From Nun to Fortune 500 Founder: How One Woman Overcame Her Fear of Reinvention
Ellen Snee grew up in New Jersey, the oldest of five children in an Irish Catholic family. When she was 12 years old, a priest friend came to the house for dinner and gave everyone a blessing. Young Ellen then announced to her family that she wanted to become a priest when she grew up, for the opportunity to bring peace and joy to others. When her elders enlightened her to the fact that women are not allowed to become priests in the Catholic church, a young rebel was born. Snee decided instead to become a nun, discovering the Sacred Heart community while attending Fordham and going on to teach for Sacred Heart University. One of many reinventions caused her to transition to a career in women’s development, and after 18 years she left her convent. In this conversation with CoveyClub founder Lesley Jane Seymour, Snee recounts the reinventions of her life, including launching a Fortune 500 business, moving to California and meeting her husband, helping women claim leadership roles in the business world, and writing her book, Lead: How Women in Charge Claim their Authority. Learn Snee’s steps for dealing with fear of transition and how to take the leap to follow your passions.
Lesley Jane Seymour: So I always love to go back and find out what’s in someone’s past that would make them interested in helping women. So let’s start with, what did you start out doing when you were younger? Where’d you grow up? And what did your parents do that influenced you in that direction? Or maybe they didn’t – maybe you were a rebel.
Ellen Snee: A bit of that. I was the oldest of five in a very Irish, very Catholic family in New Jersey. And growing up, we had a lot of priests and nuns around our family. When I was 12, one of our parish priests came for Wednesday night hotdogs and card games. And as he was leaving, my father asked him to give us a blessing. And while he was doing that, I had this “aha” moment, where I realized that was what I wanted to be when I grew up – I wanted to be someone who could bring peace and joy to other people. So I stood up and said, ‘when I grow up, I’m going to be a priest.’
And the adults looked at each other, because I didn’t know you couldn’t be a priest if you were a girl. So long story short, they let me in on that fact. And that night, I decided I was going to figure out how to be a priest, whether it was as an ordained priest in the Catholic Church or not. And that was the moment where the rebel in me, as you said, was born. And it was when I realized I wanted to spend my life making a difference for women, advancing women and giving them the right to be what they wanted to be.
LJS: Wow, that’s incredible. And so just tell us a little bit about how you went about that. And how long did you spend doing that? And then we can talk about your transition.
ES: So I was pretty rebellious in college. Wild is a better word. Okay? When I told people I was becoming a nun, my roommate laughed so hard, she fell off the couch. But I had met up with the Jesuits, so I went to Fordham University, which is a Jesuit university. The Jesuits were men who were really dedicated to how other people lived in community.
I was becoming a nun at a time when everyone else was leaving the convent. So it took me a while, but I found this fabulous group of women, religious of the Sacred Heart, who ran colleges and universities. And the first time I was with them, I knew this was what I wanted to do. This was the community. This was the group that I wanted to be a part of. And it took a while to get it all lined up. But I did. As I was a nun, I taught and I was going to go become a seminary professor, so I could change the Catholic Church from inside out.
LJS: Oh, okay, going back to the 12 year old.
ES: That’s right. But I read a book by Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice. And that changed my life. Because what she was talking about – learning and understanding human experience, through the lens of women’s stories – was exactly what I wanted to do. And so I eventually went to Harvard to work with her.
While I was there, I was studying women’s development. Because I knew that how women talked about it, and experienced it was different than what was in the literature, which was written by men for men. I became very interested in the topic of leadership; I was in an almost cult-like class on leadership at the Kennedy School. The guys were really having a hard time dealing with what the professor was saying about listening, what we now call emotional intelligence. Like, what’s the big deal? I’ve seen lots of women run organizations in lots of ways, so you know, what’s the struggle? And if that’s not the struggle for women, if women know how to be fabulous leaders, then maybe it’s about the role of authority. Maybe that’s where they have some challenges.
So that led me to do my dissertation on what it’s like for a woman to be in a role of authority. And in particular, what happens when women are in authority over other women. But when I finished, there weren’t very many jobs for me in 1994. Coaching had not emerged as an industry. And so I thought, I’ll just start my own company. And with absolutely no business or finance background, I launched this consulting practice that grew and grew every year. We ended up having a roster of the top Fortune 500 companies and it was great.
At that point, the term executive coach had not even come out yet. I was working with senior-level women in places like Marriott and Avery and Schwab and Lotus and Warner Lambert. And then we did programs for their up-and-coming women, their high-potential, their mid-level women. And then we also had a program for what I call a new position, when someone is just starting a new job, because there’s all kinds of data about how critical that time is, and how vulnerable people are, to not be as successful as they want. So we would come into these companies and offer these programs and it was just wildly successful.
