Lessons & Struggles in Leadership

Fast Company Article–Lessons for Women

On March 5, 2012, Fast Company posted an article entitled, “What Glass Ceiling? Killer Career Advice for Women.” It’s a short piece with some great advice snippets from top women in business. There’s not a lot of editorializing I can do–the content stands on it’s own. I just wanted to share it with you, my lovely readers. Enjoy!

http://www.fastcompany.com/1822755/shattering-the-glass-ceiling-leadership-lessons-for-successful-women

Gut Check

Everyone has a story of a time when they listened to their gut and things turned out beautifully….or they didn’t listen and narrowly survived certain death. I want to take a few moments to share my tale, and the simple but meaningful lessons I learned from it.

About a year ago an interesting position opened at my place of employment. The job would’ve given me an opportunity to lead a promising program, put my mark on it, have 2 direct reports, and make significantly more than my current salary. It seemed that I’d be foolish to not give it a shot, despite the fact that I was (and still am) very content in my job and enjoy a number of perks that make it a pretty sweet position within the agency. I told myself there was no harm in dusting off the old resume, and if granted an interview it would be a great opportunity to sharpen my skills.

I was given an interview, and in the weeks leading up to it the few people who knew I’d applied for the position strongly encouraged me to really go after it. They were rather convincing in their assertions that I wanted this job, even if my gut wasn’t so sure. While I knew I had a pretty good shot at getting the job I wasn’t so sure I wanted it.

Every time I thought about it I felt a little uneasy. The mere thought of leaving my position unsettled me and there were several question marks hovering around the position I had applied for: would I still be on an upward path within the organization? In a place where knowledge is power, just how much power would I be giving up to take this other position? And most importantly, had the person I’d be reporting to really changed her management style enough to where I wouldn’t be miserable in 6 weeks? All good questions that swung around in my mind without definitive answers but with a definite reaction from my gut. It told me this wasn’t the right move, but my head, thinking of the money, said who knows, maybe it is….full steam ahead.

By the time the interview rolled around I was leaning to not wanting the position. I thought of backing out but was told (by the same people insisting I wanted this job) that backing out at this point would be political suicide. So I went along for the ride–afterall, using them to practice my interview skills and really go through the whole process could be seen as a professional development opportunity. The interview went well; I wasn’t nervous, I felt good about my responses and honestly thought I had a shot at the job.

And then I got worried. What if I were offered the position? Now that we were reaching final jeopardy my gut found its loud voice and was loud and clear about the fact that I absolutely, positively couldn’t take the job no matter how much money I was offered. It shouldn’t have taken me this long to get dialed into my gut–it was quite clear from the beginning that I was chasing the dollars and not a position I was passionate about or one that would allow me to fully play to my strengths. Submitting that application had been a mistake from the get-go. But alas here I was torn between disappointing management if they selected me and I turned them down and accepting a position that was all wrong. I resolved that despite the political consequences I could not, would not accept the position if offered.

When judgment day finally arrived and I was gently taken into a private space and sat down and given the “bad news” that I was a top candidate but not the panel’s final pick I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. WHEW!! Thank God!! I’d dodged a bullet and learned a valuable lesson or two. The reality is that my gut knew the answer all along, and when I checked it in those still quiet moments I knew what it was saying. I let my drive for dollars muddy the waters and give the illusion that this was an uncertain picture but if I’m honest with myself (as I should’ve been all along) this was a no-brainer.

The leadership lesson I’ve carried from this experience is this: your head will lie to you but your heart never will. When the two are in a struggle turn off the thinking–shut that little guy up–and go with the mushy, “I get no respect” fella in your gut. Knowing how to tune into your gut, and more importantly how to really be still and hear what it’s saying to you, is a learned skill; it takes practice but any leader worth her salt better put in the time to develop it. Instead of listening to the office chatter and well-meaning friends I should’ve hunkered down and looked inward. There’s a time for everything and certainly there are times when you need to hear others. But when people are “should-ing” on you (you should go for it….you should have this job, etc) it’s time to tune out and check in with your gut.

