Tips for Career Reinvention & Leadership Speaking: Interview with Dr. Laura Penn
What does it look like to embark on a journey of career reinvention, master the art of leadership speaking, and advocate for positive change in the world by empowering leaders to enhance their leadership speaking skills? In this illuminating interview with Dr. Laura Penn, the founder of The Leadership Speaking School, we explore four central themes that shape her remarkable story. Dr. Penn's tale of transformation begins with her candid admission, 'I had taken three years off after completing my doctorate and was ready to land and expand. I was truly eager to return to work in my field, which is conservation science, but I couldn't find any opportunities.' As we delve into her experiences and insights, we'll unravel the importance of career reinvention, the transferable skills she acquired from her conservation biology background, the challenges faced by women reentering the workforce in Switzerland, the array of career and leadership speaking tips that can help you advance your career, and the various training programs offered by The Leadership Speaking School (which has already educated a diverse range of students, including industry leaders, academics, finalists of the Louis Vuitton Prize, and many others). Dr. Penn's journey serves as a beacon of inspiration, emphasizing the call to dare to be remarkable and reminding us that transformation is attainable with resilience, courage, and a pursuit of excellence.
Interview by Sorina Matthey de l'Endroit, PhD
I like to call this my founder's story. This happened as a result of a confluence of events in my life in 2010. Essentially, I had a lifetime of globe-trotting—from my childhood, through my career, and while working with my family. We arrived in Switzerland in 2009. At that point, I was in my late thirties, raising two small children. I had taken three years off after completing my doctorate and was ready to land and expand. I was truly eager to return to work in my field, which is conservation science, but I couldn't find any opportunities. It was a horrible, horrible, horrible first year of searching and grinding for opportunities. Unfortunately, no doors were opened, no windows were cracked for me to slip through, and no basement doors were unlocked for me to enter through. It felt like a lockdown.
But I did have an opportunity, let's call it, to keep this metaphor going, a basement window, <laugh>, that I found an opening to write a book for a conservation organization. This opening brought me into a place where many conservation professionals worked. There, I started attending what were called brown bag lectures. In these lectures, individuals would come back from their field missions and talk while people ate lunch. One after another, I noticed every single time that my colleagues who were speaking were failing at delivering their presentations. They were failing in every possible way when speaking in front of audiences, ticking all the boxes of what not to do: mumbling, using too many slides, avoiding eye contact, lacking accessibility, and having closed body language like pretzels. I thought to myself, 'This is a problem.'
This is a problem because these messages of conservation are critical. Conservation science, as we all know, is a crisis discipline. The wildlife and the wild places that depend on these scientists to communicate effectively are at risk. So that was my aha moment. I thought, 'Let me stop the bus right now. I have tools from my background. I have a lifetime of performing arts. There are tools there. I have years and years of teaching. There are tools there, and I have my background in conservation biology. There are tools there.' So, I founded a club called 'Communicating Environment' within this large conservation organization. I field-tested this idea of whether I could help my colleagues promote conservation through effective public speaking. That became the foundation for what is today the Leadership Speaking School, where I now train global leaders, teams, and change-makers how to speak with impact, authenticity, and human connection. But it all started back in 2009-2010, from those brown bag lectures. That was the beginning of this movement that I have initiated.
Q2. Based on your professional experiences and personal life choices, I would like to ask: What are your views on career reinvention? And what are some of the transferable skills you noticed as helpful to have acquired during your prior career in the field of conservation biology, which you can now apply to your current career?"
I attend the “church” of career reinvention, <laugh>. This is, or rather, this was my swan song. You see, I'm a child of the 1970s, born in the early seventies, and I was raised during a time when people typically had one job throughout their lives. You went to school, pursued that one career, and everything followed a very linear path. When I attended university in the nineties, that linear trajectory was still prevalent: conservation, ecology, conservation biology, organic chemistry – you name it, I had to do it. So, my upbringing had this strong linear aspect.
