Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on happiness and human performance. Grace writes a regular column on Happiness & Leadership for WRAL TechWire.


 RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – I am incredibly grateful that my work allows me to engage in a topic that everyone wants to figure out  – how to become happier.  And thanks to the science of positive psychology, we know that the happiness advantage accelerates success, enabling leaders to have the most impact.

Last week, I traveled west to speak to two groups of seasoned women leaders.

grace women leaders

Grace Ueng, fourth from left in top row, meets with women executives. (Photo courtesy of Grace Ueng)

 Happiness Fireside Chat with Leaders of Portfolio Companies

My first stop was a fireside chat on the topic of Happiness. My audience was senior women leaders in the portfolio companies of a west coast private equity firm with $70 billion of assets under management. The women listened with rapt attention, taking notes, and asking many good questions.

I was asked if I coach many women and what have been my findings regarding women and confidence. In the last twenty years, while I have worked with many male CEOs, I have also been asked to be the coach and thinking partner for many female CEOs and senior leaders.

I’ve also been asked to meet with student athletes on the winningest women’s soccer team in the nation, UNC Chapel Hill, winner of  22 of 35 ACC championships and 21 of 41 NCAA national championships.  In that work, I was told that UNC Coach Anson Dorrance, holder of one of the most successful coaching records in the history of athletics, has all his women athletes read, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know.

Confidence trumps competence

 I wanted to make sure my audience knew what I learned from this required reading: that success correlates more closely with confidence than it does with competence. Evidence shows that confidence is more important than ability, when it comes to getting ahead. Confidence trumps IQ in predicting success. Confidence is partly genetic, around 25%.

There is another portion that psychologists call “volitional”, our choice. Researchers found the power of habitual thinking creates physical changes and new neural pathways in our brains, which reinforce and even override genetics. So we can overcome our genes by our thoughts.

Women often ruminate and over prepare

For my first Fortune 50 board interview sixteen years ago, I reached out to a couple of male friends for their advice. They simply said, “Be yourself.” Women who lack the confidence of many of their male counterparts compensate by being thoroughly prepared. It can be exhausting. I prepared a great deal to understand the company and its key issues. I found it fascinating, akin to prepping like I did for every class at Harvard Business School,  in the chance I was the chosen 1 of 80 students, cold-called to open the case. Then, despite my hours of preparation and pages of notes, I often froze in class, unable to say even one word with all the hands high up in the air of classmates vying for airtime.

I tell my coaching clients when giving key stakes presentations, to throw away their notes. I learned the hard way, as I did my first TED talk with note cards in hand. I realized I would have been better off just being natural, instead of recounting every word exactly. Perfectionism keeps us from action. Men don’t tend to overthink it. Instead, for them issues are quite simple and hence they often communicate more clearly and succinctly from the boardroom to the bedroom.

Don’t worry so much about pleasing people

One client told me in the first week of my work with her, “I seek truth, not comfort.” This CEO grew to international acclaim. Top leaders don’t pay me to say niceties to them. They have enough adulators already doing that. They need direct feedback that can make them better, stronger leaders so they can in turn, improve their companies.

Safe Spaces

The group of women leaders of the PE firm’s portfolio companies were grateful for the safe space that was created by their investor and me, as part of the firm’s programming designed to focus on the recruitment, retention and advancement of diverse employees.

The next group I traveled to speak to was Harvard Business School’s Section W.  My co-founder, Lily Chang, and I started this group for the women in our business school class.

Last year, after my 30th HBS reunion, where I got to see my Lily, I reached out to her and said,

Just did a podcast where I spoke about how women can learn a thing or two from men who have helped each other for years.  We can do more of the same!!”

She wrote back sharing examples of how guys in her section started a PE fund together and how over the decades they have helped each other with their job searches.

I then asked Lily if she wanted to start Section W, a group for the women in our class, with me. We had spent all of our first year class time in nine sections of students from Section A through Section I, so this was a play on what we knew from the past.

She responded, “Yes! Love Section W.  Honored you asked me.  Let’s do it!”

Our first zoom – taking off the mask

Lily has been the best co-founder. In different sections, we didn’t know each other well at school. I did know she was very smart and capable, and most importantly, has a heart for lifting up women. It’s been a joy to partner with her to positively impact women.

We surveyed the 200+ women in our class and asked their interest in Section W and topics they’d like us to delve into. Happiness and mental wellbeing came up on top. Lily suggested our kick-off zoom be a fireside chat with her interviewing me. We had such an overwhelmingly positive reaction and outpouring of interest in our first meeting, that Lily volunteered me to do “Happiness Part II” for our next zoom.

Remembering the competitive atmosphere of first year at HBS, women who were initially hesitant to join the kick-off Zoom, quickly realized that we all were very relieved to remove our masks and share the struggles, losses, failures of the last three decades as well as celebrate our successes. The insecurities we had 30 years ago when we were trying to be like our male classmates, had evaporated.

