Wednesday, October 3, 2012

GHC12: Are You Ready to be a Thought Leader?

Oct 3, 2012- Day 1, and here I am at one of the first sessions at Grace Hopper 2012. This panel is designed for the Career development track. I tried to cover almost every discussion that happened in this session. 

Moderator: Denise Brosseau (Well-Connected Leader)
Panelists: Shelley Evenson (Facebook), Professor Janet H. Murray (Georgia Tech), Nina Bhatti (Hewlett-Packard), Candice Brown Elliott (Nouvoyance, Inc.)
Abstract: Getting noticed in your career takes more than just putting your head down and doing a great job. Today’s technologist needs to be known and noticed for her accomplishments far beyond the walls of her company, lab or university. The new paradigm is thought leadership and this panel discussion will showcase how to think about and frame your own path to thought leadership and overcome any barriers in your way.

We are all about creating thought leaders in the world. The panel consists of well-known and established thought leaders. The session started with a quick set of intros. The moderator had prepared a set of questions to discuss for the hour, and then open the floor to Q&A.

Question: So, what is meant by a thought leader? This question was addressed following a quick set of intros.  
Janet: A change agent! These are the immediate words Prof. Janet said.
Nina: Ms.Bhatti worked at HP, Nokia, and other hi-tech companies. A thought leader according to her is “creating credibility for the organization to inspire others, to believe something is possible, and induce confidence”. It’s about inspiring people to go to that space which is a little scary and ambiguous.
Shelley: Ms.Evenson was a consultant for 25 yrs, and then started teaching in CMU, following which she started working in industry again. A thought leader according to her is “a person who is willing to explore new territories; someone who is willing to put a new stake in the ground and take the extra mile”.
Denise: The most important thing is moving from being the leader to the thought leader! Be the change agent, be the person who is thinking about the wide open future, and showing the way for others, and most importantly helping others to follow that path. It’s all about being the “Go-To” person.

Question: How did that happen to you? How did you become a thought leader?
Janet: In MIT and Harvard, Prof.Janet got many opportunities to be a leader-like. In 80’s she was one of the few people who was trained in Computer science and also in Humanities. She had an insight back then that computing could be used for humanities- be it using interactive videos, natural language processing for the purposes of humanities, or for teaching foreign languages.
Nina: Ms.Bhatti had an interesting story. At her first job after my bachelors she looked around what they were doing in the company. There was a specific issue that the sales team was facing. She took the first step and came up with a way to fix the issue- and that was the start. Her advice is to “Look for opportunities, and dive right into it”.  
Shelley: Ms.Evenson started writing papers during school. This paved the opportunity for her to become a professor at CMU. When her husband was diagnosed with Cancer, she took that as an opportunity to bring technology and design together to fill the gaps when it came to cancer treatment. Her advice is to “look for the wide open space”. There are a lot of needs everywhere- be it client needs, employee needs, the list just goes on.

The one quote that I loved in this question discussion is don’t be “one-of-many”. Be one of one! Be ‘the one’ so that other people know you are the ONE. Look at the trends in the industry and think about how you can get in front of the trend. Be the leader and show others the way to move in that direction. Take time to think about what your expertise and passion is. You are bound to get excited to think deep and ahead if you are passionate about that field, and this is probably the first step to being a thought leader.

Question: What is it that you do to create great vision?
Janet: Prof. Janet says thinking deeply will give u the expertise. Have a goal that you wake up to every morning. Things change so fast in the present world that it’s so hard to find a place that stays for long. So, it is essential that you look at a longer trend and align your career with that trend. Your vision is the start.
Nina: There was a time when Ms.Bhatti used to whine about everything that was not perfect. She used to feel “when you know something is not right, and you also know what is needed to make it right- then why don’t you just do it”? It was her boss who gave her a license to be a change agent. Her advice-Use the opportunities when people give u one. It’s ok to be messy at the beginning by doing it your way. They gave you the chance on the first place because they trusted something good will happen at the end.
Shelley: Ms.Evenson says “create a map and mark the territories clearly”. What is it that you are seeing? If you are able to visualize it- then you will help others understand the landscape.
Denise: Research shows that women outpost men in most of the territories BUT for visioning. Women give away their power. This shows that women give credit to the others around us. To be a change agent, it is important to change “WE” to “I”. Start saying I believe…instead of we…

