Learning to listen

Beautiful kid girl with curly hair wearing casual clothes smilin

We live in a world that’s overcrowded with information. Every time I check my social media I’m inundated with people speaking at me: mostly trying to sell me things or influence my opinions. In a world where there’s so much talking there’s also a lot to be said for developing the skill of listening.

Are you a good listener? Many of us think we are, but often we’re listening for the wrong reasons. It doesn’t serve us or those to whom we’re listening.

Over the years I’ve learnt to spot those people who truly listen to understand. They’re slow to jump in when I finish a sentence. And when they speak it’s often to ask a follow up question or ask me to clarify something I’ve said. Such people are rare. Most of us listen to hear when it’s our turn to speak.

Being good at listening is a skill that serves us well. When we listen we learn more. And learning more can help us navigate life’s complexities.

How often do you listen without an agenda? Without a story about what the other person is saying or where the conversation is leading you? To do so requires us to cultivate present moment mindfulness. It’s a skill I chose to learn many years ago when I was working in a high pressure recruitment role. I realised that I would not be doing my best by my interviewees if I was not fully present to them. If I was not actively listening while they told me their career histories.

Learning to listen in this way was not easy for me. There were so many times when I found my attention wandering. To the lengthy to do list on my desk. To what needed doing at home. Each time I caught myself I made an effort to return to the present moment. I still don’t find it easy but it is becoming easier.

Learning to listen means getting comfortable with silence. Not feeling the need to respond as soon as the other person stops talking. It means being at ease while your mind processes what’s just been said. Noticing what’s important; and what’s been left unsaid.

When we listen in this way, and ask genuine follow up questions we get a better insight into the minds of those with whom we’re talking. By understanding what’s important to them we can connect more effectively; and find win-win solutions to difficult issues. Asking questions also helps us influence the direction of other people’s thinking.

When we learn to listen to others we also get better at listening to ourselves. Women often spend their time focussing on others. We can lose the connection with our own feelings and desires. Stopping and listening more deeply will help us reconnect. And when we do we find our wisdom is always there to guide us in the best direction.

This week I want to encourage you to get better at listening. You may be surpised at the benefits it brings into your life.

Competent at work-life balance

Little Girl On Roller Skates At A Park. A Child Rides On Roller

A key learning from this year’s lockdown has been the importance of managing work-life balance; and the challenge of doing so when boundaries are eroded and support for caring becomes non-existent.

As we move into the ‘new normal’ commentators are acting as if the long term prognosis for work-life balance is good; but in my view we risk it becoming worse than ever. The fact that employers may be more open to allowing flexible working arrangements is not the same as providing guidance and support on how to manage work-life balance. As I’ve written previously, without clear policies flexible easily slips into #AlwaysOn with the attendant negative impacts on people’s lives.

In the past few years I have been considering the notion of approaching the management of work life balance as a competency. The value of this is that like other workplace competencies it becomes easier to identify the skills and behaviours needed; and to offer people ways to develop them.

Ellen Ernst Kossek is a leading expert in work-life balance. She has observed that as work becomes ever more boundaryless, being able to manage our boundaries effectively becomes essential to our ability to resolve the often conflicting demands of work and family. Indeed, as we consider the competencies needed to succeed in the 21st century workplace, being able to manage our work life balance becomes of prime importance.

How to become competent at work-life balance

Understanding why work life balance matters and having a sense of entitlement will give us the courage to ask. Asking develops both assertiveness and negotiating skills which are essential for maintaining balance.

There are also further skills we will need to enhance. In my first ever blog post I wrote about the 3 Cs: clarity, control and confidence. In my book I added a fourth: communication. Survey after survey confirms its importance. The ability to communicate our needs, our boundaries and our expectations clearly makes us more competent at the work-life juggle. .

I also wrote about cultivating mindfulness and self responsibility. And we must become skilled at managing and influencing stakeholders: managers, colleagues and clients or customers.

The skills we’re developing are not specialist but applicable to other situations in our lives. So by working on our work life balance competency we will gain further benefits that improve both our workplace and parenting skills.

