Bryant University Professor of Management Lori Coakley, Ph.D.
Now in its 13th year, Professor of Management Lori Coakley's Women in Leadership course helps students explore what it takes to succeed and connects them with invaluable mentors.
‘They want to hear you speak up’: 5 lessons in women’s leadership
Apr 16, 2024, by Stephen Kostrzewa
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For most people, being surrounded by one’s success is just an expression. For Professor of Management Lori Coakley, Ph.D., it happens every year. At the culmination of her annual Women and Leadership course, Coakley holds a celebration that brings together the students with the mentors she’s helped them find in the industries they’ve chosen to pursue.

Now, with the course in its 13th year, that crowd of mentors includes many of Coakley’s former students, who have gone on to success in a variety of areas and professions, from finance to biology. The returning alumni come back as more than a favor, though. They’re grateful for Coakley’s own mentorship, but they’ve also learned from her example and are determined to give back.

In the course, which Coakley was encouraged to develop after extensive conversations with Trustee Professor of Management Michael Roberto, DBA, regarding the need to enhance the confidence of female students at Bryant,  focuses on learning and honing the professional development skills, behaviors, and competencies that will help them thrive throughout their careers — and look at the particular challenges facing women in industry and how to address them. From using the language of power to navigating a hostile — or potentially worse: indifferent — room to negotiating to inspiring others, they examine what it takes to succeed, and how to uplift the people around them as well.

Here are just a few of the lessons Coakley shares with her students.

1. Make a splash
It’s impossible to take charge when people don’t even realize you’re there, notes Coakley, so you need to make yourself visible. “We call it ‘owning the room,’ but it’s also about walking with purpose and making you presence known.” she says. “When you walk into a room, don’t sit off in the corner. If you don't know everyone, introduce yourself!”

“Owning the room” also extends to actively seeking new opportunities, Coakley suggests. “Don’t assume that you don't have something valuable to add to the conversation, even if you’re new, because most employers want to hear you speak up. Don’t shy away from tough tasks or ones that are new to you because those are the projects that have high visibility and contribute to organizations in big ways – and even small recognitions collectively gets you noticed. You want people talking about you at the water cooler in a positive way.”

2. Break the mold
“We all still have mental models of what that leadership at the top should look like and who can manage it and how someone will handle it,” Coakley notes. “It’s about culture and expectation.” Many of those models often still hew to outdated gender distinctions.

Unfortunately, many women have internalized that model themselves, abetted by a system that teaches them to think that they don’t fit the “model,” Coakley says — and they need to break out of it. One of the best ways to escape those mental limits is to test them, she argues, and points to Bryant’s own cocurricular experience as an example.

"I tell my students, don't hedge and don’t apologize for making a decision. Maybe that's how we've been told that that's how we should act but it's not what gets the job done.”

“There’s so many opportunities for young women to develop as leaders here, through clubs and organizations, through research positions, and through athletics,” she says. “When you’ve had the chance to explore new roles, often alongside other female leaders, you began to understand what you’re capable of, and that there are other ways of doing things.”

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3. Be decisive
Over the course of a career in teaching, you begin to notice certain trends, says Coakley. “There’s a pattern in classes that mirrors what is experienced in organizations. When you’d ask the students what they know about business, the men are very confident and feel they know a lot, and the women would say ‘oh, I don’t know a lot’ – even if they’ve had the same level of experience,” Coakley reflects.

That wide difference in confidence extends into the career sphere. “When they look at opportunities, men are more likely to go and say, ‘Oh, they say they need five years of experience, but I know I can do it,” states Coakley. “Women will look at the same listing and worry, ‘Do I check all the boxes?”

Self-doubt can also lead to issues with projecting authority. “When women talk, they often use ‘hedging’ language,” Coakley explains, “they hesitate, or they end statements in ways that make them sound like question marks. People want their leaders to be decisive and to execute.”

“My students love it when I tell them they can ask for more; it’s like someone gave them permission and told them it’s okay. 

Leadership isn’t just about making the right calls; it’s about standing behind them, she says. “One of the things we focus on is that when you make a decision, you need to be confident in that decision. I tell my students, don't hedge and don’t apologize for making a decision. Maybe that's how we've been told that that's how we should act but it's not what gets the job done.”

4. Know your worth
Being a good leader isn’t just about advocating for others; it’s about being able to advocate for yourself, Coakley teaches her class. “There's a wonderful article that showcases a man and a woman going in negotiating their starting salary,” she notes. “And the man will go in and argue for and get as much as he can, but the woman is willing to settle for the much lower number they give her — even though they will be doing the same job and have the same credentials.”

That can have lasting ramifications throughout entire careers, says Coakley. Those who start lower, stay lower. “It can have lifetime implications, and you can clearly see how much more the man has earned versus a woman simply because he asked for more at the beginning.”

The answer, or at least part of the answer, to this discrepancy, says Coakley, is for women to push back and advocate for their own worth. “My students love it when I tell them they can ask for more; it’s like someone gave them permission and told them it’s okay. I tell them, the worst possible thing they can do is say no, but then maybe you can bargain for something else.”

5. Build your network
Perhaps one of the most important lessons Coakley offers is that no one succeeds alone, and that it’s ok to ask for — and offer — help. “Men have been benefitting from the power of their built-in networks for a long, long time and I think sometimes we underestimate the value of that,” Coakley says. “Women need to be actively building networks of their own to level the playing field.”

“If I can figure out what you're interested in and put you with someone who can help you get there, I think that’s my favorite role.”

A good mentor, says Coakley, is a sounding board, and a font of experience, that can provide first-hand advice about how they handled similar situations — but they’re also there to help you forge other links in your network. “It’s about someone who’s aware of your interests and your ambitions and has the experience to help you make connections,” she notes. 

“My own professional network has expanded immeasurable with the help of my own mentors," states Coakley, citing Beth Carter, a Human Capital Leader and Development Specialist who is also an alumnus of Bryant and an adjunct professor. "She owns two businesses centered on consulting and coaching and has shared with me and my students an incredible network of amazing women and years of business experiences aimed at fostering my students’ professional acumen and career growth.”

Everyone can play a role as a mentor, Coakley says, in a formal setting or otherwise. “As women, we need to pay it forward: to lean in and mentor,” she states — and that seems to be a sentiment that’s spreading. “I used to struggle to find mentors for my students and especially if they were outside my area of expertise, but now I have so many people who are excited to be part of the class. I think there’s a new understanding of the value. The mentors realize they like working with the younger women and taking their own experience and using it to help them out.”

That’s a pleasure Coakley knows first-hand. “If I can figure out what you're interested in and put you with someone who can help you get there, I think that’s my favorite role,” she says.

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