What do we need from female role models?

Women still face a seemingly unsurmountable backlog in business. One important cause is scarcity in female role models. Having only people you don’t identify with as example, can have a lasting impact.

Like in my first job. A female in my business unit had just gotten into a management position no woman had held before. I looked up to her: I wanted to reach that too!

However, I soon learned everyone avoided her whenever possible. If we had to communicate with her, we would first check in with each other. Did her mood allow for a “hold your breath and give it an adventurous try”? With colleagues anxiously on stand-by for life-support if needed? Or was the air around her so charged you’d get electrocuted even walking up to her? In that case, we’d postpone discussing even urgent matters with her to a moment with lower volcanic activity.

She yelled at everyone. I was no exception. However, unlike my male colleagues, she also occasionally seemed to consider me a friend. She gave me well-meant advice and told me personal stuff. Such as, she liked to have children, but her boyfriend not so much. To be precise: he would not mind children, but she would need to take care of them. He didn’t want to be bothered. So she had to choose: a career, or children (apparently she didn’t consider a third obvious option: getting rid of the boyfriend).

Looking back, I realize she must have been under enormous pressure, as the first woman in such a demanding job. She was probably torn between ambitions, private life and society’s expectations. She must have felt so lonely, without peers in a similar position and a non-supporting partner. From her behavior it is now clear to me that she was insecure on several levels, and probably frightened of the consequences of her choices down the line.

But back then, I wasn’t able to see beyond the surface. She scared me. The only woman in the company that had achieved what I wanted to achieve, was someone I passionately NEVER wanted to become. Which raised the question: should I maybe stop wanting that job?

After some internal turmoil, I decided one scary female role model would not change my plans. Instead, I turned to men as role models. All my life I had competed with men anyway, so maybe they could provide inspiration? I observed them, talked to them, tried to find out what worked for them. I did learn many things. Above all, I learned that every single one of them had a wife that had taken a step back and took care of most things at home. And most men looked at me through those glasses: a nice and capable colleague, but above all, a future supporter of another man. A woman who would eventually get other priorities. So although I was doing a good job, my bosses felt no need to bother about my career planning.

I started to believe that to succeed in business, you have to put full focus on your career and have support at home. I had many internal debates on toning down my ambitions. But I was lucky. I then got a boss who advanced my career. He restored my energy to give ambition a try.

Once I achieved a management role, I was acutely aware of having become a role model. At first, I didn’t want to show my insecurities. I worked hard, also out of office hours. After conversations with younger colleagues, I realized it was now me who was scaring younger women into thinking this is only achievable for the very tough. I started to show my insecurities a bit more, as well as the struggles I felt doing the job and juggling priorities. However, that sometimes worried the younger women as well. It then dawned on me I didn’t have to be the perfect role model for all women out there. As long as I gave people an authentic picture, next to all other examples they saw. Letting them see you can achieve what you want walking different paths.

That’s why we need many more female role models. People are different. Young people (both women and men) need lots of examples. They shouldn’t have to draw implicit conclusions from seeing just one or two females in the job they want. Or only have men as role models. They should see different behaviors, and find out what works for them.

Think about it. For whom are you a role model? And what part do you want to play in the development journey of younger people?

Today the world lost a great manager

It has happened too often in my HR career. Someone enters the organization: a great guy, a smart girl. After the first few years of dedicated hard work they climb to the next level. Sooner than others, but as everyone understands why, they don’t encounter much resistance. They deliver good results, are quick learners and are great with their peers. Senior managers eagerly take them on as mentees, accelerating their career even further.

Of course these great potentials make the occasional mistake. But they learn from it – keen as they are to keep improving – and move on to become an even better manager. As HR, I love to watch them, and if necessary be with them, every step of the way. To coach them on their first people issues. To counsel them on dealing with their first big disappointment. To share their joy over a well-deserved promotion. To protect them from being crushed by politics, when they first join the big league of top-management.

As HR manager I go the extra mile for them. Because I know that person is worth it. Because I see they are able to do what is needed for the organization. Because they will make this a better place for their colleagues. I want to help them unleashing that valuable potential.

But sometimes, that dreadful day comes. The day that I find that person is gone.

That keen, eager high potential is no more…

Instead, I suddenly find myself talking to an over-confident, pompous, self-righteous, run-of-the-mill manager embracing no other ideas than his own. Someone who pulled up a powerful reflective shield resisting all criticism, regardless of how well-meant or to the point it is.

Gone are the days of growth. Of continuously developing into a greater leader. Of hope she can become the next CEO who I’d be so proud to work for.

When a high-potential choses to give up on the powerful gift of self-reflection, he loses the potential to become a great leader. A leader who has the power to fuel a great team, or lead an organization through a necessary transformation, or sustain the organizations’ incredible growth.

When giving up on self-reflection, inevitably, potential turns into mediocracy.

On such a day, a little piece inside of me dies…

The budget games

Ever noticed how much budget discussions between corporate and local managers resemble a sports game? Let’s analyze an average budget meeting.

Game kick-off

Local management kicks of the game with a predictable first move: they propose a slightly improved budget compared to the current year forecast. A safe and predictable move, not drawing admiration of the other party or the onlookers, but not putting them at risk of an extreme counter move by top management either.

Now it’s the other party’s turn. No suspense yet, as the move by top management is just as predictable. They lay down their expectation of less cost and more turnover, increasing profit by 5-10%.

The middle part

Now that both teams have had time to warm up and get used to the arena and each other, the real game begins.

Arguments go back and forth, pulling the budget a bit down here, a bit up there. Now and then both parties score a point by having the stronger arguments that seem to convince the other team, at least temporarily. Often the game gets stuck a bit as we enter the phase that both parties aren’t inclined to budge to the other party.

In this phase the onlookers can spice it up for themselves by:

Playing budget bingo

Before the meeting, make a list with phrases such as ‘low-hanging fruit’, ‘efficiency’, ‘built-in fat’, ‘entrepreneurship’, etc. Please add the current buzz words for your organization, and leave room for some interesting new phrases or words to note down during the game. For these, the onlookers afterwards can place bets on which phrases will become new buzz words in the aftermath of the budget meeting. Add columns for how long it took before the phrase was mentioned the first time, and score the number of times it was used.

Closure

After a while one or both parties will start to feel worn out. Now you know the game is coming to an end. The discussion will go back and forth a bit more, but soon parties grudgingly agree on a compromise. Almost always the new budget is the average of what top management set and local management proposed. A result that could have been simply calculated within 15 minutes of the start of the meeting.

Now note the number of people around the table on your budget bingo sheet (13 the last time I did this), estimate their average salary (in my case 150k annually, conservative estimate) and calculate the cost spent on reaching this budget. One day budget discussions easily costs 5k. Not counting the rework finance and the budget holders have to do.

Then sit back and let the irony of talking about low-hanging fruit fully hit you.