Women’s Equality Day: 10 Questions For Organizational Self-Reflection

August 26th is Women’s Equality Day in the U.S. I like the idea of this observance – particularly compared to Women’s History Month (celebrated in March), which I kind of hate.

To me, Women’s History Month is a triumph of corporate box-checking, where organizations dust off their pictures of Susan B. Anthony and traipse out speakers (for mostly female audiences) on topics like “dress for success.” Once the boxes are checked, organizations tend to declare “Mission Accomplished” and forget about it until next March.

But consider this. If you still have to celebrate a “History Month” for a segment of your workforce, then that group probably doesn’t yet enjoy equality in your organization.

I think Women’s Equality Day offers up a useful line of inquiry. It points us not to the past, but to the present and future. It points us not to prior success, but to the distance yet to travel to reach equality. It asks us not to brush our shoulders in self-congratulation, but to ask ourselves honestly where women actually stand in our world, society, communities and organizations.

So heck yes, bring on Women’s Equality Day. And let the questions begin.

  1. Look around the table at each successive level of the company’s power structure. Who’s at this table and who’s missing? If women (or any group) are noticeably missing, then you don’t yet have equality. Period.
  2. What’s happening on compensation? Look around those same leadership team tables. Analyze the compensation of each member. See any patterns?
  3. At what levels do the main drop-offs in representation occur?
  4. What organizational policies and structures might be creating these drop-offs?
  5. What societal forces might be contributing to these declines?
  6. How would your organizational structures and policies need to change to ensure that women had equal standing in this company?
  7. What informal cultural assumptions and practices might be restricting women from the same access, influence and inclusion that their male counterparts enjoy?
  8. Whose voices tend to carry weight and sway opinion in your company? In a circle of opinion-leaders, who tends to galvanize the decisions and actions? Who has to say something before people hear and act on it?
  9. What’s really at stake? If the organization does not see itself as paying a meaningful price for inequality, then meaningful change is unlikely. What price are we paying for the lack of equality? If our women are underused or undervalued, how does that affect profitability? Our brand? Our standing in our stakeholder community? To what extent does it affect our competition for the best and brightest talent? To what extent does it affect our employee engagement and innovation?
  10. Who benefits – and how – from an unequal playing field for women (or any other group)? Don’t pussyfoot around this question; the beneficiaries of inequality will likely be among the greatest barriers to change.

Women’s Equality Day is an invitation to take courageous stock. By all means, celebrate success and progress. But ask the hard questions as well. Confront the distance between where you are and true equality for women and all workplace “minorities.” The only thing you have to lose is your comfort. And there might be so much to gain.

Why Do Women Rock At Crowdsourcing?

The Wall Street Journey reports that women are 13% more likely than men to reach their fundraising goals on sites like Kickstarter, where anyone can set up a project and request others to help fund it.

The article doesn’t talk about the reasons for this success, so I’m interested in your take…  Why do you think that women are more successful at raising capital through crowdsourcing?

To read the full WSJ article…  http://online.wsj.com/articles/kickstarter-closes-the-funding-gap-for-women-1407949759

Do You Suffer From “Sorry-itis?”

Early one morning, Peg popped her head into her boss’ office and said, “Sorry, Bill. Do you have a minute?” In a late-morning project meeting, she said, “I’m sorry, but can I ask a question?” Riding the elevator to go out for lunch, Peg was jostled by another rider. “Sorry,” she said reflexively.  And on the last call of the day, something the other person said was garbled. To prompt the speaker to repeat himself, she said… you guessed it… “Sorry?”

Women rightly chafe against being treated as “less than” in the workplace. But we actually participate in that treatment through our own “sorry-itis” – a condition affecting mostly women, in which we apologize to others for absolutely nothing.

