This article, “The Curious Case of AOC” was published as part of Gwen’s Leadership Journey column in the Auburn Pub on March 21, 2019.
It’s Women’s History Month. One thing I know for sure is when women gather around important issues great things always happen! I believe this to be true with every fiber of my being. The numbers of women in the new freshman class in Congress exemplify my belief. However, their presence also makes me realize this belief is not held by everyone. I am particularly intrigued by dynamics surrounding my new favorite emerging woman leader: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a.k.a. AOC. I often refer to what is happening to her as the “curious case of AOC”. Why are so many people triggered by the presence of this confident, competent, courageous and calm woman leader?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the perfect example of what we refer to at Gwen, Inc. as an Unexpected Leader®. Her arrival in Congress provides an opportunity to exemplify the unique journey of this type of leader. Upon election AOC shattered the glass ceiling in Congress, arriving in Washington among a class of ”First, Only and Differents.” The country has never experienced this much diversity in the House of Representatives before.
The mere presence of AOC and her sister leaders in the House sends weekly shockwaves throughout the country. Since entering the Capitol Building there are daily challenges to her credibility. The focus is on her clothes, her speaking style, her intellect and even that she dared dance on a rooftop in college. How dare a 29-year-old Latina think she can have a voice in Congress? These challenges have little to do with qualifications. The challenges stem from unconscious bias and microaggression arising from the fact that no one expects it to be her. Let’s face it, Congress is not historically known for having in its ranks a young, hip, Latina, who is walking around like it is her birthright to be in office when, in fact, it is. AOC has Congress and America shook. With every step and tweet she focuses on making America great for all and building her legacy of leadership. AOC is not one bit scared. She reminds me of my mentees.
I monitor trend data which indicate that over the next 5-10 years approximately 85% of new entrants to the workforce will be millennial, female and people of color; the Unexpected Leaders are coming. The good news for companies is Unexpected Leaders always exceed expectations when employers create the right opportunities for them to succeed. Yet, as I work with leaders around the country on topics of leadership and diversity, like Congress, most companies don’t seem to believe the data is true. They don’t expect this to be the changing face of the workforce. I find this incredibly curious! As this demographic slowly emerges, they do so with expectations of being hired, recruited and positioned for leadership opportunities. We need to get ready people! AOC’s generation is on the move, and they are ready to lead.
Companies understanding this trend engage in specific strategies in anticipation of dealing with a workforce filled with Unexpected Leaders. These companies:
- Engage in business discussions about the emerging workforce
- Examine practices to reduce the impact of unconscious bias in hiring processes
- Train current leaders to manage bias and microaggression in the workplace
- Develop new leaders to manage diverse workplace teams
- Create affinity groups to support diverse employees
- Actively prepare high potential Unexpected Leaders for entry into the leadership pipeline
- Promote Unexpected Leaders
- Collect data to continually improve opportunities for Unexpected leaders
The dynamic of ‘unexpectedness” makes Unexpected Leaders seem the exception instead of the rule. Inside their respective communities there is an expectation for them to succeed, they are the rule. But this expectation doesn’t carry over as these leaders enter spaces and places where they become the “First, Only and Different.” There is work current leaders must do to open opportunities for those following in the footsteps of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her peers. In fact, if the trend data is correct, we have no option but to do this work. The pool for selecting future leaders will be millennial, female and people of color.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, you are on my mind more than ever during Women’s History Month. Thank you for being a brave Unexpected Leader. For girls and young women, the sky is the limit for leadership. I am so happy they are able to see you setting an example for them. Keep leading. Keep disrupting the status quo. Keep exceeding expectations. Keep rising!!