Left to right at Art Walk at Dallas Museum of Art: Pyper Davis, Lori MacIsaac, Grace Ueng, Beverly Bittner Grassby, Nia Katsapis. (Photo courtesy of Grace Ueng)

3 Zooms later, first in person retreat in Dallas

In our retreat workshops this past weekend, we talked about the importance of creating a safe space, one that has psychological safety.

Every company wants to have high performing teams. I shared the work of HBS Professor Amy Edmonson

and findings from Project Aristotle, Google’s multi-year endeavor to find the perfect team and to figure out why some stumbled and some soared.

Led by Google’s best statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists and engineers, the team pored over half a century of academic studies as well as tons of data around the composition of the 180 teams they studied. Experts in analytics and finding definitive patterns, they had trouble finding a formula of what types of people to put together on a team in order to succeed.


Instead, they observed, two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared:

  • Equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking
  • Average social sensitivity

What do these two attributes really mean?

With the first, at the end of each day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount.  As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well. But if only one person or a small group dominated the conversation, the collective intelligence declined.


Sharing and Pairing

Section W member, Kris Pederson, EY Americans Center for Board Matters Leader, led an informative workshop for us, “Women on Boards” sharing her team’s playbook for aspiring directors. Included was a panel of two retired EY partners, who are now board directors as well as Section W co-founder Lily Chang, of Leonard Green & Partners, who serves on the boards of Jo-Ann Stores and Big 5 Sporting Goods.

We then paired up to talk through each other’s board director pitches and plans, supporting and lifting each woman up.

EY Women on Boards Panel Kris Pederson facilitating (far left), Lily Chang (second from right)

EY Women on Boards Panel Kris Pederson facilitating (far left), Lily Chang (second from right)

30 Years and Crystalized Intelligence

Several times during the weekend, different women would marvel and ask as we enjoyed the energy of our group,  “why did it take us 30 years to do this?”

I stated my belief that earlier we would not have been ready.  Others agreed saying we were too busy raising children, struggling to balance caring for our families and our careers.  I also did not think decades earlier we were mentally ready.  I noticed at each of our HBS reunions, we became kinder to each other as we aged. There was less and less competitiveness and comparison, and instead more confiding and collaboration.

In my Happiness session of our retreat,  I covered the concept of crystallized intelligence, wisdom that only comes through experience. HBS Professor Arthur Brooks shared this concept at our 30th reunion from his book, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.

One of the requests I left Section W is to figure out how to leverage each individual’s unique crystalized intelligence, to have the impact we each want in order to make our world a better place.

Our final Section W dinner at lovely home of classmate Nancy Schmitt, President of HBS Club of Dallas

One classmate attending was Beth Burrough, a healthcare founder and entrepreneur, who has focused on ventures in healthcare and social impact including autism and mental health. Her current venture Dayrise Wellness provides mental health therapy for teens and adolescents with their first market being Chicago.  She is using her crystallized intelligence from her decades of healthcare experience to impact key challenges our world faces.

Last night upon arriving home, she sent a note of appreciation,

Dear Marla, Nancy, Kris, Linda, Grace and Lily,

Thank you all for the herculean effort you put into this first meeting of Section W!  We are all so grateful for your time, passion and brilliance!  I think many of us feel recharged, refreshed and re-energized through the new and deeper friendships we formed and by the new knowledge and “Happy” “Disruptive” thinking that will now light our path forward. 

With much gratitude,


 This started a string of gratitude from others:

Adding my rule for life, (stolen from Sahil Bloom): Find the room where it happens. Get in that room. Once you’re in it, help others get there. What a powerful force we have unleashed! LET’S DO THIS…..

Many thanks to Lily and Grace for bringing us together!  Am grateful for our timeless friendships and the warm memories we shared this weekend. It’s truly wonderful to “authentically lead” the way forward for Section W and expand our reach to other classmates.  This is our time. Let’s go ladies!!

 We now want to share this energy with other women in our class and help to build them up also.

Legacy leaders versus Transformative leaders

 One important point that I discussed with both groups of women leaders is how legacy leaders think happiness and wellbeing is something that companies are not responsible or should discuss at work.  Instead, they consider these topics appropriate only for personal life at home.

Transformative and enlightened leaders, however, know that they share responsibility for employee wellbeing including structure and job crafting for employees to be in the best fit roles for them to have impact they find meaningful.

Which kind of leader do you want to be?

About Grace Ueng

Grace is a strategy consultant,  leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth. Her company offers workshops to move teams forward: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn. Transformative companies hire Grace to deliver her HappinessWorks program to boost performance. Join her Happiness & Leadership community and learn to be a happier and better leader: click here