Like you, I respect leaders who admit to their mistakes and who own up to the consequences. But sorry-itis is a whole different thing.  In all four examples above, Peg committed no transgression. Essentially, she manufactured needless blame and stuck it to own forehead.  Though each of her “sorries” was no big deal, together, they formed a speech pattern that communicated that Peg is a walking mistake. Every unwarranted “sorry” taught others to devalue her.

When Peg became aware of the extent and impact of her sorry-itis, she wanted to heal it. But she was afraid that she might start sounding like a jerk. So what were her alternatives in the four situations?

  • Popping her head into Bill’s office, she could merely say, “Excuse me, Bill. We don’t have an appointment right now, but do you have a few minutes to go over X?” And if Bill says, no, she can counter with “No problem. What would be a better time?”
  • She had every right to ask a question in a meeting. A more self-respectful way to do it might have been “Before we move on, I’d like to get more clarification on Y.”
  • In the elevator… Just zip it, Peg. The jostler owes the apology here, not the jostle-ee.
  • If she didn’t understand or hear something, she could have simply said “Would you say that again?”

What about you?

For the next week, keep a running log of the situations where you said “I’m sorry.”

At the end of the week, review the log.  What percentage of the time were your “sorries” the warranted acknowledgment of harm or injury?  What percentage of your “sorries” were due to sorry-itis?

When your sorries were unwarranted, what message do you think they sent to others:
– about how you regard yourself?
– about how others should regard you?

If you had one of those situations to do over again, how could you communicate in a way that was both graceful and self-respectful?

‘Uninstalling’ Subtle Sexism

The public discourse surrounding New York Times’ editor Jill Abramson’s recent firing has been fascinating to watch. Though we still don’t know exactly what happened and why, one of the prevailing theories is that Abramson was fired partly because of her “brusque” manner and “pushy” approach to confronting top management about compensation.

Abramson’s firing has reignited the conversation about gender bias in the workplace. But I’ve been surprised to see how many articles assert that we have some sort of new problem in our organizations: articles entitled, “The new war on women” and “The new forms of subtle bias”. But I don’t think that Jill Abramson shows us a new problem – simply that the quest for equality needs to continue in ever more subtle and conscious ways.

The process of eliminating sexism (or any other “ism”) at work is kind of like the process of uninstalling a software program from your computer. Even though you’ve uninstalled the main program, countless bits of code remain in the computer’s memory. So it is with organizations. Even though most workplaces have eradicated overtly sexist policies, the organizations still carry an enormous amount of biased “code” in their corporate cultures, behavioral expectations and application of corporate policy. These remnants of bias are difficult to detect if you are a member of the dominant culture that wrote the code in the first place. But they are eminently palpable to those who were not yet at the table when the code was written.

Here are a couple of examples of how sexist organizational code may have played out for Abramson:

  • Jill Abramson had the reputation of being “brusque.” Would we be criticizing a man for this same behavior – especially in an industry (journalism) which rewards driven and competitive people? Assuming that Abramson’s predecessors also exhibited significant ‘grit,’ were they chastised for being pushy, or were they excused, praised or promoted for being bulldogs?
  • Allegedly, Abramson’s superior, Arthur Sulzberger, was offended that she brought a lawyer into the room when she raised a concern that her male predecessors had been paid more than she. Two questions here. First – would you be equally offended if a man brought a lawyer in? Second, if Abramson’s bringing a lawyer into the room was unusual, then Sulzberger might have asked himself why Abramson felt that she needed this kind of protection to raise a compensation issue with senior management.

This happens at the individual level as well. Many of the male executives that I work with are perplexed by women’s ongoing claims of bias. I can see why. Few, if any, of them have overtly sexist attitudes toward women. But just because they don’t have an explicit belief that women are ‘less than’ doesn’t mean that they don’t have plenty of subtle sexist code in their behavioral DNA.

