Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Hot Feminist - Why George is our new role model

How great is this? Clooney thrilled to be marrying Alpha Amal
He's spent the last twenty years being praised for being the world's ultimate Alpha Male, so it's good to see George Clooney emerging as strong voice for women in the driving seat. Clearly thrilled to be  married to Alpha Amal, he is happy to tell anyone who will listen how much he admires her work and how she is far more intelligent than him.  Earlier this year he was even interviewed on Women's Hour.  In a cosy interview with Jenny Murray,  he sounded as one with the sisterhood as he explained how his production company, Smokehouse Pictures,  is run by 'smart, strong women'. He's supportive of raising awareness of the gender pay gap - citing revelations about pay disparity in Hollywood as 'the only good thing that came of the Sony leak'.

Ageing naturally?
Further evidence of George's commitment to gender equality were his comments in the interview about the ageing process. He predictably denied any unnatural interventions saying that surgery actually made men look older and advocating an accepting approach to ageing.  Very convenient if you happen to be one of the world's most attractive men for whom grey hair is actually enhancing, but terrifying for most of us for whom the thought of facing the world with grey hair, VPLs and unwaxed legs is right up there with dreaming you're giving a speech naked.

It's very hard to feel like you can take on the boardroom boys club if you're not feeling confident in the way you look.   Self-confidence is a huge part of success.  And I'm certainly muddled about whether my urge to avoid the seven signs of ageing (really - only seven??) is fatally at odds with my equally strong desire to see women treated equally.

Since the seventies we've been presented with the idea that we can't be supportive of gender equality and looking good at the same time.  Most of us associate feminism with role models like Germaine Greer and Erica Jong.  Interviewed recently for the launch of her new book 'Fear of Dying', Jong was angry about the progress on gender equality since her classic 'Fear of Flying' was published over forty years ago.  She described it as a constant battle saying "we have made a third of a revolution, a half of a revolution. I really believe feminism is like democracy -- when you stop fighting for it, it slips away".
Greer still fighting.. Huffingtonpost

Greer is also keeping herself angry - swearing liberally several times in a particularly punchy
interview with Kirsty Wark on last week's Newsnight about why Greer has been de-listed by her old Cambridge college because they don't like her controversial views on transgender politics. 

At least you know where you are with these two.  You can rely on them to celebrate the traditional feminist values of anger, a casual attitude to underwear and a general air that women who celebrate their femininity are letting down the sisterhood.

We owe them a huge debt.  Their hardcore attitudes raised awareness of women's inequality and provided the foundation for the widespread acceptance that women should be entitled to the same rights and rewards as men.  I'm a strong supporter of their legacy but truth be told I've never been very comfortable with the anger. Amazingly, even high achiever Amal was subjected to criticism by the feminist lobby - for changing her name to Clooney. Like many women, I'd like to support the ideas but dial back the anger and make the best of myself without feeling guilty.

Wife of Bath for the 21st Century 

Polly Vernon - a 21st Century Wife of Bath?   EveningStandard

Searching for a middle ground, journalist Polly Vernon's recent book with the great title 'Hot Feminist' - caught my eye. Central to her  argument is that you can be a feminist and be interested in clothes and make up.  It was destroyed in the Guardian - in a lengthy and brutal review Helen Lewis said "What you cannot do is rewrite feminism into a sloppy self-help movement whose main aim is to make you feel better about your thighs". Louise Carpenter in the Telegraph was kinder, describing Vernon as the 'wife of Bath for the 21st Century', concluding that Vernon loves women and is rooting for them - citing Madeline Albright's famous comment that 'there is a special place in Hell for women that don't help other women'.

Judging by Amal's emergence as a fashion icon I doubt she suffers from wardrobe nightmares or sports a drawerful of Spanx.  But for those of us dealing with the day-to-day realities of succeeding in a male dominated workplace  anything that makes us feel better about wobbly thighs gets my vote.  It's a a stretch to celebrate cellulite as a feminist act and I'm happy to leave most of the anger to others.  Instead we can be thankful to our mothers for burning their bras and relieved that we don't have to - celebrating instead that the finest minds in the fashion industry have turned their attention to jeans with artfully placed pockets and clever dyes that make us look pounds lighter delivering a great confidence boost at the same time.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Regal Role Model - Is the Queen the ultimate Alpha Female?

