Connecting with our power

Superheroes Kids Brother Friends Powerful Concept

Faced with archaic corporate cultures that demand we choose between a senior role and a balanced life it’s easy to feel dis-empowered. Many of us are juggling life to the max and balk at taking on the additional challenge of operating as a Balanced Leader. In our frustration it’s easy to give in to our limiting beliefs and lose sight of how much power we really have to change things. So let me remind you of the truth.

We have the power to set our own boundaries.

Healthy boundaries are essential for our own well-being and a precursor to good working relationships with others. I’ve written about boundaries before and make no apologies for doing so again – because this is where we begin to build our foundation for a balanced life. It’s not simply about ‘finding me time’ or ‘learning to say no’. It’s about understanding our preferences for managing the work/non-work interface and where our current priorities lie. And about negotiating to get our needs met in respectful, adult ways.

We have the power to negotiate an acceptable flexible working arrangement

and we do this by first recognising our value to our employer. For far too long flexible working has been seen as a favour granted by the organisation; and one for which we should be grateful. But let’s be clear about this. If the alternative to working flexibly is that you’ll have no option but to leave then your employer will suffer financially. Recruiting your replacement requires time and money. You have the power to identify the unique value you bring to your work and to develop a flexible working schedule that benefits both you and the people with whom you interact.

We have the power to redefine what ‘Professional’ looks like

and overcome our fears that asking for flexibility will be read as putting our families first so we appear ‘unprofessional’. (That’s called stereotype threat by the way.) Within a flexible and more balanced arrangement it’s still possible to be professional. Think about Accountants, Lawyers, Bankers and Doctors for example. These are all professions that have redefined themselves over the past fifty years. For the most part they’ve become more approachable and more human; and chatting about families with them doesn’t reduce their professional standing in our eyes.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of experiencing our workplace structures as disempowering when we seek power outside ourselves. But when we dive deep into our inner qualities we discover we already have the power we need to rebalance our lives. And as we become more comfortable with accessing that power we also become the authentic leaders the world is looking for.

We find the power to literally re-write our story: from one of undervalued skills and frustrated careers to one of pioneers with the courage to become Balanced Leaders.

And we become role models that empower successive generations.

Two secrets to a successful flexible working arrangement

Thinking businesswoman looking at clouds of shining puzzle piece

Access to a flexible – and balanced – working arrangement is one of the important fundamentals for supporting the progress of women in the workplace. At managerial levels the two most viable options tend to be job-share or a bespoke flexible arrangement.

In recent years support for job share has been gaining ground. It’s a relatively easy option to implement: it requires little change to a job’s structure, content or working arrangements; and it helps perpetuate the notion that a senior role must be covered full time.

Agreeing a bespoke flexible arrangement is often more challenging. It necessitates a review of the job description and the essential skills required of the post holder. Good HR practice recommends this should be routine every time a post becomes vacant. In fast moving workplaces the job you’ve been doing may only partly resemble the one your successor will undertake. And yet corporate cultures often continue to deny the creative possibilities inherent in many jobs.

It is of course perfectly possible to craft your own quality flexible job – but this requires time and thoughtful analysis. Something which seems to be in short supply in today’s pressurised environments. Two fundamental secrets underpin success. These are: firstly – absolute clarity and secondly – firm boundary management.

Let’s consider the example of the manager who asks to work three or four days a week to carve out some family time. Very quickly she’ll begin to feel exhausted as she tries to cram five days’ work into fewer hours. And she’s likely to end up feeling guilty that she’s not coping and letting her colleagues down. The fundamental reason for this is that she lacks absolute clarity: around her value to her employer and around the key outputs she’s been hired to deliver.

For a flexible working arrangement to succeed we must spend become very clear about the key skills we offer our employer. The ones that make us difficult to replace and that enable our contribution to the achievement of our employer’s objectives. When we identify these we’ll find it easier to craft a win-win flexible arrangement.