One of the most direct ways to confront the subtler remnants of bias is to ask yourself this question: “Would I (we) speak/behave/react in this way if this were a man?” If the answer is ‘no,’ then it’s time to look for the remnants of sexist code. For example:

  • Would you normally comment on a male colleague’s appearance? Would you compliment him on the attractiveness of his suit or a recent haircut? No? Then don’t comment on a woman’s appearance either. Recognize women for their work, not their wardrobe. Whether it’s Hillary’s “cankles” or Sarah Palin’s “hotness,” just don’t.
  • If you’re making deals or wielding influence at a place or time that a woman doesn’t have immediate and easy access to, then you are operating on “old code.” Sure, it’s probably easy and natural to conduct business over a cigar and 18 holes. It takes discipline to conduct the “real business” at the table where everyone actually has a seat. Do that.
  • If you’re working in a team, don’t look to the woman to be the notetaker. It’s a subservient role that she’s used to and you’re used to seeing her in. So even if she’s got “the best handwriting,” even if she’s organized, even if she offers – go against the grain. Ask a man to scribe.

I don’t agree with those who believe that Abramson’s firing signals a ‘new’ war on women or a ‘new’ form of sexism. I think it simply points to the bias that still exists in a world where more explicit forms of sexism are fading away. But just because an organization has uninstalled its more explicit sexist programming, it doesn’t mean that the remaining bytes of sexism aren’t powerfully shaping women’s daily experience and running room at work. So if we want to make organizations more productive and vibrant, we need to actively look for those lingering bits of biased code and then take action to erase it from our personal and organizational hard drives.

‘No’ is a complete sentence. (Anne Lamott)

Gracesters, this one’s for you.

What happens when you imagine saying ‘no’ to someone? Does your chest tighten or your stomach knot up? Do emotions arise? Anxiety, perhaps, or even panic? How do you react mentally? Maybe you get fuzzy-headed or think, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly refuse.”

Now recall a recent time when you actually did decline a request. How directly did you communicate your ‘no’? As its own complete sentence, or buried in apologies, tangents or justifications?

There are intense pressures on women at work – even those in leadership positions – to be agreeable, helpful, and ever-available. “No” flies in the face of those expectations. It can be an especially uncomfortable stance for grace-based women leaders, because it risks creating disruption in the relationship. But as a professor of mine once said, “If you can’t say ‘no,’ then your ‘yes’ doesn’t mean much.”

Despite the discomfort it can create within you, there is great and positive power in a clear, unvarnished and respectful decline. It can help you make more realistic commitments, stand up for your values and earn others’ respect. But “No” doesn’t help just you: it contributes also to the health of your team, organization, family or community.

So the question becomes how to bring your unapologetic “no” forward in a way that works? As you know, it’s not an easy question, but here are some ways to start engaging it.

1. Examine your own history with saying “No” and the internal beliefs you carry as a result. If you’re like many women, you have inherited a tangled set of messages about your power and authority. Try to look at that inheritance, taking stock of your history and its impact on your stance toward boundary-setting. Then try to articulate your own present-day views and values about saying “no,” so that you’re operating from a perspective that feels current and supportive. While a new articulation won’t erase your inherited stories, a new mental model can open up the possibility for new patterns of action.

2. Experiment! There are a million ways to deliver a ‘no:’ sweetly, acerbically, forcefully, passively, fearfully, bitchily, authoritatively, quietly, unshakably, tentatively… Play with them all by taking just a few minutes a day by yourself just to experiment with throwing different versions of “no” into the air. See how each one makes you feel. See if you can identify ways of saying it that feel comfortably powerful to you.

Step it up a notch by taking the ‘no’ experiment into low-stakes interactions, like at the grocery store or with your family (if you have that kind of family!). Try saying ‘no’ in places where doing it unskillfully won’t have big negative consequences. The goal is to get more practice and thus get more comfortable with claiming your own authority in all situations.

3. Examine your organization’s culture. I often hear people throwing around cultural generalizations like, “Oh, women can’t do X.” Or, “Women get killed for doing Y.” Certainly, it’s smart to listen to that cultural lore, because it may carry some career-saving wisdom. But test it, too. Look for current, tangible examples of what actually works and doesn’t in your workplace today. Are some women successful at managing boundaries, while others are not? What seems to separate the respected ‘no-sayers’ from those who are seen as aggressive or bitchy?

