How to develop “leadership grace”, With Dr. Rosina Racioppi

A leader’s key role is to create a vision for their area or department that helps their staff understand where they are going, how the work they do helps the company achieve success (profit, customers, etc.). With a shared understanding of purpose, the leader also needs to create an environment where diverse viewpoints can be shared and explored. One of my mentors talks about the importance of “leadership grace”. He defines it as the ability to disagree without being disagreeable, and confront without confrontation. This speaks to the delicate nature of leadership and the importance of creating an environment that encourages people to share their unique point of view, even when it is not shared by the majority.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rosina Racioppi, the President and CEO of WOMEN Unlimited Inc., the leading provider of organizational solutions and initiatives to empower women as leaders.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It would be great if I could tell you that I had a well thought out career plan but that was not the case. There was a recession when I graduated college, which eliminated the jobs I thought that I wanted (my undergrad degree was in Criminal Justice). So I leveraged my summer job experience working in Human Resources, and from there spent my early career in Human Resources working primarily in the manufacturing sector. Over time, I was leading the HR function and enjoyed working with the various business units creating strategies that supported the organizations’ key business initiatives.

Later in my career, I met Jean Otte, Founder of WOMEN Unlimited, just as she was launching her first program in New York. I began my involvement with WOMEN Unlimited by sponsoring women in the program and participating as a mentor. My friendship with Jean grew over the years and she asked me to join her to run the Northeast Programs. Working at WOMEN Unlimited allowed me to focus on my two key passions: helping women advance and growing a business. As Jean was approaching her retirement, she asked if I would be interested in buying the business — that was over ten years ago.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I assumed leadership during an economic downturn. Knowing that in that economic climate many companies pull back on their development spending, I saw two key challenges (beyond the reduction in revenue): The first was to ensure that we maintained the relationships with our corporate partners who could decide to eliminate all development spending, and the second challenge was to keep our associates, who are vital to the business, engaged. My main goals were not to lose any corporate partners or any key staff. We weathered this challenge and came out of it stronger! During the downturn, we focused on evaluating our infrastructure and addressed key improvements ensuring that as we entered into the recovery, we were even stronger.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Shortly after purchasing WOMEN Unlimited, I decided to apply to graduate school and was accepting at a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania. At the same time our youngest daughter, Daniele, who was a high school senior, was also applying to college. I overheard Danielle telling her friends, “Talk about a slam to my ego, I’m applying to school and my Mom tells me she got accepted to an Ivy League school”!! Danielle went on to attend Temple University — so we were both in Philadelphia!

As I was preparing to attend UPenn, I approached Jean Otte and Nina Dougar (CFO and part owner), with a plan for the next three to four years. They both saw the value in my attending the program and agreed with my perspective that it would be valuable for WOMEN Unlimited. At the same time, I was talking with my husband about the program. Our older daughter was in graduate school. I had shared my concern that the program would require me to be away from home — and when I was home, I’d have homework which would distract from our personal time. His response, with his typical humor, was to share that at this point I wasn’t needed that much at home — and they would survive without me around!!!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Two things: one is the way we work with our corporate partners. We spend a lot of time working with organizations to understand how the resources we provide impacts their goal to advance women. We understand that in order to create impact and increase the number of women advancing in organizations a myriad of development approaches is required — we believe that there is no “one size fits all approach”.

We focus on developing a relationship with the companies we partner with, asking them for feedback on our programs to ensure that we understand how to evolve our programs to meet our partners needs. In addition, we provide continual feedback to our corporate partners on the women they identify to participate in our programs, including their readiness for development and manager engagement, so that they can evolve their process and increase impact.

The other aspect that makes WOMEN Unlimited stand out is based in the learning framework of our programs. We are not a training company. We provide development experiences that allows all individuals that engage with us (the women in our programs, mentors as well as the women’s managers) an opportunity to gain critical insight — to learn and grow as a result of their engagement AND to support the growth and development of women in their organizations. Our unique approach using Mentoring, Education and Networking has enabled over 12,000 women to understand how they can effectively navigate their organization to achieve their career goals as they develop key relationships to enable them to grow.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am always excited when we are working with a new corporate partner as each organization is unique — just as the women who attend our programs are all unique. Creating a strategy that helps these companies gain greater impact in this initiative is exciting!

