By Leigh Savage/Sponsored by Furman University
The crowd of women gathered, laughing and chatting after months of getting to know each other through revealing interactive sessions. They varied in age, career path, ethnicity and experience, but as they completed the Women’s Leadership Institute at Furman University, they recognized what bound them together: the desire to maximize their strengths and enhance their leadership skills to better their own lives and the lives of others.
Rev. Susan Crowell, senior pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Greenville, heard about the program from Furman, her alma mater, and the idea intrigued her. But when her friend and fellow alumna Robin Tidwell contacted her about participating in the program together, Crowell knew it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“It seemed like a great way to stay connected,” Crowell said. “But I thought, if this isn’t worth my time, I won’t stay for the whole thing. After the first one, I thought, I wouldn’t miss anything about this.”
The Women’s Leadership Institute is a five-session program providing educational advancement through a research-based curriculum and shared learning with leaders across a variety of industries and community roles. Participants strengthen their professional network while learning how to advance in their professional and personal lives.
Topics for the 2018 class, which graduated in May, included knowing your power and edge, cultivating power and voice, decision-making and adaptive leadership.
Crowell found a discussion led by Dr. Shaniece Criss of Furman’s health sciences department particularly applicable to current challenges in her work. “Her presentation on adaptive leadership was so eye-opening for me,” she said. “We’re in the process of bringing about cultural changes in our congregation, and she helped me understand why this has been so hard.”
Tidwell, an attorney with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Columbia, found all of the sessions helpful, especially a talk about cognitive biases by Dr. Beth Pontari, an associate vice provost and professor of psychology at Furman, and a discussion of claiming your gifts by Dr. Sarah Worth, chair of the philosophy department. She also valued the input of Dr. Elaine Nocks, professor emeritus in the department of psychology, who served as program moderator.
“She made it such a warm and welcoming forum for us all to be able to share successes and failures, so we could all learn from each other,” she said.
Other presenters included Sybil Hicks, director of human resources at Draexlmaier; Dr. Brenda Thames, vice president and provost of GHS’ Health Sciences Center; and local entrepreneur Llyn Strong.
While Tidwell has carved out a successful legal career, her role is largely academic, and she was looking to hone leadership skills as she considers ways to support young women just beginning their careers. At the graduation ceremony, she told the class she had already taken on a new volunteer position. “I had been rather cloistered, but this class has motivated me to take on leadership, and I’ve already had the opportunity to put it into action,” she said.
Tidwell and Crowell, who graduated from Furman in 1991, were close friends during college, but families, careers and moves separated them before they reconnected at Homecoming in 2016, their 25th reunion. Both now have a child who is a Furman student, so as they reconnected with each other at WLI, they were able to check in with their college students as well. “Furman is so different now, but it’s so wonderful,” Crowell said. “It makes me so proud.”
For both women, the experience was about empowerment: empowering themselves, their children, their coworkers, and their new WLI connections. “I see it as a huge part of my ministry, to encourage women,” Crowell said.
The networking is invaluable as well. “I definitely met some possible collaborators, and different opportunities in the Greenville community,” Crowell said. “We’re stronger together, so any type of collaborative effort is better.”
Tidwell agreed, and said building relationships and having access to such an accomplished group of women is one of the best perks of the program. The supportive environment made for impactful lessons. “People could share failures so that we could all learn from each other,” she said. “As a leader, you build resilience when you come through hard times, and people respect grace under pressure.”
The practical skills offered were also a boon for participants, who cited important lessons such as identifying strengths and using them in conjunction with others, responding to doors that open and saying “yes” or “no” with clarity. Meagan Azar of the theatre arts department taught class members how to avoid being a “shrinking woman” to memorable effect.
At the graduation, the women, along with spouses, bosses, and friends, snapped photos and reflected on what they had gained from the experience, from connections to motivation to empathy. But the key takeaway, as participants stood and shared what they had gleaned, was confidence.
“I used to try to overcompensate for my weaknesses, but now I learned to focus on my strengths,” said one graduate.
One table over, a woman stood and smiled. “My big takeaway is being comfortable that I belong at the table,” she said, to a shower of applause.