Ep. 20: What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient Women

with Marisa Porges, Ph.D.

July 29, 2021

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Marisa Porges, Ph.D.
Head of School, The Baldwin School

Dr. Marisa Porges is known for her work on gender and education, leadership, and national security and is the author of What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient Women (Viking Press, 2020). She is currently the eighth Head of School of The Baldwin School, a 130-year-old all-girls school outside of Philadelphia, that is renowned for academic excellence and preparing girls to be leaders and changemakers. She is an alumna of Baldwin and personally understands the power of its approach to educating girls: it provided the foundation for her own military service and work on national security and foreign affairs.

Prior to joining Baldwin, Dr. Porges was a leading counterterrorism and national security expert. Most recently, she served in the Obama White House as a senior policy advisor and White House Fellow at the National Economic Council, where she oversaw the development of domestic cybersecurity and consumer protection policies. She also has served as a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and at the Council on Foreign Relations, where her research focused on counterterrorism. In these roles, she traveled alone throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan to conduct research, interview former members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, meet with Syrian rebel fighters in hiding, and serve as an embedded civilian advisor at NATO military headquarters in Afghanistan. She also worked as a counterterrorism policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Treasury and as a foreign affairs advisor in the U.S. Department of Defense. In all these roles, she stood out as one of a few – if not the only – women present, at any given time. 

Dr. Porges started her career on active duty in the U.S. Navy, flying jets off carriers as a naval flight officer on EA-6B Prowlers. Ten years after the Navy first allowed women to fly jets into combat, she pursued her dream of being launched off an aircraft carrier while serving her country. She earned a B.A. in geophysics from Harvard, an MSc from the London School of Economics, and a PhD in war studies from King’s College London. Her awards include the National Committee on American Foreign Policy 21st Century Leader Award and the NATO Medal for service in Afghanistan. Dr. Porges lives outside of Philadelphia, with her family.

We all have these core skills in us, but we really have to figure out how to make them superpowers.

Transcript

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Gary Bisbee  0:06  

Washington, D.C., is my home away from home. I’ve worked here for the better part of three decades as a founder, entrepreneur, policy expert and author.

Don Rucker 0:10

Probably the longest title. Everybody sort of shortened it to ONC for sanity’s sake.

Gary Bisbee 0:15

Mercifully.

I’ve learned leadership secrets from many health care executives who understand that Washington is the largest payer and regulator of health care.

Nancy-Ann DeParle 0:25

She said, well, because you’ll never get a husband if you do that.

Gary Bisbee 0:29

I began interviewing health care leaders many years ago because what better way to learn how they think, why they make it to the top and how they remain

there?

Think about, what was your most challenging engagement.

Greg Carpenter 0:40

Health care has been the most difficult problem, as you said.

Gary Bisbee 0:43

We’ll talk about that later.

 

What does a former naval aviator, foreign affairs expert with a specialty in counterterrorism, White House fellow, and head of a 500+ student private school know about leadership? Quite a lot actually. She is also author of What Girls Need, a must read book for parents or anyone relating to girls and young women. Marisa left Harvard to fly jets in the Navy at a time when there were few women in naval aviation. She shared amusing and real life stories about leadership lessons learned in the US Navy. She interviewed Al-Qaeda military personnel in the field for a research project. We discussed the risks and leadership profile for a Jewish-American woman in that situation. Our conversation accelerated through leadership lessons gained during her time in the Obama White House to those learned as the head of an all girl private school with the complication of managing through COVID. Marisa is a unique, engaging, energetic, and natural leader who shares her views on leadership in practical and intriguing ways. We wrapped up this fun and informative conversation by asking Marisa her advice to up and coming leaders.

 

Good morning, Marisa, and welcome.

 

Marisa Porges  2:01  

Good morning, Gary. Thank you for having me.

 

Gary Bisbee  2:03  

Great to have you at the microphone. We’d like to kick right in here with a discussion of your career and all the leadership you’ve displayed during that time and then move to the book What Girls Need. You’ll be publishing in softcover shortly. I needed to get that in so your publisher will like me okay. When you look at your career: after graduating from Harvard, you became a naval aviator, foreign affairs, cybersecurity expert (there are a bunch of questions there with what’s going on recently), and then head of a prominent private school and an author. For most people, it seems like you ought to be 100 years old, but I think you’ve just begun. We’ll pursue all of that with an eye toward leadership. Why don’t we start more or less at the beginning? What was life like for you growing up, Marisa?

 

Marisa Porges  3:06  

Part of the story from my childhood is actually growing up at the school I now have the pleasure of running. I went to school at The Baldwin School, the school where I’m now a Head of School (the CEO equivalent). For me, it was a really formidable experience as a young woman being in a community that was committed to amplifying the voices of young women, helping girls see themselves as in, any direction they wanted to go, whatever it was, the answer was, “Yes, of course, you can do it.” Even we’ve come a little far since that time and I’ve changed a little bit, it is a powerful message to have as a young girl, so that was a huge part of my childhood. It allowed me to explore a lot of my “choose my own adventure career,” a lot of the “you dream it, you want to do it, try it.” A huge part of my story is having that experience, which has influenced a lot of my leadership style and career trajectory since then.

