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A CEO who shares the credit

March 27, 2015

Mary Barra testifying before Congress in 2014

Yesterday I attended the Catalyst Awards conference – Catalyst is a New York-based nonprofit and longtime advocate for women in business. The main event of the day was a lunchtime conversation between Catalyst CEO Deborah Gillis and General Motors CEO Mary Barra.

Barra got a lot of attention when she became CEO of GM just over a year ago. She was the first woman to be appointed CEO of a global auto company. She also took over GM just before the company finally faced up to a problem with the ignition switch on some of its cars – a problem that meant the airbags didn’t deploy properly and that caused at least 13 deaths. GM issued a big recall just weeks after Barra took over. She testified before Congress about the issue later in the year.

Barra was less open than Hewlett Packard CEO Ursula Burns, who was in the same chair at the event two years ago, but then she’s had a different kind of life than Burns, and different experiences. She seems to be someone who doesn’t want to focus on herself too much, and would rather share credit for her successes with other people than claim them as her own.

Catalyst CEO Deborah Gillis & GM's Mary Barra

At one point in the conversation she pointed out something women need to keep hearing, which is not to balk when they’re presented with a challenging opportunity, one they would never have considered themselves.

She said some of the best opportunities in her career were when someone asked her to do something and her response was, “You want me to do what?” Roles that weren’t on her radar helped grow her career. I’ve never forgotten an early interview I did with McKinsey partner Joanna Barsh where this topic of fear came up. Barsh said she spent a lot of time when she was younger fleeing from challenges rather than saying ‘yes’, because she was afraid she wasn’t up to the job. It took her years to realize you grow professionally – and in the eyes of your colleagues – when you take on tricky jobs. 

On a related note, when an audience member asked Barra to talk about what NOT to do in one’s career, she said, “Don’t put yourself in a box.” She saw a career as a tree with many branches going in different directions. “Don’t start to lop off the branches of the tree before you get there,” she said.

What struck me strongly about Barra was how often she shared the credit for her work with others. Several times she said things like “with the help of the HR team” or “I have a great team and I encourage debate and collaboration.”

I’ve read about this stereotypically female leadership trait but this is the first time I’ve truly noticed it in action. And as my neighbor at the event pointed out, Barra also phrased things in a different way than most men. Instead of an “I did this” storyline she often said things like, “I was given the opportunity to…” or “People took smart risks in putting me in different positions.” It may seem like a small thing, but when you really listen to and study her language it is quite different from what you would normally hear from a man with that much power.  

Some of you may have read about a study last year saying female CEOs were more likely to be forced out than male ones – especially when they are brought in from the outside to turn around a company. Barra may have been appointed to turn GM around, but she is a GM insider. She’s still at the start of her journey to change the culture. I wish her luck. 


'Move forward with tenacity'

March 16, 2015

Last Friday I attended a symposium at Barnard, the famous women’s college in northern Manhattan. Its title was Women Changing the World. I know, it sounds grandiose – and if, like me, you cover the women’s space, you’ve attended a bunch of conference with similar names. You may be getting skeptical about what they actually do (this Huffington Post piece is a good read for any frequent women’s conference goer).

But this wasn’t a women’s empowerment conference in the sense I’ve come to expect. It wasn’t the typical ‘You Go Girl’ fare. This was a day that set out to highlight the ongoing work of women including Queen Noor of Jordan, Mamphela Ramphele, longtime political activist, doctor, and former managing director of the World Bank, and Kiran Bedi, India’s first and highest ranking female police officer.

The panel I’m focusing on here was about change for women in the economy and the media.

Mamphela Ramphele. Photo: Barnard College/AsiyaMamphela Ramphele knows a thing or two about moving ahead in spite of obstacles. She was put in jail in South Africa during the aparteid era and has pushed against the establishment time and again. She touched on something we covered on the latest Broad Experience: men and the cult of masculinity. She called it ‘the toxic masculinity narrative,’ which is particularly strong in South Africa. She said she knows her two sons have been affected by this, as they didn’t have a father around to show them another way to live. This narrative essentially says men are strong, women are weak, and they must be subject to men’s rules. As a man you are allowed – almost expected – to hit your wife (or wives).

