Dr Ellen Snee

    We Spoke to Dr Ellen Snee on Being an Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

    As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Ellen Snee.

    Dr. Ellen Snee ( has been at the forefront of women’s leadership for more than 25 years. Dr. Snee brings strategy, research and executive experience to global companies and their top female talent. Her original research at Harvard University on women’s experience in roles of authority formed the foundation of her consulting work with Fortune 500 companies such as Cisco, Goodyear, Marriott, Pfizer, Schwab and VMware. Her new book Lead: How Women in Charge Claim Their Authority makes accessible her wisdom and experience to all women seeking to accelerate their careers.

    Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

    It may surprise you, but I started my career as a nun. For 18 years, I was surrounded by smart, educated, committed, and fun women who held roles of authority that were uncommon for women in the 1970s. The nuns ran colleges and schools for girls and many non-profits. I believe this incredible experience laid the foundation for why I became an expert in women’s leadership development.

    I went to Harvard to pursue a PhD because I wanted to work with Professor Carol Gilligan, PhD, who was doing ground-breaking work on women’s psychological development. While there I became very interested in leadership and authority. I began to see that much of what was being taught in leadership classes about the importance of listening, collaboration, and emotional intelligence were competencies that many women had acquired and were comfortable demonstrating. So, I wanted to understand the challenges they faced when they were in roles of authority where they had responsibility to hire, fire, promote, direct, and manage others. When I left the convent, I turned my dissertation research into the conceptual framework for a new consulting firm, Fine Line. We provided mentor programs and coaching for executive women in Fortune 500 companies and we grew very quickly.

    Many years later, I was hired as VP of Leadership Development in a Silicon Valley software company. There I oversaw global talent development and leadership training and had the chance to launch a new initiative to advance talented women. I was able to bring 20 years of experience to bear in how we designed and delivered the program. Three things made it successful: first a top executive from each organization served on the core team; second, we collected five years of data on gender differences in recruitment, promotion, and retention at every level of their organizations; and, third, the executives were accountable to the CEO for a plan to correct the gaps. Three years later, their bonuses were tied to their outcomes.

    My new book, Lead: How Women in Charge Claim Their Authority, captures the wisdom and lessons I learned from all of these experiences. My hope is that the book’s insights, examples, and stories — as well as the research findings — will provide actionable guidance to talented women who are seeking to accelerate their careers.

    My book differs from other management and leadership books in several important ways. The locus of authority throughout is women’s experience within three vital perspectives: personal, relational, and systemic. My Self-Others-Systems Model recognizes that women are always in parallel relationships with themselves, to others, and to the systems in which they live and work. All of these relationships intersect and interact in a dynamic fashion when a woman exercises leadership in a role of authority.

    Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

    When I was still a nun, I was working on a project to produce a movie about our order. I had written several letters to foundations asking if they would fund the movie. This was in the 1990’s before we all had advanced computer systems. One of the secretaries was going to take care of sending the letters while I was out of town. When I returned, I found the copies of the letters that she had sent. Where my signature should be, she had used a stamp — and not a good one at that! The thought of the foundations receiving letters requesting a lot of money with a messy stamp signature made we want to laugh or cry. I still choose to laugh.

    The ‘takeaway’ I learned is that it’s fine to delegate but be sure you communicate all of the important information! Be clear in your directions.

    None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

    There are so many people who have helped me along the way that it is hard to choose. Betsy Sutter, Chief People Officer at VMware, played a huge role in where I am today. She hired me to work at VMware, and she enlisted me to run the VMwomen initiative in 2013, both of which had profound effects on my career and my life. The story I will share is that initially I was brought on at VMware as an external coach, working with individuals in the company and frequently consulting to Betsy on different topics. One day when we were meeting, she made an off-the-cuff comment that was something like, “I wish I could afford to hire you full time.” I didn’t say anything then, but when I got home I told my husband, and he said, “Well, ask her what she meant!” So, I went back and told her I would be very interested in a conversation about coming to work at VMware. The rest is, as they say, history. It’s a good example of something I talk about in my book, which is that women need to learn how to ask for what they want, and it helps to have a spouse, a friend, or a coach who will encourage you to make the ask.

    Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

    My life’s mission has been to advance women. I pursued this vision first as a Catholic nun and then in my doctoral studies at Harvard on women’s psychological development. When I finished my doctorate in 1994 there weren’t any roles for a diversity officer or executive in companies as there are today. I was clear that I wanted to do work with and for women, so I launched my own consulting business. Our purpose was to collaborate with large companies to increase hiring, promotion, and retention of women. People said I was crazy — that no company would hire us if we worked only with women. But I had a vision for what was needed and believed it would work. The vision caught on both with women executives who brought us into their companies and with other women coaches and professionals who wanted to join my company.

    More recently, as I struggled to finish writing my book during the pandemic, whenever I thought of giving up I remembered why I was writing it — as a legacy and gift to the women who come after me — and that mission and vision kept me going.

    Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

    By 2001, my company, Fine Line, was thriving. We had clients across the country and a team of a dozen or so coaches as well as support staff. In September, I was in New Jersey visiting family after working with a client in New York City. I called in to my assistant to check on things (this was before smartphones and messaging). After a few moments, she asked, “Are you watching TV? Do you know what’s happened?” When I said “no,” she told me about the terrorist strikes. It was 9/11.

    I suddenly realized I had to take steps to address a crisis that was bigger than anything any of us had ever seen. After encouraging my assistant to close the office and go home to her family, I began to make lists of what I had to do next. In the weeks and months that followed, as travel ceased, I had to find new ways to deliver services to our clients, remain optimistic for our team, and manage my own anxiety about the future.