I also carry with me the age-old adage of never doing something just for the money. It’s never worth it. Never, ever, never, never, ever worth it. From my year-later perspective I am so deeply grateful I wasn’t offered the job. If I had, I know without a shadow of a doubt I would be miserable today and more than likely planning an exit from a place I love. So lesson #2: do what you love, do what makes you happy, do whatever makes Monday mornings not so bad and slowly but surely the money will come. And if for whatever reason the money never comes, do what you love anyways. You’ll be infinitely happier and there’s nothing worth more than that.

Sweet Inspiration

I am easily inspired. A quote, a movie, a beautiful day, a photograph, snow….well you get the idea. I can find inspiration in just about anything. This easy inspiration leads to quick motivation….I never have too much trouble with taking those first steps to start a good thing (a blog, a short story, exercise). I feel a nervous excitement just thinking of what I’m about to do and all the possibilities ahead. Jump in with both feet? I think yes.

But as easily as the inspiration comes it fades taking with it my motivation and will to drive to the end. The giveup-guilt-inactivity treadmill begins and so it goes until the next bolt of brilliance strikes. My perennial dilemma: why can’t I sustain motivation as easily as I find inspiration?

It occurs to me that one central problem may be the lack of motivating people around me. It’s one thing to find inspiration in a brilliant TED talk but quite another to have daily interactions with an individual saying and doing amazing things. I had this community of inspiration as an undergrad at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. From professors to the girls down the hall, I was immersed in a world of regular people doing big things. As students we were told we could be great; constant reminders that Macon women were being trained to change the world were ever with us. I loved it. But now as I look around my circle of daily companions I find that same source of inspiration lacking. Don’t get me wrong–I have awesome friends–but I don’t find that same challenge to do more and be better. A recent mini-reunion with 2 of my friends from R-MWC helped me realize how much I missed not just them personally but also their influence. I miss the constant challenge to aim higher and run further.

This is my wake-up call to look around, find the inspirational people in my community, and reach out to them. I know that ultimately I have to do the work, and that I have to want IT enough to keep going even when I want to quit. But I do believe that surrounding myself with people shooting for the stars will encourage me to keep my rocket fueled up. As a leader this is key. Just as those you lead will find inspiration in you, it’s vital that you’re surrounded with people who are passionate and driven and who help to recharge your battery.

This blog is proof of that. A co-worker committed to his blog and then encouraging me to commit to mine has resulted in new energy, 2 blog posts that otherwise wouldn’t have been written (including this one), and plans for more to come. As scripture tells us, “iron sharpens iron.”

The bottom line: it all boils down to the adage our mothers have said for years, “You are the company you keep.” I have solid company now but adding some additional voices just may be the key to kicking things up a notch.

Lessons in Leadership: Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO

I don’t remember why I followed the link to the NY Times article on Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg (probably something about the $1.6 billion woman), but I did and read an interesting article on this diminutive woman making a place for herself and other women at the social media giant. Read it here. The article intrigued me enough to Youtube her Barnard College commencement address referenced in the article. (I guess you picked up that it’s the video linked above).

I encourage all young women in business and/or leadership to watch the video (a little less than 20 minutes) and read the article. Here are a few things that have stuck with me:

1. Here’s a woman who wants to open doors and help other women. How sadly rare this can be and how very important. Despite Beyonce’s booming 2011 anthem that girls run the world the opposite is sadly true. Men still hold the overwhelming majority of seats at the tables of politics, business, and finance, and until women have more equal representation I’m afraid we’ll keep fighting the same battles of the past 50 years. When a woman does break through and grabs a seat at the table it is vital that she spread out her things and make room for more women to follow. It’s an honor to be the first but a tragedy to be the only.

2. She urges the young Barnard women to keep their options open and not make sacrifices & decisions that will take them out of the race before they’re even in it. Sometimes I think it’s good for us to be reminded that ambition is a good thing.