 

Gary Bisbee  4:02  

What aspirations did you have when you were at Harvard? Had you scoped out some of these adventures that you’d like to pursue? Or did that just come as it came?

 

Marisa Porges  4:14  

I think I was the crazy one. I don’t know for those of you listening that you had that childhood dream something along the lines of firefighter or rock star or astronaut, jet pilot. The latter two were mine. I was never really a good singer and liked sports but wasn’t going to pursue that crazy dream. I wanted to fly jets for the military. I wanted to pursue NASA aviation, aeronautics. That was my dream. I had the good fortune of being able to pursue that when I was at Harvard in my academic landscape in terms of what my major was and the classes I took. Then, after I graduated, pursuing it through the military. When I was in that part of my career, I realized I had different visions of what happened next, but there was a moment where it was still the message from both my parents and my peers and the community I grew up with saying, “Okay, childhood dreams, go for it. It doesn’t have to be as crazy as it sounds. Try it.” I headed to the Navy next because one of those things on my list had been to fly jets for the US Navy, fly jets for the military. It conceded from there, but that had been my dream from college. If they think it started when I was eight or nine years old, it’s a good lesson for us to sometimes think about what makes us passionate. What is the thing that makes you excited to go to work or talk about and share stories about? Then figure out what of that you can then make part of your everyday career professional life

 

Gary Bisbee  5:45  

You mentioned leadership and kind of tied it to your time at The Baldwin School.  What would the young Marisa think about leadership? Or what did the young Marisa think about leadership?

 

Marisa Porges  6:00  

As you grow in your career, you see the difference between leading from the front or leadership through the management lens, leadership from how you get organizations and people to lead alongside you and empower others to take a group, take an organization, take a team in a better direction. That’s something you realize over time, something I often have a conversation with the girls here about, to start them thinking about. What is the difference of leading by being directive, leading by managing the way it looks to lead a group or a club or a sports team or things like that when you’re young? Over time, you realize the best way to be a true, impactful, empathetic, powerful leader in moments of crisis or moments of normalcy is to get the best out of the people around you inspire them and empower them. That’s where leadership gets to take off and go to the next level. That’s something that comes with maturity and experience. I’m sure you talk about it with your peers as well. How do you get the team around you to really be their best? That’s where leadership can go to the next level. Reflecting back, that’s something I wouldn’t think any young person would know or see just yet. That would be the big difference between me now and then.

 

Gary Bisbee  7:16  

What were your parents like? Does your leadership style draw from your parents?

 

Marisa Porges  7:24  

It’s an interesting question, one that hadn’t occurred to me. I’m not sure if my leadership style is so derived from my parents and I wonder how other parents out there reflect on their family influence. I think the family influences more of me as a person in my style and priorities. I say that in a weird way to go to one of the foremost lessons I learned from my parents that influences my leadership but is about me personally is my ability to handle and respond to failure. The example many people might think of is like failure when you’re a kid or you’re around your family, the failure that comes on a sports team or a sports field when you fall down, you miss the big shot, whatever it is, and how you’re taught over time to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going. Whatever version of that looks like when you were a child, particularly early preteen/teenage years, and what the conversation sounds like in your family or with your peer group to say, “Hey, go back at it. Go back in. Don’t worry if you missed the shot.” I play basketball. You don’t see me on zoom. I’m not built like a basketball player. I’m scrappy, but certainly not dunking anytime soon. More miss shots than shots delivered, but the message is always, “Okay, keep trying. Keep trying.” When I finally made that shot and got the points for the team, it felt so good because I’d overcome moments of failure. That really influences my leadership style because it’s how I develop strategy for the organization. It’s how I develop my team to say, “Okay, let’s think out of the box. Think about some crazy ideas. It’s okay, it may not work, but we’ll try it. We’ll gameplan it. If it doesn’t work, let’s protect ourselves against the risk, the downside, but we’ll go for it.” Now, when we have so many moments that require us to think differently in the world—whether it’s about responding to the pandemic, responding to new definitions of remote work, responding to new ways to engage people—we need to try new things. The way that plays out for leaders is to say, “Okay, team, it’s okay to take risks and fail. That’s fine because it’s about how you respond in the moments of failure.” Connecting the lessons of my childhood and how we as adults and parents raise the next generation, that’s one of the things that influenced me most and impacted my leadership style now.

 

Gary Bisbee  9:53  

Let’s build on this foundation and move to pick out various points in your career. Obviously, a lot of people when they’re younger say, “Hey, I’d like to fly airplanes or fly jets.” Probably many, many fewer actually do it. You did it. What was the sequence of events that got you into the Navy and into jets?

