Trust yourself

Japanese Girl Playing With Rope Walking (3 Years Old)

When it comes to balancing work and other parts of life the world is awash with experts. The ones that insist you need to strive for integration or blend since there’s no such thing as ’work-life balance’. The ones that blog about what works for them confident that it will also work for you. The ones that reduce the whole exercise to (choose a number) of useful tips – often along the lines of “remember to schedule regular me-time”.

I consider myself at the forefront of work-life balance experts – which is why I don’t believe in being so prescriptive.

If you have an initial consultation with me the first thing I will ask you is “how would you know if your life was in balance?” And if we have that same conversation five years later and I ask you the same question, it’s very likely your answer will be very different.

I know that work-life balance is both personal and dynamic; and there’s no “one size fits all”. Consequently both this blog and my coaching simply offer guidelines – based on academic research and practical experience – within which you can find your own route to Balanced Leadership.

So if – like me – you’re become confused by the plethora of often conflicting advice, I want to offer you some very simple guidance:

Trust yourself.

You know best whether it feels right for you to separate or integrate work and other parts of life. And you know that what feels right now may change in the future as your family circumstances and their demands on you change.

You know best how to play your various life roles. Which ones need more focus at present and where to dial down the intensity. You know you’re doing your best as you juggle through each day. Show yourself compassion and don’t let others judge you harshly.

Eminent Psychologist Bruno Bettleheim pioneered the concept of the ‘good enough parent’; while in the workplace the Pareto Principle essentially urges us to do the same.

So trust yourself to be good enough. Take five minutes of quiet time to connect with your deep inner knowing and identify what you need at this time – recognising that your needs will change as your life circumstances change. Trust that you know what works for you and stick with it. As the saying goes: “done is better than perfect”.

Just Ask

Thinking Women With Question Marks On White Background

I’ve recently joined a number of Facebook groups established to support working mothers in their search for flexible jobs. It breaks my heart every time I read another post from a skilled professional woman who’s about to downshift her career because she’s unable to work her current job around her family commitments.

It doesn’t have to be like this. It’s the twenty first century and technology has progressed far enough to enable us to integrate work and caring responsibilities in better ways. It’s the key reason why I’m writing my book. Employers are missing out on the skills working mothers have spent so long developing; while the women themselves are likely to miss out on thousands of pounds in lost income. If you’re thinking of discarding your corporate career then I want to urge you – before you do:

Just Ask

The traditional wisdom has been that women don’t ask – at least where salary is concerned. Research has recently blown that theory out of the water. It seems women do ask, but do not receive as often than men do. Since women understand that, it’s likely to make them reticent in asking. But if we don’t ask then nothing will change.

Stereotype threat can make us reluctant to ask. We try to fit in. We pretend we can manage our caring responsibilities while we work hours that were established half a century ago for men with stay at home wives. We struggle to juggle and to find balance. The thing is: if we’re to become Balanced Leaders we need to stand out, make waves, pioneer what we want.

So how can we ask in a way that’s more likely to get us the flexible working arrangement we need?

  1. First of all, feel entitled to ask. If you’re a manager then flexible working is not an inconvenient concession on the part of your employer. It’s a smart business strategy to keep you and women like you in the talent pipeline – and to redress the gender balance in the organisation.
  2. Get very clear on your business case for asking. Identify the knowledge and skills your employer will lose if you leave. Not just the ones that can be replaced by recruiting an external candidate, but all the internal learning that means you know ‘how to get things done around here’; and that makes you so efficient at your job.
  3. Ask with curiosity. If you were to work your preferred arrangement what would be the impact – both positive and negative – on the stakeholders around you? What are your manager’s key concerns and how would your working relationship look if they were eliminated?
  4. Ask who else in the organisation has experience of flexible working at manager levels. Who might act as a source of information or an intermediary in your discussions?
  5. Finally remember that asking is just the start of the negotiation. It may not be resolved immediately. You may need to ask more questions so that you can come up with better solutions.

And if you’re an employer or manager with an employee who is asking please

Just Listen

You may end up agreeing something that’s to your advantage.

