Changing the Personal and Professional Game
by Lisa Leander

OOM BOOM BOOM goes the clomping above my head as the ceiling shakes. The elephants are awake, I think to myself, quickly hitting “save as draft” on my email. The race is on: I have 20 minutes to complete critical tasks before my quiet and peaceful work space will be obliterated by a hungry and chaotic stampede. It is 7 a.m. on a Monday, and my children are awake.

A typical day, I had kissed my husband goodbye at 6 a.m. and quietly crept downstairs into my office for my only tranquil, uninterrupted working time for the day. I always prepare my to-do list the evening before; I realized early on I have to make sure everything on the priority list is finished within the morning window, as time is too precious to waste figuring things out.

My Life Before
In my pre-pandemic life, the one before I became a full-time CEO, zookeeper and virtual teacher, I would have been up just as early – but with different priorities. I used to play a game of tennis in the early morning before driving home for a quick shower, off to the kids’ bus stop for a kiss goodbye and then a short commute to my office. Last summer, when it was clear that the kids would not be returning to school, I tried to negotiate a part-time work environment. However, being the only female director in our office and married to an essential employee with children, my flexible office wasn’t quite so flexible anymore. I felt the best option for my family was to leave and start something new.
Like many things in life, making my dream a reality didn’t happen overnight. It took me a long time to decide to finally step into a new adventure.
woman with cape standing on ledge of cliff during sunset
The Benefit of Perspective
Throughout a decade working in higher education and international management, traveling and working in 22 countries, I had the opportunity to work with many amazing women in business academia. However, I didn’t meet many women in the highest leadership positions. According to the 2021 Financial Times Global MBA Rankings, out of the top 20 ranked institutions the percentage of female faculty is only 26.4 percent, and only one of those business schools is led by a female dean. Out of the top 100 ranked Global MBA business schools, women average 29.1 percent of faculty and 19 percent of deans. The deficit is startling, and I wanted to address the barriers prohibiting women from moving into leadership positions. I have long dreamed of launching an organization to bring together a global community to champion for gender balance and diversity in business school leadership.

Like many things in life, making my dream a reality didn’t happen overnight. It took me a long time to decide to finally step into a new adventure. I had bought a domain name and written down the idea years ago, but I always had an excuse. I’m too busy raising children to launch a start-up, I told myself. I just received a big promotion to director and I can’t leave my staff. Am I really the best person to take this on? Are there even enough women out there to make the organization sustainable? Like so many before me, I filled my head with self-doubt and excuses for why I shouldn’t follow my calling. Of course, I never imagined that the world would change overnight. Business education and higher education, including working women around the globe, would be facing one of the most challenging disruptions of our time.

COVID-19 forced a highly personal and difficult decision: Do I stay in a well-paid and secure position that doesn’t allow me the flexibility to virtually school my children at home, or start a social enterprise when small businesses everywhere are closing under the pressure of COVID-19? I jumped off the ledge. In the summer of 2020, I quit my full-time position, and that fall I officially launched Women in Business Education (WiBE), inviting a cohort of deans to become the founding members.

My days now blend into one; I squeeze in emails between preparing meals. When a moment of creativity hits I try to catch a minute to write up my ideas; I carry a notebook around to try to capitalize on these moments. The problem with being interrupted every 10 minutes is that the creative process takes time. Quiet time. Alone time. Time I no longer have. My husband worries about me working too much. I do work a lot, but it doesn’t feel like work. Each morning I wake up excited to see what the day brings. New deans eager to be connected to our network. New authors with critical learning research. Women sharing their dreams to step into new leadership positions. New followers joining our movement on social media. I wish I had more time to be productive, because I know how much more we could achieve.

A Sign of the Times
So many of my friends left the workforce. Teachers who loved their jobs but loved their children more so they stayed home to homeschool. Vice presidents who couldn’t meet the demand for snacks. Every. 10. Minutes. A virtual environment is not conducive to my energetic 8-year-old, who isn’t fond of reading. “She is grinding her teeth at night,” her dentist informs us. Apparently this is a widespread problem for many children since virtual schooling. We can protect them from the external, but we are helpless to the internal turmoil. My heart breaks for these children. We are doing our best.

The pandemic has devastated women in the workplace. It has taken so much from us. But I hope there are others like me who have realized that now is the time for something different. It is as if I needed everything to be destroyed before I was brave enough to start over. Perhaps it was because I had less to lose, I muse to myself.

Daily Reality
Back to the “new” routine, I hear the showers ending now and the lights turning on in the kitchen. Tick tick tick. The race is on. I’ve taught the kids to prepare their own breakfast, and they know not to disturb me until school starts.

Soon I am upstairs, and my eldest daughter is reciting the morning pledge while my youngest sits quietly next to me. My 8-year-old stopped doing the pledge a few months ago. I don’t make her. Best only to force her to do the math and English. Keep conflict at a minimum. This should be easier. They are old enough to know how to get around a laptop. Too smart, they know how to open YouTube and *look* like they are working. We discovered that to be effective virtual school needs constant monitoring. We now sit elbow-to-elbow, her Google classroom with all her assignments open on another tab on my screen.

We are a year in now. For some families things have gotten worse, for mine it has improved. When we took away everything they loved, their friends, parties, playdates, Girl Scouts, horse-riding lessons and school, it was harder. At one particularly low moment our extroverted 8-year-old, in a fit of anger and frustration, threatened to chuck herself out the two-story window. She opened the window before changing her mind. We’ve adjusted to this isolated life. It doesn’t feel so devastating. It feels routine.

