Top Ten Leadership Lessons from Dean Judy Olian

I learned more about Dean Judy Olian in 20 minutes yesterday than I have in 8 years.

Before yesterday if you’d asked me, I would have said, “We have a Dean. Her name is Judy. She has high standards. I assume she’s working hard and making smart decisions. I’m sure it’s hard to be a Dean at a top school. It’s a fish-bowl job and everyone is always watching you and critiquing you.” I would have been respectful, polite, reserved.

Well yesterday I heard Judy Olian give a keynote address to over 500 women business leaders at the Los Angeles Business Journal’s “2014 Women Making a Difference Symposium and Awards.” Judy spoke directly after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

When the 20 minutes ended, I was left humbled and inspired. Humbled, because I had fallen victim to a Management 101 lesson I must have forgotten from my own MBA: the less contact you have with someone in a hierarchy, the less you will appreciate them.

Inspired, because after I heard Judy’s “back story” my perspective was re-framed. I went from “She’s fine” to “Wow. There is an amazing human being at the helm of UCLA Anderson. We’re lucky to have her. She should be a pride point. I don’t think people know her story, and they should.”

Here are my notes of what she said. The back story, the things I didn’t know, are highlighted in red. See if you see why my perspective was re-framed. Again, remember, the audience was 500 women business leaders. Her talk was about the top ten lessons she’s learned as a leader.

My paraphrasing of Judy’s speech; any inaccuracies are entirely my own:

Good morning everyone,

It’s a pleasure to be with you all today and to share with you some the lessons I’ve learned about leadership. I’ve put them into a “top ten list.” Let me tell you a bit of my background.

I grew up in Australia. My parents survived the Holocaust. They lost each other for 7 years and found each other later. My dad died when I was 12. My mom raised us. For a time, I was an au pair in Switzerland. My childhood ping-ponged between Australia and Israel. I once met Golda Meir.

I came to the US with my first husband. I didn’t have a Visa to work. I couldn’t do anything, so I ended up in graduate school. Later I worked as a consultant.

I never thought about my career in terms of gender until recently. I’m now on the board of Catalyst. Our motto is “Let’s get even.” Not in an Annie-get-your-guns kind of way, but rather just parity.

Here’s my top ten list:

10.  Be excellent.

As a woman, often, you even need to be more than excellent.

9. Say Yes to assignments whenever they give them to you.

Managers and bosses are begging for help. The more you do, the more you contribute, the more you get noticed. I helped a manager early on who later went on to become a university president, and he helped my career.

8. WHEN you fail, be honest enough to see what you can own.

Notice I didn’t say IF, but rather WHEN you fail. There was a promotion that I didn’t get. It was one of those very public, open the kimono, type processes. I was on the short-list but in the end I didn’t get the promotion. For a couple of years it weighed on me, but finally I was able to see what I could own in the situation: I hadn’t been aware of the broader ecosystem.

7. It’s not personal. It’s just business.

It’s taken me a long time to learn this one too. Here’s an example where maybe we can learn something from the men. For them, it’s water-off-a-duck. They seem to be better at this. We women too often let it be personal. We need to learn to let it roll off. It’s just business.

6. Take Risks. Don’t be afraid to be afraid.

Don’t be paralyzed waiting for perfection. This is another area where we as women get slowed down.

New leaps. New promotions. They are all scary. Our very own UCLA Anderson alum, Guy Kawasaki, one of the original Apple team and technology evangelist, likes to state:

Don’t worry. Be crappy. Ship, then test.

5. Figure out what you are good at. Figure out what you are not good at.

For me, it’s taken me a long time to learn that I am good at the boundaries where different groups intersect. Like with faculty-and-staff, with faculty-and-students, with a school-and-a-university, with a university-and-the-business community. I’ve also learned that I’m not good at bureaucracy.

4. Take care of you

All of you. Body. Mind. Spirit. Give yourself a spa day. See a movie. Sleep. I’m from Australia. We don’t give prizes for who works the longest. You have to take care of yourself.

3. Turn adversity into a challenge

I had cancer in my 20s. I couldn’t have children. That adversity has become part of the challenge that gives me purpose. It’s part of why I love working with young people and their education.

2. Be great Aunties

Daughters need that extra boost. Be there for the young girls in your life. They need you.

1. Pick the right partner

Your partner can be an enabler, a supporter and a self-confident equal. Or, they can be a blocker, a barrier and an insecure detractor. Pick the right partner.

So that was it. She got up, made her speech and was complete. And, as I wrote, my perspective was re-framed. So was the audience’s. The rest of the day, other speakers kept referring back to her speech. Her very direct, yet very personal, perspective on leadership lessons resonated.

One of my team members today looked up the gender of the Deans of the top 20 business schools, as ranked by Bloomberg BusinessWeek in their 2014 rankings. Of the top twenty b-schools, only 4 are led by a female Dean: UCLA, Michigan, Northwestern and Indiana.

UCLA Anderson has been led by Dean Judy Olian since 2006. And FEMBA specifically has been led by Senior Associate Dean Carla Hayn in that same time period. Two powerful, female leaders.

I grew up with a father who was a minister. In my twenties, I thought about being a preacher and when I asked my dad about it, he counseled, “If it’s your calling follow it–and, know that it’s a ‘fish bowl’ job. You’ll never please everyone. If you’re at a funeral, you’re not at a wedding. If you’re at a baptism, you’re not writing your sermon. As wonderful as it can be, it can be equally challenging, with everyone having an opinion about your performance.”

Those words of my father have always resonated as I’ve watched Judy. “Her job must be one big fish bowl,” I’ve thought. I have a new appreciation for what Judy’s leadership represents in the world.


2 thoughts on “Top Ten Leadership Lessons from Dean Judy Olian

  1. Thank you for sharing, Dylan! My perspective of Dean Judy Olian has certainly been re-framed just from reading this.

  2. I have a great mentor who has encouraged me to find a female mentor as well as he isn’t able to advise me on some of the intricacies involved with being a female leader. I am always looking for female leaders that have accomplished great feats as inspiration and I am definitely adding Dean Olian to the list. Thank you for sharing this message.

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