The “genius, power and magic” of boldness

IWD 17 Twitter

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

Set your own agenda – or someone else will

A group of my academic colleagues have set up the Switched On Consulting Research Group. Their aim is to further the understanding of how technology and being constantly “switched on” impacts our lives.

Technology that ensures we’re always accessible to colleagues is undoubtedly changing the way we work. For many of us this fast pace results in burnout, poor sleep – essential for recovery – and ever diminishing attention spans. We find ourselves operating in responsive mode – always firefighting.

That’s not how leaders behave. Leadership is about providing clarity and strategic direction. For that we need time to think and time to access the deeper wisdom required to navigate our VUCA world. According to Professor Herminia Ibarra – as I pointed out in this earlier post – we must Act Like Leaders and create that space in our working lives. Nobody else is going to do that for us.

Setting an intention to live in balance should not become another chore. It’s the foundation that enables us to perform at our best in our many roles. Here are three small steps we can take immediately to regain our balance:

  • Re-write outdated scripts and eliminate unnecessary tasks. What in your work and personal life needs to go to provide space for better balance? As parents and workers we’re so often squeezed by other people’s timetables and demands. Aspiring leaders must be strategic thinkers rather than operational doers.
  • Clear the mental pressures by separating – even if just for an hour each day. Switch off the devices and aim for single focus and mental clarity.
  • Get enough rest to refresh and recharge. An emerging trend in recent months has been the greater focus on doing less and being less busy but more productive. Indeed Arianna Huffington is so convinced of the importance of sleep that she’s written a book on the topic.

Listening to a motivational speaker today I was reminded:

“if you don’t have goals of your own you become part of somebody else’s goals.”

Focus on your goal of becoming a Balanced Leader. Pick one small step from the three above and give it a try for the coming month. See whether you become more balanced and more productive. Then get in touch and let me know!

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 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.

Reviewing progress and celebrating victories

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?

Change happens best when nobody notices

Mother And Daughter Looking Up

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.

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.