I know we are the lucky ones. Lucky to continue to be okay on one salary as I bootstrap myself along. Lucky to have each other, partners in navigating this new world. Lucky that my parents and close friends and family have started to get vaccinated. Lucky to have raised resilient children who are rolling with the punches. I know many are not as lucky.

But the balancing act of launching a new organization, while ensuring my children’s educational needs are met every day, is a complicated dance where I can’t always find the right steps. Sometimes the rhythm flows through us and everyone feels productive and successful. Other days we are all attempting an intricate maneuver with no one knowing the choreography and never wanting to try in the first place. In my mom’s group we call these dumpster days. Days filled with tears and tantrums, below-level test scores, boring online assignments and annoying sisters. Days so unproductive and filled with so much garbage you could fill an entire dumpster.

Reducing Dumpster Days:
Create a routine and don’t budge: My kids thrive on routine. Mondays are the worst because we have to re-establish our routine after the weekend. I never schedule calls for Monday or even plan to get any work done. I tend to put in some hours on Sunday so I can compensate if Monday goes haywire. Tuesday through Friday we’ve adjusted back to school mode. Rinse, wash, repeat. On real dumpster days we just drop everything and go get a frappuccino. Sometimes that’s what it takes to hit reset.
various women side by side
Women In Business Education (WiBE) is a global movement to champion women in business academia. A woman-owned entrepreneurial initiative WiBE brings together those looking to stand up for diverse leadership and gender balance within business schools. Women are stepping into the highest ranks of leadership, launching innovative centers, producing cutting edge research and delivering new pedagogy. Progress is being made to build the pipeline of the next generation of leaders. WiBE accelerates progress by:

  • Engaging a community of thought leaders and change-makers to expand personal networks
  • Elevating expertise and visibility at a global level
  • Building a purposeful leadership pipeline
Position yourself close to everything you need: We originally turned the guest bedroom downstairs into the virtual classroom and office. I found myself running upstairs or to their desks every 10 minutes. Now I work peacefully downstairs in the morning and we have a desk upstairs in the middle of the kitchen. I’m positioned two feet from snacks, water and napkins, and sit shoulder-to-shoulder with them so I can easily look at their screens to help.

Pick your battles: You don’t want to do the pledge? Fine. You don’t want to attend Chinese today? Fine. No music today? Fine. You don’t want to do your math homework? Well, we’ll sit here together crying and screaming and not budge until you do it. Pick what is important and stick with it; shrug your shoulders at the rest.

Keep busy bees busy: I have an arsenal of “my hands can’t keep still” manipulatives for when online schooling gets boring. I find that if my daughter keeps her hands busy, her mind actually stays more focused. These manipulatives include molding clay, playdough, slime, adult coloring books, gel pens, oil pastels, painting, etc. We buy jugs of glue to keep up with our slime-making.

Looking Ahead
Today, six months after leaving my full-time position and five months after officially launching my new venture, WiBE already has more than 100 members and a small dynamic staff. Our membership represents senior women leaders from schools around the world, and they have found great value in connecting with a peer network each month. New deans are collaborating on the lessons learned from starting a new position in a pandemic and sharing those experiences with others. Deans and associate deans are identifying best practices for utilizing their external stakeholders in advisory boards as well as creating inclusive experiences for students. WiBE is running workshops to support our members to pursue and prepare for corporate board positions. International recruiters are reaching out to us so they can easily identify new diverse talent to build the pipeline of the next generation of leaders. I am most excited about launching our first virtual summit, Momentum, this fall, bringing international leaders around the globe to a virtual stage to share their experiences and thought leadership.

Most of all, we are having fun connecting while we together tackle our greatest challenges. It feels as if WiBE has blown oxygen onto some dwindling cinders, and now the movement is burning a vibrant flame that wakes me up every morning, ready to work and see what we can achieve. For the first time in my entire life, I have found my calling.

Inspiration in Unusual Spaces
My laptop is open and I am trying to return to my draft email. I love being my own boss. I love the flexibility. I love having a creative idea and being able to implement it immediately. I love building a brand. I love having an empowered team that knows how to pick up when I have to abruptly stop. I love the movement we are creating.

What I don’t love is mixed fractions. Or long division. Or proctoring standardized tests at home.

I wonder if my tennis serve will come back when things return to normal. Like the 401(k) I am no longer contributing to or the director salary I am no longer logging. Will our future lives be like my serve? Will we have to work twice as hard to get it to pretty good but never quite as powerful as before? Would I have ever been brave enough to leave my job to launch a start-up full-time without the pandemic? Probably not. COVID-19 has taken away so much – my tennis racket now lays in the corner, collecting dust. But for me, it finally gave me the courage to follow my dreams.

Lisa Leander headshot
Lisa Leander is founder & CEO of Women in Business Education, a global community championing women’s leadership in business academia. She is an international development and management expert with 19 years experience managing higher education initiatives in 22 different countries. During the day you might find her working with business school deans from around the world, creating complex art creations with her two daughters or attempting to train a high-energy German Shepherd.

Lisa Leander is founder & CEO of Women in Business Education, a global community championing women’s leadership in business academia. She is an international development and management expert with 19 years experience managing higher education initiatives in 22 different countries. During the day you might find her working with business school deans from around the world, creating complex art creations with her two daughters or attempting to train a high-energy German Shepherd.