However, thanks to my education, I attended a liberal arts college in the United States called Vassar College, where I not only learned how to be a biologist but also had a fantastic opportunity to receive a liberal arts education. I spent three years in a dance company, studied African American women's literature, and remained a hardcore scientist. That's what a liberal arts education does. It's where I discovered the concept of reinvention, the idea that you could pursue multiple interests simultaneously, and it was perfect for who I was. I consider myself a student of reinvention, and I owe much of it to my liberal arts background, which nurtured me into a flexible thinker capable of connecting the different facets of my life and reinventing myself as I described at the beginning of our interview.
It was this ability to rearrange the molecules of my life, as it were, that enabled me to think differently and dare to be remarkable. So, absolutely, reinvention is something that should be embraced in today's world, especially in the 21st century. It's a way of life. It's important to recognize that life unfolds in waves, cycles of contraction and expansion. Things may ebb away only to flow back in. In the story I shared with you, I went through a phase of contraction during that year when I struggled to find work and felt completely hopeless and helpless. Then, through the plasticity of my mind and the connections I made, I expanded back out – reinvention, you might say. They should make a T-shirt that says 'Reinvention = Daring to be remarkable.'
Question 3. I have noticed that it is overall difficult for women who live in Switzerland to obtain a job if they choose to take a few years off work to raise a family, adapt to a new country, or for any other reasons. What are your views on this topic?
I was confronted with the reality of being a woman taking time off to raise my family and embark on a career break. It was a rather abrupt awakening, and I had no inkling that this would be the path I would cross. I can't fathom what I was thinking. I suppose I believed that my extensive skills would make me a desirable candidate, and this would be fantastic. However, it soon became evident that I was now competing with men who hadn't experienced career interruptions. So, the individuals landing the jobs I coveted were typically these 36-year-old men <laugh>, although perhaps that was a mere coincidence, but I suspect otherwise. They had maintained a seamless career trajectory, whereas I had taken that hiatus, and I felt, to put it bluntly, penalized for it.
I somehow felt as though I needed to start from scratch, even after having demonstrated my abilities through years of dedication in my career and the arduous journey of obtaining my PhD, which, as we all know, is a seriously hard undertaking. I had to begin anew, and I had to approach it with humility. Writing that book during that year, earning hardly any income from it when I aspired to be working in a high-end conservation role, was a blow to my ego. However, when I began conversing with other women in similar circumstances here in Switzerland, I started to grasp the overall situation. My story was not unique. It appeared to be a prevalent issue, which is truly regrettable because women seeking to return to work are likely some of the best candidates you can hire. This holds particularly true for women who are simultaneously raising young children, given their exceptional time management skills and determination to accomplish tasks efficiently. They have the potential to be exceptionally productive and resourceful employees, if only employers were tuned-in enough to hire women in that phase of life.
Q4. Could you please describe who are your main customers and what are the different type of paid trainings you provide?
I like to refer to the individuals I work with as my students, not customers, because I see myself as a teacher. The people I instruct are leaders, teams, and change-makers, as I affectionately call them, hailing from some of the world's most renowned companies, organizations, and academic institutions. What I do is teach my students how to communicate with impact, authenticity, and human connection in the digital age. I accomplish this through three distinct approaches.
First, I offer a highly intensive program tailored to individual leaders. I call it 'Leadership Speaking Core.' This is my transformational teaching program, where I work with a select group of only six individuals at a time. Admission is highly competitive, requiring applicants to formally apply and to undergo an interview process with me before being chosen to participate. Over the course of three days, participants undergo a remarkable transformation as communicators, they have a comprehensive makeover in their communication skills during this short period. It's almost like a miracle <laugh> to witness the changes that occur during this training. I love this program and it’s where I can go really deep with my students to create lasting change on a cellular level.
Additionally, I provide training for teams, both virtually and in live settings, through my masterclass program. These classes are well-known for their dynamic, interactive, and participatory approach. I teach by engaging the body, as what the body learns, the brain remembers. Consequently, the learning process is incredibly embodied, fostering team building and active participation. During these sessions, I introduce the 'Leadership Speaking Toolbox,' an arsenal of potent tools related to presence, voice, body, and audience connection that are universally applicable across all forms of communication.
