When I told a friend that I was attending an Art of Leadership for Women event last week, he snickered. “Is leadership any different for women?”, he asked. The inference was obvious: Are we not cultivating a divided mindset by highlighting the “women’ part of women leaders?
This is not, by any standards, a lone view. “Using the Women card” “Special Treatment” or “Diversity Hire” are the new sexist slurs that women face today. Critics like my friend argue that we do a disservice to equality by bringing someone’s gender in the discussion. Truth is, that whether we like it or not, gender is always in the discussion. The obligations women work with and difficulties they face proving themselves in workplace are numerous and varied. Yet, a common thread binds these seemingly disparate experiences. The commonalities are way too clear to ignore, and conferences such as the one I attended, are a way to crowd-source the solutions.
Two speakers resonated specially with me.
Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson of “No One Understands You And What To Do About It”spoke about the differences between who we think we are and how people perceive us. This has special meaning for women like me, trying to carve a place in the corporate world. Being a great individual contributor is the easy part of the equation – put in some good hard work, showcase true passion and have solid work ethics – and the recipe is complete. The tougher, more indirect part is to be perceived the way you want to be.
Now, this is a problem many brilliant men and women face every day. However, at the risk of overly simplifying, I’d say women in general have a tougher time leaning in and taking the stage. And as Dr. Heidi decodes the formula of creating the right image, it is clear to me that more and more women need to hear about it.
Another speaker who hit home was Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter of “Unfinished Business”. Dr. Slaughter spoke about the value of care. I recalled the time I left my promising career mid-way when my kids were born. Over years, I’ve stopped telling this story, as I realized most of the mothers have something similar to share- and that my experience is by no means unique. This realization, and discussions such as the one Art of Leadership for Women facilitates, made me un-apologetic about my choices in the professional circles. The society needs to evolve and start valuing the bedside of a sick child, as much as it values the coveted corner boardroom.
A talent-friendly world is one where work and life are not in conflict. Where gender does not matter- not only at work, but also in matters of care. Where anyone’s growth is not achieved at the cost of the loved ones. And such a talent-friendly world will be a women-friendly world by definition.
I am proud of being born a woman. I am a daughter, a wife and a mother, and I wear my skirts with pride. I enjoy the easy banter with my close friends, and the soul-connection with my sister. And at the same time, I am proud of the talents I bring to my work. I am fortunate to have born in the day, age and place where I can hope to do justice to both these aspects of me.
And whether my dear friend agrees or not, women specific conferences, committees, books, talks and such, are valuable. They are a way to calibrate the roadblocks and celebrate the successes of women at work.
Here’s a wake up call for leaders in any organization.
As you grow up the corporate ladder, you are in a constant danger of losing touch with the ground reality. You rely on your managers inputs, knowing well that their inputs come from their vantage point.
As leaders, we are entrusted with huge responsibilities. Taking decisions, making changes, fighting competition and steering your organizations in new and uncharted territories. You are in the driver’s seat, and yet your eyes are blindfolded. You are not the shop worker or the front-line staff which sees the customers and their complaints, you are not the nerd who knows how to run the system- and knows the deficiencies of it inside out. Yet, you are the one who is responsible for it all, at the end of it all. How do you get your inputs, your data, is essential to the quality of decisions you take. Every data point, every observation is relative, and the bigger your observation set, the more objective data you have.
Many leaders are very comfortable in their team of direct managers. These managers become their eyes and ears – and this team feeds them selective data engineered to guide the leader in the path they have consciously or subconsciously chosen already. Will it surprise you that such a leader be popular among his/her direct reports, and yet be rather disliked by the working staff. Will it be surprising if the decisions the managers guided you to make don’t feel and smell like your’s? That they do not have your signature, cerebral style?
What can you do?
Maintain the sanctity of your data more than anything else. Make sure you are getting various inputs, from various places. No one can be your eyes and ears- you have to be your own. And this is as true of a CEO as of a Director. It is difficult to be in a comfortable Ivory tower and touch the field- but it is the field that grows the riches the Ivory tower is built on. No one ever prospered by ignoring the fields.
If you need further convincing, think honestly about how many of your managers will be ready to be brutally truthful with you. You may go to great lengths to clarify that you have an open mind- but sycophancy comes easy to people. It’s safer to be compliant. And if that corrupts your inputs, why would they care?
The fix is simple. Go a step down. Meet with your managers as you already do, and yes, put a whole lot of trust in their information. After all, they are your generals. But do not leave your soldiers to the mercy of the generals. The front-line staff is the one that deals directly with the biggest issues you have – and they have valuable information.
Call these people in once every few months. Ask them candid questions that allow them to open up. Break the barrier that your title, position and the corner office creates. Yes, that makes you vulnerable. But that vulnerability is the first step in rising as a true leader. Once you start assimilating the stories of your soldiers and generals, a truer picture of the war field emerges. Conquering your battles becomes more likely when you battle map is accurate.
In addition, with you now being more accessible to all your staff, the managers come under an interesting pressure- where they can no longer spin the stories as they like. And the regular John Doe finds himself enthused with a new energy, because he has seen his opinion count to you. Not only are you rewarded with a 360 degree data and perspective, you become a great leader in eyes of people who truly matter.
And who knows- you might just find an extraordinary talent in your workers, unable to rise above the thick impenetrable layer of their immediate supervisor, bursting with possibilities you can now give wings to.
Touch everybody. And see your own power double!