And there’s another very important reason why we must become competent at work-life balance. Professor Ioana Lupu, writing in HBR explains that what we learn subconsciously about work-life balance from our parents influences our own decisions. What lessons will you provide for your children so they too can lead more balanced lives?

Speak up

This week’s blog post is inspired by a research article I’ve just been reading. The research was focused on the continuing barriers to women’s progression viewed through the experiences of those who started their careers in the 1970s and 1980s. Entering workplaces where career progression was dictated by masculine norms they spoke with masculine language. As a consequence they found themselves unable to verbalise alternative pathways to career success.

The article resonated with me since I started my own HR career at that time. And in my experience both women and employers are still struggling with making alternative career pathways a reality. While the situation is slowly improving, the lack of role models, enduring masculine career structures and women’s own feelings about what they can expect tend to get in the way.

Too often women look at the career pathways on offer and struggle to see how they can fit into these while also taking on responsibilities at home. They become disillusioned and they move themselves into ‘mommy track’ jobs or leave; seeking a compromise in mumpreneurship.

The reality is that unless we all speak up the situation will not change. The history of women’s progress at work has been one of speaking up. It was women who spoke up to ask for flexible arrangements such as job-share; offering it as a viable alternative for keeping a foot on the career ladder. So if we’re not satisfied with the way things are working for us, it’s important that we keep on speaking up. Otherwise we let employers off the hook. They can claim it was a personal choice and “there’s no problem here”.

How to speak up

  • First of all get very clear on the working arrangement you need; and how it will benefit both you and your employer. The prevailing myth continues that senior roles must be worked full-time and preferably at the office. But there’s also growing evidence that senior roles can often be worked successfully on less than full time hours. And that doing so offers other team members room for growth and development.

  • Look around for role models in your organisation, your sector or more widely in your profession. Pointing to someone who’s already successfully working the arrangement you want is a powerful endorsement of your request. It’s proof that alternative career pathways can succeed.

  • If you’re part of a women’s network find out whether other members face the same challenges. Get together and discuss how you might collectively influence your employer(s) to offer suitable alternatives.

  • Take a leaf out of my client Laura’s book and tackle your HR department. In her case she set about persuading them to establish a job-share register since her workplace was big enough for it to be viable. If your workplace is smaller a more appropriate conversation might be about how to offer senior roles on less than full time hours.

Above all, remember change is a negotiation that takes time. Many years ago I asked a colleague who’d recently succeeded in getting approval for a support programme for new fathers how he’d done it. He told me: “it’s the dripping tap effect. Say it often enough to enough people and things begin to register.” That organisation is now a world leader in parental support. While he cannot claim all the credit his voice contributed to the overall improvements.

You can do the same; and become part of the force that will eventually change working practices in your workplace or sector. So that future generations of women are able to access career pathways that support work-life balance.

Embracing a new order of thinking to #rebalance 2020

bigstock--191415511- Einstein
May 8. 2017 Museum of wax statues Grevin in the capital of the Czech Republic in Prague: Albert Einstein – Theoretical Physicist

We’re almost at the start of September and edging our way towards an unpredictable ‘new normal’. Schools are reopening while employees are being urged to return to workplaces. There’s an air of expectancy that flexible working will become the default; resulting in better work-life balance for many.

The reality, however, is that without radical thinking change is unlikely.

So far 2020 has shown us how fragile the work-life balance juggle is for many working parents; with mothers bearing the brunt. Employers claim to care about mental health but do little to support work-life balance. Instead #AlwaysOn working cultures endure; while working practices continue to ignore the reality of women’s unpaid caring load.

And as the world economy faces a serious recession things are likely to get worse not better. In every recession I’ve experienced those who kept their jobs have felt compelled to work longer and harder than ever to prove their worthiness.

Is this really going to be the ‘new normal’?

Einstein reportedly said: we cannot solve our problems with the same order of thinking that created them (although probably not using those exact words).

What we now need is a different order of thinking that enables us to create a genuinely new – and more balanced – normal.