3. She remarks on some unfair criticism she received in the early days and how she dealt with it. It’s tough to get any sort of criticism but especially when it’s unwarranted or unnecessarily harsh because of one’s gender or race. The lesson is to follow your heart, stay the course, and do what you know is right. Not easy lessons but important ones.

4. She reminds women to own their own success and to not underestimate their worth. None of us does it alone, but you don’t have to give the whole farm away when acknowledging those who have helped you along the way. In short, when you receive an “Atta girl” or “nice job” instead of immediately saying “well it wasn’t all me,” remember thank you is a complete sentence.

I encourage you to take a look at the video–it’s ok to skip to the middle juicy parts. What are the key points that stick out to you?

Personal Mission Statement

I was recently professionally developed at a 2-day project management workshop. As workshops go this was a pretty good one and worth the super early morning drive to Richmond and overnight stay away from my family. One of the highlights for me was the instructor’s challenge for each of us to develop a personal mission statement. Having recently wrapped a year long, sometimes arduous work project to revise our agency’s mission statement I wasn’t too fired up to apply the process to myself. But when I thought about what a mission statement does, and how it can serve as a guide (if this isn’t furthering my mission then why am I doing it?) I was ready to dive in.

After considerable thought and editing I settled on the first iteration of my personal mission statement.  My mission is to live a meaningful, uncompartmentalized life of abundant joy based on the principles of my faith as I nurture and cultivate my God given talents.

It may not be the shortest, snappiest mission statement as it does not fit neatly on a bumper sticker. But I think it accurately sums up where I want to go and who I want to be. I want to continue tearing down the walls that have divided my life between school and church, friends and family, and give everyone all of me; I want to live according to the principles of my faith which I know will only build upon the joy I already fill. And finally I want to do justice to the gifts and talents God has given me and not feel like I have buried them in the ground for safe keeping.

So, there’s my first attempt. The workshop instructor recommended revisiting your mission statement every 90 days; it’ll be interesting to see where the journey takes me and how this evolves.

Sandwiched

I first heard of the Sandwich Generation in my Master’s program Human Growth & Development class. The term refers to folks who are simultaneously caring for their children and aging parents. I never gave this much thought as it might apply to me–until now when I find myself somewhat sandwiched. I have an almost 2 year old daughter and baby #2 on the way, and since late December have watched as my mother lies in a hospital bed struggling to come back to us from what doctors believe is a stroke. Life though continues to roll. Gas prices keep rising, the mailman keeps coming, the bills keep pouring in. Phone, satellite, insurance…all bills arriving with mouths open like insatiable beasts demanding to be fed. When such an integral part of the family is out of commission it only seems fair that everything else would be put on pause. But no…the world keeps moving even when yours is falling apart. “Life goes on” can be so cruel.

I travel the uneventful stretch of highway to my parent’s house and sit at the kitchen table where my mother has sat so many times before and I work with my father to pay the bills. We are clumsy in our attempts to navigate her system, but the task gets done. I can almost feel the cosmic shift as I take on this role that should never be mine; I don’t lament it but rather struggle to keep myself grounded as the baby becomes a parent. I chafe at wearing this particular sweater of responsibility, but you go where you’re needed and so here I am and here I must stay.

As leaders, these sandwiched times will come to us all. While it may not be aging parents you will face times when you must assume responsibilities that are uncomfortable and unwanted. You’ll probably feel as uncomfortable in that situation as I feel in mine. Leadership doesn’t mean these feelings won’t come, or that you’ll even have the perfect answer. Being a leader means you have the stamina to endure and the fortitude to stand when all you want to do is cut and run.

I am sustained by my faith that this too shall pass, and that the many prayers going up for my mother are being heard and yes I know without a doubt, being answered. Until she is fully recovered and resumes her rightful place at the table I’ll do all I can to keep the ship afloat. This is what it means to support the people you love…to honor your parents…to be a good daughter…and yes, to be sandwiched.

 

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