What’s the deal with women in power? As a young, driven woman who was just starting out her career, I made many mistakes and let power get to my head. Some mistakes were small and others could have impacted or even curtailed my career, like the error of not following chain of command in a traditional organization like Campbell Soup Company. Fortunately for me, I had a kind and generous mentor named Chuck Hatz who was able to step in and guide me through management pitfalls.
As I look back on that experience, I realize that not many are blessed to have another give them advice on how to maneuver or even advance on the corporate ladder. In fact, I realized slowly that the ones who were the least helpful in my career path were WOMEN. Before I heap accusations on those women who did not mentor me or even lend a kind word of encouragement, I need to look at my own actions as a manager as well.
When I joined the management ranks, I was a supervisor. I worked mainly with two men, so things were good. When the opportunity to rise higher into a manager’s position, however, the battle lines were drawn and I quickly found out that I didn’t have many friends. In fact, most of my competition were women of equal rank. It was cut throat. I found out after I got the position mainly due to my education, that a woman closest to me had said something personal and derogatory about me to the VP. He thought it to be unprofessional (especially in Human Resources), so he did not even consider her for the position. Her desire to hurt me ended up getting her booted out.
This woman was a colleague. She was someone I had lunch with on a regular basis, so it didn’t rest easy with me. It was around this time that I had been looking at Japanese management traditions of Kaizen (collaborative management) and found that before making any big decision or doing problem solving, they went to their peers individually and got input. I thought that to be a huge waste of time! Why do that when I knew what needed to be done and go do it?
This very thing turned out to be the key in why women were not getting the larger promotions and why there seemed to be a general lack of trust among us. No one wanted to consult with another. All of us were very competitive and sabotaging the other’s efforts. In an attempt to be noticed by Executive management (=men), we were setting each other up for failure and being petty. What an eye-opener for me.
As an HR manager, I knew I could personally do something to change this. Using collaboration and not competition as my incentive, I set about asking the other female management their input on ideas and projects. I was immediately met with distrust, criticism and even sarcasm – what, is this job too difficult for you, that you need to ask for help?
Fortunately, not all of my peers were like this. I found a lifelong friend in Christine who was kind and helpful to me. In addition, I had women in my department who were caring and driven to help others. We formed a small but close-knit team. The easy collaboration in HR training began to be evident as we shared leadership roles. There was a desire to help one another and to share our strengths as a team.Other women began to look to this team as an outreach and support within the organization. Several women began to gain promotions and opportunities to excel, including me.
I share all this to make a point. Until women begin to set aside the competitive nature of business and our own prejudices against other women (she’s not career-minded her clothes are not right, etc), we are not going to be looked at as serious contenders for executive level positions. Women do not have to set aside our feminine qualities of being able to talk to one another, to empathize, to nurture relationships in order to get ahead. We don’t have to be so driven that we get a calloused edge that doesn’t take others into account. In a culture that feeds the “me, me, me” ego, climbing the corporate ladder means stepping on other women’s heads in order to see our own star rise.
As a Christian, this is made even more clear to me by Jesus Christ’s teachings, especially when he said “So the last shall be first, and the first last ” Matthew 20:16. That doesn’t leave much room for corporate ambition, does it? What one doesn’t realize right away is the blessing you get from helping others and putting your desires off for a minute or two. Getting promotions was nice (I won’t lie!) but it wasn’t nice to not have a peer to peer network of women you could trust. Getting recognition was nice, but I didn’t realize that it meant that I took it from others and gave no one else credit. When we started sharing and helping one another, we began to celebrate each other’s contributions and victories. Our enthusiasm, relationships and strength multiplied.
Bill Gates said that “As we look ahead to the next century, LEADERS will be those who EMPOWER others.” So what steps can we take today to help those around us? This Forbes article gives a great list of strengths women have that naturally lend themselves to helping others. In addition, I have a few to add that can apply to both men and women:
Know your strengths and weaknesses. Look for opportunities to help fill the gap.
Ask for the worst assignment. Your colleagues will thank you (& think you’re nuts!) and your bosses will appreciate you.
Be willing to help not only at work, but outside work. When you see your co-worker as a mom, wife, daughter, or in a different role, you will gain respect and learn to set aside any prejudice you may have formed against them.
Pray for them and for yourself to be placed in situations where you have to serve others.
We need to build each other up – both men and women. When you break others down, you get torn down right beside them. There is collateral damage. The true hallmark of a leader is when you help to develop others’ skills and strengthen them. Along the way, your own skills will be strengthened, built and sharpened.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17