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Oh, to be a “woman in leadership”…


By Brynne Humphreys – Vice President of Client Services

You can’t peruse a Hudson News these days without seeing a business headline or two about females in ‘Corporate America’; articles fat with statistics about how female leaders are healthy for organizations, articles listing the top five things women can do to be better leaders, spotlights on successful women in successful companies doing successful work and so on.

Whenever I offer a point of view that is work-related, I feel the need to first declare that I truly understand how unique my job and company are.  I work for a comedy theater – the B2B arm of a comedy theater – but a plum job by any other name. Our interesting intersection is that we work closely with more “traditional” companies all year long, including major financial institutions, CPG brands, logistics firms and the like, and we are working behind the scenes with scores of F1000 organizations year after year. No doubt, this gives us a distinct opportunity to notice patterns, compare notes, and develop an anecdotal “This American Life” perspective and expertise for what is happening in Corporate America (C.A).

We recently ran a pilot session for a Second City Works Women in Leadership program.  We invited current and prospective clients to participate, letting them know that we were still in the design phase and we’d be looking to them for help shaping the program. As we began pulling together the elements of the program, we wanted to identify the major conventions present in the “WIL” narrative and how Second City’s POV squares against them.

Below are some conventions we encountered time and again and some challenges to these themes that are dominating the conversation.

**First thing we unraveled was that we do poorly when we speak in generalizations about all women.  Therefore, the following text is full of the opinions and ramblings of Brynne Humphreys, not necessarily every alumni of The Second City.  **

Conventions we read/hear about “Women in Leadership”

Statistics on why it is business savvy: I appreciate a good ROI and understand that this is how we make strategic decisions. I do start to furrow my brow when I read an article that makes the fiscal case on why promoting and grooming women in leadership roles makes ‘business sense’. In contemporary Corporate America, we are in the tricky gray area of needing to make conscious decisions about hiring and promotion so that we may ‘right the ship’, so to speak.  We need to actively put women in leadership roles so we can overcome inherent bias in the ‘natural order of things’.  Long term, success for women is when there are not arguments made for your advancement based on statistics.  I’ll be blunt:  my gender is not helping my company’s bottom line.  Fair, balanced, and non-sexist business practices along with an inclusive company culture are probably more accurate contributors.   Causation or correlation?

I’d be curious to see how much better men perform in an organization that has a culture of inclusion and a true ‘ensemble dynamic’

Soft Word Choices/Saying “Sorry”/How to be More Aggressive

We heard a lot about seminars, books, and workshops for women that focused on language or apologizing or being more aggressive. Oh, what another gray area we are in!  What slippery slopes we do face! I acknowledge my own tendency – one that I have worked to overcome – to use exclamation points!  At the end of every sentence!  To show how nice I am!  And to add unnecessary words such as “like” and “just”. Leave it to me to take a simple thought “Do you have the signed contract?” and ask it in the most watered down way possible “Sorry to pester, but I just wanted to reach out to see if your team had received the contract?  Do you have any questions?” I work to find balance in how I frame things so that I can be most effective and this sometimes means editing my initial language. However, the tenets of improvisation tells us that most people give information in the way that they like to receive it. And that leads me to believe that I have some clients (male and female) who might prefer to hear the “softer” version of my contract request. All this is to say that when there are workshops for women that encourage behavior change, especially “more like a ‘man’” behavior change, we aren’t looking at the complete picture.  And when we accuse women of behavior that men also exhibit, we’re manipulating the conversation. It is a statistical truth that there are more women working than ever before and they are entering industries and business cultures that are firmly established.  Rather than teaching them how to conform to contemporary business, what if we left some room for them to redefine it?

Women Hate Other Women

This surfaced recently at a pilot workshop we held. Research was quoted by a participant, citing that women are more likely to ‘stand in the way of’ other women. Many in the room vehemently disagreed with this, while others didn’t find it surprising at all. Personally, I am torn by this notion. My experience has been that woman grow up judging women more harshly than men because of the judgement we heap on ourselves. However, my professional experience has been one of support, encouragement and nurture from many of my colleagues and bosses, male or female.   Ultimately, this feels like a very rich area for dialogue AND a potential ‘de-railer’.  In our pilot session, the person who brought this up again and again… was a man. While I believe it was unintentional, it had the effect of actually changing the conversation each time it was surfaced. The point wasn’t connected to the larger narrative, nor did it have anywhere it could really go – it simply ended up derailing the conversation and changing focus.

More than anything, I am curious:  what conventions play out for other women (and men) in Corporate America? Which ones hold true against your experiences and which ones would you throw in the garbage?

Become others-focused to see another POV,  D&I,  I don't want to make the wrong move on D&I,  talent development,  training development



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