 

Marisa Porges  10:15  

The starting point was—crazy enough—watching Top Gun when I was a kid. I remember thinking, “That looks great. That looks awesome” and watching it a few more times and thinking, “Oh! This is what I want to try to do.” Interestingly, at the time, they didn’t allow women to fly in combat when the movie came out in the late 80s, early 90s. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that women were allowed to be combat aviators in the US Navy. I didn’t even realize that, but I thought I saw something that was cool, that aligned with my adventuresome side and my love of space and science and math and other things too. Great. Then it became a conversation internally and with those around me about, “Well, what does that look like?” I happened to pursue ROTC in college so, while I was at Harvard, I was also doing officer training in the summers or during the school year which meant that, when I graduated, I was commissioned right into the US Navy. Then it was the standard training you get in the military to prepare you to fly, station with a squadron on the west coast, flying jets for the US Navy off of aircraft carriers. Really exciting stuff. It was my living of the dream. It also provided me incredible leadership lessons in terms of how to lead with small teams, big teams in moments of true physical risk, emotional risk, under lots of pressure, and then find ways to move teams forward to a common goal. It both satisfied the dream I had as a kid and also helped me realize a new dream of how to be a better leader, how to manage teams at different moments.

 

Gary Bisbee  12:07  

In terms of leadership, did you recognize right away (maybe even back in ROTC days) that this was going to be a terrific opportunity to learn leadership lessons, or did that just come along with it?

 

Marisa Porges  12:24  

That came along with it. Some of the best lessons we all gain—particularly as young adults, but throughout our lives and careers—are those ones that come as a surprise, those moments where we look back and think, “Wow, that gave me a secondary benefit I didn’t even realize.” For me, I have to say my time in the military had so many secondary benefits I never would have thought. It cemented my interest in national security, my interest in public service, my interest and desire to lead, my training in the leadership space. A passion for Top Gun and flying fast and cool things like that when I was a young kid really grew into something else. This is where I often talk to folks saying, “What are those personal passions we have that have secondary benefits we may not realize?” We can reflect back in a lot of ways and say, “Oh, look: my time on a team playing a sport, my time…” whether it’s doing plays at the local theater or these other moments and we learn really important things in those moments about how to navigate difference, how to problem solve, how to get teams to work better, that have a lasting impact on how we lead. For me, it was something I didn’t realize until I was in it and then it fed a part of me I realize now has had a lasting impact on what I’ve done next and who I am on a daily basis.

 

Gary Bisbee  13:47  

I’m thinking about Top Gun: Maverick, which they’re apparently now making. I’d love to talk to you after you see Top Gun: Maverick with all of your background. That’d be a pretty interesting discussion.

 

Marisa Porges  14:02  

I’m looking forward to that. The promo came in. I think they delayed it because of everything that’s been going on, but it’s on my list too.

 

Gary Bisbee  14:08  

Foreign affairs, national security. What occasioned your interest in government service? Was it during your time flying jets? You said, “Hey, I’d like to do this.” Or what lead you down that path?

 

Marisa Porges  14:25  

It’s a great example of those interesting moments that take us in different directions that we may not realize at the time. When we train ourselves to just grab something different, it can have benefits you didn’t realize. That is a generalized way of describing a random internship I had my junior year in college. I was interested in doing something different because I was in ROTC. I had someone who put me in touch with individuals who in the Pentagon who handled every service in the military (Army, Navy, Air Force), a team that looks at policies with other foreign governments: how we relate to the French Navy, other navies, and how we work together. I spent my summer working in that office and suddenly realized, “This is really cool. This is having a different sort of impact. This is looking at the world in a different way.” I spent the summer talking with naval attache and naval officials from all sorts of governments and saying, “Huh, there’s a whole world out there.” That was how I pivoted from wanting to pursue NASA to doing something else in grad school and going in a different direction. Eventually, when I left the Navy, pursuing national security and foreign policy in the government. The story there for others is we have these moments, these experiences. When we’re young, it could be internships. It could be just people we engage with for an afternoon conversation where we’re like, “Wow, that was so interesting,” and it sometimes opens doors. A muscle memory I encourage building is trying to go through that door, particularly in the world it is now. We can pivot a lot more often than ever before. Very few of us now have one career that lasts forever. You can change careers. I’ve changed careers more than most. You can change careers, you can pursue different avenues within a certain industry, but one of the great ways to explore it is having these one-off moments and then taking it further. For me, it was a summer experience that I then did for a second summer and then I did a year of grad school that explore foreign policy and national security. It turned into what ended up being a decade-long career after my military service in national security and eventually counterterrorism. It led me in a direction I never would have thought when I was younger or even in school itself, so this is where I encourage people to think, like, who are you meeting at a cocktail party where you’re like, “That’s so interesting. How do I explore it? Is there something there that would potentially give me a different opportunity?” We live in a time where those kinds of opportunities can translate into interesting career moments or interesting volunteer moments (getting involved with different organizations on a volunteer basis), but a chance to open your aperture and build out your career and leadership in a different way.