We are also always evaluating other methods or platforms to build resources for our corporate partners as well as the alumnae of our programs. For 2019, we are developing a program for mentors that will leverage our research to help them understand how to approach their role to better support women’s development and career advancement, we are also exploring other development programs for our program Alumnae to continue their development.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

A leader’s key role is to create a vision for their area or department that helps their staff understand where they are going, how the work they do helps the company achieve success (profit, customers, etc.). With a shared understanding of purpose, the leader also needs to create an environment where diverse viewpoints can be shared and explored.

One of my mentors talks about the importance of “leadership grace”. He defines it as the ability to disagree without being disagreeable, and confront without confrontation. This speaks to the delicate nature of leadership and the importance of creating an environment that encourages people to share their unique point of view, even when it is not shared by the majority.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

DELEGATE!! This is a challenge we hear from women at all levels, whether they are new managers or senior leaders. It is important for women to understand that delegation does not mean abdication. Many women fear that their staff may not complete the work as well as they do. That may be true initially but their staff will never be able to if they are not given the opportunity. In addition, if women want to advance, they need to understand what they need to stop doing. This will help them assume greater responsibility. As women gain comfort in delegation, they can more effectively lead and focus on working on the business vs being “in” the business.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My parents were from the “great generation” and gave me a strong foundation to launch my career. I recall my father sitting me down the night before I was starting my first job. His advice guides me as much today as it did then. He shared the importance of treating everyone (from the janitor to the President) with the same level of respect and care; how a title will not guarantee others will respect you, but rather, it’s how you treat others and that is a key value I bring to the company.

I have had the good fortune to work with great managers and individuals. Jean Otte, founder of WOMEN Unlimited, had a profound impact on my development. We worked closely together. In the early years, I benefited from Jean’s guidance. At the end of each session we attended, she would ask me to reflect on what went well, what would I do differently. In this way, she was modeling with me what we do for the women in our programs. Through the process I gained confidence and comfort. When Jean decided to sell the business to me, we worked together with the help of an executive coach, to ensure a smooth transition. I had the good fortune to have such a rare friendship with Jean. In fact, we could have robust debates on issues that helped us resolve challenges in the business. I valued the fact that even when we saw things very differently we could discuss the issue and come to a shared understanding of actions needed. My relationship with Jean is an example of the type of relationships we help women understand and develop relationships that help them learn from and appreciate different perspectives.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We are helping organizations change their corporate landscape. Our partners are more aware of what they need to do to support women’s advancement. We are also helping women understand how they can own their development. Even more importantly, is that we help women find their career joy! I use that term to describe roles that leverage our skills and ability and are aligned with areas of interest. We often see individuals in roles (both men and women) that they are capable of performing but do not enjoy. They may have been in the role too long and no longer find it challenging or may have outgrown the role.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Know how you contribute to your company’s success

It is critical to understand how your unique talents and perspective helps your company achieve its goals (and profit). This clarity provides guidance on priorities as well as how to position your expertise with others.

2. Focus on meeting customer expectations, with excellence

It is important that your work or the work of your group meet your customer’s expectations. Too often, we see women do more work than is required and then get frustrated when this extra work is not acknowledged. This extra work is detrimental to women as it may indicate that they do not understand the business or customer.

3. The right message at the wrong time, is the wrong message

A leader needs to be an effective communicator. It’s important for leaders to understand how to craft their message to move the conversation (and decision making process) forward. We can get stuck on being right which clouds our ability to understand how to be successful.

4. Perfectionism is a career derailed

When we focus on being perfect, it is an internal view. I have decided what perfect is — and this is the heart of the problem as it distracts us from understanding what is needed by others (customers, the business).

5. Have fun!

I don’t mean this is a light hearted way. With all the time spent at work, it is important that we demonstrate that we enjoy the work. When we demonstrate that we enjoy our work, we are more approachable and engaging.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

What a great question! I would want a movement that allows women to understand, from the start of their career, how to play the game of business!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Growing up, my mother would counsel me that in any situation the only thing I could control is myself. As a very controlling person, It took me a long time to fully understand this. I spent many years trying to find the words or actions that would make others do as I wished. Over time I came to understand the wisdom offered by my mother. That perspective helps me seek to better understand others perspectives which then informs my actions.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

There are so many talented and successful women I’d love to meet, but if I had to pick one, I’d be very interested in speaking with Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, I would like to explore how grit impacts women’s development and advancement and how we can help women get gritty.