“We have the highest violence against women and children that’s reported anywhere in the world,” she said. “Why? Because men are trapped in this narrative of violence…women like me have a vested interest in seeing that men are protected from this toxicity.”

In South Africa, she said, there isn’t a tradition of reporting on issues that affect the marginalized – which in South Africa covers a lot of people. Much more varied coverage is needed, she said, and social media can help as well.

“We need to be bolder with social media to include those [women] who are currently excluded.”

I’m a big Financial Times reader and geek, frankly. So I was happy to see the FT’s US managing editor Gillian Tett on the panel along with the others.

Gillian Tett. Photo: Barnard College/Asiya

One of her first comments to the female audience resonated with me, and I hope will cheer those who are starting out and are low on confidence.

“If I had one message for the audience today who are students, if you’re feeling not very confident about where to go in life, pushing yourself forward into a leadership position, don’t worry,” she said. “When I was your age I didn’t even have the courage to get on the student newspaper.”

At a similar stage in my life I wanted to be an actress, but I didn’t have the courage to do any plays at university as I was so terrified of what others would think of me. I was also intimidated by the vast egos of many of the other wannabes. In hindsight, Britain didn't miss out on another Judi Dench, and I like to think I’ve worked out my dramatic tendencies on the radio since then.

Tett wasn’t even expected to go to university – she said her mother aspired for her to be “a chalet girl” (for non-Brits, this means someone who goes out and works in ski resorts in France, Switzerland, Austria, etc. while looking decorative). “But I went to university, and I became an anthropologist.”

This kind of thing is so important for younger women to hear – you don’t magically gain confidence overnight. As others have said and written, confidence is something you gain by doing, usually by doing things that seem utterly beyond you.

When Tett ended up at the FT in her twenties after several years of working in parts of the Caucuses and southeast Asia she wanted “to write about wars and international politics, and I’m sitting here writing about the dollar/yen rate.” But she realized pretty quickly that understanding the world of money was just like learning another language, and if she’d learned local languages like Pashtun, “I could damn well learn the language of finance.”

She did, and she’s now one of the paper’s top finance writers with two weekly columns. She also sounded early notes of warning about an impending financial bust before the 2008 crash happened.

“If you have the confidence to move forward with tenacity… life has an amazing way of bringing out the best in all of us,” she said.

She also talked about the status of women in the media, another topic close to my heart. My classes at Columbia Journalism School are always two-thirds female, but will these women be leading newsrooms in ten or twenty or thirty years? The current numbers on women leaders in the media are depressing, and I’m not convinced they’ll shift simply because there are so many women entering the profession today.

One thing Tett does is advise young women journalists to challenge themselves: “Don’t just become books editor, become economics editor as well.” In other words, do the hard stuff too. It tells your bosses you're up for a challenge and helps your career.

Finally, she had useful advice for the point in many women’s lives at which they want to start a family: she said it’s vital to keep some kind of a toe in the waters of work. Don’t give up completely. Even if it’s going in once a week she said, “You will have muscle memory when you go back.”


If men don't lean back, women can't lean in

March 10, 2015

I’ve been wanting to talk about men staying home ever since hearing from a listener last year. She wrote that she wouldn’t be able to do what she does without her husband staying at home with their little girl, that her job involves a lot of travel and that he’s been game for all her trips, and their international moves. Yet the reactions he gets form society are mixed: he’s had someone walk away from him at a party in DC after finding out what he did. Other women have asked her things like, ‘Oh, so your husband doesn’t want to work?’ My listener was sick of the assumptions everyone made about her other half – and grateful she could excel in her career because of him.