 

Gary Bisbee  17:13  

During that time, you were actually in the field interviewing Al-Qaeda members. I’m wondering (1) how did that materialize? (2) You certainly have a capacity to take risks, it would seem. I say that in a very positive sense. It’s very impressive. How did that story unfold?

 

Marisa Porges  17:37  

You’re speaking to a specific story in the book, but a story that reflects a period in that portion of my career when I was handling national security and foreign policy. I’d been working in the federal government for a couple of years as a civil servant handling these issues and then I took a step back. That open door, I saw it, I walked through it and went back to grad school for a couple of years. I had the opportunity to go back into the field in the Middle East, mostly in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and also Afghanistan to interview locals. My area of focus was counterterrorism and terrorism, specifically Al-Qaeda at the time. In Afghanistan, I was interviewing those related to the Taliban, which now is front-page news yet again, unfortunately. I spent the period of a couple of years going in and out of countries in the region, meeting with locals, meeting with those who had been former members of these terrorist groups or non-state actors, talking with them about their experience, trying to understand their perspective on the world. It was, yes, sort of a crazy thing. It was a story. Those are the stories I didn’t tell my mother until I came home and said, “I’m back. This is what happened.” It was a lot of moments where I saw a window of opportunity to do something that would feed an interest of mine. I had enough skills, it would build other skills. I could gather information that would have an impact on other people. For example, one of the stories I share in the book is about a meeting I had with the individual who had been the senior-most recruiter for Al-Qaeda in Yemen. I had been based in Santa Yemen, the capital of Yemen for a number of weeks. Through meeting with people and introducing myself, I got connected with a network that made an introduction, and we sit down over tea. We spent a morning together talking about his experience, talking about his time with Osama bin Laden and Tora Bora talking about his perspective on the grievances, the issues, the why behind terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in the region. He left the organization, part of it with the understanding of what it takes to convince somebody to leave these groups. The most interesting moment was when we shared back and forth to my perspective. As with anything, these are intangible moments. I collected a lot of information from my book, information from my then Ph.D., but I also learned a lot of lessons about myself in terms of how to understand another person with whom you fundamentally have baseline disagreements about the world in so many ways, but there are commonalities. When you can find those commonalities, you can bridge gaps, you can find solutions, you eventually can apply it in leadership ways to organizations. Those moments were very powerful lessons on how to communicate, empathize, and connect with those who fundamentally—as a Jewish American young woman—we would never have been sitting down but for a willingness to find that common ground.

 

Gary Bisbee  20:37  

How do you view the cybersecurity issues we’re seeing more and more prominently now via Russian origin or not? Do you see that growing? Is there a way for us to begin to get off the defensive and play offensive here?

 

Marisa Porges  20:58  

For a while, I was focused on the issues surrounding terrorism and our work in the counterterrorism sphere. When I pivoted from that work and joined the White House at the end of the Obama administration, I was more focused on another growing threat in the cybersecurity landscape. You’re right, it fundamentally remains a major threat. If you concern at all levels. I’m sure you’ve probably seen the news lately (watching or listening, for those who are on audio news reports) about how hackers and the cybersecurity concerns that are for private industries, even schools. One thing I’m now looking at is how we shore up our world here at Baldwin to protect against threats against schools because there have been some school districts and schools targeted. They collect your information, they collect your medical files, they collect the data you hold about your people, so it remains a growing threat. In the same way you would look at a lot of national security or just problems in general at any organization, it’s about defense and offense. It’s about how you build the wall high enough in the cyber world. It’s about multiple passwords. It’s about other ways we protect our systems systemically. Then it’s about the offensive: what you do to train your people differently so you’re not clicking on phishing emails. Or the government level, how we do things to understand what cyber attacks look like at the state level. It is like any good problem: you want to do both defense and offense to get ahead of it, but it’s something every leader (particularly in healthcare) needs to think about closely. Just like schools are being targeted, healthcare systems right now are prime on that list of places that are potential targets for cyber attacks.

 

Gary Bisbee  22:51  

They have been, so you’re absolutely right about that. Moving on, at what point did you start thinking about becoming head of The Baldwin School?

 

Marisa Porges  23:03  

The honest answer is not until they asked me. This goes back to the theme that sometimes the most impactful things we can do, most fun pivots we can make, our most challenging and rewarding experiences are those that we don’t plan but that, when we see, we go after. I had not thought about returning to the school that partly raised me and that I owed a lot to. I was always involved as an alum. I always kept an eye on what was going on. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the West Wing, sitting at my job at the White House, and they were looking for the next Head of School. My predecessor was retiring, they were doing a search, and I got that phone call. Anyone who gets phone calls from the alma mater generally thinks they’re going to ask for money, but actually, they were asking to see if I’d be interested in returning to the school where I grew up and leading this next chapter. It was a fantastic opportunity. It was a crazy one. I recall running to my then— for the women listening, you may have what’s called a “work sister,” that sister you have at work, that woman you turn to, who you plan things together with for professional reasons then go have happy hour afterward. It’s a fundamentally great tool to have in your workspace. I went to my then-work-sister at the White House and said, “You’ll never guess the call I just got,” and she said, “That’s perfect for you. You should definitely take it” because she saw something I didn’t at the time, which is that this is a community I could give back to. It would be a great leadership opportunity. It’s a mission I fundamentally support. I went for it and lo and behold, here I am five years later.