Solitary Splendour               Annie Leibovitz
Watching footage this week of the landmark longevity of the Queen's reign, I found myself congratulating her and thinking how much I respect her. I'm not particularly royalist, so I rather surprised myself by how strongly I felt she deserved thanks and gratitude.

What is it about her that has made her so successful for so long and does she have anything to teach us about how to be successful as a senior public woman? I think she does.

Not many of us are born into leadership.  But apart from that, the more I thought about it, the more I think she models many of the traits I have identified as important for long term sustainable leadership for women.

She knows what she likes, what suits her and what is practical.  And she sticks to it.  A dress is a practical option for most senior women - and she has to spend quite a bit of time outside looking at parades, planting trees and suchlike so a matching coat is a must-have.  And it covers your arms.   According to the delightful children's book The Queen's Knickers, she has pairs for every occasion - corgi patterned ones for relaxing at home, union jack ones for state events and many more.  She has picked her hairstyle and she's consistent.  Mind you, she needs to be.  Having your face on a coin makes seeing those embarrassing pictures of you pop up in your FB timeline look easy. 

89? Me? Just another day at the office  BBC
Keeping on Working
She is 89.  And she's working every day, apparently completely on top of the job.  She has to see the Prime Minister every week to understand and respond to the issues of the day as well as considering the finer points of banquet small talk and whether she can talk Philip out of upsetting the visiting dignitaries.   She's a fine example of keeping on working and if I have as much energy as she does at her age I will be thrilled.

She promised herself to the nation all those years ago and that does go a bit beyond the corporate governance rules about protecting the public interest. But she has to prioritize the demands of the job over the family which is very familiar.

Handling People Problems
Unlike most of us in the corporate world, she doesn't have to worry about being replaced.  But this is a relatively new benefit for her.  Most of her ancestors had to worry about pretenders around every corner who might raise an army and storm into London to take their throne by force.  Much worse that worrying about being censored by the Board or lambasted on Twitter.

St George's Hall after the fire
Her team (they call the Royal Family the Firm) is her family.  And she has had more problems with them than most CEOs could stomach.  Divorces (three in one year out of four children), affairs, tabloid scandals - remember the toe-sucking? - bereavement,  her home burning down (well nearly).  OK she has a selection of homes, but this one had been around for a thousand years...And all she said, demonstrating great understatement - about it was:
"1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure... it has turned out to be an 'Annus Horribilis'".
Now that's getting on with it.

Spouse as supporter
Philip is a trailing spouse.  He's dedicated his life to making her successful.  OK he didn't stretch to childcare but all those courtiers have to do something.

Hilarity at the Highland Games.  Who knew?  The Mirror
Work life balance
She's always pursued hobbies outside work.  Corgis, horses and summer holidays watching caber tossing.  Not many people's choice for a relaxing summer break, but each to their own. 

Congratulations Ma'am.  We salute you as a role model we can all learn from.

Long may she reign.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Boardroom Blues - paying the hidden price of success
Just as we thought we had finally cracked the Glass Ceiling, it seems that life on the other side might be making us sick. New academic research  reported by Anna Maxted in this weeks Times shows growing levels of burnout among senior women.  Experts explained  that women in their forties are most susceptible with growing numbers experiencing a form of extreme stress which in medical terms is heading towards depression. "Women are trying to forge ahead professionally, they have children, elderly parents and they're trying to hold it all together".

Perfectionism can clearly be toxic to health and happiness.  As more women take on senior roles, more 'Alpha Females' are emerging and it's doing us real harm.  These are typically senior high achieving women who want to be perfect in all aspects of their lives - well-rounded children, a partner who is her soulmate plus a chic home, a wardrobe to create envy amongst her friends and all that on less that six hours sleep a night.

