This past Saturday, I got up early cursing and swearing at myself. Why the hell did I think to apply for an event that was scheduled to start between 8 and 9am on a Saturday? However looking back at the day, there is literally nothing better I could have spent my day doing than taking part in the Panda contest, a career competition for female leadership talent. 100 women were selected out of 500 applicants and met bright and early in the foyer of the Esplanade hotel in Berlin.
Now, as some of you know I have grown a little hesitant about all-women’s events lately, so I was a little skeptical of the concept at first. However I figured that it should be fun: I have always been fond of mind games, and I guess you could say that amongst my family, analysing ourselves and each other is a bit of a sport.
In my professional life, I have gone through a couple of online assessments in the past, both of which I found quite fascinating. One of them held little surprise for me – I could have predicted the entire list of results even whilst I was doing the test. The second however shed light on some aspects of my character of which I was aware, but which I would not have seen to be as dominant as the results of the assessment suggested.
However, having spent the last six years outside of larger organisations and thus stirring in my own juice, I was curious for external feedback. Plus, I guess you can’t really grow up with two older brothers and not somehow end up being a teensy bit competitive.
I have to admit that I did not know what to expect, so I habitually expected very little. I could not have been more wrong. I was thrilled to discover that I was spending an extremely well-organised day with more than 100 incredibly inspiring, driven women. Women who – like me – are willing to go an extra mile. Who are keen to learn, keen for feedback, keen to compete – all in a collegial, deeply respectful spirit that was just as willing to challenge (and be challenged) as it was positive and fun.
As many of you know I have always felt more comfortable in the presence of men (and boys) than women. The Panda contest was one of the very few – if not even the first – occasion during which I actively enjoyed being completely surrounded by women. Which made me love the fact even more that most of the judging was done in the style of a ‘crowd ranking’, and there was a speed feedback session after each exercise: we were judged by the other women, not by a panel of judges applying a certain set of criteria. As Susanne, one of the other participants, put it: “Every comment I receive here, no matter if it’s praise or criticism, is a compliment, because I am surrounded by my peers.” I couldn’t agree more. I was equally thrilled and humbled by being surrounded by women who expect so much of themselves – and even more so with each round of the competition in which I received positive feedback, and made it to the next level.
I had been hoping for the top 20 (as I mentioned, I do have a competitive streak), and having made it thus far, I dared to hope for a spot amongst the top 10. Leaving the room after an intense Q&A session with our ‘grand jury’, Dr. Angelika Dammann, Prof. Dr. Ulrike Detmers and Karin Bollo, I was both happy and exhausted and did not really assume I’d have to worry about anything beyond dinner and a nice glass of wine to finish off an amazing day. When my name was called as one of the four finalists, it was simply the cherry on the cake, and nothing could have made me happier. (Okay, that’s a lie. Of course winning would have been even better, but both winners, Stephanie and Sanja, are such amazing women that coming second to them and sharing that position with someone like Nicola, the fourth in our circle, is a compliment all in itself.)
When I came online today and invitations to connect on Xing, Linkedin and Facebook started popping up in my inbox, I realised one more wonderful thing about the event: for all of us, reaching out to the other participants was a completely logical, natural step. Networking with men, I have grown a little weary of connecting on the day after the event, because it is sometimes misunderstood. Not in this case – on the contrary, it would have felt weird to NOT connect. I have certainly met a few women this past Saturday who I hope will become friends in the future. And the amazing feedback I received from all of these women has been a great encouragement to me: an encouragement to stretch further, to learn more, and to be proud of who I am. But also to be more aware of the great women around me, to connect, to listen and to share our passion for the lives we’ve chosen.
I’d like to extend my Thanks to Isabelle and Cameron, the amazing organisers of the Panda contest. I had an amazing day, and I can’t wait to see what you guys come up with next!