 

Gary Bisbee  24:50  

If you look at your career, you are able to talk in terms of opportunities that come and you’re substantially well prepared. Somebody on the outside like me looks at it and says, “You are a different person than many.” How is it that you’re so unique do you think?

 

Marisa Porges  25:12  

I’m going to challenge the “am I so unique” because I think we all have this inner in ourselves. It helps when you have to be a risk-taker because every pivot, every moment where you go out and grab something requires that risky chance of “I haven’t been in a sector before. I don’t know what this is going to be like. Am I going to like it? Am I going to be good at it? What does that look like?” It takes getting used to taking risks, which is something we all have in us. We just have to practice. Initially taking a risk may look like going to a cocktail party where you don’t know people. It may take throwing your hat in the ring for a job where you think it’s a little bit out of 11, a little bit crazy. It’s like going to be a Head of School when your world has been national security to date, but why not try it out, see what happens? That’s something we all have in us, we just have to practice and grow. I talk a lot in my book about how we all have these core skills in us, but we have to figure out how to “make them superpowers.” One of my superpowers is the ability to take risks. I’ve learned over time that I can take a lot and withstand a lot of moments of self-doubt, uncertainty and just keep going and get to that point. It doesn’t always take long, it takes a little bit of effort to cross over to that “Nope, I got this.” Another version of the “fake it ‘till you make it.” I practice that moment of getting through the uncertainty to the next point. If I just practiced over time a little bit unconsciously, but maybe consciously to some degree, those core skills that really help in this era of the world, in this era of work helped opportunities come my way. That’s the opportunity that came your way we all work for it. They just didn’t materialize. We all work for it. Anyone out there, you’ve worked for those opportunities. It’s about how to take the leap and convince yourself to take that leap.

 

Gary Bisbee  27:07  

That particular flow of thought definitely is captured in the book, which was just terrific. Why don’t we move in that direction? What really triggered your thinking about the book was a course in leadership you put together and gave for the seniors. What was the basic thesis of that course that got you to think about the work?

 

Marisa Porges  27:38  

I teach a seminar for the seniors at my school on leadership meant to fill a gap I didn’t have when I was young and I wish I’d had. Also, to start a conversation I don’t think many young people, particularly young women don’t get early enough. The idea of what it means to be a leader. What is the difference between our earlier competition, being a leader and a manager? How does being a leader look differently if you’re a woman, if you’re a person of color, if you are of a certain background, from a certain area in the world, pursue a certain industry, whatever it is, and then talk to very specific skills, talents, things that help you be an effective leader. We’ve talked about a few of them. How you communicate, how you problem solve, how you take risks. These are all skills we can grow over time. During the course of creating my syllabus, having the conversation, sharing personal stories with the girls in the school, I realized there was something here I wanted to share more broadly, not just with the girls at Baldwin, but with other women, with parents, with educators. The book is geared toward multiple ages. It’s for teachers and parents but also for young women who want to hear stories about what it takes to be a good problem solver and what lessons I learned problem-solving in the Navy versus the White House that help me now as a leader be my best self. It fundamentally came out of those conversations. I thank the students here for helping push me in that direction but it also is because of the lessons we did not hear when we were young that we wish we’d heard. I can point to a number I learned over time in my 20s, the early stages of my career, but I think we all would benefit from hearing them again and helping teach the next generation.

 

Gary Bisbee  29:30  

One of the lessons was “find a voice.” One of the things that stood out to me was, not only do you need to learn to ask, but you need to learn to get. I thought that distinction was remarkably important.

 