We have always had a tendency to be our own harshest critics so why is this getting worse?  I think we're victims of our own success.  Ironically now that being the prime breadwinner is becoming much more the norm, women are now under pressure to earn the sort of high salaries that fund private school fees, three holdiays a year and a house in London or the Home Counties.

According to Family and Childcare Trust, childcare costs have risen by a third in five years pushing many families into one parent caring for children rather than work to pay for childcare  Living costs for the squeezed middle classes are rising at a breathtaking speed and it is increasingly these women on the other side of the Glass Ceiling who are feeling the full force of the pressure to meet those expectations for their families.
The chief chillaxer shows how it done   DailyMail
Part of the problem is our desire to put ourselves under insane amounts of pressure.  Alpha female tendencies plus a healthy dose of female guilt are not things our male counterparts suffer from.  Because men don't worry much about these issues, they use most of their emotional energy to deliver results at work then 'chillax' at the weekends with their families.

Another, less discussed issue is how men whose wives are now the primary breadwinners handle the emotional dynamic of playing supporter. Less naturally the nurturers, they may well find their wife owning the pressure of keeping up the house, fees and family expectations is very disempowering.  It's bad enough that they don't earn more money, now they are not responsible for the long term welfare of their families. That's a big shift.

Men and women can - thankfully - now both be primary breadwinners or primary carers pretty interchangeably.  But in lots of other ways the sexes are not the same.  They handle stress differently and men whose wives are the primary breadwinner need to be able to empathise not just transfer how they would feel in the same position.  More should be done to build support networks for men who are the primary carers and this should include this kind of education and honest discussion.

We should continue to monitor our own perfectionist tendencies to avoid self-destructive behaviour.  Perhaps we should all have our own checklists - don't sweat the small stuff and decide with your partner what are the trade-offs you're prepared to make for example are you happy to put your children in different schools if it takes some of the financial pressure off you?

We can't wait around to get this right.  If women are going to successfully consolidate the tremendous gains we have made to secure senior roles then we need to adjust or we'll find ourselves the victims of our own success.  This really is doable - we just need to be self aware and take care of ourselves.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Are your vocals frying your career progression?
Vocal fry expert Kardashian
Just when you thought there were no barriers left to storming into the boardroom, something new has come along to block our progress.  How we speak.

I was tipped off by a Naomi Wolf article on the subject in this week's Guardian reporting on the latest trend to cross the Atlantic  - Vocal Fry.  Not a new form of nose-to-tail eating as I thought, but rather that glottal growl you'll recogize from a thousand next gen reality shows. If you need a prompt, take a look at this video for a quick primer.  If you're over 40, this might feel alien and you might be smugly watching it thinking 'I would never talk like that - so I'm OK'. But you would be wrong. That's just the start of the issues we have with our voices and speech that are getting in the way of our career progression - often without us even realising.

If you're serious about getting on, you need to consider whether you're building gravitas.  Lots of data shows that this is the magic ingredient to getting others to take you seriously.  Clothes and body language are part of creating gravitas and much has been written about the ways in which you can enhance these.  But your voice can betray you - according to research last year into executive speeches in the US, the sound of the speakers voices matters twice as much as the content. 

As a child growing up in the 1970s, I did a bit of 'reading out loud' competitively.  There was actually  a school reading aloud prize.  I flunked at most forms of organised sport so I think I was encouraged by my parents in this endeavour as a consolation, one step up from winning the class 'good egg'* prize.  It was useful training but sadly, speaking clearly and slowing down by counting one at a comma and two at a full stop, whilst excellent for winning school prizes, isn't enough to generate Boardroom gravitas. 

So what you should steer clear of?

