Propel yourself to Balanced Leadership

Businesswoman Walking On Stairway

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 We begin to understand we have choices and that role scripts can become outdated.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!

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.

The way of the Pioneer

Women hiker with backpack checks map to find directions in wilderness areaSince 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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.

Crafting Balanced Jobs

Business People Support Teamwork Meeting Organizing Concept

The skill of job design has always been part of the Occupational Psychologist’s portfolio but in recent years it’s been taken a step further with the notion of job crafting. In an article in the June 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review Professor Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues describe how job crafting enables people to re-energise and re-imagine their work life and provides them with a greater feeling of control at work.

At senior levels job crafting makes a great deal of sense. When we devote many years to developing our career we also develop a unique portfolio that’s the sum total of our skills, interests, experiences and workplace encounters. It’s that unique combination that makes us valuable in our jobs and literally irreplaceable to our employers.

Think about it. If you quit your job how long will it take to find someone else with your experience? I’m not talking simply about the academic qualifications you have and the professional training you’ve undertaken. I’m also thinking of the specialist knowledge you’ve developed at your workplace and your understanding of how to make things happen in your organisation. So, rather than lose talented women struggling with work life balance job crafting offers employers a way to retain them.

The HBR article focuses on assessing and altering three core aspects of work: the tasks, the relationships and our own perceptions of our work. On the Balanced Leader Programme we follow this outline to craft jobs that better support our needs while meeting our employers’ expectations.

We begin with the tasks – by clarifying the key things you’ve been hired to do; and the outcomes best suited to your skills. We then consider which tasks can be discarded so that you find the time and space to operate more strategically. In our VUCA business environments the nature of jobs can change pretty quickly. How often do we stop to ask ourselves: “what’s the best use of my time and skills? Where does my best value to my employer lie?” Once we’ve identified working priorities we can assess the potential for time and location flexibility within them. And so we create opportunities to combine work and caring responsibilities in more balanced ways.

Then we turn our focus to relationships and identify those stakeholders – both at work and at home – key to our success. And we develop strategies for managing those relationships effectively.

As we do this so our perceptions change. We no longer see ourselves as ambitious women constrained by corporate glass ceilings. Like our mothers and grandmothers before us we’ve become pioneers remodelling the workplace for our own benefit and that of future generations.

 

 

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.

Fostering a Balanced Working Culture

Appreciative Inquiry is a change process developed by David Cooperrider towards the end of the last century. Generally included in the broad category of ‘Positive Psychology’ it’s an approach likely to appeal to women for three reasons.

  1. It’s conversation based – playing to women’s interpersonal skills. It recognises our human tendency to make meaning through dialogue: the “social construction of reality”. And it’s inclusive: extending the conversation to as many people as possible.
  2. The questions asked are the “tools for change”. Not just any questions but well constructed ones that sow the potential for change by directing our attention. For women in the workplace it offers a way to take the lead without being judged as controlling.
  3. The focus is on building the future – the new and emergent – not on fixing the old. It’s a perspective likely to resonate with parents. When we bring up our children our focus is generally on future potential.

Cooperrider has outlined five key principles of Appreciative Inquiry which we can put to use in fostering change towards a more balanced working culture.

  1. Organisations are living human constructions not mechanical systems that exist independently of the people within them. In many cases they are literally man-made with cultures established in the last century to support male ways of working. What this means is that we can reconstruct our organisations to better meet changing social expectations. Our mothers and grandmothers started this process when they asked for arrangements such as part-time, term-time and job-share. It’s down to us to continue the process by re-shaping work at more senior levels so that organisations become more truly inclusive for women.
  2. Inquiry is intervention. When we ask the right questions and ensure the right focus we begin the process of change. So rather than believing flexible working is impossible at senior levels we ask “where and when have we seen someone in a senior role successfully work flexibly – in this organisation or this industry?” One of the most powerful questions I ask when beginning a consulting assignment is “who in this organisation has experience of flexible working arrangements at senior levels?” It’s always surprising to learn how much knowledge already exists under the radar. And these people become the organisation’s ‘database of experts’ – a key resource able to provide insights into how specific arrangements can succeed.
  3. Human organisations are more like open books – constantly being re-written – than closed systems. So Appreciative Inquiry uses storytelling to identify our ‘cultural artefacts’. What do our current role models for success look like? What behaviour is rewarded? What stories do we tell ourselves about the organisation and its culture? We then begin to re-write these stories looking for new heroes and new achievements. Rather than talking about the manager who works long hours and drives her people hard we begin to talk about the one who manages to work a flexible arrangement successfully and the many benefits this has brought to her staff and clients.
  4. Our collective imagination is an infinite resource for changing organisations. Rather than tying up our energy in analysing what’s going wrong we ask ourselves how it will look when things go well. The “miracle question” I talk about in this post is a great place to start.
  5. The momentum for change is more effective when positive energy is harnessed. We know this is true. When we become excited about the potential benefits gained by achieving a positive goal we’re likely to put more energy into the process.

A short blog post like this cannot do justice to a complex process like Appreciative Inquiry. But – in the spirit of the process – it can begin to draw attention to what’s important and to ask the right question. So: where are you focusing your energy – in overcoming objections to flexible working or in creating a shared vision of how it could work for everyone?