06/27/2013 09:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

On Women, Leadership, and Moxie: An Interview with Alexia Vernon

While Sheryl Sandberg might have opened the national debate about women and leadership, she is hardly the only one talking about these issues. I recently sat down with my friend, Alexia Vernon. Vernon is a two-time author and the Founder of Influencer Academy, a first-of-its-kind women's leadership development experience. The following is an excerpt of our conversation.

PS: You were branded a "Moxie Maven" by the White House. What is moxie?
AV: Moxie is the ability to listen to your inner voice, sculpt your powerful message, and speak with confidence and competence to influence people to take your desired action. For a lot of emerging leaders, specifically women, we get either the confidence or competence right, but we're missing the other piece. If it's the former, we've internalized the message that we're special and what we say matters, but we don't make the required investment of time and energy in our content and therefore don't make the maximum possible impact on our people. If our sweet spot is the latter, we overanalyze our communication and in the process lose our natural speaking style. As a result, we usually project uncertainty even if we're rock solid on our content.

PS: How do you develop women's communication and leadership skills?
AV: Before I launched my own consulting company, I worked in-house at an educational theater company leading professional development. One of the many things my company excelled in was using role-play and interactive drama to enable our clients to try out and rehearse the behaviors we wanted them to solidify into habits. And that's been the backbone of how I develop people--whether they are C-suite executives, mid-level managers, entrepreneurs, or cultural creatives. I get them up on their feet, give them a safe space to practice the communication and leadership skills they are hungry to employ, and provide them hands-on coaching to strengthen what's working and reframe anything that is a little wonky.

PS: What is the top way that women undermine their influence?
AV: We apologize. Sometimes it's literal. "I'm so sorry I stepped on your foot" or "Gosh, I don't know if I'm ready for that challenge." More often than not, it's behavioral. We sit at the back of the room. We don't take up enough space when we're presenting our ideas. We don't step up and volunteer for stretch projects. We subtly--and at times not so subtly--communicate verbally and non-verbally that we're not enough and that we're scared to stretch outside of our comfort zone. And the irony is that with each generation, the ambition gap between women and men closes further. Some demographers suggest that Gen Y women are more interested in executive leadership than Gen Y men. Unfortunately, our behavior just hasn't caught up with our desire.

PS: You speak quite a bit about the importance of "playing nice with fear." Can you speak a little bit about this, and why it's critical for effective leadership?
AV: If something doesn't scare you a little, rarely is it worth doing. The sensation we as a Western culture label fear--a racing heart, sweaty palms, aching belly--can signal that danger looms ahead, but just as importantly it signals we are on the cusp of doing something great. We're about to harness our personal power to make impact. When we can reframe the thoughts that get produced from that physiological experience from, "Sh*t, let me step back and hide" to "Wowsa, I can feel I'm playing to my edge. How do I keep my eye focused on the people I'm trying to serve rather than on my own self-talk about how I'm feeling?" we free ourselves up to successfully complete the productive work we have been called to do.

PS: Why is it important for companies to invest specifically in women's leadership?
AV: The business case demands that organizations who care about sustained profitability, leadership succession, and employee satisfaction invest in developing female leaders. And this isn't just my theory; the research supports it. For its 2012 report, "Women at the Wheel," Dow Jones conducted a study of venture-backed companies and concluded that companies have a greater chance of either going public, operating profitably, or being sold for more money than they've raised when they have females acting as founders, board members, C-level officers, vice presidents, and/or directors. McKinsey & Company put out a recent report of its own saying that companies with three or more women in top management positions achieve higher scores for each criterion of organizational effectiveness than do companies with no women at the top. And according to the women's research firm Catalyst, companies with sustained high representation of women--three or more women board directors in at least four of five years--significantly outperformed those with no women board directors. There's a reason why Fortune 500 companies like WalMart, American Express, and Colgate-Palmolive have their own internal women's leadership development programs. They're worth the investment.