4. Consider investing in development. I think that each woman’s relationship to “No” is an integral part of her journey to fullness, authority and well-being. Here are a few ideas for development:

  • Read books or take a course. Relevant topics might include assertiveness, conflict management, emotional intelligence, crucial conversations, or executive presence. I recommend more experiential courses over strictly theoretical ones, so that you’re testing concepts by putting them into practice. In this regard, I am a big fan of Joe Weston’s book and workshops on “respectful confrontation.” http://www.respectfulconfrontation.com
  • Set up an agreement with a “no-buddy,” where you support each other in staking your claim and setting boundaries at work and in your personal lives.
  • If you want to take this on more fully, consider investing in an executive coach for customized support. If confrontation and boundary-setting have difficult historical and emotional roots, consider seeking the support of a therapist.

What about you?

How do you react inside, the closer you get to using “No” as a complete sentence, without padding or softening it?

What do you see as the promises and perils of saying “No” so directly?

When have you said “no” in a way that was both definitive (grit) and respectful (grace)? What did you learn from that?

 

 

 

GM’s First Female CEO: Does This Matter?

Mary Barra is making history. She’s the new CEO of General Motors and the first woman to head up a large auto manufacturer. It’s big news for sure, but it’s got me wondering: is Barra’s gender of any real consequence?

Here are a few different perspectives on that question.

Parity. From the gender equality point of view, a woman at the highest level in such a male-dominated industry is a very important step. Good news on the equity front.

Profitability. A study of Fortune 500 firms has shown a strong correlation between the number of women in the executive suite and profitability. The 25 firms with the best record of promoting women to high positions were between 18 and 69% more profitable than companies with fewer women at the helm. This bodes well for GM and its shareholders.

Barra herself. GM is doing very well these days, so Ms. Barra is taking the reins of a healthy company. This is often not the case for women execs, who are frequently given top leadership positions of organizations that are hitting the skids (which can set them up for very public failure). But Barra’s being set up to succeed, bolstered by a tailwind of positive corporate momentum and unanimous Board backing.

GM’s culture. A change in gender does not guarantee a cultural sea-change for an organization. I know plenty of grit-based women who have a very traditional, command-and-control, style of leadership. But it sounds like Barra will bring exactly the kind of blended leadership that can transform an organization’s culture for the better. According to the Dallas News, “Friends and colleagues say Barra has an unusual mix of skills. She’s fiercely intelligent yet humble and approachable. She’s collaborative but is often the person who takes charge. And she’s not afraid to make changes.” To me, this is the most exciting part of this change: not that GM’s being led by a woman, but that it’s being led by someone who brings grit and grace in equal measure to the executive suite.

I’m eager to see how this story unfolds.

How Not To Respond To Style-Related Feedback

Harvard Business Review’s September cover kind of says it all. It shows a profile of a woman and three phrases in bold letters:

“Bossy”
“Emotional”
“Too nice”

If you’re a woman in the workplace, you have probably noticed that you’re a lot more likely than your male colleagues to get stylistic criticism. Like it or not, organizations still tend to pay as much attention to how women behave as to what they accomplish.

I think stylistic feedback is the hardest kind of feedback to deal with. It’s one thing to hear that your data was wrong or that your marketing strategy was weak. But stylistic feedback is about you. Whether or not it’s justified or accurate, it’s personal. To make matters worse, people often deliver this kind of feedback quite badly. So it’s hard to hear, hard to decipher and hard to address.

Here are the five most common mistakes I see women make in dealing with stylistic feedback:

1. Denial. This is an understandable and automatic response. If someone says we’re too emotional, we’re likely to respond with, “No I’m not.” Whether or not you feel the feedback is valid, dismissing it out of hand could come back to bite you.

