#BalanceforBetter – IWD 2019

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Another year has gone by and once more we’re getting ready to celebrate International Women’s Day. This year’s campaign theme is #BalanceforBetter – urging us to take action and build a gender balanced world.

There are plenty of economic, social and moral arguments for gender balance in all aspects of life. In the business world there’s mounting proof that achieving gender balance at all levels will have a positive impact on the bottom line. And in my experience achieving that balance requires an employer to support good work-life balance.

There’s growing evidence that mothers (and an increasing number of fathers) are compromising their careers in their efforts to achieve work-life balance. There’s also considerable research evidence confirming that flexible working is a key factor in supporting women’s career progression. Wider access to well-structured flexible working arrangements often has other benefits. For example, it allows fathers to be more involved in child rearing; which in turn enables mothers to participate more fully in the workplace. In an ideal world our employers would be fully convinced of the benefits that accrue when everyone can work flexibly; and would have practices in place to make that happen.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world and we still have a way to go. Waiting for our employers means we could be waiting a very long time. If we want change then it’s down to us to make it happen. To guide our actions we can draw on lessons from previous generations of working women:

  • We embrace our pioneering role. The corporate world needs a new band of leaders ready to complete the workplace revolution by modelling new possibilities. Not just for our own sake, but also for the benefit of future generations. Do we want our daughters and sons to struggle with work-life balance in the same way we currently do?
  • We connect with our power to source the courage we need to ask for #better. It’s easy to feel disempowered in the face of embedded cultural norms that tell us we must choose between career and caring – we cannot have both. When we dig deep we remember that we’re not only entitled to live a balanced life but that doing so is essential for our wellbeing.
  • We take the first step recognising that change often happens slowly and incrementally: and that’s no bad thing. When we’re pioneering new ways of working things will not always run smoothly. We’ll need to make adjustments on the journey; to pause and reflect. And we’ll need to remember that as our life circumstances change we’ll want to restructure again to hold onto our work-life balance.

The International Women’s Day website reminds us that it’s a year-long campaign, not a one-day event. So if you’re ready to join the call and #BalanceforBetter why not make that the focus of your life in 2019? Connect with me and let’s work on Balanced Leadership together.

Everyday courage

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When we think of courage most of us will think in terms of big, bold, brave acts. Such as – for example – those taken by the Suffragettes a century ago; and which contributed to improved lives for so many women. While few of us are likely to be called upon to demonstrate this level of bravery; we can all be courageous in our everyday lives.

Submitting a flexible working request – particularly in a senior role – may not at first glance appear to be an act of courage, although I choose to see it that way. When we ask in the belief it will improve not only our own lives but those around us we’re demonstrating the courage of our convictions – which the Oxford dictionary defines as being ‘brave enough to do what one feels to be right’.

Challenging a corporate culture that forces us to compromise well being and family time for the sake of our career has to be a good thing. If we don’t then nothing will change and our daughters (and sons) will find themselves in exactly the same position down the line. We’re acting with integrity when we take a stand. Writing in Rising Strong researcher Brené Brown defines integrity as

choosing courage over comfort’

Brené’s books are full of great advice on how to be more courageous.

Courage means finding the confidence to step outside our comfort zone. As women we often feel uncomfortable when we think about doing this at work. We know we’ll be criticised regardless of how we step out of line; and there will be people waiting for us to fail (after all terms like the ‘glass cliff’ were not coined for nothing).

How can we cultivate the courage to become Balanced Leaders?

  • We start by having faith in the value we bring to our employers; and the contributions we make. Aiming for balance will make us more, not less effective; and more likely to stay in workplaces that desperately need to improve their gender balance.
  • We hold onto our sense of entitlement to a balanced life. Balance allows us to be present for all those important non-work moments that add to the richness of our lives. As they say: nobody on their deathbed regretted not working more.
  • And we continue to hold a vision of a better working world for the generations of women that will follow us.

Emmeline Pankhurst reportedly said: ‘courage calls to courage everywhere’.

Whether it’s the enormous courage that enabled her to endure or the small everyday courage demonstrated by our grandmothers and mothers as they pressed for progress in the corporate world; it’s all been moving us towards the same end – an improvement in women’s lives.

The corporate world still needs to change; to embrace the value of women’s contributions at every level. As women we must find the courage to change it. If we wait for our employers we could be waiting another century.