Marisa Porges  29:56  

This is one lesson that I think we talk about abstractly a lot with women at a certain point: how to use your voice, what does that look like personally and professionally? I’ve realized over time that it’s a lesson I’d heard a lot but not really internalized most effectively. I always heard, “Oh, raise your voice, use your voice.” Part of that was the women’s empowerment movement. We hear that a lot in terms of how we raise our young women. In reality—even as what I thought was a confident, empowered woman—there were a lot of moments when I was sitting at a table with mostly men (whether it was in the military on an aircraft carrier or in the West Wing) where I didn’t speak up as loudly—loudly being a euphemism for speak up when I really wanted to—as often or as impactfully, persuasively as I should have. One of the stories I share in the book, a moment that it all comes together, was when I was in the White House working for President Obama. It was literally my first meeting with the President, sitting around a small conference table across from the Oval Office, my first time sitting up to six seats down from the leader of the free world. In the course of our meeting talking about national security, foreign policy, the issues that were my issues that I spent a decade working on either in the military or in the field and in the Middle East—besides introducing myself at the start of the meeting—I didn’t say anything. I let others in the room speak for me, ask questions, answer questions and it wasn’t until I left that I looked back and I was like, “What just happened?” I never took the opportunity to raise my voice. It was a startling realization that I had lost practice. I had forgotten that trait. I had not practiced it enough in certain ways. There are specific things we can do to practice using our voice, practice helping young women or women at any age. I still sometimes have to remind myself because, even as the Head of School, I’m sometimes with men who dominate the conversation. There are fewer women of a certain age running schools these days. It is what it is, but how do I overcome that as a leader? There are things we can do, there are things we can practice as adults with our children to help us our voice and then make our voice more persuasive. Another thing I realized in looking at the research and my own experience was not it’s a generalization but (the research holds it true) that, by and large, women are less effective at negotiating and being persuasive when it’s about something we need personally. Whether it’s salary negotiations, whether it’s about the title of our new job, sometimes it’s even about negotiating that new position, that new responsibility in your current role, research shows that we aren’t as persuasive, aggressive, effective, lots of different words for it as our male peers. But there are things we can do to get at that to fix it, the system should change as well. There’s nothing please understand that I think that there are systemic ways that women have more barriers in this regard. But for the moment, there are also things we can do as individuals to help ourselves help the young women in our lives. And so the book talks to a lot of that, because it’s something that I learned over time, I didn’t do as well as my male peers, whether it’s my first job out of the Navy, I realized looking around later, I was underpaid and overqualified. How did I get myself in that position? Or whether it’s what I see happen with the young mentees in my life now where I’m like, okay, just ask, let’s see what happens when you try to negotiate. Those are some of the lessons that, again, the stories in the book tell, but that came from both personal experience and research, too.

 

Gary Bisbee  33:37  

That’s a segue into another lesson, which is “cultivate a competitive spirit,” is the way you put it there. You look at you, Marisa, and you say, “Well, there’s somebody who’s willing to compete.” Good for you. How did you think about that as far as the book was concerned?

 

Marisa Porges  33:56  

This is one that really speaks to the research I delved into when I was putting everything together for the book, and looking at what social scientists say, are areas of generalized strength, natural strength for women, and what are areas that over because of social conditioning, peer pressure, societal norms, women often don’t as effectively lean into as effectively make their superpower. So what does that mean? It means when you look at the research, or when you talk to parents, which is what I part of my job every day is talk to parents about what’s on their minds. A lot of the conversations are about how to make our kids make our girls less competitive, how to make them not too aggressive, how to make them great. It’s about being better team players, and being a good competitor is about being a good teammate. But sometimes that translates into the conversation I’ve had with parents here with parents in my network to say, oh, but we don’t play competitive games at home because we don’t want to make her too competitive. And when you start looking at it, being competitive is a great thing. It’s something that we by and large have our boy lean into, there is no conversation about having a boy and lean out, lean back and say no, like, let somebody else win because you don’t want to make someone feel bad. You don’t want to feel abashed or ashamed about winning or being your best. And what I saw over time is that there’s a narrative out there for young women, that plays out in really, really tangible ways, from preteen teenage, all the way through early, early career moments that says, women need to account for the emotions of the other and then not be their best selves. Right, this translates into girls by middle school by about 1213, opting out of competitive sports, statistically speaking, 50% more than boys, and that by the end of high school, two-thirds of girls will have stopped playing in a team sport because of social norms and peer pressures. And, and yet, you look at who makes it to the C suite of almost any industry. And it’s individuals who played competitive sports who learned how to compete because it’s not about beating the other person, it’s about being your best self. It’s about being a good teammate. It’s about being able to win/lose. And so this is where I looked at the research. In my own personal experience, I learned to win and lose on the basketball court. I learned to be a good teammate on the field hockey field, I learned to pick myself up and dust myself off. But all those moments, and it really cemented what I think is an edge that I have now in the professional sphere. So again, it’s about applying lessons and research and personal experience in a way that specific to women. And helping women at every age realize that being competitive is good. And how do we own that in a really personally empowering way?

 

Gary Bisbee  36:41  

My opinion on it is that the book should be required reading for every parent, by the way, with a boy or girl. But what about the collaborative problem solving, you kind of make an interesting point that maybe girls have an edge there.