2. Blame. I had one client tell me, “I wouldn’t have to be so demanding if the people around me weren’t such idiots.” Even if every member of your team is woefully inadequate – as long you’re blaming others for your reactions, you’re not learning and the situation will not improve.

3. Intensification. This seems counterintuitive, but I see it happen a lot. Someone gets feedback that what she’s doing isn’t working. Her initial reaction? To do what she’s been doing, but do it harder, longer, faster, more. One client told me, “No matter how much I support my team, they still aren’t delivering. I guess I need to be even more supportive.” In other words, in times of stress we tend to draw more heavily on what we already know and are good at. But when that isn’t getting results, doing more of it usually doesn’t help.

4. Abandonment. This is the opposite response from intensification. The internal message here is, “They say I’m bossy. I guess I’ll just have to start beating around the bush and start sugar-coating everything.” Not a great strategy. You probably won’t be very good at it, and you definitely can’t sustain it long term. Most importantly, no one else is buying it.

5. Style ‘whack a mole.’ Some women I’ve worked with try to suss out each situation and behave as they think others want them to act. I’m not talking about appropriate situational adjustment here, but rather a form of play-acting where you’re trying to be whoever/whatever you think others want you to be, in the hopes that you’ll avoid getting slammed. Big mistake. First of all, it’s exhausting. And ultimately it will backfire. You’ll come across as inauthentic, inconsistent or, worse, manipulative.

However unfair or unskillful stylistic feedback may be, it is always an opportunity to learn something. That’s where I always suggest that people start – looking for the learning nugget. Maybe you will discover something about yourself. Or maybe it can help you understand something new about the feedback-giver. Maybe it will give you valuable insight into the organization’s culture.

About yourself. The leaders I’ve worked with who were most successful at dealing with stylistic feedback have been able to find the grain of truth in it. One of my clients got feedback that she was too judgmental, to which she initially responded with blame. But when I asked her how her relationships at home were going, she reported that her daughter was intimidated by her and avoided contact. Despite the fact that my client still didn’t respect the views of the person who gave her feedback, she was able to see the thread of truth: that her forceful style was getting in the way of important relationships both at home and at work. From that point on, she invested fully in her own development and made stunning stylistic shifts. She developed a strong compassionate side, without ever losing her signature feistiness.

About the feedback giver. If you can’t find any evidence that the stylistic feedback you’ve received is accurate or valid, it still gives you insight into the values and preferences of the feedback-giver. While s/he may be saying that you’re objectively ‘too emotional,’ the meaning may actually be that your style is overpowering to him or her. You may learn from this feedback that dialing down your own intensity will help you be more effective with that person.

About the organization and its culture. I’ve had a lot of clients who have moved to new organizations and been hit with stylistic feedback that they’ve never encountered before. Often, that’s because what was expected or acceptable in a previous environment is devalued in another. For example, I’ve coached many ex-military people who have transitioned to the civilian sector. Once lauded for their directness and clarity, they may be harshly criticized in their new environment for being overbearing. While this feedback may be confusing, it can provide crucial insights into the values of the new organization and the adjustments that you may have to make to be successful there.

If you’re a woman in the workplace, you are much more likely to receive feedback on your style than your male colleagues are. So you might as well plan for it. If it comes your way, try to make sure that you don’t fall for any of the classic unhelpful responses. Instead, use style-related feedback as an opportunity to learn something – about yourself, the person giving you feedback, or your organization.

 

Don’t Just Do Something; Sit There!

I did a really good thing last week: I went on a 24-hour personal retreat. From noon on Monday to noon on Tuesday, I set down all my ‘shoulds’ and to-do lists and went with a friend to a log cabin in a wilderness preserve about 2 hours from DC. No agenda – just space, time, wooded trails, a journal and some wholesome food.

