Eight years ago, on a chilly January Inauguration Day, Michelle Obama clutched her husband’s arm, smiled her high wattage smile, and walked down that parade route and into our lives.
Ivy league educated, working class south Chicago native, corporate executive, African American, Mom in Chief, she is a metaphorical polyglot. As comfortable at a state dinner as she was grooving in carpool karaoke, Michelle Obama became Everywoman, with something almost any woman could find to admire. Veronica Chambers, in her new book, The Meaning of Michelle, writes,
“She wasn’t a model, an actress or a musician. She was, quite simply, the star of her own life — and that was a game changer for Black women, and it turned out all women, in the early twenty-first century.”
Yes, she dressed amazingly well, with The New York Times noting that she conveyed political messages with every wardrobe change. And, yes, she selected classic First Lady causes, such as childhood obesity and healthy eating, as her mission. She was traditional while being ground breaking, and seemed completely knowable - her authenticity, conviction and passion shone through the role to make her image one of accessibility, fun and graciousness.
Michelle will be a tough act to follow. Her exit from the White House means an entrance for another woman who will represent our country on the national and international stages. Many think that woman will be Ivanka Trump. With Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, remaining in New York, Ivanka has relocated her family to DC, soon to take up residence in a West Wing office. All indications are that she will continue to be near her father as an advisor and confidant.
Like Michelle, Ivanka, is a mom with a successful corporate career, she is beautifully dressed, and she radiates clear confidence on camera and on stage. She has staked out positions on climate change and child care, and has stated that she genuinely cares about issues that impact working women.
If Ivanka is indeed our de facto First Lady, who will she be? Will she leverage Michelle’s popularity by continuing her work or select different issues that matter to her? Will she have a brand identity similar to Mom in Chief? And if so, what will that be? Is she a spokesperson for millennial women? Will she elevate her profile to be a national one, or remain more behind the scenes as an advisor? Or some combined version of diplomacy but not advocacy?
The transition from a popular female leader to her successor is full of lessons for any woman who is stepping into someone else’s heels. We’ll all be watching to see what happens, but in the meantime, here are the steps a great executive coach would advise to Ivanka – or to you:
Study how to be different. Comparisons will be made; they always are. Some will love you, some won’t. Learn from your predecessor. What did she do exceptionally well that you can, too? What can’t you do as well? What can you do better? Borrow the best of her while combining it with the best of you.
Intend to grow. Roles can own us. You’re the CEO, the President, and the Director. Go into it expecting to change, to adapt, to flex and to build. Observers admire that growth – it humanizes you.
Glide like a duck. Ducks look so serene as they glide by. But under the water, invisible to you, they’re paddling like mad. When the spotlight is on, grace under pressure is the rule of the day. Be frantic in private, yet always calm in public.
Respect traditions – then make them your own. Transitions can make people uneasy. They might fear change, and they worry about how it will impact them. Retaining the best while augmenting it positions you as a respecter of history and a change agent with vision.
Be authentic – but with sensitivity. People are watching you - and that's a lot of pressure. To be both respected and loved, people have to know who you truly are. Comments and deeds are easily misinterpreted – so be sensitive to multiple stakeholders, but don’t hold back on sharing your core values and aspirations.
Think early about legacy. We never know how much time we have to do anything. Going into a new role knowing how you want to leave it – with what accomplishments, with what image – is always a smart strategy no matter how senior the job.
This is an important time for women who are looking for inspiration and leadership. Ivanka is a smart, powerful, and ambitious woman. I can’t wait to hear more from her and follow how she evolves in this very new very high set of shoes she’s stepped into.
Nancy Halpern is an executive coach with a proven track record in helping senior leaders and their teams reach their full potential. She's been quoted in The Financial Times, The New York Times and other publications, as well as appearing on both NPR and the PBS NewsHour.
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