Women & Leadership Community Women Leaders: Leadership Lessons We All Can Grow From
Lynne Devnew: Pioneer Woman Leader
by Randal Joy Thompson
Randal Joy Thompson has been living and working in the developing world for many decades, leading changes that hopefully will benefit the so-called poor and marginalized peoples of the world. While working in conflict and post-conflict countries, she became interested in how artists and their art serve as one of the most effective ways to lead positive social transformation. In Bosnia, she became entranced by the story of the “Cellist of Sarajevo” who played his cello in bombed out buildings and served to strengthen the will of Sarajevans to withstand the siege and maintain their cosmopolitanism. She wrote the cellist’s story in the volume Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change, edited by Susan J. Erenrich and Jon Wergin. She continues to explore the lives of artists who have played similar roles as grassroots leaders and believes that art can direct the most lasting changes because it enlightens our hearts and souls. She edited, along with Julia Storberg-Walker, the 2018 ILA BLB publication Leadership and Power in International Development: Navigating the Intersections of Gender, Culture, Context, and Sustainability, which won the 2019 R. Wayne Pace HRD Book of the Year Award.
The backstories of the many high caliber women leaders in ILA’s Women and Leadership member community offer valuable lessons for young women moving into leadership positions and inspire all women leaders to keep pushing, sometimes against all odds, to break the barriers that women face. This article is the first in a series that highlights women in the community and shares their stories of perseverance and exceptional achievement. Sketches of their personal lives also provide us a view into how high achieving women balance their work and home lives. Lynne Devnew, the subject of this month’s article, was a pioneer woman leader at IBM where she worked for 23 years. As she put it, “I was married to my job,” something often required of women leaders. She found her life partner after making a career shift into academia in her forties. Lynne is an example of a woman choosing to have different careers at different stages of her life, in her case shifting from the corporate sector to the academic one in her 40s and then beginning to write narratives in her 70s.
An Associate Faculty and Distinguished Research Fellow at the University of Phoenix and Co-Chair of the 2019 ILA Women and Leadership Conference, Building Solutions, Harmony, and the Greater Good, Lynne has been not only extremely dedicated in supporting ILA’s Women and Leadership community as a member of its Executive Leadership Team and leading WLAG’s Research Team, she has also conducted important research about women’s leadership. She, together with Women and Leadership member Marlene Janzen Le Ber and two others co-edited the 2018 book, More Women on Boards: An International Perspective, the seventh volume in ILA’s Women and Leadership: Research, Theory, and Practice book series. The book explores the complexity of issues related to increasing the number of women on boards of directors around the world: how these issues have been understood; how they have been more and less successfully addressed in different countries and industries; and how they are similar, and yet different, as a result of cultural and legal differences.
After 23 years as an increasingly senior leader at IBM, Lynne embarked on a new career, first as a doctoral student and then as a professor and scholar. Just prior to leaving IBM, Lynne had established and successfully led a team of 400 high tech programmers developing global software products. During her career, she served on an IBM customer council with senior executives from major companies all over the globe and funded and led work being performed in multiple countries.
IBM invested heavily in Lynne when they recognized her leadership qualities and fully funded her master’s degree from Columbia University’s Executive Program. Fortunately, Lynne also had several male mentors during her time at IBM who supported her growth as a leader and her important contribution to the company, despite other men who thought she was a “sweet young thing with no influence” because she employed a collaborative rather than authoritarian leadership style. However, eventually, as IBM veered toward crisis and Lynne did not receive the career support that she felt she merited, she decided to leave for reasons that will sound familiar to many. She “wanted a life that included less travel and more stability,” she was tired of “not having a voice and not being supported in career growth,” and she did not want to do “the anticipated work associated with letting good people go.” Many of these challenges had sometimes been present before, yet previously the rewards of growing as a leader had seemed to outweigh these costs.
Lynne received her Doctor of Business Administration, focused on high technology strategy from Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. As she says, “My doctoral studies focused on strategy development and decision making in high technology industries. I was most interested in decision making at the highest levels in organizations. At some stage, I realized I didn’t really want to focus on high technology strategy any longer.” She discovered that her true passion lay in women’s leadership, perhaps because she had been a pioneer women leader at IBM and among the first IBM woman managers back in the early 1970s when the Equal Opportunity Law began to encourage corporations to groom more women leaders.
Lynne has been working on a research team, which includes Anne Berghout Austin, Marlene Janzen Le Ber, Chanda Elbert, Judy LaValley and others from six universities in the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand to conduct a collaborative autoethnographic study on development of a leader identity. The focus of the project, as Lynne recounted, “is on learning about how women develop leader identities, which we hope will influence those seeking to help women develop leader identities.” The team published a chapter entitled, “Tracing the Developmental Precursors of Leadership During Childhood and Adolescence: A Collaborative Autoethnographic Study of Women’s Leader Identity Development ” in the 2017 Theorizing Women & Leadership: New Insights & Contributions From Multiple Perspectives, the fifth volume in ILA’s Women and Leadership series and has published several other chapter and articles and given many presentations in conferences on their findings. Lynne also teamed up with Ann Berghout Austin, Marlene Janzen Le Ber, and Mary Shapiro to write a chapter on women’s leadership aspirations for the 2017 book, Handbook of Research on Gender and Leadership and has published many other chapters and peer-reviewed articles on women’s leadership. Lynne credits Susan Madsen, the editor of this handbook and a founder of ILA’s Women and Leadership member community (formerly known as the Women and Leadership Affinity Group or WLAG), with kicking off her success in women and leadership by taking her under her wings starting with ILA’s first Women and Leadership Conference and helping her attend the 2014 colloquium, Advancing Theories of Women and Leadership, held at Utah Valley University. The research team Lynne has been working most closely with was established at this colloquium.
Lynne grew up in Bristol, Connecticut, “a factory town in those pre-ESPN days,” (ESPN’s headquarters are now located there) as the oldest of three children. In addition to teaching, conducting research, and being involved in the Women and Leadership community, Lynne is very active in the lay leadership of her church, the Duxbury Music Festival, and Simmons University where she is co-president of the Alumnae Association.
Lynne met her life partner after her transition from IBM. One would not normally think that a tipped over canoe and a cold dip in the Potomac River would spawn a love affair that culminated in a marriage of over twenty years, but that is exactly how Lynne discovered her partner Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Wolfe, who was stationed at the Pentagon at the time. When talking about her life with Ronald, Lynne fondly recalled how they especially enjoyed hosting 4th of July picnics at their house and watching the Duxbury, Massachusetts parade from their front lawn. There, Ronald would announce in his loud, career-in-broadcasting-voice, the names of every politician who would pass by. As Lynne said, “This was a tradition, and the politicians laughed about it when we would see them at other events.” Sadly, Ronald passed away suddenly in 2018, but Lynne treasures his memory and carries his spirit with her as she continues in her calling to promote more women in leadership.
Based on her life in leadership, Lynne has a few words of sage advice to offer young leaders: Value your mentors, take advantage of opportunities, be yourself, don’t let the hard times get you down, do what you love, and remember to pay it forward!