Uptalk.  This is that thoroughly modern habit of ending your sentences with an upward lilt.  Like Australians.  But now we all do it. Scientists have shown that it makes us sound as though we don't really have an opinion and this undermines our credibility.
The Loose Women ladies lay into actor Russell Crowe and guest Joan Rivers calls him a 's**t' on live TV
Even Joan Rivers was removed from UK TV show for swearing

Jargon.  In my experience tech companies have their own language, as does the pharmaceutical industry. Jargon is fine in small doses but you have to be able to express yourself clearly in mixed company.

Swearing.  Try to avoid swearing unless you're really sure you're among friends. It can feel macho and fun but is undermining and unflattering.  It is a disaster in cross-cultural groups and can be easily taken out of context. 

Neologisms.  Newly coined words or expressions that may be in the process of entering common use.  They're not a modern idea - Shakespeare is probably the prime culprit.  Presumably when people first started saying "there's a method in my my madness" (Hamlet) it sounded weird and pretentious.  The early seventeenth century equivalent of 'my bad'. This is not an area to be an early adopter if you want to be taken seriously.  Oddly, apparently 'my bad' first appeared in a Shakespeare sonnet. Who knew?

In the US where vocal fry seems to have started, commentators have observed that for the peer group - other young women - this mode of speech is seen as credible and authoritative.  Well, it's a point of view, but until those are the people making Board appointments it's better to avoid strange creakiness in your speech to make yourself understood.

Of course there's a time and a place for everything. Like most women, I can shift personalities several times a day depending on who I'm with and this probably extends to my voice.  I do a lot of work with Americans and when I'm with them I find my sentence structure slightly changing to reflect what I'm hearing.  Although I don't say trash or sidewalk. Drinks with girlfriends would find us all talking in much higher voices and saying things like "Really?? And what did you say?".  But for meetings I try to use short words, clear summaries.

I don't always succeed.  I naturally talk very fast which is often unhelpful particularly if I'm talking to a group of people that don't have English as their first language.  I slow down once they start waving desperately at the back but it's not a useful habit.

I would recommend listening to yourself talking as well as asking close friends for feedback on how you sound when you're in a business environment. If you're really struggling there are coaches that can help but I think most of us just need to increase our self awareness and remind ourselves that our voices are as much a part of our armoury as our grooming.

*for any readers unfamiliar with early twentieth century English idioms, this has nothing to do with food but refers to a pleasant and reliable person

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Work-life balance? It's all in the mind

Good news for working mothers.  According to a new book just out, work life balance is eminently achievable.  You just need to think about it differently.

I started this blog to encourage women to believe that it is possible to have a high powered job, children, a husband, friends - and stay sane. Yes you need some trade-offs, but so do most things in life.  And the rewards are worth it.  Since I started the blog millions of words have been written - not all by me - about how to encourage more women into top jobs.  But most of the sentiment is negative - stressing how you can't 'have it all', rather than showing you how you can. 

Enter American author - Laura Vanderkam - has written "I know how she does it" which is firmly designed to be that hitherto absent 'how to' guide.  Apart from her name bearing a spooky resemblance to Bree Vanderkamp, the OCD character in Desperate Housewives, Vanderkam is a time management coach with four children under ten who has turned her own skills into very useful advice.  Rather like a food diary designed to help you to lose weight, the core idea is to create a time log to work out how many hours you're working each week, how many spent with your children, exercising, sleeping and so on.  She claims that once women do this, they quickly realise that they are not actually spending their time the way they thought there were.
Conditioned by an expectation that senior women spend a lot of time working and not much time with their children, she thinks we automatically self-edit, focussing our minds only on the hours we're working rather than celebrating the time were spending with our family and friends.  It's very similar to how most of us react to feedback - we immediately discount all the positives and focus on the negatives and worry about them. She thinks we're deeply conditioned to view our lives through the filter of what we have been brought up to expect we will experience, and focus on where our lives reflect those expectations.
We make assumptions without facts and a time log creates those facts. Like many people I have sometimes kept a food diary when trying to lose weight.  When you count up all the calories in the food you eat off the kids plates, that glass of wine you have when you're cooking dinner and, in my case, the inexplicably fast rate I seem to go through cheese crackers, you realise why you might be struggling to shift those extra pounds. It's a wake-up call and you can see ways in which you can trim your waistline without too many life changes - halve the cracker allocation for example.