But then 9/11 happened, companies took a hiatus from hiring consultants (because of the travel fears and financial issues). So that was when I moved to California to start over again. I did that, met my husband and life was going along really well! One of my clients made a comment about, “oh, I wish I could afford to bring you in house”; And I was like, “what does that mean?” and my husband said, “well go ask her”. So I did, and we worked it out.
And so I came into VMware, which is this huge tech company that only tech people know about, because it’s not consumer based. I ran leadership development, executive coaching, organizational development, talent and development globally. I had a chance to launch the program of my dreams, which we called VM women. It was designed to attract, retain, and advance women, but we did it differently than anybody else, because I had 20 years of experience of what worked and didn’t work in other companies. And so we really made it a program run by the executives.
I had a council of the top men and women from each org, and they were accountable to the CEO. And within three years, we had these diversity and inclusion metrics attached to executive comp.
LJS: Wow, when was this?
ES: This would have been from 2010 to 15. And then VMware partnered with Stanford, and got the naming rights for the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Institute. So that was the thrill of a lifetime.
LJS: Wow. Incredible. And so what now? Are you still consulting? And let’s talk a little bit about the book, which is called Lead: How Women in Charge Claim their Authority. And that’s out. Can one buy that on Amazon?
ES: Absolutely. And you can write a review if you read it, which I’ve been told to make that plea. Okay? So, in 2015, I stepped back because my husband was quite a bit older, and his health was failing. And so while I was caregiving, I started writing the book. It came out in September, and this fall has been a blizzard of webinars and podcasts and interviews and talks, and it’s been glorious. Now I am in yet one more transition. I am moving to Massachusetts, back to home to do an advanced leadership program at Harvard.
LJS: Wow, that’s great.
ES: Yeah, I’m very excited. I feel as though the book has everything I’ve learned in 20 years. There are issues today that I really want to address, but will take some time. And I want to connect with the right people.
I have two burning issues. One is how do we, or how do I, as a white woman (who has had great privilege and has worked predominantly with other white women) become a bridge builder to women of color? And how do we really make diversity and inclusion programs, not just about women, but about race and other identity differences? And the second thing is a really burning concern that the pandemic could cost us 20 years.
LJS: It looks that way, doesn’t it? We’re pushed back to I saw the number it said 1957. Our participation in the workforce plummeted because of lack of childcare, lack of school. That’s what I heard, and it just sticks. Keeps me awake at night.
ES: Me too. My goal is to go there, and it’s a year long program and you come up with a project you really want to address. What can we do to change that; to stop the accidents of women, because we’re losing it at both ends. We’re losing the senior women, right? We’re the future. For 20 years to get to the C suite and boards and we’re losing all the women who have childcare issues, right? We don’t have a pipeline, and it’s not getting the attention. As committed as I am to diversity on race, we can’t take our eyes off the ball of getting women of all backgrounds into the C suite. So that’s my project for the year ahead.
LJS: So you’re moving back permanently, is that because this will be a regular program, or whether it’s a one year program, or you’re changing coasts. This relates to the topic of transitions.
ES: Initially, I got information in February about the program. And I thought, Oh, this is perfect. I can deal with these issues, I can figure out what’s next. And then as I thought about it, I realized that moving back to Massachusetts really is going home. And at this stage in my life, that’s what’s calling to me. My husband died the year before, the week before we locked down in COVID.
LJS: Oh, no, I’m sorry about that.
ES: Yes. Well, I’m just so grateful that I was able to be with him. A week later, and it would have been horrific.
Lesley Seymour So many people have suffered so greatly.
ES: Yes, and that. So I’m moving back to do this program, and will most likely stay in the Cambridge area. But I could see that this program could lead to work in Washington, or in another country. I’m wide open to where this work leads me. But I will be a visitor returning to California, a permanent resident.
LJS: So let’s talk a little bit about what the book says about women in charge and how they claim their authority. I mean, okay, the book, you know, was written before we saw these people drop out of the workforce, right? There was no way to predict… that just makes the whole point worse. So what are the major issues still standing in the way of women like us? And what are the things that we can do? But I am currently coming more and more to the belief that the next step is to be the men’s revolution. I support this because I’ve spent my career running women’s magazines talking to women about this issue. We’ve come up with every possible way to arm women and set them up and get directed in the right way. But until the men understand that this is their issue, too. Can we get anywhere?
ES: I agree. But the way I would frame that piece of male ally ship is, I think of it in terms of systemic change. For two reasons. I think the younger generations of men who are in their 40s, or most 50s have seen their daughters born, they have been in the room when their daughter was born. These men feel that their daughters should be able to do anything they want to do, which is different from Yes generations, correct. And as they move into positions of power, I have seen how that has influenced how they approach other women in the workplace once their daughter enters the workplace. They get it in a whole new way. So there’s that piece at the individual relational level.