    I learned many important lessons that helped me later during the financial crisis and the more recent pandemic. First, pay attention to how you treat other people — no matter who they are. In difficult and uncertain times, leadership is about providing direction and protection. Second, keep your eye on what is most important for your business and let other things wait. Third, in order to “hold steady” as a leader you need to have ways to stay calm and centered yourself — whether that is through meditation, exercise, or another form of “putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.”

    Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

    Several years later when I moved to California, I often considered giving up. I had not realized how difficult it would be to start over in a new location where I had a few friends but no real business contacts. I became quite depressed and found it hard to imagine how to keep going. What helped was a network of friends who provided support and connections that eventually led to new business opportunities. But what sustains my drive and gives me the motivation to continue through challenges is always my commitment to women. I don’t want to give up when I see how much work is still to be done to enable women to exercise leadership in greater roles of authority. That pushes me to try a little harder, go a little further, do a little more.

    What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times? To be clear

    During challenging times, the most critical role of a leader is to provide protection and direction with clear and transparent communication . People need to know they are safe and that someone is providing guidance on where they are going. As a leader you need to hold steady. You need to communicate often — more often than usual– and acknowledge what you do and don’t know and what you can and can’t share. People need to trust their leader during challenging times, and you need to do all you can to earn and maintain that trust.

    When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

    I believe morale is boosted when people feel seen and heard. This is especially true when the future seems so uncertain. Uncertainty breeds fear and anxiety and a sense of aloneness. A leader who can connect with her or his people in a way that they feel seen and heard can ameliorate that. Reaching out by Zoom without a big agenda, holding a listening session, responding to work done, may seem like small things but in an uncertain world small “touches” carry a lot of wait.

    A leader’s example is the critical way to inspire, motivate, and engage. How a leader shows up, treats others, the attitude they project, their commitment to their work and their organization are read by team members much more clearly than messages or statements. As I’ve said, I think in uncertain times, clear and regular communication is also a critical component of leadership behavior. Sometimes it is beneficial to get help with communication to be sure that the tone and articulation is delivered in a way that your specific audience will feel inspired, motivated, and engaged.

    What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

    Communicate difficult news with calm, clarity, and brevity. Provide the key facts as simply and as soon as possible. Hold steady and allow for the initial shock and the emotions that follow. Do not go down rabbit holes of trying to explain.

    How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

    A leader must realize that the future is always unpredictable — a lesson we learned from Covid. A leader sets direction and makes appropriate plans but needs to consider a plan B and also the possibility of unintended consequences.

    Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

    Have clarity on your purpose. This includes not only the “what” and “where” you are headed but the “how” you want to get there. As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said and what you did but they won’t forget how you made them feel.” How you treat others — employees and customers — during turbulent times shows your true values and will make the difference afterward.

    Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

    Common mistakes include letting fear paralyze and lead to indecision for too long and, at the other extreme, indulging in hyper-activity as a way to feel in control. Weariness can also lead to a lack of attention to the necessary balance between the immediate and the long term. A leader needs to remember to: 1) employ personal practices (meditation, exercise, use of a coach) that will enable her to stay grounded and flexible at the same time; 2) increase communication with others; and, 3) keep one eye on immediate/urgent work but the other eye on where she wants to land when the turbulence is reduced.

    Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

    After 911 we had to pivot to delivering services without being able to travel. There was no Zoom and very few smartphones at the time so it was a challenge. We lost business and had to reassess what we could support as far as staff and office space. We were in touch with our clients as much as possible even if they were not able to renew contracts for the next year. We reconfigured what was essential from a business perspective to keep going. While we did lose some growth in the short term we were able to pivot to new ways to bring our work into the world that was even more powerful and impactful than it had been.

    Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

    • Communicate. Do everything you can to let people know what is going on, what you are doing, and why it is necessary and important. During the financial crisis a colleague who ran a medium-size consulting business experienced a dramatic reduction in client work. She knew that she could not continue to support the number of people that she had on staff. Instead of firing anyone, however, she proposed that everyone work and be paid for 32 hours per week and continue to receive medical benefits. Other perks like Friday lunches and travel would be suspended until things returned to normal. The tight-knit team was pleased that no one would lose their job and was willing to share the pain in order to make it through to the other side.
    • Show that you care. During the last few months of Covid, a leader of a remote global team had to expect a great deal from her employees due to increased demands from customers and the time of year. She found ways to acknowledge outstanding performance by sending thoughtful gifts to people’s homes and by sending accolades to the CEO and executive team which she shared. In these two ways she was expressing both her gratitude for a job well done above and beyond and making sure that other leaders were made aware of their contributions. Both gratitude and recognition are critical steps to take at any time but are particularly important during uncertain and turbulent times.
    • Honesty and transparency. When there was a major software glitch at a technology company I watched the CEO personally oversee the response. First, he handled outreach to customers and partners, giving them his word he would fix the problem and fast. Second, he pulled together a team of experts: engineers, customer service employees, product managers, and others. He was masterful and genuine in communicating how critical their work was to fix the problem as thoroughly and quickly as possible. They were told to report directly to him if they needed anything to get the job done. He brought in a senior executive to be his liaison. He met with the team regularly and when the fix was completed he walked through their solution. Then he took them all out to lunch. His honesty and transparency about how serious the problem was and how much he needed his team to fix it had motivated and energized these talented people like nothing I had ever seen. Their commitment and excitement was palpable.

    Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

    One of my favorite life-lesson quotes is one that has been attributed to civil rights icon and long-time Congressman John Lewis, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

    It always motivates me to step up for what I believe in. And, when something is important, do it now.

    How can our readers further follow your work?