Lastly, I offer keynote speaking where I speak at conferences around the world about the importance of Leadership Communication for Leaders of the Digital Age. As a keynote speaker, I address audiences ranging for up to an hour, and I speak in front of audiences in the hundreds and sometimes thousands.
Q5. I noticed that you also advise University of Geneva faculty members to adapt their lectures to the University’s online teaching platform. Could you please elaborate on that?
This is one of my favorite activities. I have my hands in many pots, and I remember one instance when a student remarked, 'Dr. Penn, it seems like there isn't a single week that's the same as another week for you, is there?' I replied, 'No, because every week is different.' In the example that you mention, I had a wonderful experience working with three computer programming professors to enhance their performance in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), as we all know them in academia. They needed my assistance, and I took them from “Zero to Hero” in terms of their on-camera communication. We went deep into my favorite topics: How to make your message matter, saying what you mean and meaning what you say, and the power of personal presence and how to manage it for speaking on camera.
A few weeks later, we gathered in a digital studio to film their MOOC content. We had the privilege of using the facilities at RTS, the Radio Television Swiss headquarters, for this session. I conducted a warm-up session, reminding them of the tools they had acquired, and they smoothly delivered their performances. This experience transformed the way they engaged with the camera, which, in essence, meant authentically connecting with their audience. Consequently, the students who will be learning from those MOOCs will benefit from the massive improvements that were made. So, yes, this is just one example of the kind of work I do. In addition to the three primary areas I mentioned earlier—Leadership Speaking Core, Masterclasses, and Keynote Speaking—I also engage extensively with startups and teach them how to “pitch to win”.
One of my most cherished clients is the Louis Vuitton design house (LVMH). I work with nine of the finalists of the Louis Vuitton Prize, a prestigious design competition. My role involves supporting them to win the coveted prize.
Q6. To help those interested in improving their communication skills, or “leadership speaking”, you also provide a variety of free content online, such as: a podcast show, a book, and four TEDx talks. What are some other examples of work or education ideas that any professionals might like to consider undertaking so that they can improve their “leadership speaking” skills?
The first thing to consider is your awareness of the need for this training in the first place. This is one of the initial criteria I assess when interviewing candidates for Leadership Speaking Core or when working one-on-one with executives. Do they truly want to do this work? Because if the answer is no, then it's futile. You can't embark on this journey half-heartedly. It's akin to pursuing a doctorate halfway; success won't be achievable. You need to have an open mindset and you need to be awake to the fact that you need and want this training. Only then can you become coachable <laugh> and begin the work. That's the first step.
Practically speaking, there are various ways to support your journey, and I'll provide two examples:
The long-term approach involves taking initiative yourself and seeking opportunities, such as joining Toastmasters. Toastmasters International is one of the most effective public speaking clubs globally, with hundreds of thousands of members worldwide and thousands of clubs. In Switzerland alone, there are multiple clubs, including several in Geneva and several in Lausanne. I even founded a club in Nyon, ten years ago. You can easily find your nearest club by visiting www.toastmasters.org. It's a place where you can participate in public speaking activities with others who share the same objective. As a member, you work on various speaking projects and deliver different speeches, constantly improving and honing your skills. Fellow Toastmasters evaluate your performances and provide constructive feedback, creating a nurturing environment for growth through evaluation and trial and error. Toastmasters is undoubtedly a valuable resource for those who are eager and open to doing this work.
Another effective approach, which is a shorter route, is to implement the aforementioned method but seek guidance from a professional teacher. In my career, one of the most significant steps I took was in 2019 when I enlisted the help of a famous business coach to elevate my company further. She saved me five years of attempting to achieve it on my own. In a single day of intensive training with her, my learning was accelerated and turbocharged. If this approach interests you, find a teacher whom you respect and admire. Successful speakers leave behind clues. Follow those clues to locate a teacher you are inspired by. Learning from them will propel you to an entirely new and much higher level.