But the only way it’s going to change is by systemic change. And by that I mean having rules and regulations about hiring. Are there diverse individuals on the hiring team? Are you demanding that in any pool of candidates you’re interviewing for a job? Are there are diverse candidates, are you ensuring that the process is equitable and fair and biases aren’t slipping in? The same thing has to happen with the consideration of promotions. I remember sitting in one promotion discussion, as an HR observer. And there was a man and a woman both being considered for promotions. They had similar personality profiles, they were incredibly smart and talented. And each of them had really serious relational issues. And as the guy was discussed, his potential to change the company and drive this, and his relational skills, his management skills were completely overlooked. When she came up, people didn’t like working with her because she was XY and Z, but nothing about her brilliance and her accomplishments. We need to have someone in the room listening for that, and catching that. Companies just have to make systematic decisions. You get someone’s attention when you say, alright, if you can’t change this for the better, you’re not going to get your very, very substantive bonus. That’s when you get attention. But it has to be systemic, not just relational, so that that’s where I spend my energy trying to talk about that. Having said that, out there, and then I’ll move on to what I think individual women can do.
ES: So I think there are things that individual women can do. And it is true that we have run all kinds of programs and put in all kinds of resources. But sometimes, when I look back on what we’ve done in the last 20 years, we kind of think about it as what got the guys ahead, you know, so the guys had mentors, because there are people who look like them, and they help them advance. So we tried to provide mentors to women, I actually think a different approach is required. And it’s starting from what I call the inside out. I would say that over the 20 years that I have coached, incredibly talented senior women. When I asked them, What is it you want? What do you want to do next? What does success look like? In three years? I would say, you know, I’ll be conservative and say 88% don’t know, it’s really close to 95. A woman who really has the answer to that, in her bones in her heart is rare. And if you don’t know what you want, if you don’t know it with a passion, it’s really hard to go for it. It’s going to be hard to go for it even if you do know. But women have to start there and really, really, really discern what it is that’s calling them that brings them joy that they are attracted to. And that becomes the touchstone for any kind of discernment about a particular opportunity.
LJS: I think that’s a common issue. And I see that. I see that and that’s kind of the purpose of Covey is that we hold that space. I would say generally people don’t come into cubby because they know what they want to do next. They need to find that vision. They know where they are now is not the right thing, whether it’s career, whether it’s relationship, whether it’s, you know, whatever. They’re the whole sort of look of their life. And they have to figure out what’s next. That’s really hard. That is one of the harder questions. What can you give us at least like one or two steps that you’ve found that actually moves you towards answering that question, because that’s, that’s kind of the big kahuna, isn’t it?
ES: Absolutely, absolutely. Because I really believe if you don’t do that, you can move ahead. But you’re not the kind of leader that is going to draw other people, you’re not the kind of leader that most of us want to be. I think there are a few things. The first is to cut out the distractions of everything else in your life. I think women don’t know what they want, because they are focused so much on what other people want and need, whether it’s family or friends, I think at work, if if, if we were, if we had video, you could see me put my hands around my eyes, like the blinders on a horse. And women do that and look down, they look down at their work, they look down at their people, they look down at their family. And they blind themselves, to attend to all of that. And what they need to do is turn their head out, turn around, look at their peers, their larger organization, and above all, look up and build relationships with the people senior in their organization. So the first thing is really, to find a way I always tell women, that most women work 150% they work and they work and they work and they’re perfectionists and they deliver it all. Cut back, just cut back to 100%. And use that third of your time and energy. Give that to figuring out what you want and where you’re going. Because if you don’t give the time, you’re not going to be able to make the most of an experience like Covey. I actually think that when people ask me, Why do I think we’ve made progress, I always say that one of the most important pieces of progress is groups like Covey where women are now coming together. And knowing that what they’re experiencing, they’re not alone, and they have a community of like minded women to share is sacred.
LJS: Wow, that’s awesome. I just have to say that’s beautiful. That’s true.
ES: It’s true. Because for generations, I would say that isn’t even 10 years long, right? It’s been something about first, there have been lots of attempts to have organizations locally, like I belong to the International Women’s Forum, I belong to how women lead in California, I belong to the Boston club when I was in Boston. But it’s complicated, because it takes time to go to meetings. Once women figured out how to get together online, how to use technology, to bring them together. It has changed the landscape. And there are so many groups now for women at every level, building with every issue, and it’s only growing. So that’s what gives me great hope. The men who have seen their daughters born, who will be in power, and the groups for women. So once you figure out what you want, I can say more about a process I use around discernment. The second set is you can’t do it alone. So you need to find a board of directors, your own personal board of directors, a group like Kofi and as many of those things as possible, but really having a small group who will speak truth to you as you process something. They’ll say but what about and I know you well, then you’re really not going like that. That is critical. And the guys have had that since they were kids and their sports teams. Yes, that’s the other thing. The women who were the first generation of successful leaders in authority, always inevitably had team sports debate teams or something else where they were working, you know, working in community, because it’s the team sports that teach you the skills. And guys have had that since childhood, and only in the last decade have women had that.
