“It’s been nerve-wracking moments, when I’m faced with intense, unexpected challenges that I’ve become really good at my job. Those situations have made me realize that you can’t always control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond.” (Deborah McGovern T'15)
Deborah McGovern T’15 shared her personal leadership story with an audience of classmates and faculty members at the Advanced Leadership Presence Program’s Nov. 19 dinner. Beginning her career at J.P. Morgan, McGovern talked about navigating both professional and personal challenges on her journey to Tuck. “Faced with a challenge, I ask myself: what kind of leader do I want to be today? And I use that answer to guide my actions.”
The power of resilience, resourcefulness, optimism, and empathy in shaping leadership was the theme of the speeches given by McGovern and Debi Brooks T’86, co-founder and executive vice chairman of the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Moderated by Sydney Finkelstein, associate dean and faculty director for the Center for Leadership, the event was sponsored by the Center, the Diversity & Inclusion Taskforce, the Initiative for Women, and the MBA Program Office.
“If you looked at my resume, you’d zero in on three things: Tuck, Goldman Sachs, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation. You might immediately assume I was destined for all these things and my leadership story unfolded in a simple way,” Brooks said to begin her talk. “What I want to share tonight is that it really didn’t.” She went on to describe how the instability of her childhood—growing up, she attended 12 different schools in 12 years; her mother was married and divorced three times, her father six—led her to view her career and leadership choices from a unique perspective.
“I see failure differently than most people. I internalize its lessons, but I’m not afraid to fail. When you’re not afraid, you don’t have to worry about bouncing back: you just do,” Brooks said. “I see now how literally my birth world was about resilience. Growing up was my earliest training ground for how to manage with challenges.”
In fact, making ambitious plans and exhibiting self-confidence served both women well. While she knew she was up against more technically qualified candidates for the Michael J. Fox Foundation role, Brooks refused to be intimidated. In McGovern’s case, even with the demands of a new promotion in her job at J.P. Morgan, she made a list of major life goals she was eventually able to check off, including attending Tuck.
“I had my grandmother’s voice ringing in my ear, saying, ‘You can do it: go for it!’ It never occurred to me that I wasn’t qualified or that I would fail,” Brooks said. “I don’t say that because I never fail or have a big ego—I fail all the time—it’s just that when this opportunity arose, it never occurred to me not to try.”
Both women credited the deepening of their personal leadership journeys to their Tuck experiences. Not only did their time at Tuck allow McGovern and Brooks to develop a more nuanced perspective on their individual talents and leadership styles, but also to ultimately draw strength from the difficulties they’d overcome.
“There’s just something about giving yourself over to the Tuck experience: it’s so powerful and you grow so much,” said Brooks. “Tuck becomes part of who you are and brings out your best. It’s something to cherish.”
According to Richard McNulty, executive director of the Center for Leadership, the evening was intended to not only inspire attendees to think about the leadership journeys of the speakers—but their own as well.
“I want each of you to ask yourselves: what kind of leader do I want to be?” McGovern said. “As you are thinking about your own leadership journeys, remember: the person you are today drives the leader you’ll be tomorrow.”
Sydney Finkelstein in Conversation with Deborah McGovern T’15 and Debi Brooks T’86
On Nov. 19, Tuck’s Center for Leadership, Initiative for Women and Diversity & Inclusion Taskforce anchored the Advanced Leadership Presence Program by hosting an evening of leadership stories from Deborah McGovern T’15 and Debi Brooks T’86, co-founder and executive vice chairman of the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Moderated by Professor Sydney Finkelstein, faculty director for the Center for Leadership, here are selected excerpts from the Q&A that followed the event.
SYDNEY FINKELSTEIN: You both have been incredibly resilient. We know from research on leadership that the ability to get back up when you’re knocked down is one of the real drivers of great leaders, but it’s difficult. What’s your take on resilience?
DEBI BROOKS T’86: I read myself; I read others; I make adjustments. I didn’t need to know exactly where I was going in the first place, so I have a lot of tolerance for the journey not being straightforward. Resilience for me is about comfort with failing or how one defines failure. MBAs can be very risk-averse and worry a lot about failure. I invite you to open up your tolerance for failure because failure leads to resilience.
DEBORAH McGOVERN T’15: I’ve learned that you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond. Plans change. Things don’t go the way you expect. In those situations, instead of wasting energy on negative emotions, channel it into a positive outcome and create your own opportunity.
FINKELSTEIN: Many women and men report experiencing “imposter syndrome” where their confidence is shaken because they ascribe their success to luck or other factors. Can you speak a little more on your experiences feeling this way?
McGOVERN: When I got my promotion, I didn’t know who was crazier: me for taking the job or my boss for offering it. My initial hesitation was, “What if I can’t?” Now, having successfully gone through that experience, I have the confidence to say, “Here’s an opportunity. I’ll figure it out.”
BROOKS: I didn’t get accepted to Tuck the first time. Nobody else knew that, but I did so I thought I wasn’t as good as everybody else. I didn’t come in with the same pedigree of colleges and job experiences my classmates did, but when I got here, I realized I was capable. Just feeling capable made me feel confident. I’ve come to accept what I’m not good at and I’ve come to own the things I am good at. It takes confidence to own who you are and not to be afraid.
FINKELSTEIN: Debi, as a leader, how do you accommodate the personal and professional lives of your employees?
BROOKS: When I hire people who are in dual-career couples, all I can do is offer them the best opportunity, the most responsibility, and the most support possible. Then, it’s up to them. If I deliver the best job experience, I’ve reduced the risk of losing them as much as I can. I think all those externalities are equal between men and women. People move and change jobs for all sorts of reasons, not just who gets pregnant.
FINKELSTEIN: What’s next for you both?
McGOVERN: I don’t know yet but I will trust my gut. I haven’t found the right thing yet but I’m looking.
BROOKS: I can’t wait to see Deborah on the cover of Tuck Today one day. As for me, I’m in my mid-50s and just love working. I got a late start with family. I have twin nine-year-olds at home and my husband’s even older than I am. When I think of what’s next, it’s a matter of how long can I keep this pace? Whatever is next, I feel very lucky.
I see failure differently than most people. I internalize its lessons, but I’m not afraid to fail. When you’re not afraid, you don’t have to worry about bouncing back: you just do.– Debi Brooks T’86