Origins of the Balanced Leader model

Over the past few months my main focus has been on writing my new book; and I’m pleased to share that I’ve almost finished. As I’m currently working on the Leadership chapter I thought it would be fitting to share some of that this month.

Regular readers of this blog will know I believe choosing to walk the Balanced Leader journey is in itself an act of leadership. Rejecting the stereotyped notion that leadership is all about employer first and work-life balance last is a pioneering move. When we make it we become thought leaders and role models for the people around us.

So what do I mean by Balanced Leadership?

I’d like to tell you about three people whose academic work has influenced my thinking, writing and coaching. I’ve mentioned them in previous posts so they won’t be strangers to you.

The first is leadership expert Professor Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe. I first wrote about her here. Unhappy with the ‘heroic’ and ‘charismatic’ models popular at the turn of the century that – according to her – were the result of “white men studying white men” she developed an alternative. Her Engaging Leadership model is deliberately inclusive of ethnicity, gender and other characteristics of the wider population; and does not discriminate in favour of particular leadership styles. It’s a model that’s been adopted by many public sector organisations in the UK and is increasingly spreading to the private sector.

Why do I like this model? Quite simply: because the focus is on how leaders can elicit extraordinary performance from their team by focusing on behaviours that engage people. And engaging people is something women tend to be good at – so it plays to our natural strengths.

My second influence is Stew Friedman.  Stew has been running the Total Leadership programme at Wharton Business School for many years. He’s developed a process for achieving ‘four way wins’ – at work, at home, in the community and for yourself – acting on the three principles of being real, being whole and being innovative. Again I like this model because I believe it both speaks to women and draws on their strengths. It’s widely acknowledged that women want to be authentic – or ‘real’ – at work; and that they want to be able to focus on balancing their whole lives rather than sacrificing one part for another. And I know it’s also a growing desire among men – particularly younger fathers who would like to be more involved parents.

Thirdly, I’ve been heavily influenced by the work of Herminia Ibarra and I wrote about her latest book ‘Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader some time ago.

Much of her work focuses on how we create our workplace identities and she has come to understand these rarely arrive fully formed. We typically need to grow into them. As I mentioned in the earlier blog post those of us who’ve become parents will recognise the truth of that. We feel our way into new behaviours, act in different ways and become the people we come to see ourselves as being. That’s true whether we’re talking about being a parent or being a leader.

It should be pretty obvious – based on the above – why I like Herminia’s work. But there’s more. As we feel our way into new workplace roles she suggests we should also be more playful with ourselves and our identity.

I consider this to be very useful advice. When we’re playful we don’t take things so seriously. We feel we’ve less to lose. So we can try on different leadership qualities; see which ones suit us and discard the rest.

And that’s it. Three respected academics whose work is influencing new ways of thinking about leadership more relevant to the 21st Century – including my Balanced Leader model.

 

Coping with complexity

Smiling female student siting front open book and learning

We live in a complex world. Some commentators go further and call it a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. Choosing to champion Balanced Working for ourselves and our team can – ironically – add an extra layer of complexity to our working lives. At least at the outset.

How do we help ourselves and our teams to manage these complex environments?

Since the middle of the last century psychologists have come to understand that making decisions when we’re faced with too many choices becomes stressful. And – of course – our #AlwaysOn hyper-connected lifestyles are resulting in an overwhelm of information.

As an antidote, Stanford University Professor Kathleen Eisenhardt recommends setting three simple rules. Three rules are likely to be remembered and more likely to be put into action when people are stressed.

Simplicity is also the recommendation of author and speaker Greg McKeown. According to him becoming a great leader requires:

“the disciplined pursuit of less but better”

McKeown’s research has shown that teams and the people in them thrive with a high level of clarity of purpose. He stresses the importance of carving out the time and space needed to achieve that clarity.

A team that aims to achieve Balanced Working will need two layers of simple rules. The first must be around how to manage their more flexible working practices. The developers of ROWE (the Results-Only Work Environment) offer some guidance here with rules around the acceptable use of time during the day; around communication and around actually doing the work for which we’ve been hired.