We must also become very skilled at managing our boundaries – particularly when it comes to our interactions with what Dr Lorenzo Bizzi terms our network contacts. These are the colleagues with whom we work and the clients for whom we provide a service. It’s not simply about learning to say no assertively; it’s also about understanding how their expectations of our role will have subtle impacts on our task activities. It’s about stakeholder management. We need to stop and ask ourselves “is this really part of my role? Do I need to do it in this way? Do I need to do it at this time?”

Many people boast of being productive by organising themselves with lists. But if you lack clarity about your job’s key purpose or you lack the skills to maintain a focus on that purpose how will you know whether you’re being productive or simply busy?

Don’t let bias derail you

Bias

Psychologists explain cognitive bias as the result of “subjective social reality”. If we’re human that’s something we can’t avoid. As we make our way in the world we’re likely experience three types of bias that can derail us – particularly when we lack the skills to navigate around it.

Limiting beliefs are the biases we hold about ourselves and the situations we face. Over the years we’ve crafted our stories of things we cannot do and the circumstances we are powerless to change. In a self help book some years ago I came across the sentence: “We believe we are limited and so we act in accordance with our limitations”. A good coach will help us challenge our limiting beliefs – but that’s not to say we’re always wrong.

Sometimes we’re limited because we lack the skills to make the change. This was the situation with a recent coaching client. She was holding herself back from promotion as she felt that work-life balance would be impossible in a more senior job. She’s a skilled and capable woman and her employer thinks highly of her. And she wants to be there for her children as they change schools, navigate their teenage years and make career choices. She’d tried working part-time several years earlier and had fallen into the trap of cramming five days’ work into three.

When we looked at how she might craft a more flexible job and manage her boundaries more effectively she suddenly began to see new possibilities. Yes, she had been limiting herself but not because of a lack of confidence or ambition. She simply lacked the right skills.

Unconscious bias has become a popular ingredient in corporate Diversity initiatives recently. The idea is that where women’s careers are concerned male managers make biased assumptions and act accordingly. So – for example – a woman with children may not be offered the challenging projects or time limited pieces of work. The underlying conjecture is that her priority lies with her children and she would be better placed with less demanding work.

European research has confirmed this may well be what’s going on. The problem is that the maanger is making assumptions without full knowledge of the circumstances. And women become annoyed to find they’re suddenly being treated differently. The key is better communication that starts from a win-win assumption. If you’re the woman in question it’s likely to fall to you to open the dialogue; and explore how you can craft a working arrangement that suits both you and your manager.

Perhaps most challenging of all is the third type of bias – stereotype threat. First discussed by psychologists in the mid 1990s stereotype threat refers to being at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s social group. It can be a concern that one’s negative performance will taint the image of the group or that one will be seen stereotypically. And when it comes to working mother there are a lot of stereotypes around.

Even if they’ve never heard the term it seems to me that many mothers succumb to stereotype threat. They don’t ask for flexibility – afraid they will be judged negatively and that this judgement will be extended to other working mothers. Or they worry their desire for better balance will result in others thinking of them negatively – as a “typical mother”. So they struggle on.

When we step up to balanced leadership we open ourselves to the possibility of negative judgement. Bias exists. But as I’ve said before: if we have a plan it’s easier to navigate the concerns of others and to win them over to our way of thinking.

Feeling inauthentic is OK

Authentic adj. genuine, known to be true

From the 1970s onwards as women began entering professional and managerial occupations in increasing numbers they opened up discussions around authenticity at work.

Why – they asked – do we need to pretend we’re not mothers; that our children don’t matter? Why do we need to adopt masculine behaviours in order to succeed? In two to three generations women made phenomenal progress while discussions around authenticity at work have escalated.

Indeed, some commentators extol the benefits of authenticity to such a degree that we’re now led to believe it holds the key to charismatic leadership. Somehow we know that when we embrace our authenticity and live our lives accordingly we can make the world a better place.