Once you've created your time log,  it's time for some reappraisal.  Some re-framing of how you see your life.  At its simplest, if you see more balance that you thought, you can re-evaluate the frame through which you see your life much more positively.  There is a lot of evidence that this approach is very effective at increasing positivity, energy and even happiness. I really like this idea.  It's simple, free and anyone can do it.  It's really practical and a refreshing change from some female empowerment self help guides which favour the school of looking in the mirror and telling yourself you're worth it.

Most working mothers will already be time and motion experts - never going up or downstairs without carrying something for example so I think this latest idea could catch on.  Anything that is easy to use and makes us feel better about wanting to combine the excitement of a senior job with the wonderful experience of motherhood has got to be a good thing.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

You're fired - why women leaders hold the secret to better performance

The good Lord Sugar
"You're Fired!"  Lord Sugar's now infamous catch phrase is key to the success of the Apprentice.  Part of the show's popularity is its reinforcement of our deep seated assumptions about how power is exercised in business.  That to get to the top requires a tough - even ruthless - determination to remove under performers in the relentless pursuit of commercial success.

Medieval Turkish sultans killed their brothers to prevent claims to power
I believe this popular assumption is based on a myth.   We grow up believing men are more ruthless than women and that this extends to removing people in the workplace.  But in my experience male bosses are often afraid of difficult people issues.  Instead of confronting them, they become experts in kicking the can down the road,  hoping the under performer will conveniently decide unilaterally to pursue their career on the other side of the world.  An American variant on this I have observed is to hire duplicate staff as either the boss or the subordinate to do the job of the under performer.  This doubles the cost of the problem but rarely solves it, as those tricky people issues just magnify and the original issue is clouded by an increasingly complicated reporting structure. 

It's not that men can't fire people.  A new CEO will often remove people in the first months of their term - often to secure their power base and bring in their own cohort of tried and tested acolytes.

Women on the other hand almost never fire for political gain - tending to favour starting with what they have and experimenting with trying to get the right people in the right roles.  But when all routes are exhausted and it is clear under performance is the cause of the problem, they will be comfortable and confident in moving towards exiting someone.  Why the difference between the genders?
Whatever progress we make in gender equality in the Boardroom, these choices are not really driven by opportunity or lack of it, it is something much deeper that comes from our DNA. 

Many women get stressed by a lack of structure and clarity in the workplace, and so they will consistently strive to remove ambiguous, inefficient structures.  I think this is a major difference between men and women and isn't just true in the workplace.  When my children were small, they would leave their toys scattered around the living room.  I could not relax for the evening and enjoy a meal and a glass of wine until the room was tidy.  My husband was quite untroubled by the mess, hungry after a busy day, food and a civilised conversation were the priority and he was easily able to completely ignore the chaos around us.
Mars vs Venus

When women leaders unpick performance problems in the workplace, our approach inevitably leads to shining a light onto the core issue lurking underneath the stack of complex dual reporting.   Almost always this is someone who just doesn't fit, usually due to poor people skills.  Nine times out of ten these are the same types of people and they're always tough to get rid of because they usually have some core skill that the organization really values but they're tough to work with so they are very hard to fit into teams and projects. 

Organisations desperately need women's forensic, dogged approach to problem solving. Most of us are ready to tackle issues, however awkward, with the goal of a functional happy workplace inspiring us to carry on.  Just as we like clean homes and happy children, we want contented staff who are clear about what's expected of them and are properly supported to do their very best in well-organised, clearly run groups.

Because men don't prioritise the same things, and most leaders are men, organisations don't prioritise these skills but they should.  It's yet another area where women's natural preferences really do make for better leaders.