 

Marisa Porges  36:56  

This is another interesting one that comes out of research. But then I think we all can find it in our own personal experience, too. And it’s this recent, finding more recent studies that show Well, let’s take a step back. First and foremost, I think we can all admit or all see that vignette to problem solve and teams is something that is fundamental to personal and professional life now more than ever, right? It’s how we work these days. It’s how teams are built. It’s what we hire for the ability to work and problem solve, not just with those sitting next to you, but lots of different people, maybe across the world, but across lines of operation in whatever hospital you’re running or whatever team you’re leading. And that that is truly that will set you apart in a professional sphere and also in your personal life. Now, so with that as like current and future workforces need problem solvers. Whether it’s to solve the pandemics of economic inequality, solve racial inequality, you need people who can solve problems, across different lines of information. Then you look at research that says, it turns out as a generalized, it’s a school truth that girls women are naturally better at problem-solving in groups, then our men and young boys, a lot of it speaks to how we’re raised early on to work in groups, how we connect how we think about things with the other in mind how we communicate. But it means that by age 15, a study that was done two years ago by now what our 2021, so I’m going to have to backdate it three years ago by the OECD that looked at 125,000 students in 52 countries around the world, developing countries developed countries looked at teenagers at 15 years old boys and girls, and said that girls outperform boys when they did testing for problem solving and groups not a problem to be solved on your own but a problem that needed to be solved with other people. And it was by an order of 30% 40% depending on the country, 30 points higher 40 points higher. One girls were 1.6 times more likely to be top performers in this specific skill than boys. And it was something that developed over time naturally because it’s not something we really teach now. So now what if we say wait a minute, we know the workforce needs it. The world needs this kind of thinking and skill. We know it’s something that comes naturally or is socialized in women from a young age. What if we pair those two ideas and say, hey, let’s lean into it. For all the women listening? How are you such an effective collaborative problem solver? And how can that be something you think about lean into train to how can we make our young girls realize that this is something they should be good at. So it’s as impactful when they are getting their lab report done or they’re working on a problem in school, that they do a good job, but it’s even more impactful to say hey, how did you work on it with your lab partner? What happened when you ran into a problem with your partner on the project? What did you do about it? Did it work out? The conversations we have here at our school because we’re a girls’ school where we’re focused on these sorts of things. It’s a conversation we should all be having at all stages of our career to figure out how we make this core skill, really to use your word, a competitive advantage, an edge for women at any point in their career.

 

Gary Bisbee  40:17  

As a long-time leader, I can tell you it’s been pretty easy to observe that 1.6 times his proficiency because it’s obvious when you start dealing with people on a regular basis. that’s the case, would you humor me that one story in the book that I loved was the story of refueling your jet, you knew this was coming right? refueling the jet and the whole collaboration part of it. You told it in the book as an example of this. But could you share that?

 

Marisa Porges  40:45  

I appreciate you calling it out. Because it’s a story that I didn’t realize at the time, but upon retrospect, fundamentally speaks to this idea that I was naturally good at collaboratively, problem-solving, dealing, and that other women in mine network in my sphere were as well. And so the story comes that Gary’s referencing and I speak to in the book is a mission that when a mission underway when I was in the Navy, out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, miles, hundreds of miles from the nearest land and yours airport, right. And when you’re flying for the Navy, that’s, that’s always the issue, right? Where’s the nearest airport that you could land on, if you have an emergency. And this was a mission in at night. So we had night vision goggles on, and we had to refuel. That was one of the core things in the Navy that sets the Navy apart, we like to say it’s part of what makes us proud and excited about our mission is that we refuel, we take on fuel from another aircraft, midair. And this evening, we were having trouble. And so we are out in the Pacific. And it was myself and the plane, I flew the jet had one other had a pilot, another navigator, the three of us in our jet, we couldn’t take on fuel. And we didn’t know what we were going to do about it. And what unfolds that I described in the book is this moment, mid-air where myself and my partner at the time, the navigator beside me was another woman, we were one of the very few women on in our Air Wing, there was about eight or eight feet, women in our air wing of just under 250. We had to solve an emergency mid-air, right? Because it ended when we open the emergency manual. When you go through the book mid-flight, and you say what are the next steps when you’re having a refueling issue mid-air in the middle of the Pacific, you get to the bottom, and if nothing else works, you eject? Right? And that’s the thing that you always want to avoid when you’re in a plane is a jeffing? Not a good idea. So it was about how do we get to the solution, that’s something different. And what unfolded was very candidly, we followed the emergency procedures, because those are the things that sort of set your foundation for how to address what was a dire emergency at the time. But we did it slightly differently. We communicated differently with each other, we thought differently about how to gather information, talk to other planes that were in the vicinity, talk to the aircraft carrier as we were heading back to land. And I won’t share the end of the story. But I’m here to tell the story as is the other navigator with me who’s still a friend to this day. And but it was a story of two women collaborating, leading slightly different problem-solving in a moment of high tension, high pressure, high risk, and I didn’t know it at the time. But looking back and talking through the story with her. I think we were so successful because we problem solved in together slightly differently than we would have if we had maybe been boys raised differently, or when we just not have this talent naturally in us.

 

Gary Bisbee  43:33  

Thank you for sharing that story. Let’s wrap up the book. There’s a number of lessons in the book. But let’s wrap up with adaptability, which is if you listen to you or have listened to you over the last several minutes, you’d realize if there’s anybody who’s adaptable that you but how do you describe that in the book to encourage others to be adaptable?