Not everyone feels comfortable being authentic – nor does every workplace necessarily encourage authenticity. We may struggle to be authentic while embracing what we believe to be the correct professional persona. The dark side of this inauthenticity is what has been termed emotional labour – the way our work requires us to behave regardless of our inner feelings.

Experiencing the Imposter Syndrome is another way we may question the authenticity of our behaviour. This is where we feel we’re not good enough, we’ve arrived at our role by accident and sooner or later we’ll be found out. Apparently women are highly likely to fall prey to the Imposter Syndrome – perhaps because we’re still trying to figure out those masculine scripts as we climb the corporate ladder.

What should we do? Suggesting we “fake it till we make it” can leave us feeling uncomfortable and (yes) inauthentic. The alternative is to listen to the wisdom of Herminia Ibarra – leadership expert and researcher into working identity.

A transition to a new role demands new skills, behaviours and attitudes and is likely to trigger changes to our professional identity. Professor Ibarra suggests we take ourselves lightly at this time, experiment with provisional selves and remain flexible about who we are becoming.

Clients working with me during the transition to becoming a Balanced Leader gain the benefits of tools, resources and a roadmap that I’ve been developing for the past twenty years. But as I’ve said in previous blog posts there is no well-trodden path down which to guide them. Balanced Leaders are pioneers.

Choosing to act as a Balanced Leader may initially feel inauthentic. But if you’re undertaking the journey for the right reasons (and why else would you choose this more challenging path?) you will grow into your authenticity.

The reality is we create our futures by our actions in the present. In an increasingly unpredictable world we often find ourselves doing this without an external compass to guide us. There are few role models and no well-worn paths. We must embrace the shifts to our identity and remind ourselves we’ve chosen to make them happen – not just for our own wellbeing but for that of the people around us.

Developing a winning strategy

Indonesian woman playing chess setting figure

When I recently registered a new coaching client she told me she knew she was holding herself back. Her bosses think highly of her and she’s been encouraged to go for promotion. But she was reluctant – because she couldn’t see how to retain any semblance of work-life balance if she progressed into middle management.

After three sessions with me – and only seven weeks later – she’s a changed woman. She’s now firmly committed to renegotiating her current role for more flexibility. And to progressing her career on a more flexible basis. Naturally I’m delighted to have provided her with tools and strategies that opened more options than she’d previously imagined.

I’d like to say: “result, job done” but she and I both know that’s not the case. We know she’s at the start of her journey. She’s joined the army of female pioneers setting a new workplace agenda. And she’s consciously undertaking that role in what is an aggressively traditional workplace culture. She understands that she’s laying herself open to scrutiny and criticism. However, we’re both confident she’s not opening herself to failure.

Together we’re developing a winning strategy:

  • Before she begins renegotiating her working arrangements we’ve spent time identifying her value to her employer; and the high potential cost of losing her.
  • We’ve identified the key stakeholders she needs to influence. And as she comes from a project management background managing stakeholders is a key strength for her.
  • We’ve evaluated various flexible working options – including reduced hours, job-share and job-split – and considered both the benefits and downsides of each.
  • We’ve pinpointed her key strengths and identified areas where she needs to upskill.

So far we’ve already spent six hours talking about how she might craft a Quality Flexible Job for herself. One that supports balance while making the best use of her skills on her employer’s behalf. It’s a considerable investment in time given the busy pace at which many of us work these days. We’re certain it’s time well spent.

We’re not finished yet. When we meet again we’ll be planning how to mitigate any potential risks. Identifying small gradual steps that make up the journey to Balanced Leadership. As they say: “forewarned is forearmed”.

I mentioned last year that one of my favourite maxims is “the unit within the system with the most responses controls the system”. With my support she’s developing a range of responses, identifying small changes and making course corrections as she goes along. And that’s our winning strategy.

The “genius, power and magic” of boldness

IWD 17 Twitter

It’s International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is #BeBoldForChange.

