Q&A with BUILD Founder Suzanne McKechnie Klahr
During the opening session of the Women in Leadership and Philanthropy Symposium on March 29 in San Francisco, Suzanne McKechnie Klahr, founder and CEO of BUILD, shared her story about turning intention into action. We followed up to learn more about her views on leadership, philanthropy, and life.
USF: What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
SMK: Grit is the key element that every successful leader must possess, both in themselves and the ability to nurture it in others. As Angela Duckworth, author of "The Power and Passion of Perseverance" puts it: Grit predicts success better than talent or IQ, and everyone, regardless of gender or age, can learn to be gritty. The students that BUILD serves, coming from communities struggling with failing education systems, have a lot of grit from their life experiences, and we help them harness that grit to become leaders who succeed at school and career.
USF: What leadership strengths do women bring to the table?
SMK: Women bring the ability to multi-task successfully and effortlessly, which often times makes it hard to appreciate. I am always amazed and pleased when I reach out to a colleague or friend and they give their time generously, despite having any number of other pressing issues to handle. Everyone is juggling many balls, but I think women are keen in deciding which are the most fragile and can't be dropped.
The other leadership skill that I think women in general possess is attentive listening. As listening has developed into an important skill for all leaders, I see a lot of 'pretend' listening, whereby someone is simply not talking and thinks they are hearing those around them. Women seem far more able to actually hear what someone is saying and translate that into a shared vision, rather than listening to overcoming objections and sticking to the original proposal.
USF: What advice would you give to women who are going into a leadership position for the first time?
SMK: I advise women to play to their strengths, particularly to have confidence in their ability to multi-task and listen. In many environments women leaders are initially suspect, and I tell women to resist the urge to behave in an aggressive or confrontational manner just to appear 'in charge'.
I also encourage women leaders, particularly in their first leadership role, to build a strong network both within and outside their organization. Bring people together early, at all levels and from across all areas of the organization/industry, to listen and learn before taking significant action.
USF: During the opening session of the Women in Leadership and Philanthropy Symposium, you talked about three ways you can leave a legacy: work, wealth, and wisdom. What do these mean to you?
SMK: Work means getting the job done – regardless of what the job is. Putting in the time, learning, listening, responding, and taking action. And then doing it all over again! I think a key part of any legacy is a fierce work ethic and the ability to motivate others to have the same.
Wealth means sharing and investing, and it doesn't necessarily have to be financial. For instance, a network that you can activate may have more long-term value than a donation, and while a donation is ALWAYS welcome, introductions and relationships are key to any organization's – or individual's – success. The ability to encourage others to invest in your work, and the work of others that you value, is critical for a sustained legacy.
Wisdom is the accumulated knowledge that we all possess. I think women underestimate how wise they are, and hesitate to share that wisdom with others. All organizations benefit from outside advice and support, and I encourage women to find a group that is working on a cause or effort they are passionate about, and offer assistance.
Wisdom is not just advice, but skills, knowledge and abilities, that can be deployed for positive change. This is perhaps the key ingredient in a lasting legacy as it is a reflection of all the lived experiences that make us powerful as individuals.
USF: If you could change any one thing about the world, what would it be?
SMK: I would like to see an education system that provides students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st Century innovation economy. Too many young people and not just those in the U.S., are being left behind by schools who do not have the resources, curriculum or relationships to launch them into post-secondary options and a career. This is particularly acute for youth of color in the U.S.; their generation will be the first to have a majority of color in the population but they are not being prepared to be the employers, elected officials, community leaders and engaged citizens that will are needed for a healthy society.