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.
Since the Industrial Revolution men have been designing workplaces based on masculine paradigms. Over the past sixty years or so the talented women entering these male domains have been pioneering changes that underpin more balanced ways of working.
Our grandmothers, who opted to continue working while raising a family found little support from employment legislation or indeed from employers. The only concession being lower level jobs on part-time hours enabling women to earn ‘pin money’ to supplement the male breadwinner’s income.
It was these pioneering women who quietly pressed for term time working. And their employers began to understand the business case for offering career breaks so they could take time out to have babies and bring their skills back into the workforce.
Today more than ever the corporate world needs better gender balance and we’re still talking about the same initiatives. The popularity of job share – particularly as a means of progressing women into senior roles – is on the rise. But it’s not a new idea. A colleague of mine was running a job-share register back in the 1970s. Career breaks in the meantime have been resurrected as Returnships. And still the progression of women into senior roles remains painfully slow. As the French say: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.
Those early pioneers made great progress in gaining concessions that enabled women’s careers. But their initiatives are no longer enough. We need to re-think arrangements to accommodate 21st century lives and support balanced ways of working. We need a new generation of pioneers ready to finish the workplace revolution by modelling new possibilities.
Einstein said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. We need to think differently, to #beboldforchange.
If 2017 is your year to become a Balanced Leader here are three things to keep in mind:
- Be very clear not just on where you’re going but on how you want to make the journey. Remain mindful of the ever present distractions that will derail your balance if you don’t manage your boundaries.
- Where possible find fellow travellers – role models and champions who support new ways of working and demonstrate the possibilities. Over the past few years the Timewise Foundation’s Power Part Time initiative has been doing a great job of documenting many of these.
- Take it one step at a time. Be prepared for delays and detours and don’t beat yourself up when they happen. It’s in the nature of being a pioneer that there’s no route map to follow. And not everyone will like or support what you’re doing.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Earlier generations of pioneering women created the trail into the corporate world for us. Let’s create a new trail and bring balance to the boardroom.
We’ve reached that point in the year when even the busiest of us endeavour to carve out some time for reflection. To consider the year that’s finishing and how the New Year might be different. Reflection is generally a good thing and when we choose to carve out our path as a Balanced Leader it becomes essential. We’re slowly creating a new paradigm of 21st Century leadership and recognising that work-life balance is personal and dynamic. As we close 2016 I offer you five questions. Reflecting on your experiences will enable you to find better balance in 2017.
- When during this year did you feel your life was in balance? Please think hard and try to identify even the briefest moments. What made you notice that things were balanced? What else did you notice? What were you doing at the time? How could you do more of it in the coming year to make balance a more regular feeling? What were people around you doing to support you? How might you influence them to support you more regularly?
- How did your life roles change this year? Did your children grow another year older and less dependent on you? Or did your parents grow another year older and more dependent? How did your work circumstances change? Did you feel compelled to work longer hours? Were you able to find more flexibility – perhaps by working remotely? Did these changes highlight areas where your skills need to be enhanced?
- How did technology impact your quest for balance? If you’re a separator to what extent did other people’s expectations and behaviours add to your feelings of imbalance? If you’re an integrator did you spot areas where you need to set better boundaries?
- What role models did you come across this year? Who inspired you or opened your eyes to alternative working possibilities? Who encouraged you to strive for better balance? And where were you able to be a role model for others?
- When did you show courage? Perhaps in managing your boundaries or renegotiating expectations. When did you experience moments of mindfulness that led you to realise boundaries need to be more clearly defined?
So, as the old year closes we celebrate the small steps that led us in the direction of our vision, acknowledge the journey continues and ask ourselves: what’s the next small step for 2017?
As human beings we live with gradual change. Landscapes shift with the seasons, our children grow slowly day by day until we notice they’re no longer the helpless infants we once held but young adults ready to flee the nest; and we’re invariably aware of our own bodies changing as we age. The corporate world tends to be obsessed with a bigger, bolder paradigm of change. We’re told we must keep up to speed with it, learn how to embrace it and manage those of our colleagues who fear or resist it.
I first heard the phrase “change happens best when nobody notices” at a training seminar several years ago and it resonated with me. So often when we decide to live more balanced lives we feel we must make radical and sweeping changes. The problem here is that our actions can make others uncomfortable and we ourselves can end up feeling overwhelmed. When we implement those same changes as a series of tiny steps we feel more in control, a little less vulnerable. It’s impossible to predict the responses of people around us and small actions enable us to make course corrections when things don’t work out as we expected.
The first law of cybernetics is a favourite maxim of mine. It states that: “the unit within the system with the most behavioural responses available to it controls the system”. When we go slowly we allow ourselves more behavioural responses. We give ourselves more space to overcome the obstacles we meet on our path.
Having a clear vision for our balanced life remains essential. And we need to reconnect with that vision regularly as we find ourselves distracted and swayed off our course. We still need to guard our boundaries and manage the expectations of others. But making small adjustments gradually over a period of time is a more manageable approach to behaviour change – and likely to be less intrusive for those around us. Step by step we find those small changes add up.
Once my coaching clients have identified their ideal work-life balance I ask them “on a scale of one to ten where are you now in relation to this ideal vision?” When they make their (subjective) response my next question is always: “so what small step would move you half a point nearer your ideal?” It’s less daunting than asking them to make radical changes. It enables quick wins that tell them better balance is possible. And they begin to make small changes – often under the radar – as they proceed towards an ever shifting goal.