My dictionary defines bold as meaning both (1) confident and courageous; and (2) without feelings of shame, impudent. I suspect I’m not alone believing that bold actions in women are more often seen as the latter than the former.

For example: in their book “Why Women Don’t Ask” Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever point out that women are much less likely to use negotiation to get what they want than are men. They tend to view it as a masculine and competitive strategy. They prefer not to rock the boat. And in my experience, when faced with the work-life balance challenges of being a working mother they prefer to simply “fix” the problem by moving themselves onto the “mommy track”. They don’t want to be seen as asking for concessions because they’re not coping.

The thing is – as I’ve pointed out in previous blog posts – if we don’t ask nothing will change. Our mothers and grandmothers asked. For part-time and term-time work. And women made progress in the corporate world. Then things stalled.

By not asking we become complicit in covering up the fact that existing corporate cultures clash with women’s lives. We give our employers a “get out of jail free” card that allows them to suggest it’s something lacking in women. And the consequence – as revealed by recent Chartered Management Institute research – is half a million women missing from management.

Coaching a junior manager recently she concluded that she lacked the confidence to apply for a middle manager role. It’s a widely held assumption that poor confidence holds women back. But in her case she had a very real concern about being able to spend time with her family if she took on any more work responsibilities. And that’s what’s really holding her back.

With the right tools we’re crafting a job she feels confident she can do: and that makes best use of her skills while enabling a balanced life. It has required her to #BeBoldForChange and in her case this has paid off. Her manager is supportive – recognising and valuing her talents.

Most of us are willing to be bold on behalf of others – particularly family members. But when it comes to working practices we often shy away from asking for what we want. Because it’s not been done before. Because we’re worried about being seen in a negative light; our commitment being questioned. And we worry we’ll be seen as impudent rather than courageous.

So this International Women’s Day consider being bold not just for yourself – but also on behalf of the people around you. In negotiating better balanced working arrangements you’ll be opening up new possibilities for them as well.

I recently heard a working mother say: “I hope things are better for my daughter when she goes out to work”. But hope alone will not change anything.

We must #BeBoldForChange. In the words of Goethe:

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it

Set your own agenda – or someone else will

A group of my academic colleagues have set up the Switched On Consulting Research Group. Their aim is to further the understanding of how technology and being constantly “switched on” impacts our lives.

Technology that ensures we’re always accessible to colleagues is undoubtedly changing the way we work. For many of us this fast pace results in burnout, poor sleep – essential for recovery – and ever diminishing attention spans. We find ourselves operating in responsive mode – always firefighting.

That’s not how leaders behave. Leadership is about providing clarity and strategic direction. For that we need time to think and time to access the deeper wisdom required to navigate our VUCA world. According to Professor Herminia Ibarra – as I pointed out in this earlier post – we must Act Like Leaders and create that space in our working lives. Nobody else is going to do that for us.

Setting an intention to live in balance should not become another chore. It’s the foundation that enables us to perform at our best in our many roles. Here are three small steps we can take immediately to regain our balance:

  • Re-write outdated scripts and eliminate unnecessary tasks. What in your work and personal life needs to go to provide space for better balance? As parents and workers we’re so often squeezed by other people’s timetables and demands. Aspiring leaders must be strategic thinkers rather than operational doers.
  • Clear the mental pressures by separating – even if just for an hour each day. Switch off the devices and aim for single focus and mental clarity.
  • Get enough rest to refresh and recharge. An emerging trend in recent months has been the greater focus on doing less and being less busy but more productive. Indeed Arianna Huffington is so convinced of the importance of sleep that she’s written a book on the topic.

Listening to a motivational speaker today I was reminded:

“if you don’t have goals of your own you become part of somebody else’s goals.”

Focus on your goal of becoming a Balanced Leader. Pick one small step from the three above and give it a try for the coming month. See whether you become more balanced and more productive. Then get in touch and let me know!