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Winter welcome 2018

You Have the Capabilities the World Needs

By Ellen Merrick Petrill, ’77, ‘78

Over 80 members of the community of women at Stanford University came together for the 13th annual Stanford Women Winter Welcome hosted by Cap and Gown.  The multi-generational assembly represented faculty and staff, undergraduate and graduate students, and alumnae.  The original vision for the Winter Welcome formulated in 2005 was to give a warm welcome on a cold and rainy winter night to the youngest members, freshman and sophomore students, on an evening when they would relish a warm welcome.  That’s just what we had on Wednesday, January 24, 2018:  a cold and rainy winter night outside, and a warm and welcoming gathering inside.


Our distinguished speaker, Megan Pierson, Chief of Staff to Stanford’s President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, talked about “Life Lessons from Navigating Academic and Corporate Worlds.” Megan graduated from Stanford in 1982 in Political Science.  She received her JD at USC.  Prior to her role as Chief of Staff, Megan worked in a variety of positions and organizations, including as a partner at a law firm, as general counsel at communications companies, and at Stanford as senior counsel and senior associate provost, giving her experience in both academic and administrative matters.  Megan told her story and shared insights from her years of experience in both corporate and academic organizations. 

Having come from a line of women who have been intentional about the education of their daughters, Megan feels privileged to be at an educational institution.  Megan was raised on the legacy of her grandmother, Theoni, who grew up in a family that recognized knowledge as a priority.  Theoni was sent to California by her loving parents, as the way to escape the wartime conflict in Greece.  
Imagine traveling alone at age 16 by ship to New York, then by train to San Francisco, eating only chocolate (the only English word Theoni knew.)  Theoni married George, the match made for her by her parents, a marriage of 40 years.  Theoni raised two daughters and a son, with laser focus on their education.  Voula, Megan’s mother, received her education from Cal plus law school and raised four daughters and a son, continuing the focus on their education. 

Megan entered Stanford, planning to study anthropology.  But an internship working on the Equal Rights Amendment showed her the power of words, and policy, leading her to political science.  Later in law school, she learned a framework to analyze problems and develop solutions that considered future ramifications , a practice that would help her in every part of her career, including today.
Megan shared the following attributes which she finds to be critical to success:

Agency is the ability to take actions and make choices to influence the outcome.  “You are powerful and smart; you already have the skills supporting agency,” Megan pronounced.  “You need to know your capabilities and, if you will be a worker in the gig economy, this knowledge will give you a sense of how to will plug in.”

Megan talked about the top qualities of successful people identified in Google’s Project Oxygen.  “The findings are surprising.  STEM skills were not the sole predictor of success. The top qualities are the ability to coach, communicate, listen, think critically, and to connect complex ideas.  In a similar study, the top qualities were found to be generosity, curiosity, empathy, and emotional intelligence.” These are undervalued qualities in many organizations today, but are becoming recognized as what are needed now and in the future. 

Think broadly about the capabilities that contribute to a sense of agency, coached Megan.  You already are equipped with the capabilities the world needs.  

Collaboration is a critical skill and needs to be intentional.  “In litigation, collaboration can be a challenge because it is adversarial by nature.  Mergers and acquisitions can also be perceived to be competitive explained Megan of her corporate roles.  “ However, the ability to break down problems so you can solve them in steps can provide the basis for collaboration and compromise  in an adversarial environment.”  If you see where you can agree and achieve compromises, even small ones, you can build trust and credibility which moves you toward a potentially favorable outcome. 

In circumstances that are perceived to be adversarial, making the human connection can also reduce moments of friction. Through goodwill and extending grace or the benefit of the doubt, we can build a collaborative environment.  Why is this important?  We not only make progress but we also learn from each other, Megan enjoined.

The ability to adapt is critical. Be adaptable but be authentic.  Don’t change your style, but modify it for context.  In the corporate world one can collaborate but also be directive, depending on the organizational structure.  But at Stanford, our 2,400 faculty govern the university.  Governance flows from departments, schools and institutes.  The environment encourages  decentralized innovation and discovery.  Persuasion (rather than direction) is critical and change takes time more time.” 

To get your ideas heard, speak up.  Shop them to different audiences.  Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’  Ask for advice and opinions of others. Recognize that it will take time.  

The assembly of over 80 Stanford women, representing faculty and staff, undergraduate and graduate students, and alumnae, engaged with Megan and also with each other around the tables of eight in facilitated discussions.  The evening was lively, insights dawned, and new friendships bloomed.  Megan inspired us to recognize that we already have the capabilities the world needs, and encouraged us to keep up our sense of agency, to collaborate, and be adaptive to achieve our goals and make a difference in the world.

Cap and Gown alumni and student officers described the Cap and Gown organization and invited students and alumni to join to further the mission of Cap and Gown – to honor and support women leaders at Stanford.

The 13th annual Stanford Women Winter Welcome was hosted by Cap and Gown and supported by Schools of Humanities & Sciences, Earth, and Engineering; WISE Ventures; Dean of Freshmen; Program in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies; The Clayman Institute for Gender Studies; and the Women’s Community Center.  The Winter Welcome team made this event possible:  Negin Behzadian, Beppie Cerf, Eleanor Frost, Michelle Galloway, Lee Gregory, Amanda Han, Callie Hoon, Jessica Mahler, Ellen Petrill, Ellen Slack, and Jacquelyn Wong.

Women of Stanford:  Don’t miss the 14th annual Stanford Women Winter Welcome in January 2019!  

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