Lift While You Lead: Taking advantage of my seat at the table

This is a guest post from Robyn Kaplan (@rkaplan13), Associate Director for the Office of Student Leadership and Activities, at Hofstra University. We appreciate her taking the time to reflect on her experience at the Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI) hosted every year.
Participants at WLI 2011

After returning home from the Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI), I’ve taken a few days to reflect on my experience.  The conference was held in the beautiful Ritz Carlton in Jacksonville Florida, a stone’s throw away from the ocean and serenity of what could very well seem like a vacation.  But don’t be fooled by the stage I’ve set.  It may seem like a mindless escape from the bitter New York winter and the stress of students’ finals, but albeit beautiful and relaxing, this conference was anything but mindless.

I enjoy conferences and strive to attend and/or present at minimally one a year, allowing me the chance to connect with my networks, brainstorm new ideas, and re-charge my batteries, (although I usually come home even more tired than before I went).  I try to be intentional about my professional development, taking advantage of opportunities that directly relate to my functional areas, interests, and areas of growth; aiming to return to work with two things. First, I hope for new relationships that I can count on to develop my personal outlook; second is a take-away message that can aide in my never-ending journey of professional growth.  WLI11 provided both.


Over 130 attendees came together for WLI, all varied in institution, position, age, and open-mindedness at the few days that lie ahead.  The women in that room, I came to learn quickly were about to become the most authentic and empowering community of which I’ve ever been a part.  Conversation flowed effortlessly and the exchange of advice was offered genuinely.  There was a sense of mutuality in our newfound connections, a realization that we all have something different to bring to the table and regardless of age, position, or experience our learning was reciprocal.  It is from these people, who lead by example, that I’ve learned a sense of humility, true vision, a willingness to embrace vulnerability, and a level of perspective.  I am grateful to be offered a seat at the table with these incredible women, and appreciative of the support I received enabling me to take it.


We come to conferences and sit in sessions hoping to grab some one-liner that we can take back to our home institutions and utilize, implement, or assess.  The metaphors that provide that “aha” moment of clarity and excitement to make change back at home.  My “aha” moments at WLI were introspective and multifaceted.  They weren’t about programs, students, or potential ideas I could implement.  They were about me as an individual, as a professional, as a leader, as a woman, and as the visionary navigating the twists and turns of my journey.

1)     Don’t settle for an attempt at balance.  Make intentional choices.  How many sessions have you been to on work/life balance?  Is there such a thing?  It seems like an inexhaustible seesaw that never feels quite even.  My sponsor Teri Bump helped me realize that maybe life is not about balance, but rather choices.  We all have so much going on in our lives – work, partners, family, career advancement, ambition, personal obligations, friends, wellness, and more.  How is it realistic to truly “balance” these things? I can balance two or three things at a time, but when you start weighing the eight different segments that make up who I am as a person, it’s no longer about balance.  Now we’re talking about juggling.  And what happens when we try to juggle too many things at once? We risk losing control and dropping it all.  We teach that to our students – it’s Priority Management 101.  So no more attempts at balance.  I’m going to start making and owning my choices.  I’m going to choose work when I know I’m swamped or when I have incredible opportunities to implement ideas and see them grow.  And yes, that might mean missing dinner with my family to work till 10pm driven by ambition.  But on days when I don’t have to, I’m going to also choose life.  I want to spend time with my family and friends without feeling like I should be doing something more productive.  So what’s the key component in making choices over attempts at juggling? Lack of guilt.  We have to stop trying to balance everything, and start vowing to make guilt-free decisions.  Instead of offering inequitable parts of myself to family, work, wellness, and advancement, resulting in a constant sense of disappointment that I’m spread too thin, I choose to give my full attention to the things that need my focus at that time.  And the only person who can define what needs my focus when, is me.  I may have to put my doctorate off so that I can start a family first, but at the end of the day, all we have are the choices that we make and I choose to be the best version of myself in everything that I do rather than trying to keep the balls in the air and maintain the status quo.  If we are fortunate enough to see tomorrow, we should live today with intention.

2)     Model the good, Forget about the bad. I’ve always supported women’s leadership, but I’ve also been frustrated by the bubble that sometimes surrounds the subject.  The truth is, I’ve come in contact with some incredible female role models (and also some amazing male role models).  However, I’ve also experienced the negativity with which women can hinder one another, and it has always frustrated me that when referring to female engagement, no one seemed to acknowledge the latter.  So as the WLI keynote Gail Evans spoke eloquently on the empowerment  and mentoring of women and the need to speak confidently when offered a seat at the table, I felt an obligation to ask her advice on how we work with women who feel the need to bring others down and compete instead of lift and empower.  The candid response I got was “Forget ‘em” followed by an uproar of applause from the room.  In that instant, I realized – there are plenty of women in this world willing to share the seats at the table.  And although we might all be met with challenging individuals, both men and women, it’s up to us to model the behavior of our mentors and not reciprocate the behavior of our detractors.