  • One that enables women to participate in all parts of the economy and at all levels.
  • One that finally frees us from the constant grip of being pushed to prioritise work; enabling us to find better balance and to be more creative.
  • One that values our non-work lives, and encourages us to be present for our loved ones and our communities

Last week I wrote about the IPPR’s suggestions for work-sharing. This week a second UK think tank, Autonomy, has proposed the Public Sector pioneer a 32 hour working week. A move that would not only improve mental well-being and work-life balance but create up to half a million extra jobs. It would also establish a new ‘gold standard’ for those jobs.

At the end of June the Women’s Budget Group issued a call for greater investment in child and social care in response to the government’s strategy for rebuilding the economy. Their report indicates that spending a modest 2.5% of GDP would create over two million jobs, raise overall employment and reduce the gender employment gap. Tellingly, such an investment creates almost three times as many jobs as investing the same amount in construction; and does more to support women.

We have a choice. Will the ‘new normal’ become the same old story? Or will we embrace a new order of thinking and the opportunity to rebalance work and life going forward?

How to share your job

Kids Financial Ideas. Caucasian Teenager Twin Girls Posing With

The IPPR, a UK think tank, recently released a report recommending a coronavirus work sharing scheme. They are calling on government to incentivise employers to retain a larger number of employees on shorter hours.

This both benefits the wider economy and is likely to support women; given the evidence they are currently at greater risk of losing their jobs. It’s also a longer term benefit for employers who can retain a more diverse workforce with a wider skill set.

One of the simplest ways to create reduced hours work is the job-share. Currently the number of job-shares is low with surveys suggesting it remains in single figures. However, it is rising in popularity: splitting a job in half is relatively straightforward.  Perceived and actual extra costs – such as the cost of covering a handover or doubling up on equipment – is far outweighed by the benefits. Two sets of skills which often turn out to be complementary so that job sharers can split the tasks to play to their strengths; and the increased possibility of cover (for part of the week at least) during periods of sickness absence and holiday.

The biggest management objection is around finding a ‘suitable partner’ if a woman asks for job-share. This becomes easier as the number of intermediaries in the marketplace grows. At the time of writing I have curated a list of 18 on my twitter account. While it’s true more time is needed to set up a high performing share, once it’s operational the benefits should outweigh the efforts. If you’re considering a job share here are ten questions to support your success.

Ten questions for a successful job share:

  1. Do you want to share your existing job, or become part of a share in a new job?
  2. If you want to share your existing job, how will you feel about someone else doing half the work? Are you the sort of person who likes to be in control or will you be happy for the sharer to do things in their own way?
  3. If you’re going into a new share with a pre-existing incumbent doing the other half of the job, what issues do you need to discuss with them and your potential manager in order to feel you can do your best work?
  4. Is it going to be a true “Share” with both of you tackling any tasks as required or more of a ”Split” where you both have a portfolio of tasks?
  5. Have you had an informal discussion with your proposed “partner” and do you feel comfortable at the thought of working with them?
  6. Have you explored your proposed partner’s values and professional approach? Are they similar to yours? If not, is this likely to cause any problems?
  7. How will the two of you handle any “emergencies” or other unexpected situations that might arise?
  8. What sort of “handover” arrangements do the two of you need?
  9. What are the “ground rules” for contacting each other during non-work times?
  10. How will you manage your clients/customers and colleagues so they’re not adversely impacted by the share?

A ‘new normal’ workplace? The three biggest employer mistakes

Abstract Image of Business People's Busy Life

Regular readers of this blog will know my posts are generally aimed at aspiring and existing Balanced Leaders. This week I’m making an occasional digression and focusing on employers. I want to follow up my comments in last week’s blog about the lack of appropriate role models at senior levels. We need a new level of employer creativity to design working arrangements at senior levels that are attractive to women.

We’ve learnt a lot from recent lockdown experiences. So I find it frustrating that talk about the ‘new normal’ continues to ignore fundamental differences in women’s circumstances. Indeed for many women it’s a meaningless phrase as they find their ‘new normal’ pretty much identical to the old one.