Christopher Persley, his wife Jenelle, and their daughter Camilla

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the cult of masculinity and what that means for both men and women. You could start with the worst and most obvious results of this, such as domestic and sexual violence, which is why organizations like Promundo exist. Because the cult of masculinity – what men feel they have to be to be a man – is the flipside of the stuff we talk about on The Broad Experience all the time. Society has long wanted women in a particular box, and so many of us women feel we need to live up to all those stereotypes. But men have their own societal expectations to live up to – and plenty of those come from women as well as men (see above). But this stereotype of the ‘real man’ harms both sexes. It keeps men putting in long hours at the office, living for work, measuring their worth by their roles as employee and provider rather than, say, as partner or father. Yet as one guest told me last year, not much will change for women at work until the workplace and society in general ‘lets men be fathers’ and accepts that not all men are burning to get to the top, just as many women aren’t.

Until more men are willing or able to lean back, there’s a limited number of spots for women who lean in.

Still, as Meg Jay said in one of my recent podcasts, it’s not acceptable for men to say what women often do – that they want to take a career break for kids, or that they want to stay at home altogether. Those expectations about male/female roles are deeply embedded in our psyches. Society still wants men to be go-getters above all else.

One of my guests on the latest show on men staying home, stay-at-home dad Christopher Persley, voiced some of this when he said when you interview for a job, it’s not done to act like you don’t want to get to the top. We’re expected to pretend, to play that awful ‘where do you want to be five years from now?’ game, which always made my heart sink when I was in a traditional workplace. I couldn’t say, “I have no idea” or, as he wanted to say, “I just want to be doing this job exceptionally well,” because that would not be considered thrusting enough for the modern workplace – especially if you’re a guy.

I suppose it’s a bit ironic that I’ve released this show on men just after International Women’s Day. But I’m with former guest Avivah Wittenberg-Cox: women as a group won’t progress unless gender roles in general blur – and we need to stop judging when they do.


Ask questions to minimize stress - and get what you want

February 25, 2015

Oliver Twist asks for more

A lot of women hate asking for things. We don’t want to impose, we fear ‘no’, we fear other people judging and resenting us for asking in the first place.

I’ve written and broadcast many times about women’s difficulty in asking for raises – and how they’re judged when they do. But it’s not just raises that stymie us. It’s making any kind of ask. This came up in my latest show on women and stress. Psychotherapist Marjorie Hirsch made a simple but excellent point: she encourages her stressed-out clients to ask questions that could help reduce their stress.

Take the woman she talked about in the podcast whose boss was sending her emails all weekend. The woman felt her anxiety rising from Saturday morning through Sunday evening. She was frazzled and felt her free time slipping away. Hirsch said, ‘Well, have you asked your boss if she expects you to read these emails?’ The client had not. The following week she did just that, asking her boss what her expectations were. The boss told her no, she didn’t expect her to read and act on them over the weekend, she was simply unloading tasks in the expectation her employee would follow through during the week. This client prompt sounds so simple as to be almost redundant, but it’s not.

When we’re in a spiral of stress and/or anxiety we are not necessarily thinking straight. I started seeing Marjorie Hirsch myself when my own father was dying several years ago and I was a mess. One of my big fears, being single at the time, was that I would get ‘the call’ from England and have to pack up in a state of great distress and go to the airport on my own. This idea scared and depressed me to no end and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Marjorie made a suggestion: why not ask a couple of friends if they’d be up for getting my possible middle-of- the-night-in-tears call and be willing to come with me to the airport when I could book a flight? That is such sensible, simple advice, yet I couldn’t see it myself. For one thing, I wasn't thinking clearly, for another, something in me wouldn’t have wanted to ‘bother’ my friends. Yet as soon as she gave me the advice I could see its strength and immediately got in touch with two friends, who both said yes very quickly. (As it happened I didn’t need to act on this – I was able to be with my father when he died.)

Reluctance to ask for something you need or want is a reality for many women. I just listened to one of Ellevate’s webinars from last month given by Annette Saldana on asking for what you want. She rightly points out that women tend to be held back by mindsets that say either we shouldn’t impose, or that if we ask we won’t get what we want anyway, or that we shouldn’t need to ask in the first place because we do best just powering through achieving everything on our own.