 

Marisa Porges  43:57  

Adaptability, again, is a skill, a talent, a superpower that we all need. Now more than ever, whether you’re thinking about remote work about a pandemic about shifting careers, it’s something that we need as adults that our kids need to learn from an early age. It’s also something that I realized as a woman, and that for the women listening probably affects us differently personally and professionally than our male colleagues. In the book, I talk about it at first through the lens of adapting to moments of difficulty or challenge or just change when I was out in the field in Afghanistan when I was struck with moments where I had to think differently about my next steps when I was in southern Afghanistan in Kandahar when there was an attack by the Taliban and I had to adjust my plans and adapt to what happened next and figure out how to stay safe and my mission at the time was meeting people and gathering information for my then dissertation, things like that. But Gary, I’m going to share a story that’s slightly different than the book right now to say that I think that they That has cemented my desire to teach you about adaptability, talk about adaptability and make it a superpower for particularly women, is the fact that for many of us, when we become mothers, when we become parents, we have to adapt at a personal professional level in a very different way that our male peers. Now that’s not true in all instances. But it is true for a lot of us. And I know firsthand, having my son is now not quite two years old. So I have a toddler at home, who’s walking, babbling and doing all that fun stuff. But fundamentally, when he arrived, when I had my baby, our baby finishing the book, I was running the school, I was doing all the things that were critically important and still are, to me, as a leader, as a woman, as a career person, I had this new part of me, I had to think differently about not just what my daily schedule looked like, but how I related to my partner, how I prioritize certain things, how I dealt with the world around me. And I think that moment of adapting strikes, a lot of professional women, a lot of women who are listening in are thinking about their leadership and what it looks like, in a very, very personal way, in a way that’s difficult in a way that we don’t often talk about. And so I think it’s important to bring to this conversation, because it does change how we lead, how we manage our careers, how we adapt on a daily basis in a really fundamental way. So that’s part of what I talked about in the book as well. How do we practice adapting so that when these moments come that, fundamentally, life changes in this whole way, whether it’s a child or a marriage or divorce or a move, or a loss of a personal nature, how we can adapt to that at multiple levels, and still keep our personal professional lives thriving.

 

Gary Bisbee  46:41  

What Girls Need is a must-read from my standpoint, it’ll be out in softcover shortly. So thanks for covering all that with us. Marisa, is there another book and your future here?

 

Marisa Porges  46:57  

I think about it. I like the book process. But I love this process even more talking about it with others. I’ll let you know. It’s on the list.

 

Gary Bisbee  47:05  

Okay, sounds good. I have two more questions. One is your bucket list. Is there anything else on the bucket list we ought to be prepared for?

 

Marisa Porges  47:18  

I think there was a time in life where our bucket lists were things like— for me, it was places I want to travel, running more, or experiences. Right now, after a year of running a school during a pandemic, dealing with the multiple crises that are facing our communities, having a toddler at home, and all this stuff, my bucket list is having moments with colleagues and with friends and that side of things, which I hope we all are paying attention to because it’s as important now as ever to reconnect with the people in our lives that make us feel fulfilled.

 

Gary Bisbee  47:55  

Well said. Final question: We have a number of up-and-coming leaders in our audience. I’m sure you’ve asked all the time for leadership advice by young people, but what is the essence of your leadership advice for young leaders?

 

Marisa Porges  48:14  

There are a few core skills and talents that I speak to them in the book that will make you the most effective leader possible and that you can grow them. And that’s it’s the voice is the problem-solving. At the end of the day, it’s about how you’re empowering others around you. Because all these skills, really, they’re about you as a leader, but they’re really about how you reflect and support your people to make sure your people are their best, which makes you Your Best Leading self. And so I speak to a lot of my books, and it’s through the lens of that is what being an impactful leader is it’s making others be their best. And so you and the organization, the team move forward. And so I think even as we’re talking about these individual lessons, it’s about how it connects you to others in a really powerful way. And I think that’s something it helps particularly for women to know because it means you’re not in it alone, right? Because at the end of the day, that’s really what it’s about. You’re not in it alone. There are people out there who want to help, professionally, personally, and building that team will make you your best self will be making you a more impactful leader. So hopefully that will be the crux of it, I think. But again, it is all in this book. So thank you for mentioning out in paperback, August 3, please pick up a copy or head to my website, look me up, and shoot me an email. I love having these conversations. And I’m happy to continue them with anyone who has more to think about more to say.

 

Gary Bisbee  49:35  

I have my copy here too, by the way, so. But anyway, this has been a tremendously engaging and enjoyable conversation. So thank you very much.

 

Marisa Porges  49:44  

Thank you for having me, Gary, and excited to talk with all your listeners.

 

Gary Bisbee  49:49  

New episodes will debut every Thursday. Join me in conversations to gain advice and wisdom from CEOs, presidents, and healthcare experts. Health care leadership is hard work, but it becomes more manageable as we learn from the remarkable lives and careers of our guests. I’ll see you there.

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