Women in Leadership: What We Deal With

by Joanie Connell

woman and man tug of warI was carpooling recently with three business colleagues, all male. One of them noticed someone in the car ahead cutting us off. He blurted out, “It’s a woman!” All of us looked a little surprised. One of the other men in the car said, “At least he didn’t say it must be a woman!” to the rest of us. The first colleague then went on to say that “the two worst things for our country were letting women drive and letting them vote.”

Yes, this happened in the year 2014. A man said that out loud, in a business context, with a woman present. He’s lucky he didn’t receive a black-belt-level kick in the back of the head from me at the time and he’s lucky now that he is remaining anonymous in this blog.

woman leader climbing ladderFor all you people out there who think that sexism and other “isms” are gone, you are wrong. I heard from another colleague just the other day that women leaders take time off to have babies and they shouldn’t progress to the top because of that. This was a woman speaking in the context of a discussion of why the percentage of women on Fortune 100 Boards has not increased over the years.

Yes, this was also 2014. A woman said that women shouldn’t be leaders of Fortune 100 companies because they have babies. She’s lucky I had an appointment to get to at the time and she’s lucky to remain anonymous in this blog too. Babies? All women? Never be top leaders? Don’t even get me started.

I’ve never been one of those people who can produce a zinger of a response in the moment. In fact, I still don’t even have zingers for these two people. It’s just too big for a zinger. I need a manuscript.

But what I want to say to you, the reader, is that, no matter what anyone tells you, it is challenging for women to be leaders even still. For all of you who think that sexism and other “isms” are a thing of the past, beware. They aren’t. And how are you to deal with that? The question to ask yourself is, do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution? Do you value equality? If so, it’s time to take a look at how you put this value into play. I’d like to challenge you to challenge others in their beliefs and in their behaviors.

I didn’t tell you what I said to these folks and the many others I’ve had to deal with saying disparaging comments about women to me, but I can assure you that I did speak up. And I can assure you that people know me as a person of character who challenges them to do the right thing.

In fact, a few years back I chaired a dissertation defense meeting on the topic of gender stereotyping. Would you believe, during the meeting one of the male committee members made several sexist remarks to the female candidate! How did I handle this? I shut down the behavior in the meeting and I followed up with individual meetings with each person who was on the committee and in the room, including the person who made the remarks. The goal was to give constructive feedback to my colleague on how his behavior impacted others to help him be more inclusive in the future. I hope it helped.

Just so you know, it was extremely uncomfortable for me to have to go to a colleague and call him out on his sexist remarks. It would have been so much easier to just let it go. But it needed to be done and I needed to do it because I value equality and inclusion.

One of my role models for advocating inclusion is Bernardo Ferdman. He’s one of those people who does even better than coming up with a zinger. HDiversity at Work book covere comes up with constructive responses that challenge the person’s thinking and behavior in a positive way to bring about inclusiveness. He has a new book out on the very topic of inclusiveness and I highly recommend it for you and your organizations. I’ve wanted to buy it myself, but it is hardcover and it carries a hefty price tag. I’ve been telling myself that it’s too expensive to buy. After the last couple of weeks, however, I think it’s too expensive not to.

I’ll leave you with a final fact, which might surprise you. The people in the three examples I gave are all high-level, highly influential leaders, with global impact. Don’t ask me who they are or even try to figure it out; I won’t tell you. The purpose of this article is not to expose them; it’s to learn from them. The lesson is: your behavior does count. Make it count!

Guest Blog at the Rady School of Management at UCSD

I recently posted a guest blog at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego on the issue of risk mitigation.  The blog uses the recent chaos that ensued after the snowfall in the South as an example for thinking about mitigating risk in companies.  Click on this link to read the blog.  It will inspire you to ask the right questions beforehand, to be prepared and not caught totally off guard when unexpected things happen at your company.

Failing to Succeed

by Joanie Connell

successWhat does it take to succeed? Isn’t that the burning question? Of course, it depends on what your definition of success is to begin with. Is it money, fame, power, happiness, self actualization? The first step in success is to know yourself—what is important to you, what do you value, what are you good at, what are you not so good at? Failing that, you will never truly succeed.

I was an electrical engineer before I became a psychologist. I went into engineering for all the wrong reasons. They seemed like the right reasons at the time, because I was young and inexperienced, and I was looking for a short-term solution. I wanted to make money, and my parents made it abundantly clear that I needed to be able to support myself upon completing college.

I spent many a night flipping through the book of college majors, looking longingly at music, French, and sociology, but questioning what kind of money I would make if I went down one of those paths. Given that I was good at math and computers, I chose the one major I could find where I could start out as a professional with only an undergraduate degree: electrical engineering.

I did succeed at making money, but I was not happy. I had to go back and do a lot of soul searching. I bought the book “What Color is your Parachute?” and diligently worked through all of the exercises. I explored and prioritized what was important to me. I solicited feedback from friends and family on what they thought I was good at and what would be a good fit for me. I interviewed many professionals in a variety of jobs to see if these jobs would be a good fit for me. Through this process, I decided to become a communications consultant. I learned that I needed to go back and get a Ph.D. to be successful at that. I learned that I liked to solve problems (like an engineer) but they needed to be people problems. I learned that I did have to make enough money to support myself, but not as much as an engineer. I learned that I needed to make a positive impact on the world (even in a small way) to be successful in life. That’s what is important to me.