3)     Lifting and leading are not mutually exclusive.  By the end of the conference, the mantra “Lift while you Lead” had been echoed and engrained.  Throughout WLI, I learned and offered knowledge.  I empowered and was empowered.  Regardless of title, age, experience, or articulation, learning proved to be mutual.  When asked to identify a WLI take-a-way, I spoke of my willingness to pay it forward by empowering others, leading with integrity and authenticity because even without the power to reach all, we have a responsibility to demonstrate for some.

We spoke at WLI about the importance of making a plan, creating authentic and mutual relationships, stepping up to the table, and remembering to bring others along with us.  Think about the last few months.  How have you lifted while you led?  How are you empowering others to realize their voice?  How are you showing appreciation to those sponsors that brought you to the table?  How are you choosing to spend your time, and who are you answering to if not to yourself?


15 responses to this post.

  1. Powerful, inspiring & perfectly you Robyn. You are a “light” & we are all better when you are shining. T


    • Posted by Robyn Kaplan on December 13, 2011 at 6:30 pm

      Thank you so much Teri – for the advice, the encouragement, the accountability, and for literally bringing me and so many others to the table at which we have the opportunities to shine! :)


  2. Posted by Lindsay F on December 13, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    Nice reflection and thoughts, Robyn. I think the idea of choice goes even further than choosing to have “balance” or to prioritize, but I also think the idea of choice seeps into the other concepts of modeling the good and lifting while leading. Each and every day these acts and philosophies need to be supported by our choices – we choose how to treat others, our attitude, and to be open to empowering moments. Your blog is a reminder for us all to reflect on all of our choices, large and small, and to use those to move forward and not backwards. Thank you for the reminder, friend. Lindsay F


    • Posted by Robyn Kaplan on December 15, 2011 at 2:30 am

      I couldn’t agree more – thank you for reading! Depending on the day, we all need the reminder to make the choices that dictate who we are and to model after who we admire, so thank you for helping be that reminder for all those you know!


  3. Posted by @E_Nunn on December 13, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    I love the takeaway on balance. I would think this is how most actually live life, but you’ve adapted it to a much more intentional and guilt free way of approaching it. Great post, thank you for sharing!


    • Posted by Robyn Kaplan on December 15, 2011 at 2:32 am

      Thanks! We make choices but too often feel torn about them. No need – your life, your choices. Just important to remember that it’s ok every once and a while. Thanks for reading and commenting!


  4. Posted by kelleystier on December 14, 2011 at 3:10 am

    Love the “model the good, forget the bad” – so important!


    • Posted by Robyn Kaplan on December 15, 2011 at 2:33 am

      Thanks Kelley!!! Feels like just yesterday we were sitting in an airport talking about all of this stuff. Can’t wait to chat again soon


  5. Posted by Kelley on December 14, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Looking back on past relationships, I spent a lot of time around women who did NOT “lift and lead” rather they hurt you and walk away. Now that I am older I understand the meaning of “lifting and leading” I am blessed to be surrounded by women who do this everyday. I’m glad that I stepped away from the negative and found the light of the positive. Thank you for sharing your experience!


    • Posted by Robyn Kaplan on December 15, 2011 at 2:35 am

      Thanks for reading and commenting Kelley. I think it takes time and reflective capacity to look back and realize those moments of frustration, and then it takes maturity, support, and drive to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes. I’m sure the people that you surround are fortunate to have you in their lives. Please keep spreading the empowerment – we all need more women like you.


  6. Posted by Melanie Ebig Lawson on December 14, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    Robyn, you are amazing. :)


  7. Posted by Robyn Kaplan on December 15, 2011 at 2:37 am

    Melanie!!! Thanks so much – This conference was so reminiscent of the ACPA SCW retreat that we were at while I was the EmpowHer fellow. I appreciate all of you women for helping me take those first steps – you, Jodid, Tacci, Shelley… you made more of an impact than you know Please share this with them and let them know that I think of them often. And thanks for paving the way – you should definitely consider WLI – you would bring and take so much! Hope you’re doing well! Thanks for reading and commenting


  8. Posted by Joe on December 19, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Even as a male who did not attend this conference I found your description of the sessions and reflections to be inspiring and clearly empowering to those who did. Sounds like it was not just a great conference but a great experience! And as always, well done Robyn. Thanks for sharing!


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