Erica Dhawan on What it Means to be a Great Leader

March 12th, 2019

Erica Dhawan on What it Means to be a Great Leader

We're so excited for Erica Dhawan to speak at the 2019 Simmons Leadership Conference!

Business strategist and innovation expert Erica Dhawan is the world’s leading authority on connectional intelligence—the ability to deliver breakthrough performance by harnessing the power of relationships and networks. In her book, Get Big Things Done, she argues that developing connectional intelligence is crucial to the success of 21st century innovators and to anyone who wants to thrive in today’s hypercompetitive world.

Was there a moment in your career when you realized that you needed to alter the course of your career?

I grew up in a family of immigrants, so I wanted to check off all the boxes of success. I got three Ivy League degrees, and I went into a great job on Wall Street. During that time, I worked through the 2008 recession at Lehman Brothers and saw the ripple effect of poor leadership in one company affect the entire world. Through that experience, I really began to witness a sense of disillusionment, confusion, and burn-out on what “leadership” really meant. I had an underlying desire for greater meaning in my work and to be in a culture that allowed people to truly thrive.

That led me to entirely switch gears. I spent a series of years as a researcher studying what allows certain leaders and teams to get big things done in today’s era while others do not. I found that the most successful leaders were using a key skill I call “connectional intelligence,” which transformed the way I think, work, and act and led me to launch a book and business to help others get big things done too. 

Which female leader do you most admire? Why?

I admire Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code and author of Brave, Not Perfect. It’s easy to be someone who follows the herd, but it’s much harder to be someone who takes risks, talks about failure, and is willing to navigate it all with vulnerability. Reshma reminds me that sharing my own stories of failure is part of my contribution to others even when I’m known as an “expert,” and that by doing so, I will give others permission to do the same.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve gotten along the way?

Someone once told me that for whom it is the priority, they will do all the work. In our careers, we have to be willing to put in the grit and persistence it takes to get big things done and remember that we can’t simply expect others to step up when it’s not their priority. This has been an empowering lesson that has enabled me to take ownership of my life and avoid blame or criticism of others. 

How can women most effectively support one another on their path to success?

There are two things we can do: 

  1. We can be role models. Just by being leaders in our fields, we can pave the way for others to do the same by living authentically. 
  2. We can remember that women can co-mentor each other. I don’t believe in top-down mentoring. Everyone has something to learn from someone else and it’s the exchange of ideas and inspiration that is key to enabling women to support one another. 

What major issue do you think women should focus on to effect change?

Making sure men are part of the change effort — not just sponsors, but true advocates and agents of change. 

Any tips for work/life integration?

Set priorities and create boundaries around the things that matter most to you. Choose only 3 big goals and accept that the rest are not the same priority level.

If you could dine with anyone, past or present, with whom would you dine and what would you like to ask him or her?

I would dine with Oprah, specifically because I want to learn what her process of listening really looks like and how she designs the questions she asks her interviewees. I am fascinated especially by leaders who ask great questions and help unlock parts of ourselves we may not have discovered or articulated before.  

Is there a particular book you are reading or have read that you’d like to recommend to others? Why is this book important to you?

I’m a big fan of Rise Sister Rise by Rebecca Campbell, an intuitive spiritual coach. It helped me transform myself through a very challenging struggle in my life and reminded me that it is our feminine power that is our greatest asset in work and in life.

Fill in the blank. People would be surprised to know that…

I Bollywood dance during my keynotes!

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