A few years back, during a coaching session, an executive told me that I had found my calling. It was the best compliment I have ever received at work. I realized then and there that my strength and passion are to help people reach their potential in life. I’ve gone through countless failures to get to that point, and it hasn’t been easy.

Like with exercising and diets, people want to learn the shortcut to failuresuccess. The New York Times Bestsellers list is full of books on how to be a successful leader. The problem is: there is no formula for success. It takes discipline and hard work, and every successful person will tell you that they have failed.

Even the Harvard Business Review has dedicated a special issue to failure. Every article talks about major business failures. The key message, however, is to learn from your failures.

Proctor & Gamble’s former CEO, Alan Lafley, says that, in his experience, “we learn more from failure than we do from success.” He says that 80% of new product innovation fails in the industry of household products. It wasn’t until he had P&G go back and systematically study their failures over the past 3 decades and define what success meant, that they understood why. Needless to say, they’ve improved their success rate ever since.

People are the same way. Instead of forgetting the past, we need to learn from it to do better in the future. We also need to take risks to succeed. If we wrap ourselves up in a security blanket, we will close ourselves off from opportunities to grow.

In the end, failing is important to succeed.

Bully Busting!

mean girlsBy Joanie Connell

A parent came to me not so long ago with a story about her 9-year-old daughter being bullied by “mean girls.” There was a small pack of them. They went around together and laughed at kids. One thing they did was to try to trick girls into feeling stupid then they all would laugh at them. For example, they’d come up to me and say “Where’s Joanie?” Naturally, I’d be confused. Then they’d all laugh at me. According to the parent, the “mean girls” picked on certain girls and recruited others to join their group.

We all know what bullying is and I’m sure we’ve all dealt with it at one point or another—whether at school, at work, or on the street. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, surveys indicate that as many as half of all children are bullied at some time during their school years, and at least 10% are bullied on a regular basis. Wikipedia says that 60-80% of children are bullied. Some of us may have even bullied others—a little sister or a weaker kid or someone at work.

But when we hear about bullying and, especially when it’s being done to our own precious little child, what do we want to do? I dare you to say that you haven’t wanted to help them out, call their parents, tell the teacher, or advocate putting a stop to bullying altogether. Of course, we want to help, but should we? The question is: what does a victim of bullying need to do to succeed? And what is succeeding? Is it stopping the bullying? Handling the bullying? Fighting back?

I would suggest that bullying is a fact of life. It has been going on since the beginning of time and it will continue going on until the end of time. It is a part of human nature and we are not going to be able to stop it. What we can do is figure out how to respond to it in a way that helps us come out ahead.

First of all, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to reduce bullying. Of course, that is a commendable goal. Having rules about it isn’t going to do the trick though. Bullies are expert at looking good in front of the enforcers. We’ve all seen the kid who mocks a child shamelessly as soon as the teacher steps out of the room and turns into an “angel” when the teacher walks back in. Rules only stop behavior as much as they are enforced.

It’s the culture that can squelch bullying, not rules. We would need to have a society that doesn’t reward bullies, that actually punishes them or banishes them from groups. Unfortunately, our society rewards bullies a great deal. Think about the leaders of our country, our corporations, and our role models in the entertainment business. A recent Boston Globe article has some great examples of bullies in the media.

So, what can we do? We can strengthen the victims of bullying. We can help them become stronger, more resilient, and powerful. We can teach them not to let bullies get under their skin. Wait—you probably think I am being much too callous, but hear me out. Don’t hit me for what I’m about to say! But, seriously, don’t you think that we’ve become softer from generation to generation? How many of you adults were protected from bullies when you were children? I know I wasn’t. I had to protect myself.

In fact, when I was four years old, I was continuously getting bullied by a four-year-old boy who lived next door. My parents kept telling me to stand up for myself and my dad even taught me how to punch. The boy’s parents agreed, but none of the parents resolved the situation for me. They waited for me to get fed up enough that one day I finally pushed the boy. I pushed him so hard that he fell to the floor—in front of all four parents! They applauded and he never bothered me again. We all learned something that day, and no one was hurt.

Okay, okay, I’m not suggesting that we should throw our children into a gladiator ring and watch them fight it out. However, there is something to letting kids work things out on their own. When parents jump in to the rescue and fight their kids’ battles for them, the kids not only miss learning opportunities, but they also become disempowered. They learn that they can’t fight their own battles. They become victims. Sometimes they feel so entirely helpless that they end up harming themselves or others as they try to dull the pain or lash out in frustration. Drugs, violence, cutting, eating disorders, and other harmful behaviors are more prevalent than ever before, especially in even younger populations than ever before.

We don’t want bullies, but more importantly, we don’t want victims. To fight bullies, we need to empower the victims to stand up to the bullies and to have the self confidence to let bullying roll off them. So what if someone says you’re stupid on the internet! So what if someone calls you a “nerd” in front of their friends! (Of course, if you end up with broken bones, that is a completely different story.) People need to be able to handle a little teasing, a little tumble, and some meanness. Believe me, it doesn’t get any nicer out in the real world. And, at some point, parents and principals won’t be there to jump in to the rescue.

As for the 9-year-olds, that was a disappointing story. It is no fun to hear that “mean girls” are as young as nine these days. I hope that our society decides that we can do better than that. In the meantime, the rest of us have to be strong and teach our children to be strong so that they can take care of themselves when bad things happen—because bad things will happen.