LJS: Correct. And so we’ve got all that in place now, which is great. So talk a little bit very quickly, because we only have a few more minutes left, because I think discernment is interesting. And as I said, maybe we’ll get you to come talk to cubby about that directly. But just for our, for our re-inventors who are listening, what does that mean? And what is the first step to that?
ES: So having been in Catholic nun, I spent the first 18 years after college, always trying to listen to what God was calling me to. After I left the convent, I realized it’s the same dynamic only it’s my inner truth. What is my inner truth, calling me to. And so a few quick examples like this going to Harvard. I, you know, in January, I had no plans to move cross country, and I got this thing in the mail. And my whole body reacted, there was something in it, that it was the same way, I felt the same way I did. When I read in a different voice. Many years ago, when I was asked to consider coming in full time, there’s something that when we know, we know that we know. And so it’s paying attention to what your body is telling you. What is bringing you joy, and excitement? I mean, being in the throes of moving right now is a nightmare. Yes,
I keep saying, okay, in a month, I’m gonna be there in a month, I’m going to be. I can do anything. Right. And so the first thing is really waiting till you find some, I’ll give an example with a client, I was working with a woman who was the top legal adviser in a big company. And, you know, she was wildly successful. But she had reached a point where she knew she needed to do something different. And she was very attracted to all of the work going on on the environment. And so we talked it through, and she kept coming back to this. So I said, Well, let’s, why don’t you put together a proposal to the company and see if you can do it within the company, you know, first step, don’t jump out until right? She tried it, and they weren’t ready. Now, she could have stopped there and said, Oh, you know, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. But we kept pushing. And I kept encouraging her to listen to that poll. And she was scared to death to give up a good job to go explore something new, that she might not have come for. But when she did the analysis and saw that she had resources to carry her for a period of transition. I said, go, go spend time with the people who are the leaders in this group. And so suddenly, she started being invited to these meetings. And her joy and her excitement made it easy for her to say goodbye to her big job. And now she is just, she’s a leader in her company and her country. So it’s about starting from the inside out, sharing with people who will fan the flame. That’s what it requires is fanning the flame of the desire to move forward. Yes. And then there’s a process of how to weigh different options that I can get into another time.
LSJ: Right. That actually describes exactly what Covey does. You need a group that can do that for you and nobody. Oh, you know, it was really strange. When I first started Covey, I thought, well, it might be a little strange that women are going to get together with strangers. And do this. I have no idea if this is going to work or not. And what we discovered, especially through COVID, is that actually getting together with strangers is the key to the magic. Because they don’t see you the way you were. They see you only as the way you present yourself now they have no they have no dog in the race to keep you from changing as no threat to them. Whereas Lily, and that’s the magic. That’s what’s so interesting. If you move yourself into a group that has a stake only in you moving forward, it’s a very different animal.
ES: I also think that we as women are in a new epic, where we come together with a commitment to support each other to advocate for each other to share resources, that we’ve hit a point where we’re no longer only one or two, where there’s a feeling there is yes, so around scarcity. We are just in a new, fabulous epic, where women strike, you know, I kind of feel like, I don’t think we’re strangers. We’re just getting to know each other in a new way. Because we’re so united in our commitment to make life and the world better for women, that it’s really easy to connect.
LJS: With that, I’m going to give you my last question, which is where can people find you? They can find your book at amazon? Where can they find you? Do you have social media or a website?
ES: I have all kinds of social media. We’re on Facebook, we’re on LinkedIn. But the easiest way is all of it is on our new amazing website.
LJS: Ellen, thank you so much for all you do for women. And thank you for sharing. And thank you for being part of our podcast today. Oh,
ES: There’s nothing that gives me greater joy than being a part of a group like Covey. So I hope I can consider myself an honorary member.
LJS: You are an honorary member. I just need you to. Great. Thank you so much. All right. Take care.
Ellen Snee has been at the forefront of women’s leadership for more than 25 years. Dr. Snee brings strategy, research and executive experience to global companies and their top female talent. Her original research at Harvard University on women’s experience in roles of authority formed the foundation of her consulting and coaching work with Fortune 500 companies such as Cisco, Goodyear, Marriott, Pfizer and Schwab. Later, as the Global VP of Leadership Development at VMware, she launched the company’s groundbreaking business initiative, VMwomen, designed to attract, develop, advance and retain talented women. Her new book Lead: How Women in Charge Claim Their Authority makes her wisdom and experience accessible to all women seeking to accelerate their careers. Dr. Snee lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she continues to coach and advise women leaders and executives worldwide, and frequently speaks to companies and conferences.
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