20 Mar 2020

Arianna Huffington’s Visit—and Advice—to HBS via Livestream on International Women’s Day

Arianna Huffington on her mission to help women thrive and how recharging is crucial to leading through uncertain times.

by Shona Simkin

On the afternoon of Monday, March 9, Arianna Huffington spoke to the Harvard Business School community in a special edition of the Dean’s Speaker Series in honor of International Women's Day. Huffington appeared in Klarman Hall via livestream from her home in California, a planned virtual conversation that now seems incredibly prescient given the rapid cascade of cancellations and restrictions from Covid-19. While originally anticipating hundreds of students, faculty, and staff seated comfortably within Klarman Hall, attendees instead viewed the presentation remotely in smaller groups throughout campus in accordance with social distancing protocols.

The event organizers, Sophia Clementi (MBA 2020) and Catie O’Sullivan (MBA 2020), co-presidents of the Women's Student Association, welcomed the dispersed audience and spoke of honoring International Women's Day as a day of both celebrating the contributions of women across the globe and recommitting to ensuring that gender equity becomes reality in our lifetime. They then introduced the event’s moderator, HBS Senior Associate Dean for HBS Online and Professor of Business Administration Debora Spar, who in turn warmly welcomed Huffington to the giant Klarman screen. “Arianna Huffington is a legend,” said Spar, “To detail her accomplishments would take the entire hour. She is the founder of Huffington Post, and the founder and CEO of Thrive Global. She became the president of the Cambridge University debate society at age 21 and sits on multiple boards of nonprofit and for-profit organizations around the globe including Uber and Global Citizen.”

Spar kicked off the conversation by referencing the Klarman atrium photo exhibit featuring women in the HBS community sharing stories of women who have influenced them, asking Huffington who that woman might be in her own life. “My mother,” replied Huffington immediately. Her mother, she explained, instilled her with the confidence to not be limited by circumstance, and the belief that failure is a stepping stone to success.

In turn, said Huffington, she now loves nothing more than helping young women achieve their dreams. “We encourage women to speak up, to trust their voices, and to know there are solutions to whatever it is they're experiencing. I love helping women connect with their own power,” said Huffington.

That power and clarity, which she describes as the being within the eye of the hurricane, become ever more essential in moments of crisis. “We all have within us a place of wisdom, strength, and peace. Most of the time we don't live there—how can we help each other get there more often?” asked Huffington. “That's particularly important at times of incredible uncertainty, which we're going through right now with the coronavirus. It's very tempting to move to anxiety and fear. How can we help people get into this eye of the hurricane, where we are effective as leaders and managers? That's my biggest passion in helping younger women.”

Huffington sees recovery and recharging—even while climbing the rungs of success—as essential for effective management, creativity, and wisdom. “Downtime is not a bug of the human operating system, it's a feature,” she said. Society’s insistence on burnout is a collective delusion, she explained, one that is denied by all science and data. Leaving tasks undone is also something to get comfortable with. “If everything is a priority then nothing is a priority,” said Huffington. “Leaders are ultimately judged by their decisions, not by their stamina.”

Work/life balance, however, she sees as a myth. “There's never going to be balance when you are really deeply engaged in your job,” said Huffington. “There are times when your job will require all of you, and there are times when your life will require all of you. What matters is integration, and bringing in recovery time.”

Huffington then turned to issues of diversity (which must start at the top and is essential to a thriving culture) to networking (when it’s caring and listening—not transactional—it is authentic and creates long lasting relationships that come into play throughout your career). She also took questions from the audience, giving advice on micro-tasks for better sleep (power down your phone at night to avoid using it in the middle of the night), what to do about fake news (connect to your own truth barometer to protect yourself), and the importance of not making decisions out of fear.

She closed with final advice to the community: “I profoundly believe that if I knew at your age what I know now, not only would I have been more effective, but I would have done everything with more joy. Use joy as another barometer of success. Are you loving what you are doing? Be willing to take risks and fail along the way, without seeing that as being diminishing to who you are.”

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