As we began our retreat, each of us articulated an intention for our time there. Mine was to feel less scattered, to be restored to a sense of inner consolidation and wholeness. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling better. Within minutes of settling on that porch overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, serenaded by the whisper of dry leaves falling, the sharp inner edges smoothed out. I felt spiritually reconnected. I felt relieved to drop down into a mode where I was not making anything happen.

These 24 hours got me thinking about how much my life supports accomplishment and how little it supports personal renewal. Whether it’s in my business, my home, or in my community, the world around me is always calling for me to do more. And I want to answer that call. So I spend most of my time in what I call my ‘executive function,’ the grit side of myself that plans, aspires, organizes, and gets stuff done.

By contrast, there is very little around me that encourages me to slow down, to inhabit a more quiet, receptive mode. I don’t get messages from my environment saying, “Get less involved!” “Be content with what you have!” or “Hey – winter’s coming: time to slow down.” The drive to take things down a notch comes only from within myself – not because “I’m worth it,” but because I need it in order to be at my happiest and best. None of my most creative moments occur when I’m staring at a computer screen – they occur in the shower or on walks. Busyness does not cultivate kindness in me – relaxation does. The harder I’m driving, the less open I am to inspiration or delight.

I don’t know about you, but the world doesn’t tend to hand me renewal time on a silver platter. I’m going to have to keep carving it out for myself.

I am a fan of big breaks, like spiritual, contemplative or creative retreats or even spa get-aways. These can be immensely beneficial – kind of a whole-being reset. But these big breaks can also be beyond reach for many of us. No worries. Even the smallest reconnection with our ‘grace’ sides can have profound effects. So we have to reclaim and build renewal time into our daily lives, structuring in no-cost, low investment micro-retreats. Here are some ideas:

  • Breathing breaks. Unless the building’s on fire or your kid needs to go to the emergency room, most of us can take 60 seconds out to simply pay full attention to our breath. The breath is an express train into the present moment, which is actually the only place where stress does NOT live. Most stress is a fabrication of our minds, which are either fretting about the past or worrying about the future. For one minute a couple of times a day, be. here. now.
  • Mealtime meditations. When was the last time you sat down to a meal and brought your full attention to the act of eating? When was the last time you really tasted your lunch? Noticed the color, shape and textures of what you consumed? Chewed instead of shoveled? Even eating at your desk can be transformed into an opportunity to cultivate receptivity and presence.
  • Gratitudes. I don’t know about you, but once I get into task mode, I can tend to feel put-upon – even if I’ve put everything upon myself! It can be a game changer to take a second to register one thing that you’re grateful for, one way in which you feel blessed. Research has proven that a gratitude practice yields significant psychological and physiological benefits, and it’s easy to do. You can weave it seamlessly into your day – maybe doing it every time you’re standing at the elevator or walking between meetings. Maybe you write down one gratitude as the first note you take in every meeting. I have two ‘gratitude buddies’ – we try to email each other each day with five things we’re grateful for.
  • Nature time-outs. I have a client who sets a chime to ring on her computer two or three times per day. It reminds her to go outside and connect with the natural world for a minute or two. Nature returns her to a larger sense of perspective and a more gracious orientation to time. Nature’s often closer at hand than you think. Step out of your office and walk around the block. At your daughter’s soccer game, take your attention off of how she’s doing for a few seconds and just feel the sun on your face. At a stoplight, turn off the radio and open the window.
  • Music retreats. Music can change your state almost instantly. Put on a quiet piece of music in your office and just listen. Or shut your door and dance around to a favorite boogie tune.

What about you?

What happens to you when your life becomes all doing (grit) and no being (grace)? How does it affect your health, outlook and energy? How does it affect the quality of your relationships? How does it affect your effectiveness at work and at home?

Have you ever established grace-supporting structures or routines in your life? If so, what were they, and what impact did they have on you?

What impact did they have on those around you?

What enabled you to sustain these structures? What got in the way?

Given the reality of your life these days, what are two things you could do on a regular basis to give your grit-ful ‘executive function’ a break?