Once those rules are in place the team can focus on simplifying work processes: developing the capacity to be more agile in response to the ever changing workplace environment.

Aiming for clarity and simplicity protects us against what Psychologists Irving Janis and Leon Mann call ‘hypervigilant behaviour’ – often exhibited when we attempt to make complex decisions under duress. The outcome is a never ending search for more information while we try and find the ideal solution.

A further benefit of simplicity – according to Professor Eisenhardt – is that collecting too much data results in using the past to predict the future. Our own experience of the rapid pace of change increasingly tells us this is unlikely to be the case. The future will be different.

Faced with this knowledge we must learn to let go of our desire to control that future. A recent McKinsey article advises leaders to develop:

“a more comfortable and creative relationship with uncertainty”

Psychologists consider organisations to be complex adaptive systems in constant tension between stability and change. Although it’s true we’ve had more and more of the latter in recent years. It’s this emergent change that often fuels our uncertainty. But if we are to adapt and to create better ways of working we must learn to embrace and manage it.

Pressing for Progress

International Women's Day Equality Rights Graphic

International Women’s Day falls in early March and this year’s theme was #PressForProgress.

From the moment they entered the corporate world in large numbers – back in the 1960s and 1970s – women have been pressing for progress at work. And yet they still face the same challenges: working practices structured around men’s career patterns that make it impossible to combine a senior role and caring for family. And corporate cultures that pay lip service to supporting work-life balance while penalising those who actively seek it.

Those pioneering women showed courage when they pressed for progress. They challenged notions of how work should be done and gained concessions such as term-time working and job-share.

Fast forward fifty years and the business case for gender balanced organisations is well documented. We’ve been waiting for our employers to act; and little has changed.

If we’re going to #PressForProgress we need a new generation of women to step up to leadership in their working lives; and to change things. We must embrace what Stewart Friedman calls Total Leadership

‘Total” because it’s about the whole person and ‘Leadership’ because it’s about ‘creating sustainable change to benefit not just you but the most important people around you.

What it means to be a leader is constantly being redefined. From the early days of ‘command and control’ through heroic models of charismatic white men to the broader definitions of the 21st Century. We’ve also come to understand that women’s approach to leadership differs from that of men. Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe found that women place more emphasis on the relationship between a manager and their direct reports. They work to a concept of ‘empowerment’ that includes principles of interdependence, co-operation and connectedness; and the sharing of power,

This feminine approach ties in well with emergent thinking about leadership not as an act of heroism, but one of serving and enabling others to display leadership themselves. It is not about being an extraordinary person, but rather an ordinary, vulnerable, humble, accessible and transparent one.

Choosing to become a Balanced Leader is an act of courage that will change our lives and those of the people around us. We all have the capacity to make that choice. Indeed as corporate women’s development programmes encourage women to find their authentic leadership style we must embrace Balanced Leadership as ours. In this way we continue to #PressForProgress as we skilfully combine our journey to the boardroom with other aspects of our lives.

Friedman’s approach is to do something new for a short period and see how it affects all aspects of our lives (work, home, community and self). If it doesn’t work out, stop or adjust, and little is lost. If it does work out, it’s a small win. Over time these add up so that overall efforts are focused increasingly on what matters most.  Just as I did in this earlier blog, he recommends taking small steps that minimize the risks and enable us to overcome our fear of failure.

Alimo-Metcalfe recommends linking our actions to our employer’s business objectives. So in pressing for more balanced working arrangements we are supporting the drive to encourage women into senior roles. And at the same time we’re enabling better work-life balance for everyone.

We must embrace the fact that – as with previous cohorts of working women – it’s down to each and every one of us to #PressForProgress. We don’t need to wait for employers and we don’t need to wait for permission. We simply need the courage to ask.

 

Staying positive

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Most of us will have come across the idea – perhaps as part of advice around managing stress – that the human brain is hard wired to focus on the negative. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense. Basic survival was often a challenge for our prehistoric ancestors so they had to fine tune their senses to danger. And when it appeared – perhaps in the form of a wild animal looking for its dinner – they had to take immediate action. Positive thinking at that moment would not have served them well. Fight or flight – fuelled by fear – would have been the better course of action.