So this month I want to encourage you to step outside your comfort zone. Embrace those small everyday acts of courage that will improve not only your own working life but also that of the women around you. Let’s build on the courage of earlier generations of women, grow ourselves into Balanced Leaders and complete the workplace revolution.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

Tuning your radar

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Living and working in balanced ways often requires us to navigate restrictive corporate cultures that tell us “it won’t work here”. Overcoming these barriers can feel challenging – particularly if we believe we’re pioneering something new. However, in many cases perception differs from reality.

Working with corporate clients I’ve come to learn there’s often more going on under the radar than is at first apparent. When it comes to flexible working, HR policies may offer limited options; while the corporate culture insists these are only appropriate for junior roles. Rather than becoming frustrated we need to re-tune our radar so we can tease out valuable information that will support us. Specifically we must focus on three questions:

Where can I find suitable role models?

Not all flexible working happens in plain sight. People will often agree an informal arrangement with their boss on the proviso they keep it to themselves. If they work in other parts of the organisation we may never know that the off-site meeting this afternoon is actually attendance at a child’s sports day; or that a key member of another department always works at home on Mondays.

In an ideal world every employer would publicise their flexible working Role Models and make life easier for everyone. But we know this doesn’t always happen so we need to ask around. Internal networks that support women and parents are a good place to start.

Who has the expertise to help me shape my working pattern?

When I begin a corporate assignment one of my first tasks is often to identify what managers already know about flexible working. Typically I’ll ask them to share their experience – both within the current organisation and with previous employers.

I’m always surprised by the breadth of knowledge that emerges. This then becomes a key resource for developing innovative flexible working arrangements that suit the business.

What behaviour does this organisation reward?

Psychologists will tell you

“the behaviour that’s rewarded is the behaviour that continues”

So we need to understand what’s currently being rewarded and in most cases to change it. Far too many workplaces continue to reward presenteeism and long working hours.

Over the years I’ve come across employees passed over for lucrative assignments because they were working at home. Truly a case of ‘out of sight and out of mind’. Equally at risk are those who work less than full-time. There’s often a perception that stretch assignments require an individual to ‘put in the hours’.

If that’s common practice in your workplace what strategy can you develop to ensure you’re not penalised? One simple step is to ensure you’re clear about the outputs expected of you and broadcast your achievements. Such behaviour may feel uncomfortable for many women who see it as boasting. But maintaining a firm focus on outputs and achievements can change conversations. And conversations in turn can slowly change expectations and behaviours.

The more we know about what’s already working under the radar in our organisation the more powerful we can be in progressing our own balanced working. We can refute the “it won’t work here” claims and explore new possibilities with colleagues who’ve ‘been there: done that’.

 

Propel yourself to Balanced Leadership

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Becoming a Balanced Leader challenges us to hold a vision of living a balanced life as the foundation for our plans and actions. To succeed we need strategies and tools that work for us; together with a map to point us in the right direction. Over the past few months I’ve been pulling my expertise into a structured model which serves to do exactly that. On the eve of National Work Life Week if you’re in the UK and Work Family Month if you’re in the US I’m sharing that model.

I chose the acronym PROPEL as I know that following my model can literally propel your career to new levels.

P is for preferences in the way we choose to manage our work-life balance. While some of us are avid integrators others feel uncomfortable as technology and corporate expectations push us further and further in that direction. These are the separators who prefer to keep firm boundaries between work and the rest of life.

R is for the roles we play and the ways in which we play them. We begin to understand we have choices and that role scripts can become outdated. We can focus on combining roles in ways that enrich our lives and reduce the conflicts we may feel.

When we work through these first two steps we become much clearer on how we want to structure our lives and manage our boundaries. We can then begin to explore possibilities for redesigning our work.

O is for the options open to us within the culture and practices prevalent in our workplace. While some cultures openly embrace working from home others frown on reduced hours at senior levels. Gently pushing the boundaries of what’s currently acceptable is more likely to succeed than proposing radical changes that make people feel uncomfortable.

P is for possibilities. For considering how we can craft our work role to make the most of our key skills. So we become an even more valuable asset to our employers; and more productive and efficient into the bargain.

E is for the essential skills we need to make a success of all this. Many of these skills will already be in our portfolio – we may simply need to upgrade them. A small number – such as job crafting – may need to be learnt. The good news is that these are the same essential skills we’ll need to be successful leaders in both our workplaces and our lives.

L is for the leadership qualities we’re cultivating and the Balanced Leader we’re becoming.

So there it is: the evidence based road map to becoming a Balanced Leader. Straightforward, easy to understand and built on twenty five years expertise!