The “genius, power and magic” of boldness

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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

The Art of Influence

Becoming a Balanced Leader is a journey. It begins with the decision to reclaim balance in our lives supported by the clarity to know why we want it. Those of us on the journey are pioneers and we’ll be questioned at every turn. That’s human nature. In order to get where we want to be we must become skilled at influencing others.

Women in particular often feel powerless when faced with apparently inflexible corporate cultures and overwhelming social expectations. It’s essential that we remain confident we can exert influence over the way we live our own lives – and in doing so become role models for those around us.

If you’re committed to the Balanced Leader journey I offer some advice – based on things I’ve learnt along the way.

  • First of all, clarity is key. Be clear about what you want, where you’re willing to make concessions and what’s not negotiable. Keep in mind these priorities will shift and change as you navigate your life course. Prepare a robust case for your choices and sell the benefits to those you wish to influence.
  • Speak confidently. Women face a wealth of advice on how to cultivate the necessary gravitas. Don’t let concerns about that tie you up in knots. Aim to be brief but cover all the essentials. The more confidence you have in your new working arrangement, the more likely your colleagues will have confidence you can pull it off.
  • Engage with those you’re aiming to influence. Ask questions rather than giving opinions. Asking questions gets your listener’s brain involved as it seeks answers so it’s a powerful way of engaging others. Wherever possible aim for positive questions such as: “How would my colleagues and clients benefit if I was more refreshed, energised or creative?”
  • Expect to be heard and to get a positive response. Women often fear their voices go unheard in predominantly masculine corporate cultures. My own experience has been that most men do listen – but are less likely to offer confirmatory visual clues than are women. And if you’re asking for better balance you may well be voicing a desire they share.
  • If you find yourself faced with someone who really doesn’t listen – or who may be inclined to argue back – I’ve discovered that putting your case in writing as a precursor to meeting can be very effective. Some people simply hate being surprised or caught on the hop. Your written request will help them feel better prepared for a discussion.

Once you start the journey make yourself visible and be a role model. Then you’ll be influencing by example – and that’s the most powerful influence of all.

The skills you need are the skills you have

Making the decision to be a Balanced Leader will inevitably raise questions. Initially we may ask ourselves what that balance would look like and how we might get there from here. Once we have clarity we may also question whether we have the necessary skills to support us on the journey.

I want to reassure you that many of the skills you’ve already been developing in the course of your working life are the same skills you can deploy to achieve your aims. It’s simply that we need to apply them in a different context.

Let’s consider – for example – the skills of negotiation, influencing and selling. Your initial thoughts may be “I’m not very good at these” or even “these are not the key skills that got me this far in my career”. We may even believe our success is due to our technical expertise alone. But I want to argue that life constantly calls on us to negotiate, influence and sell. We may simply not recognise when we’re doing so.

When it comes to juggling workplace priorities and managing the people around us, most of us are already well versed in the art of negotiation. We understand it’s a process of ‘give and take’ – often over a series of conversations. So when we undertake to agree a more balanced working arrangement we bring this same skill into play. As with any negotiation we prepare by identifying the value we bring to the table and the broader benefits our proposed arrangement offers to co-workers and the wider organisation. We consider what we’re aiming to achieve and what the other party is likely to be looking for in terms of outcomes.

To reach a satisfactory resolution we need to know we can influence both our managers and the organisational processes within which we’re operating. It’s highly likely you’re already better at influencing than you think. It’s a skill you’ve been developing in managing colleagues and clients. And I can almost guarantee your children will have provided you with opportunities to hone your influencing skills to a higher level.

Understanding how to negotiate and how to influence are the key foundations for effective selling. Can you see it’s something you’ve been doing all along? Perhaps you’ve been selling your services to potential clients or perhaps selling your case to your manager when it comes to accessing the resources you need to do your best work. You can draw on these skills to be confident of selling your vision of balanced working and of generating support on the journey.

The courage to ask

In their ground-breaking book “Why Women Don’t Ask” Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever identified the many ways social conditioning discourages women from negotiating; and the devastating impact this can have on a woman’s earning potential throughout her career.

When it comes to asking for flexible working arrangements, a further layer of barriers often comes into play:

  • Working mothers are likely to fall foul of “stereotype threat” – the psychological theory that we have a tendency to play up to negative stereotypes about us. Thus widely held prejudices that women should choose between children and career makes us reluctant to be seen playing into the stereotype and hinders us in asking for support to manage both at once.
  • We’ve bought into a corporate culture that devalues working mothers who – according to research – are widely held to be neither good parents (for abandoning their children to the care of others) nor good employees (for not focusing solely on work and career). And a culture that also frequently devalues less than full time working arrangements

Given these negative perceptions and their impact on self-esteem women often fail to recognise the leadership opportunities in stepping up and asking for more balanced working. All of this adds to the ‘glass ceiling’ and the continuing inability of women to progress to senior levels while juggling caring commitments.

But we’ve come this far in the last fifty years and I believe we’re at the point where we can complete the workplace revolution.

Excellent negotiation skills are an essential part of the Balanced Leader’s toolkit. It’s something we explore in detail over the course of the Balanced Leader Programme. And good negotiators know the importance of preparation. So, before making that request to work flexibly make sure you’ve covered the following points:

  • First: be clear on the arrangement you want, how it will benefit you and your employer, any likely drawbacks; and how you plan to make it succeed. Consider the stakeholders involved both at home and at work and have a strategy for managing them.
  • Second: be clear on the value you bring to your employer and how that will not only remain but could possibly even be enhanced if you work your new arrangement. Remember that while your employer may initially feel he’s making a concession in allowing you to work flexibly you are – in fact – benefitting him by offering a way to retain your skills that supports your wellbeing and avoids heavy replacement costs should you otherwise give up and leave.
  • Finally, focus on the benefits and sell these to all concerned. If you suspect you’ll meet resistance identify the smallest first step you could ask for at this time. The one that will have the biggest impact for you. Once you’ve secured that concession you can move on to the next step – which won’t seem as hard.

See your efforts as an act of courageous leadership (and a way of growing your leadership muscle). At the root of the word courage is the French ‘coeur’ meaning heart. When we act courageously we’re taking heartfelt steps to make life better. Not just for ourselves but for those around us. Not just those we work with, but also our families and above all our children who will grow up with a model of balanced working to guide them.