Regrets? I had a few..
Good succession planning at all levels can avoid these issues piling up and creating a drag on the organisation.  This is not, as some people think, a time wasting exercise, rather a way of making each senior staff member truly accountable for the number two players in their teams.  I have rarely seen a senior men embrace this idea. They are usually highly resistant to hiring or even identifying a credible successor.  When I have raised this in different organisations I have frequently had the 'look what it did for Tony Blair - dead man walking' speech quoted to me.  Yup, I bet Tony looks back on his time as premier and thinks that's the only thing that went wrong...

Identifying your successor isn't easy because it is like facing your own mortality.  But as with death and taxes, anyone competent knows that they will in time need to identify a new role for themselves.  We don't like thinking about moving on from jobs we enjoy and are good at.  But encouraging people to do this is the key.  Regular conversations with your direct reports about what they want to do next and sharing your own thoughts on your next steps from time to time is healthy and creates liquidity in top jobs which is a key criteria for growth.  Rather thank just box ticking, a credible succession strategy is one of the attributes of a truly strong organisation.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

So Long Boys - we're racing past you into the Boardroom

Emma Thompson striking a blow for the sisterhood (Huffpo)

A new book out this week claims that women are not only powering past men in the race for top jobs, in years to come they might no longer need men at all. The author, biological anthropologist Melvin Konner, presents a futuristic world view that suggests women will eventually be able to fertilise their eggs with skin cell clones to reproduce.
According to Konner, the gender imbalance is relatively recent - about 12,000 years - which is a sneeze in evolutionary terms. There's a long explanation of how the world view is moving to see traditionally 'female' strengths as useful once more. It seems we always had it in us. So what's taken us so long?

I can tell you what. Heels. Other than not having a wife, I think heels have done more to hold women back from playing to their natural strengths than almost anything.

Unless you benefit from a chauffeur taking you to work and back every day, a typical senior woman has to plan her outfit round her shoes. Each night you have to ask yourself, "what meetings do I have tomorrow? Who am I going to see? How am I going to get there? How far do I have to walk? Is it going to rain?"
The choice is always the same and it's always bad. A) wear a dress or skirt with flat or nearly flat boots b)wear flats and take a bag to carry your heels/smart shoes or c) take two bags, one for shoes and a 'proper' handbag. Which leads to the other part of your wardrobe dilemma, "which bag do I take?" Do you buy a massive tote that is smart enough to pass for a large handbag but still large enough to take the shoes? If you want to do that and avoid the bag lady look, be prepared to shell out. Both options risk severe neck problems and one shoulder lower than the other. If you're loaded or desperate there is always option d) take taxis everywhere.

No wonder we didn't have time to worry about a career plan to get the top job.

Unlike men. Do they have these worries? Do they hell. Most men own a few pairs of - flat - shoes that go with all their suits and they wear them in all weathers. If they carry bags at all it's to carry their increasingly large collection of devices, and with rapid advances in wearable technology, no doubt even those will soon be redundant.

I had resigned myself to a life of expensive large handbags and sneaky shoe changes. But it seems women have finally worked out that wearing smart flats is the secret to smoothing your path to the top job. If you can get the right flats you remove the bag dilemma. I first registered this thought last year when the wonderful Emma Thompson whipped off her Louboutins at the Golden Globes to present an award in bare feet. I splashed out on a pair of the red-soled wonders a few years ago, and although they look wonderful and have carried me faithfully through any number of events, I have often kicked them off under the table during dinner. 

VB sporting flats in New York (Mirror)
Then I started reading about sales of designer flats going up, Victoria Beckham put them in her Spring collection and articles keep appearing exhorting the benefits of 'luxe' trainers costing as much as a smart pair of heels. The trend has hit the mainstream.  I searched for a sight of heels this week in the office, on the tube and in Oxford Street to no avail.  And no sign of the two-bag strategy either.  Just confident women finding out what men have always known.  Flat feels great.  You feel mobile, free and powerful. Mind you, when I opened my wardrobe this weekend and saw hundreds of pounds of designer heels looking back at me, I had a spasm of heel guilt.  But my slim-line bag collection is coming along nicely.