I believe most women who don’t ask keep quiet because of something else Saldana said:

“A lot of what kept me from asking was this perception I’d have to turn into someone I’m not. I didn’t want to do that. I thought taking care of myself and asking was selfish and wrong.”

Exactly. Asking – to many of us – translates to being less than nice, being pushy, putting ourselves before someone else, and we hate that. Upbringing and culture teach women to be good girls, to be happy with what we’ve got. No wonder asking for stuff is so uncomfortable.

Saldana says there are three mindsets to get into for a successful ask.

1)   You have the right to ask for anything

2)   The other party has the right to say yes or no

3)   ‘No’ does not equal ‘you can’t have what you want’. Adopt the point of view that ‘no’ means ‘not now’. It just means that it’s time for another conversation, that there’s someone else you could ask.

Too often I’ve run off into the bushes after a no, assuming nothing more will happen, only to discover later that it was worth re-framing the request and/or asking someone else.

This is important stuff. I wish I had the innate confidence many men have that lets them assume they deserve things. I come from the opposite position, assuming I don’t deserve anything and need permission to do everything.

As Saldana says, it’s time to change that. 


How to stop others from wasting your time at work

February 22, 2015

Photo by Jlhopgood used with creative commons license

A couple of weeks ago I signed onto a Harvard Business Review webinar with Dorie Clark on how to stop people from wasting your time. Dorie was one of my guests in the Hell of Networking episode of The Broad Experience and contributes regularly to HBR and Forbes. This woman knows a thing or two about being efficient. She’s on a mission to spend every hour wisely and get other people to follow suit. I wanted to share a few of my takeaways from the webinar here.

If you work for a company, this may be a daily issue you’ve been wrangling with for years. There’s good stuff in here for consultants too.

Dorie’s tips:

Handling the boss

If you’re trying to be more efficient at work but you have this boss who’s holding you back (by monopolizing meetings with personal stories, for instance), try to bring them into the endeavor – make the idea seem collaborative so the boss is part of it. So say something along the lines of, “I want to be my most effective – would you be willing to help me think that through?” The boss then recognizes the worthiness of the enterprise.

Meetings – the deadliest time suck

I haven’t spent a lot of time in meetings compared to many workers. But most of us spend hours in these things and feel our souls ebbing away with each passing minute.

Dorie says every meeting should have an agenda. And if anyone questions it, again, emphasize collaboration, i.e. “It’s in the interests of being productive.” How can anyone argue with that? “It’s the ultimate laudable goal,” says Dorie.

You should also have a timeline for the meeting. You could even try holding meetings standing up to see how much less time you fritter away when no one can lounge in a chair.

Also, ask if you really need to be at the meeting. Dorie calls it policing the guest list: should you be there? Who else should be there?

One example she gave is something that’s happened to her as a consultant who has found herself in meetings that were a complete waste of her time.

“If you’re asked to a general meeting ask what it’s about and why you should be there,” she says. She suggests saying something like, ‘It occurs to me if this is a preliminary meeting it might be more efficient for me to look over the meeting notes and then comment on those.’”

Still, we have to be careful how we couch these suggestions. Dorie says you must avoid giving the impression that this is about you or your needs – you need to couch it in terms of, “This is about using my time wisely so I can benefit the company.”

Can I pick your brain?

I’ve written about this before. Dorie is not a fan of brain-picking requests as they are generally so fuzzy and eat your time. She mentioned a woman who was flooded with such requests and finally opted to have her correspondents fill out a form: the form was designed to make them think through what they wanted to ask and invest the time to be ready for the meeting when it came. Needless to say, only the most serious people bothered to go through this process.

Can we talk?

How to deal with employees stopping by your office, asking if they can have a word? Many managers don’t want to have a closed-door policy but they find it hard to get any work done with people always dropping in. Dorie suggests having office hours on a specific day or days, and making sure the time spent together is targeted.

She has a sensible way of funneling meeting times herself – she blocks out chunks of time on Mondays and Thursdays to book calls. The rest of her week is then free for other work. 

You can read Dorie's Harvard Business Review piece on this topic here.