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Graduates and supporters of the Judy Project share their stories in ‘The Collective Wisdom of High-Performing Women’

May 14, 2019

Among the many things that Jennifer Gillivan, president and CEO of IWK Foundation, has learned through her impressive career is that all women have stories to tell — especially women who have been continually dismissed, excluded from discussions and faced other barriers, yet still managed to persevere.

The new book The Collective Wisdom of High-Performing Women: Leadership Lessons from the Judy Project (Barlow Books, April 2019) captures a wide range of stories and important lessons.

The idea for the book — which is easy to follow and hard to put down— was born out of conversations among high-powered Canadian business women who participated in the Judy Project, a five-day leadership forum offered by the Initiative for Women in Business at the Rotman School. The program, which supports executive-level women as they enter and make their way up the highest ranks of the C-suite, was inspired by the late Judy Elder, a prominent and inspiring business leader at Microsoft.

The Judy Project, which has graduated over 450 women to date, covers essential topics, including the art of personal branding, leadership during times of organizational crisis and designing the future. The program takes a unique approach by integrating exercises based in self-reflection, taking time to dissect and examine stereotypes and biases concerning women in leadership roles, and focusing on how women can challenge — and overcome — instances of bias or exclusion in the workplace.

“The Judy Project is about learning how to own your ambition.”

—Jennifer Gillivan, President and CEO of IWK Foundation

The true value of the course is becoming part of the network, understanding how to harness ambition and power and walking away with a true grasp of what it takes to be a leader.

“This is the most powerful course that I’ve ever completed,” says Gillivan, who is a past Judy Project participant. “The Judy Project is about learning how to own your ambition.”

Gillivan also remembers how it was typical for participants to grab dinner at the end of the day and swap stories. As the evenings wore on, many women shared pivotal moments from their lives and reflected on the lessons they’d learned.

“There were just so many amazing moments, and we realized that we had to bring these stories to wider audience,” she explains. “We wanted to share these lessons with the women who hadn’t yet experienced the Judy Project or who are still trying to find their path.”

Approximately 70 business leaders — past participants, speakers and other supporters of the Judy Project — contributed stories on the ten characteristics of great leaders, from demonstrating courage to making connections.

Gillivan submitted two stories — one about accepting an apology from a female colleague who had behaved unprofessionally towards her, and another about how her grandmother stood up for her when she was bullied by school administrators as a child.

“Both stories talk about situations when I got my power back,” explains Gillivan. “I wanted women to understand how they are actually in control of our power. It is up to them to decide whether they will give it up.” 

“Once women learn how to embrace their power and get out of their own way, they will be unstoppable.”

Success isn't achieved in isolation

Photo of Cheri ChevalierFor Cheri Chevalier, a graduate of the Judy Project, the main lessons she learned through the program and from Judy Elder, herself, centre on the idea that success isn’t achieved alone.

In the book, she writes about first meeting Elder when she had just started at Microsoft.

“Judy had this innate belief in me, and it had a profound impact in how I saw and thought of myself,” describes Chevalier, who runs global sales for marketing solutions at Microsoft.

“It’s important for more women to seek out opportunities to be part of the conversation and to use their voices.”

—Cheri Chevalier, Worldwide Sales Lead, Marketing Solutions, Microsoft

“Now I try to get the people I manage to recognize their strengths and to think more broadly about their career possibilities. I want them to see the range of possibilities that are open to them.”

Additionally, she wants women to use their voices as they ascend into leadership positions.

“Even as more women are assuming top management positions, we hear from them less often in the media or industry events,” she says. “Judy and other powerful women have encouraged me to speak up. It’s important for more women to seek out opportunities to be part of the conversation and to use their voices.”

Finding perspective through a supportive network

Photo of Paula KnightMeanwhile, others wrote about finding strength and perspective from the people around them, including the network they had developed through the Judy Project.

Paula Knight, vice-president of people, strategy and communications at Cancer Care Ontario, shared a story about feeling unsure of the future, and whether to pursue a job opportunity she initially felt unqualified for.

At the time, she doubted whether she might be equipped to handle a demanding, new career and family life. She found clarity through a Judy Project exercise where Knight had invited colleagues and friends to share written comments with her.

Knight was surprised to read one commenter’s heartfelt notes describing her warmth and compassion.

The feedback encouraged her to apply for — and ultimately land — the role.

“We tend to be so hard on ourselves and we think in a very linear way,” she says. “That experience taught me how multidimensional we are, and how it helps to seek an outside perspective.”

“The Judy Project shows you the true strength and power of women when they come together.”

—Paula Knight, Vice-President, People, Strategy and Communications, Cancer Care Ontario

Knight, who had worked at Microsoft and had known of and admired Elder, was selected to serve on a steering committee that provided input on the design of the program. As Knight rose through the ranks at Microsoft, she vowed to make it into the Judy Project one day. The efforts paid off.

“The Judy Project shows you the true strength and power of women when they come together,” she says. “I learned the importance of seeing who I truly am and what I can contribute. I hope this book helps women understand this for themselves.”

Written by Rebecca Cheung

The Collective Wisdom of High-Performing Women -- book cover

The Collective Wisdom of
High-Performing Women:
Leadership Lessons from the Judy Project

Available now from Indigo and Amazon.

The Judy Project

Past participants discuss why The Judy Project is a valuable investment.