When it comes to enabling balanced working employers continue to make three big mistakes:

  1. Gender blind assumptions around home based flexible working.

The pandemic confirmed what we already knew. Regardless of working hours or location, it’s virtually impossible to combine paid work with unpaid caring responsibilities without support and when the latter remain invisible. Much of the advice issued on how to manage home working has been gender blind. It’s predicated on the assumption that people are free to work as they choose, unencumbered by the need to look after family members.

Pre pandemic we were already slipping into #AlwaysOn working habits with little or no guidance from employers on how and when to switch off. So far we’ve done nothing to change this. Employers must address the differences in women’s lives and reconsider working practices; including offering more jobs on a reduced load basis. Which leads to my second point.

  1. Opting to cut headcount rather than redesign work.

Research continues to confirm many people want a shorter working week that supports better work-life balance. Women in their middle years, in particular, need more options as they juggle work with child and elder care. Employers must redesign jobs for reduced load working (rather than simply agreeing to shorter hours without adjusting job descriptions) to support women’s career progression. The alternative is that women hold themselves back.

And in the current climate reduced load jobs will enable an employer to retain more of those key skills that will be needed as soon as the economic upturn begins. It makes financial sense: fewer costly redundancies and fewer equally costly recruitment activities down the line. Plus employers get to keep a wider skill set that that adds more value to the organisation.

  1. Treating work-life balance as a minor item on the wellbeing agenda.

We know that good work-life balance is essential for good physical and mental health. We need boundaries and time for rest and recovery. Yet few employers have a clearly worded policy for supporting that work-life balance. Simply stating that the organisation is open to agile working is not enough. It’s time we began redesigning work to make best use of skills, rather than thinking simply in terms of hours to be filled.

If you’re called to be a Balanced Leader or you currently head up a workplace women’s network encouraging your employer to address these issues is a great place to start the change towards better balance.

We have the potential for 2020 to be a year of positive rebalance for many of us. Let’s grasp that opportunity and create a genuinely ‘new normal’ that benefits everyone.

Who do you want to be?

Wk 32 graphic career-mother

In last week’s blog I wrote that in order to find a suitable work life balance it’s important first to decide who you want to be. That means defining how you play both your home and your work role.

Coincidentally this week I came across a new academic research paper. One that suggests a key reason for the shortage of women in senior roles is a concern about work-life balance fuelled by the lack of relevant role models among existing leaders. The majority of current leaders are men; and they generally have a different approach to work life balance. As a consequence women tend to hold themselves back. Yet now, more than ever the world needs women leaders. It needs the valuable skills and differing perspective that women bring.

So how do we encourage more women to go for those senior roles?

The answer lies in redefining our expectations of how leadership roles are played; and in accepting that doing so is in itself an act of leadership.

Over the years I’ve met many talented women who’ve held themselves back in the mistaken belief that seniority and work-life balance simply cannot mix. But think about it. Just because that’s the way generations of men have been defining the role, it doesn’t mean it needs to be that way. Indeed, we simply have to look to the pioneering behaviour of Jacinda Ardern for a new direction. She’s elegantly re-writing the rules on what it takes to be a prime minister and a mother.

Progress depends on many more women embracing the challenge of re-writing the rules. Professor Herminia Ibarra has demonstrated that leaders grow into their roles and adjust both those roles and their behaviour as they go along. In a rapidly changing world where old leadership paradigms no longer serve women (and many men for that matter) what’s stopping us from re-writing the rules?

Psychologist Hazel Markus developed the concept of possible future selves back in the 1980s. These possible selves are our ideas of who we might become, who we would like to become and perhaps even who we fear we could become. Our future is not written for us, these possible selves provide alternative route maps. As you connect with your deeper yearnings to make a difference in the world do you have a vision of who you want to be; and to become?

It’s not about sacrificing one role for the other; but about working out how the two can be combined to enrich your life. When that happens it’s likely you will also be enriching the lives of others: both loved ones and the wider community. You’ll also become an accessible role model for the younger women that follow.

