources) to spend more time skiing. Meeting a ski coach and his suggestion to take a ski instructors course (at the very least I’d become a better skier, even if I didn’t become an instructor) catalyzed a big change. I knew no other daughters of Chinese immigrants that became ski instructors, so growing up, it was not a possibility nor something I aspired to. But I was given encouragement and was surrounded by excellent skiers that were having fun and most importantly, could ski anywhere without worrying if it was a double black, powder or choppy snow. I wanted that freedom – to ski anywhere I wanted and be equipped with the skills (and emotional calm) to handle the uncertainties of the mountain. I went from believing that daughters of Chinese immigrants do not become ski instructors to qualifying as a ski instructor in Zermatt, Switzerland and successfully teaching a group of high school students who were beginners – taking them from flat snow to skiing a red intermediate run by the end of 6 days.

As far as leadership is concerned, I never aspired to the CEO title either.  Instead, I aspire to help others and build ventures that purposefully solve big problems and are economically viable.

I aspire to keep teaching and to keep learning.  I aspire to continue reflecting on how decisions are made and to make sound, integrated decisions.

Business leadership is a by-product of these aspirations and comes in many forms beyond just a CEO title.

I’m keen to help people surpass their aspirations. I listen to what people want and aspire to do and then I encourage them, stretch them, give them the opportunity to experience challenges they have not experienced before.

For young women? Mentor them, be supportive and encouraging towards them, expose them to different types of leadership, immerse them in it, and give them the tools and skills of leadership.

In my opinion, the true traits that set leaders apart is their decision-making, the culture they create, and their intense desire to help others excel.

These traits might come through in someone who manages and leads teams of people, but it can just as equally come through in someone who is “doing great, rewarding or interesting work” because that too likely requires decision-making, culture-setting, and helping others.

We have to get away from narrow definitions of business leadership, stop publishing sweeping statements that can be misleading, and continue to support and encourage our dreams and the aspirations of others.