Question: What are some things you do to keep up with what is happening in your own industry?
Janet: Prof.Janet says she always feels it was easy to see the direction of change than the pace of change itself. Her advice is to not to get too carried away by what people say they want to do tomorrow- because at this rate of change, they might never be able to complete what they started, or what they wish to do would already be outdated by tomorrow. To keep up with the new trends, Prof.Janet usually follows the social media applications. She also relies a lot on finding people in an organization whose judgment she trusts, and asks them about the big things she should be tracking.
Nina: As a researcher, Ms.Bhatti’s job was to keep track of new changes. She was a part of the NSF panel, advisory board for UC Berkley, and chair of many conferences. She considers people whom she considers thought leaders as the source for keeping up to date with the changes. She also is a voracious reader and reads many women’s magazines, business magazines. Her advice- look at what technology is enabling, what society is looking at, and see what you can contribute.
Shelley: Ms.Evenson says we are in a weird place where it is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing because it is so much easier to find out about things; Curse because there is so much to find out! Her advice is to find that ONE person whom you trust to learn. Think about crazy things- like what would video be in 20 years? Think about its implications for all the other fields. Also look back- it makes a lot of sense to look back on how a technology was back then, and how it has evolved over the years.
My biggest take away from this question was there is this one secret question to become a thought leader: “What If”? Thought leaders are all about possibilities. Keep giving yourself that permission of exploration. Have lot of conversations and lot of interactions to become that Go-To person you always dreamt of becoming.

Question: How do you get that visibility and credibility by saying YES to opportunities? What are some of the things you have done to leverage all the opportunities that came by you.
Janet: One of the biggest opportunities that came her way was moving from MIT to Georgia Tech.  She wrote a book abt the possibilities of narrative in digital formats. That became a blue print in Hollywood, etc. She thought one of the first classes in this subject. She says she dint do it because she wanted to be a leader-but did it at a time when the world was ready to hear.
Shelley: Saying yes often comes because someone else said no (which is indeed true!). Look for these places and jump in where there is an opportunity.
Nina: Ms.Bhatti took most of the speaking opportunities that came her way because she wanted the world to know what they were doing. She takes the story and gives the right perspective for the target audience. And she feels in every session- the audience is not just the audience- it’s an audition. Speaking at sessions is a great way to meet like-minded people, and building your reputation as a professional. Being known outside your company is really important to be a thought leader.

My biggest take away from this question was that “leadership is a category of three letters. Good leaders are the ones who are known to be good at:
V- Vision
E- Execution

Question: What are the obstacles one might face and what might one do to overcome it?
Janet: There is a certain kind of male entitlement that is very difficult to work on- and this is one of the biggest obstacles to overcome. One solution to this would be solitarity with other woman. Face the bullies and don’t collapse when faced by male anger. Not seeing what everybody else is seeing can allow you to see things that are being ignored. Move into that field and you will be an expert when people wake up to it.
Nina: At a philosophical level, letting other people decide your potential is one of the biggest obstacles. Don’t let others put you in a box. Don’t let people define you. Find a good partner who will keep you with your dreams and just keep going.
At a technical level, find a boss who will support you; someone who will hi-fi you for the good things you do. Be thoughtful and careful about people who will be happy for you. At the same time, be sure to invite people to be participants of your successes and share the glory.
Shelley: Ms.Evenson says people are all T-shaped, i.e., we are all really strong in one area, and are still growing to be good in the others. Define your T, and identify the areas you need to improve.

Now it’s time for the rapid fire round. Here we go:

Question: If you had to do it again, what is ONE thing you would?
Nina: When it doesn’t feel right- take the risk and do it anyway
Janet: Write every day
Shelley: Draw your ideas

Question: One thing to help us become thought leaders?
Janet: Writing
Shelley: Making drawing
Nina: Speaking

Question: One book, website that you would recommend?
Janet: My book!
Nina: Watch all Ted talks
Denise: Brag! – a book written by Peggy Klaus

Question: One piece of advice?
Nina: Feel the fear and do it anyway!
Denise: It’s all about resilience! It’s the core of everything. Keep going and you will win.

I hope you had a good feel of how this session went at GHC 2012. Please do check out my blogs about few other sessions at GHC 2012.
Happy reading!


  1. Vidya - thanks for the blog! Great job.

    Can you make 2 corrections - first, the title should be Thought Leader (now says Though Leader), and also, second to last question - I did not write the book Brag! It was written by Peggy Klaus.

    You might also add a way to contact you in the blog somehow!

    1. Thanks much Denise. I made the changes. I appreciate you reading the blog. You can reach me @ I ll add my contact details in the blog soon.

  2. Thanks for writing this up Vidya!