This week, take some time to stop and reflect. Raise your expectations. Prepare to be more and do more as you act your way into becoming a balanced leader.

Time management is not the answer

Hour glass and calendar concept for time slipping away for impor
Hour glass and calendar concept for time slipping away for important appointment date, schedule and deadline

This week’s blog post was prompted by a question in a Facebook group. I’d been talking about the coaching I offer to women looking for better work-life balance. A colleague in the group asked whether I offer time management training and my short answer was no.

I’m a great fan of the concept of time management and over the years I’ve played with a number of systems until I hit upon the ones that suited me. However, when it comes to finding work life balance, time management is not the place to start.

Time management is a means of managing what you’re doing. To find balance you first need to decide who you’re being.

First you must define your roles

As a working mother you’re playing two different roles: mother and worker. These can sometimes be at odds with each other; and make varying demands on your time, energy and attention. In an ideal world the two roles would remain separate, but even pre-pandemic we weren’t operating in an ideal world. There are periods when your time and attention should be on work, but if you’re working at home and trying to manage kids as well there is bound to be a bleed of roles.

To go even further, it may be that you’re feeling mummy guilt at having to work when they’re around and the ‘perfect mother’ will be giving them all her attention. Whatever your circumstances you must first define what ‘good enough’ means to you. What is a good enough mother and what is a good enough worker? Have you defined these two roles for yourself or bought into scripts defined by others?

It’s only when you know what matters to you; and what the important tasks are in both roles that you can begin to work on a time management system to achieve them.

Then you must decide where your boundaries lie

You may prefer to keep work and family life separate. Or you may – through choice or current circumstances – feel the best approach is to integrate them. Either way, establishing where your boundaries lie is important. Without boundaries work and home life bleed into each other. As human beings we’re not physically capable of giving our full attention to both roles at once.

Time management systems are great for clearly identifying which task (and they’re generally work tasks) to prioritise. They’re not so good at defining how to balance priorities between work and home.

Finally you must recognise the emotional pressures

Many time management systems use a four quadrant assessment grid that moves from urgent and important all the way to not urgent and unimportant. They can be very useful in deciding which tasks to focus on at work in order to achieve your key outputs. They‘re not so useful at home.

Time management systems tend ignore the emotional pull that comes with many parenting tasks. Nor do they consider how to take a longer term approach to how roles change as lives develop. For that you need to go deeper.

So the longer explanation for my Facebook colleague is:

No I don’t teach time management. It’s a necessary life skill and one I would encourage everyone to develop. Find a system that suits you – there’s plenty of advice on the internet. But don’t get mislead into thinking that time management is a panacea which will solve your work-life balance challenges.

Tips for replenishing your energy

Woman investor in clean energy standing proudly in front of sola
Woman investor in clean energy standing proudly in front of solar panels

We’re almost at the end of July and while workplaces attempt to return to normal most parents continue facing childcare challenges. And now the school holidays are upon us. It’s understandable that mothers are feeling exhausted. So this week’s blog offers some ideas for replenishing your energy.

Maintain your boundaries

It feels to me that I’m constantly going on about the need for work-life boundaries; while plenty of people continue to disagree with me. “Work is part of life so the two should not be considered separate” they argue. Well, yes, but the way we’ve increasingly been setting up our work using our mobile devices means that work has come to dominate other parts of life for many of us.

“We should be aiming for work-life blend or work-life integration” they argue. The problem here is that without boundaries it becomes impossible to determine where work ends. According to Professor Ellen Ernst Kossek this ‘boundarylessness’ is one of the greatest challenges to our wellbeing in the 21st century. Human beings need time for rest and recovery. We do this by switching our attention; doing something different. Even if you opt only for what Professor Anna Cox calls ‘microboundaries’ make sure you regularly schedule some time away from work: both physically and mentally.

Practice mindfulness

Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn is the pioneer credited with introducing the eastern practice of mindfulness to the west. He defines mindfulness as: “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

When we make an effort to live in the present moment our experiences with our loved ones become richer; and our work becomes more focussed and more productive. Our brains are very good at ruminating on past or future events. But the past is over and while we can learn lessons from it we cannot change it. The future is not yet here and, contrary to the belief of many, we cannot predict what it will bring. (If you disagree please take a look at the book ‘Future Babble’by Dan Gardner).

