Tough Love: The Choices Successful Women Need To Make

FemaleBoxer.jpg

One author offers women “tough love” advice on work/life balance, having it all and the impostor syndrome.

By Debra Walton (Chief Content Officer, Thomson Reuters)

In the 20 years or so that I have been championing gender diversity and “glass ceiling” issues, the sad fact is that the rate of progress for the advancement of women is woefully disappointing, particularly in light of the “noise” around the issue — and certainly given the now well-publicized data that companies with more balanced leadership teams significantly outperform those which lack them.

I think we need to focus on two key areas. One is the still-present “silent killer of diversity” — unconscious bias — which is largely environmental. But the bigger issue is that of how women are “stepping up,” or leaning in as Sheryl Sandberg would say.

In other words, women need to deal with real challenges in the workplace (and the world at large), but they also have to grapple with their own personal issues and perspectives — and yes, even spirituality — some of which may need to be refocused and reconsidered as a career progresses. Corporate programs to aid women in their careers generally don’t address this. I discuss my thoughts below. Rather intentionally, I’m offering a little “tough love.”

Work-Life Balance is Not the Point

One of the most common catchphrases in the business world is “work-life balance,” something almost certainly directed more at women than men, given the major effect having children can have on a woman’s career.

But work-life is a false distinction. Work is a key part of life, not something somehow separate from it. The phrase almost always makes it seem as if “life” were something that intrudes on and hinders a career. The phrase makes “life” seem a troublesome thing.

I prefer to see “life” as a complete entity, comprised of several crucial parts. It’s those parts — work, family, side interests — that require balancing. And that requires effort. So let’s call it “life balance” instead of “work-life balance.”

You Can’t Have it All

Another misguided premise or dialogue concerns the issue of whether women can have it all. Many articles and panels debate this topic. But what does “having it all” really mean? A princess such as Kate Middleton or an actress at the top of her career such as Angelina Jolie may appear to have it all, but it’s actually a common catchphrase that turns out to be hollow, absurd even.

The key is to understand what you really want in the various areas of your life and at the various stages in your life and strive to achieve those goals. It helps to write them down, and to be honest about what you come up with.

A corollary is that women must stop striving for perfection, the goal is to strive for optimal — or to be good enough to be able to manage across a broader front of activities. The point is that perfectionists micromanage things — both at the office and at home — which ends up disabling and disempowering colleagues and family members.

I like the way executive coach Marshall Goldsmith puts it: 90 percent is good enough, stop meddling with that last 10 percent. Let somebody else own it and empower them in the process.

The Right Partner Can Make a Big Difference

Which brings us to parenthood. I’m not a parent, but I have the greatest regard for people who can successfully raise children and maintain a thriving career. Each woman approaches this process of balance in her own way. Some will go all in as mothers and keep a bit of freelance work or consulting on the side, others will find a way to work full-time and carve out a parenting role that works for them. Again, the key to achieving a life balance is simple: You must understand what you really want.

Furthermore, women do themselves a terrible disservice when they attempt to singlehandedly take on the role of being a parent when there is a father in the picture. Working moms can, and should, rebrand themselves as working parents. We tend to forget that men are just as concerned about family time and children as women. Allow them to share the load.

And guess what? If you chose the right partner—probably the most important decision in your life—they should be more than glad to (and many are; witness the number of “stay-at-home dads” these days). One presumes that most women would never enter into a life partnership without discussing the issue of children; today it is just as important for those women who want to manage a career that the discussion also include how children will fit into the picture, and what you want out of your career.

Make sure you have somebody in your corner to support you. I realize that this can sometimes be a deeply cultural issue — and I respect the nuances that can bear on it.

And if you do decide to go the parenting route, find ways to make up for what might seem a lack of progress in your career. It’s easy to feel like you can’t meet travel obligations or connect with clients or colleagues in a social setting because of responsibilities at home, but there are ways to avoid that trap.

Plan ahead, and put a support structure in place to meet the extra obligations of travel and after-work activities. At a women’s event in New York last week, I enjoyed hearing one of the group talking about how she had very effectively “outsourced” a lot of home management obligations in order to get to her desired life balance.

Get Over the Imposture Syndrome

Once you do begin to rise within a company, avoid the “impostor syndrome.” Many of us have moments when we feel we are really challenging our abilities and knowledge; some of us at times even feel out of our depth, or that our superiors will somehow discover we’re not qualified for a role or an assignment or that we don’t have everything figured out. Men tend to power through these moments faster than women.

Here’s a truth: Feeling uncomfortable and insecure is the natural result of stretching yourself, of pushing your limits. If you never get that feeling, you are not trying hard enough. And believe me, your boss has had that feeling at some point in his or her career, likely more than once.

One winter my husband Marc and I were skiing and somehow ended up on a black diamond slope — one designated only for expert skiers. I was terrified to go down, but after some hesitation, I just did it. And really, what other choice was there? Have a helicopter rescue me? I survived, and it felt good. Being able to push past fear is an important skill in just about every facet of life. Don’t worry if you feel a little too “over your skis “ at times.

Seek a Male Sponsor

One last point. Take responsibility for your own destiny by seeking out a sponsor. Career coaches talk at you, mentors talk with you, but a sponsor will talk about you to others both in and out of the company.

Seek a male sponsor if you can. Why male? Unconscious biases still exist, and many men, who make the bulk of hiring decisions, will have an image of who they want in the role. In male-dominated environments the image often reflects the incumbent, typically a male.

Cultivating a sponsorship relationship with a male leader will help him to see things differently, to gain a new perspective. Seeking a sponsor is a lot like dating. You certainly don’t ask somebody to marry you after the first date, likewise don’t ask someone to sponsor you if you’ve just met. It will take time to find the right sponsor and, once you’ve done so, to develop the relationship in such a manner than you can leverage it for your benefit. The process could take a year or more — but it will be time well spent.

Look at it as a key element and driver of your career. And remember: Your career isn’t separate from life. It’s part of it, but it shouldn’t be all of it. Successfully balancing our lives is the biggest challenge for all of us; there is no one size fits all, there is no simple plan for us to follow. We just need to be honest about what is important to us at this point in time and be confident to go with it.

This post originally appeared on Medium on April 29.

What other “catchphrases” aimed at working women need to go?


About the guest blogger: Debra Walton is currently the Chief Content Officer at Thomson Reuters and an executive sponsor of the Thomson Reuters Women’s Network. Follow her on Twitter at @Debra_Walton.