Once the threat was over – however – psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has suggested that positive emotions may have helped them develop new, more effective future strategies. Fredrickson was one of the earliest pioneers of Positive Psychology when in 1998 she asked ‘What good are positive emotions?

I’m a great fan of Positive Psychology. I use it in my work. It was the topic of last month’s blog as well as earlier ones. (This one for example.)

This month I’d like to explain why I believe it’s a powerful component of the Balanced Leader’s toolkit. But before I do I want to clarify one thing: Positive Psychology is not the same as ‘positive thinking’. Nor does it ask us to ignore the negative aspects of life. There are times when we must acknowledge our more pessimistic emotions before we can move forward. What Positive Psychology offers us is a way to shift our focus. We no longer remain mired in the problem but move to a more generative state where we can develop new solutions.

When we perceive ourselves to be under threat our attention narrows and our body prepares for immediate action. In our complex, modern world this may not be the most productive response. Positive emotions – according to Fredrickson – ‘broaden and build’. They expand our attentional focus and enhance creative thinking. In this way we find new solutions and add to our skills repertoire.

Research has revealed that simply putting ourselves into a positive state before we begin a task will improve our performance. So, for example, when I facilitate workplace groups charged with developing more balance working practices I always begin by asking them to identify and list the benefits such practices will bring. Identifying the positive impact on their own lives makes it more likely they will focus on solutions rather than objections.

Positive emotions also have what Fredrickson calls an ‘undoing effect’ that is beneficial to our wellbeing. She maintains they:

 “loosen the hold that (no-longer-relevant) negative emotions gain on an individual’s mind and body”

To prove the point: think about how often you return home from a challenging day at work to the excited joy of your children or the loving attention of a pet. Suddenly you find workplace cares receding. This is what work-life balance researchers call ‘recovery time’.

We live in a complex world where multiple challenges vie for our attention every day. Tackling life with a positive focus will support our physical and mental well-being expand our personal resources and help us strengthen social bonds. As you choose to be a Balanced Leader do your best to stay positive!

Preparing to play a bigger game

Making a commitment to becoming a Balanced Leader can feel daunting. Doubts and fears arise. In a frantic world do I have the necessary skills and capacity? What behaviours will I need to develop and how can I model these for others?

Getting it right is a concern for many women. We’re brought up to be ‘good girls’ who play by the rules. We worry about making mistakes and know we’re likely to be judged harshly when we do.

In an earlier blog I wrote about Herminia Ibarra’s assertion that in order to think like a leader we must first act our way into leadership. When we’re pioneering a new concept like Balanced Leadership that can be easier said than done. One solution is to work with a coach to define future behaviours in line with our values; and to draw up a plan that enables us to grow into them. Coaching theory even suggests we connect with our future self who already has this covered and let her pull us forward.

But how do we best connect with that future self – one of many possible selves we could become – so that we become clear on which skills and qualities are essential for our focus and success?

The solution lies in feeling into new behaviours rather than trying to solve everything with our minds. And Appreciative Inquiry offers us a powerful process for doing this.

Becoming curious about what makes a Balanced Leader – and putting that curiosity at the heart of our thinking – we’re ready to work through the four stages of Discovery, Dreaming, Design and Delivery.

Key to the process is asking ourselves positive and generative questions that focus clearly on possibilities. So in the Discovery phase we begin by considering what’s already out there in our organisation that looks like Balanced Leadership. Can we think of tangible role models or even small instances of appropriate behaviour? When do we see it happening and in what context?

We begin to Dream about the possibilities for demonstrating Balanced Leadership ourselves. What skills will we need to enhance? What do we need to commit to in terms of new behaviours?

As the possibilities begin to take shape in our minds we’re ready to Design a new way of being. We consider what we’ll do differently and identify the support we’ll need to stay on track – both at work and at home.

Finally we’re ready to Deliver – or as the AI practitioners would say – we’re moving into our Destiny.