Focus on the positive

The older I get the more I understand the toll that negative emotions take on our health and energy. I’m not denying that life brings us all challenges and that bad things sometimes happen. It’s in those difficult moments that we’re likely to need new strategies and creative ways of changing our circumstances. Psychologists know that while negative emotions tend to narrow our focus and limit our options; positive emotions help us (in the words of Barbara Fredrickson) to broaden and build. In these challenging times it makes sense to reach for this happiness advantage.

Try yoga

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a fan of yoga and the enormous proven benefits it has for health and wellbeing. Many of the more dynamic styles are as challenging as any gym workout. But now is not the time to take on more physical challenges. When we’re exhausted we need to give our bodies and minds time to rest and repair.

This is where Yin and Restorative yoga come into their own. They offer the deep physical and mental relaxation so many of us need in our frenzied lives.  Both Yin and Restorative yoga are also great for people who’ve never tried yoga before. Yin yoga is a series of slow stretches performed within your comfort zone; while Restorative yoga requires very little effort as you settle into supportive props for extended periods of time and simply allow your body (and mind) to rest deeply.

We all have our favourite ways of relaxing and recharging. My hope in sharing mine is that one or more will work for you; and that you find yourself feeling more balanced as a result.

Moving on and stepping up #2

Man Using Video Chat For Online Job Interview In Office, Closeup
Man using video chat for online job interview in office, closeup

Last week’s blog post was the first of two on how a job search can provide an opportunity to step into a bigger role; one that enables you to be more of who you want to be and supports better work-life balance at the same time. Now you’ve found your focus and updated your CV, this week I offer suggestions for the next steps.

  1. Connect with flexible recruitment agencies

If you’re reading this I’m assuming work-life balance is important to you; and you’re likely to be looking for some form of flexible arrangement. In the last ten years the number of recruitment intermediaries focussing on flexible working has grown exponentially. At the time of writing I have a curated list on my twitter profile with over sixty members.

While these agencies don’t have a monopoly on flexible jobs, they are in regular contact with many employers open to flexibility. It’s worth sending them a copy of your CV even if they’re not currently advertising any jobs you consider to be appropriate. Some agencies will send a strong CV to an employer ‘on spec’. Alternatively the agency may be able to suggest potential employers you can contact direct.

  1. Do your research

When it comes to supporting work-life balance there’s plenty of information about employer practices to be found on the internet. Improving access to flexible working is apparently the second most listed action in gender pay gap reports; and can be used to your advantage in negotiating the flexible arrangement you want. An increasing number of people at senior levels are working less than full-time hours and these, again can be tracked down on the internet. Sites like Glassdoor and fairygodboss are also useful sources of information.

  1. Negotiate at interview

If your CV is strong and you’ve had a discussion with your recruitment consultant about the type of flexibility you’re seeking she can act as an advocate on your behalf. Waiting until you get a job offer and then asking for a flexible arrangement can occasionally succeed; but it starts your new employment relationship on a negative footing built on a lack of trust. Better to be open from the outset.

If possible, aim to be focussed but flexible. Combining work and childcare can be tricky. You may have a very firm idea of the arrangement you need, but what if the ideal opportunity shows up differently? For example: you may have decided that working three days a week is best for you; the your recruitment consultant offers you a job-share role instead. Rather than dismiss the opportunity out of hand, take some time to consider whether there’s a way to resolve the dilemma. In the complex journey of finding the perfect flexible job cultivating a flexible mind-set can pay dividends.

  1. Stay resilient

The reality is you’ll probably get rejected a few times before you land your ideal job. Remind yourself that in the highly competitive jobs market you made it as far as the interview; and see each one as a valuable ‘practice run’ that will help you hone your skills. Rejection is always disappointing, but it’s rarely personal. Dust yourself down, make adjustments if you need to; and remain confident that the right job is out there waiting for you.