Jen Welter has notched a lot of firsts in her career, most in the male-dominated field of football.
The first female coach in the NFL who enjoyed a decorated 14-year career in women’s pro football before that, Welter also holds a Ph.D. in psychology and a master’s in sports psychology. She now hosts a “Grrridiron Girls” flag football camp for girls ages 6-18, while her book, Play Big: Lessons in Being Limitless from the First Woman to Coach in the NFL, serves as both a memoir and advice on leadership through authenticity.
That made Welter a perfect fit for Elevate, the annual speakers’ series hosted by the Elevate Women in Leadership program, which was designed to prepare female Rackers for senior leadership roles by creating opportunities for them to develop and showcase their unique skills and talents to support the company’s strategic objectives. Past speakers include Brene Brown, professor and author of Daring Greatly; Becky Hammon, first female coach in the NBA for our very own San Antonio Spurs and Jenny Blake, career coach and author of Pivot: the Only Move That Matters is Your Next One.
And while some in the audience might not have been familiar with football, plenty are aware of the challenges that can come with working in a male dominated industry — one reason Rackspace developed the Elevate leadership program.
A commitment to leadership development
“Inviting Dr. Welter to speak is just one part of Rackspace’s commitment to women’s professional development,” said Mary Stich, vice president and deputy general counsel at Rackspace. That commitment also includes a deepening relationship with the annual Texas Conference for Women, a leadership and networking event that draws more than a hundred speakers and 7,500 attendees.
Over the past four years, Rackspace has sent nearly 1,000 women and men — to the conference, to soak up the “inspiration, motivation, networking, personal and professional development” it offers.
“The conference has personally helped my career,” says Lisa McLin, vice president of channel sales. “I’ve created a strong network over the years, and learned from listening to other strong women, such as Viola Davis, Jenny Blake and my own peers, like Kelly Hopping, vice president of Integrated Solutions at Rackspace.”
A 15-year Racker, McLin now serves as the executive sponsor of the company’s Texas Conference for Women program, and also on the board of directors for the conference itself.
“Rackers can learn new techniques, hear inspiring stories and connect with women in all parts of business,” she said, “and leave the conference with a plan to start their own personal development path.”
Stich is the executive sponsor for another engagement and inclusion effort: Mentor Circles, which offers Rackers a small group environment to share their stories with guidance from mentors who help tie the discussions to the company’s strategic direction. This year’s program is leaning in to content produced by Texas Conference for Women speakers to help guide the themes for group discussion. For example, Rackers may choose to read and discuss Welter’s book Play Big or Shawn Achor’s book, Big Potential.
Achor, who will also be a speaker at the conference, has studied the measurable impact and ROI of womens conferences, and determined that attendees are more likely to be promoted and earn higher pay raises following their attendance than those who do not attend.
Racker Anne Navarro, who attended Welter’s talk, said she deeply appreciates Rackspace’s ongoing commitment.
“From Pride month to women’s empowerment, Rackspace listens to what is important to its Rackers and delivers the highest quality opportunities,” she wrote after the event. “Dr. Welter was so authentically herself that she was completely relatable — even though I don’t know the first thing about football.”
Stich introduced Welter with a little sports story of her own, and noted the timeliness of Welter’s advice in light of Rackspace’s current transition as it evolves once again to lead the technology industry — this time by becoming the trusted advisor organizations are seeking to guide them through their digital transformations.
A willowy six feet tall, Stich was a basketball player in college, and the free throw was her specialty. She loved it because it was the easy shot with “no blocking, no elbows in the way,” she told the crowd of roughly 200 Rackers in the room and the 500 more who watched remotely from around the world.
But in the rough and tumble of a game, winning takes teamwork, and she exhorted the audience to pull together to help Rackspace win with the kind of grit and determination Welter showed on her path to success.
Humor and authenticity win the game
For her part, Welter was funny and self-deprecating, taking the audience on a journey, from early days learning to turn her diminutive size to her advantage on the gridiron, to her barrier-breaking turn as a linebackers coach for the Arizona Cardinals in 2015.
Laced throughout her talk, Welter emphasized that she often had to redefine — and often define for the first time — others’ expectations of her. Authenticity has been critical to her successful leadership, she said.
What turned out to be a guide star for her came from a conversation with Terry Glenn, a former receiver NFL who Welter coached with. His advice as she prepared to coach the Cardinals’ linebackers? Be 100 percent authentic.
“He told me, ‘if you’re the same exact person that you were with us every single day, those guys will love you — but if you’re fake in any way, they’ll eat you alive.”
Welter said that in moments of doubt, she would think back to that advice and remind herself that she didn’t need to coach or lead like anyone else.
Welter also spoke to the men in the audience, reminding them that when there are no women around, it will be up to them to open the door to the first one.
She also urged men to be allies by speaking out when they hear a colleague say something sexist, racist or otherwise offensive. Welter said she uses a combination of humor and fake obtuseness call people out.
“I say, ‘Did you mean to say that out loud?’” she explained. Then, if the speaker really meant no disrespect and was just, say, being clumsy, it offers them an graceful way to backtrack, yet it also gently puts those who meant exactly what they said on the spot. She urged the crowd to give it a try: “It really works!”
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