Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
Joni Wickham said she was a freshman at Meredith College when she interned for a U.S. senator and received advice that changed her life.
“(The senator) said, ‘I want to hire you, but before I hire you, I’m going to tell you something,’” Wickham said. “He said, ‘You are probably going to spend your whole career being underestimated because you’re kind of cute, you’re a petite female and you have a southern accent. …You can be bitter and mad at the world about it or you can use it to your advantage.’
“It has definitely proven to be true,” she said. “I think I’ve been underestimated almost every step of my career.”
Wickham, author and former chief of staff for Mayor Sly James of Kansas City, Mo., told this story during her speech at the Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth Women’s Equality Day observance Aug. 31 in Grant Auditorium; the presentation was livestreamed on the CAC Facebook page.
During her speech, Wickham spoke about several examples that proved the senator’s advice correct, and she said, as a woman, there is a thin line between being perceived as too nice or too mean, but men and women can help thicken the line with the use of his or her P.O.W.E.R.
P is for preparation, she said.
“I believe there is no substitute for hard work,” Wickham said. “I do not come from a politically connected family. …I really have always had to make sure that I am the most prepared person in the room.
“The funny thing about being the most prepared person in the room is when you suffer with impostor syndrome — this feeling that people are going to figure out sooner or later that you’re a fraud or you don’t belong there, or you don’t know enough to be there — when you walk into the room knowing that you’re prepared for the substance of whatever you’re going to be talking about, it increases your confidence and almost builds a barrier against that impostor syndrome.”
O is for ownership, she said. Ownership is about having an executive presence, which has three components — physical presence, communication presence and emotional presence or self-management.
“Whether we want to believe it or not, people notice your physical presence first,” Wickham said. “When you think about executive presence and bringing your physical presence into the room, think about how you can dress and handle yourself in a way most appropriate for the situation at hand.”
Second is communication presence.
“This is how you connect with people — your body language, your eye contact, the words that you choose to describe the situation or the feelings or the resolution that you’re trying to drive at,” Wickham said. “Ninety percent of communication is nonverbal.”
Third is emotional presence or self-management.
“I think this is the most difficult. …I would go into negotiations being demeaned and belittled because I’m a woman, and I would have to keep my cool,” Wickham said. “Another part of emotional presence is resiliency. …Politics and government can be really tense. It can be really long hours, you’re constantly being ridiculed for something, and if you aren’t resilient, it is really hard to make it.”
W is for wisdom.
“Women tend to have traits and skills that show up in the forms of emotional intelligence, and emotional intelligence is really critical to navigating conflict,” Wickham said. “I feel like navigating conflict and becoming an expert in navigating conflict is really one of the most important things that leaders can hone because what organization doesn’t have conflict?”
E is for energy.
“It can really sap your energy to deal with gender bias on a daily basis. It was important for me, particularly as I became a mom, to find the energy to keep going on a forward trajectory even in the face of sexism and negativity,” Wickham said. “Think about how you can rely on your network to help give you the energy you need.”
R is for respect.
“Respect yourself and know when it’s time to disengage from an individual or a situation,” Wickham said. “Figuring out ways to maintain healthy, respectful relationships with people whether they’re in your personal or professional circle is another way to use your power.”
Using P.O.W.E.R. to support women leaders is how to accomplish social and organizational change, Wickham said.
“The more we think about the different ways that we lead and communicate and understand that our differences don’t have to be negative, I think the more likely we are to widen this thin line and to chip away at the inequality,” Wickham said. “(The senator) was right that because of bias I might be underestimated for my whole career, and that really taught me at a very early age that biases exist in our society that continue to negatively impact women’s representation at decision-making tables across sectors in our economy and government. We have to use the power of men and women to create a new standard, new expectations and a new reality for the women who will lead us into the future.”