Regarding this question, it's worth noting that being a Leadership Speaking Coach is a relatively new profession. I don't refer to myself as a coach because that term feels inadequate to describe the profound personal transformation that occurs on a cellular level in the individuals whom I am fortunate enough to teach—my students. The most critical aspect of this journey is understanding that you can't become an expert on your own. It's essential to convey this to individuals who aspire to undertake this path. It's not a do-it-yourself situation where you watch countless YouTube videos, attempt to teach yourself, read all the books, or watch TED Talks. Instead, you need guidance and training from others who specialize in various elements of this field. You must excel in teaching and have the ability to create engaging and activating lesson plans. Facilitation is another skill set to master, involving understanding the room's atmosphere, audience response, and strategies for engaging diverse audiences. Naturally, you must be highly skilled in public speaking, involving advanced techniques. Actively participating in Toastmasters contests is crucial for advancement in this area, and I achieved the title of European Champion of Evaluation Speeches in 2013, thanks to this rigorous training.
Furthermore, seeking out and learning from respected teachers is vital. I have been fortunate to be trained by some of the most exceptional women I know. For instance, Patsy Rodenburg is one of the world's most remarkable teachers in voice and presence, and she is my teacher. Kristin Linklater, who authored 'Freeing the Natural Voice,' was also my teacher. Gisela Rocha is my teacher in the realm of movement for life and body communication. Therefore, aspiring leaders in the field of leadership speaking must seek out teachers they admire and respect, in addition to putting in the effort to elevate themselves through individual work. This comprehensive approach is what's needed to grow and excel in this domain.
Question 7. Reflecting on your career trajectory, is there a professional activity, or choice, that you made in the past, which you believe has helped shape your career for the better?
It's challenging to pinpoint just one factor. I've turned 51 this year, so I've been reflecting quite a bit on my journey and the elements that have contributed to shaping the person I am today. While it's a culmination of many years, there are a couple of key ingredients that stand out in crafting my path.
One fundamental aspect was my relentless pursuit of stage time. This drive started when I was in school and continued through my graduation. Whether it was dancing, theater, or any opportunity to be in front of an audience, I seized it. This quest for stage time was undeniably one of the most critical elements.
Additionally, I took on a role as a tour guide at my college, a position I held for three years. I guided prospective students and their families all around the campus. This experience provided me with yet another platform for stage time, albeit in a different form.
Subsequently, I became a teacher at zoos, where I was a senior instructor in “Zoo School”. Sharing the wonders of the natural world with thousands of visitors. I spent five years doing this, accumulating countless teaching hours. Malcolm Gladwell's concept of dedicating 20,000 hours to become an expert resonates here, and I amassed my 20,000 ++ hours during those zoo years, teaching at places like the Bronx Zoo, London Zoo, and the Central Park Zoo.
Lastly, I wrote two books to solidify my expertise. (I’m currently working on the next one, so watch this space!) To truly understand and master the subject matter, I needed to ground myself in the knowledge and content. There were many, many stages along the way that contributed to my journey, and all these dots eventually connected to shape the person I am today.
Question 8. Would you like to share any remarks and/or suggestions with junior-level professionals, interested in following a similar line of work to? And, based on your experience, what advice or insights would you offer to recent doctoral graduates looking to channel their skills and qualities into a new career path?
It begins with that awakening I mentioned earlier – being attuned to the fire burning within you, that desire for more. Then, it requires the skills you've honed as a doctoral student: grit, resilience, courage, and insatiable curiosity. These qualities from your doctoral journey are transferable to this pursuit. Lastly, I encourage you all to dare to be remarkable. Dare to design the life you envision, connecting the dots between your strengths, passions, interests, talents, and genius. Dare to create that life so you can truly live your life as the best version of yourself.
Thank you Sorina, it has been such a privilege to speak with you. To learn more about what I do, I invite you to connect with me on LinkedIn. You can also find me on Instagram as Laura Penn PhD, under the Craft of Leadership Speaking. And, of course, please visit my website at www.theleadershipspeakingschool.com
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The Leadership Speaking School | Switzerland
Illustrations: The main article photo and the profile photo were made available by Dr. Laura Penn.