I have worked for a wonderful company for over 25 years during which time it has grown from a small local setup with 34 people to a business with global reach from offices in five countries. I originally joined as a secretary but through a wondrous combination of interest from my side and openness from the management’s I was given opportunity upon opportunity over the years and built a career that covered a series of interesting and fulfilling roles. What drove me forward was in part a need for confirmation that I was good enough - something that I never truly believed myself – and in part a love of what our company does.
I joined DrivenWoman in 2016 hoping it would help me build the confidence to have a voice in management meetings. I always found myself put down by our relatively domineering and very patriarchal chairman - I always felt slightly stupid.
DrivenWoman gave me a setting where at first I found benefit in meeting likeminded and caring women - strangers with whom I found I could be completely open. But then Lifeworking started to have a more profound effect.
Looking back, I can identify each of the crucial ‘aha’ moments which led to a fundamental shift in my professional life - let me share them:
1. Learning kindness towards myself
A fellow group member observed that I was very hard on myself - and that I should try to write down each day the good things I had achieved. I did so - even only for a short while, but it helped me put a little more focus on the good things - a little daily celebration.
2. BUILDING A DEEPER AWARENESS
We reflected on our childhood ‘baggage’ and on my way home from the group I was wondering why I had this intense need for approval - my parents had always been supportive, encouraging and complimentary of my progress and choices in life, so it wasn’t from them.
Then it suddenly struck me. I was standing on the platform at St Pancras station and my knees went slightly wobbly: I remembered a moment (I still remember vividly the surroundings) when my grandfather said the words ‘you’re ok, too’, indicating that my older sister was their shining first grandchild - and I was just ‘ok’. Now, to my sister, our grandparents were the leading lights! They meant so much to her - they were her idols. And as I adored my older sister (still do) I believed what she believed!
So right there on the platform at St Pancras station, I realised that our chairman represented my grandfather, and it was his ultimate approval I was still seeking! This awareness was significant - just knowing that this was the reason for my need for approval started to change my feeling of inferiority towards him. First step!
3. USING SELF DOUBT IN A POSITIVE WAY
I attended the Festival of Doers and was amazed at the brilliant speakers, the openness and sharing and starting to understand that there was a whole movement underway. A movement of saying ‘enough is enough’ to a way that worked for men, but really doesn’t work for women.
I attended a talk by Hazel Gale, a female kickboxing champion who told us what we all knew in isolation: that we each have this monster telling us that we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not brave enough - the message was different for each of us but in effect it represented the lack of confidence and the greater self-criticism we women tend towards.
And then she gave us the greatest possible insight: you cannot fight that monster, because it’s part of you! But you can turn it into your coach!
So, from then on, whenever my monster said to me ‘you’re not good enough’ I stopped and reflected on why that was, and what I could do to get better! I became better organised, better prepared for meetings, better at communicating - my monster became my coach!
4. LANDING MY PURPOSE
I was making progress but I still couldn’t master ‘the art of confidence’ and I didn’t know why. Until the Lifeworking group session when we did the exercise on authenticity vs conforming. I analysed the components of my role and was most surprised to find a number of activities which I thought I enjoyed were all under ‘conforming’ - and a very clear common theme was emerging in the authenticity area: all to do with people and talent management and development! This was only a relatively small component of my role but so fulfilling!
So now to the all-important small steps towards big goals (this is what we always do at DrivenWoman!): the first action I committed to was to talk to our CEO about this, to tell him that this was what was my strength and what I should do more of.
Now, sometimes the stars do align - our group personnel director had just told him that she was thinking of retiring, after 30 years, and he had been worrying about who could possibly take over from her, so my revelation was very welcome. From then on, things moved forward at a pace - I was appointed to the role of HR director, a first step to learn the ropes and gradually take over from our retiring group personnel director.
Within a few months I felt more at home in this role than any previous role in my 28 years with the company. My deep knowledge of our product and our culture were hugely beneficial and learning HR was a relatively easy process. My confidence was building, day by day, and at one DrivenWoman meeting I talked to the group of my despair that our management meetings were always fraught affairs with much focus on the negative.
Why couldn’t we just enable everybody to speak freely, positively to solve business issues together?
At this point my Group Leader exclaimed "that’s your purpose! That’s what you need to do".
Wow! Tough ask!
How could I ever address this with our autocratic, domineering chairman? But the seed had been sowed!
5. CHANGING MY COMPANY'S PATRIARCHAL LEADERSHIP MODEL
So now DrivenWoman was for me not just about my personal career development and happiness. It opened up a new realisation about how badly suited the old patriarchal structures are to women in the work place. And I’m not just talking about the need for flexible hours!
I started to gather insights from our group meetings about how women work differently, what makes us all question ourselves so much and what we have to offer that is so different to men. I wanted to understand leading the feminine way. This was probably my biggest and most important discovery. And the route through to my ultimate goal at the company.
At this time we started going through a leadership shift as our chairman was handing over to our CEO and the change in management style was felt by the whole team - great potential, but some things just weren’t working. We have a strong representation of female leaders in our company, and our CEO was struggling to find the right approach with them.
I took the opportunity to make this the point where we would part with the old patriarchal structures and introduce a more matriarchal approach.
I put the results of my findings to our CEO and explained to him that the way to successful leadership would be to understand the following:
1. Women are on average 30% less confident than men - so there is a much greater need for positive reinforcement and confirmation of what we do well in order to build a team of confident female leaders. And it takes confidence to take daring strides forward for the business so to succeed he would need to focus more on acknowledging positive actions and less on criticism.
2. Women (mothers) are giving up so much more when they choose to have a career rather than spending more time with their children - so it has to be worth the sacrifice! They have to do something they can truly believe in. It was up to him to make sure we have a clear purpose and a positive environment.
3. Women work together, support each other and share in each other’s successes. This goes right back to hunter-gatherers: a man would be celebrated for single-handedly bringing back a major kill that would feed the tribe, but it took a collaborative effort to gather enough berries to be sufficient to feed them.
So, a collaborative approach is required in a strong female leadership team. We needed to create a meeting culture which allowed for discussion, sharing and consensus - rather than the old ‘tell’ approach. This is also why trying to motivate female leaders by creating competition between them doesn’t work in the way it does with men.
4. All people are emotional - to different degrees, of course, it just manifests itself differently in men and women. So, if one of your female leaders bursts into tears, don’t tell her not to be emotional, don’t think she’s not strong enough or not cut out for the job - it’s just her frustration showing in a different way where a man would get angry and ‘throw his toys out of the pram’.
Soon after this conversation, I was appointed to a Group role with responsibility for our culture and talent and the remit to help build this thinking into our 5-year plan. This was only three months ago (!) and already now I can feel the change - in his leadership and in the collaborative spirit of the management team.
My purpose coming to fruition, we now all have a voice in the meetings, and challenges and issues are solved through contribution from each of the amazing individuals on our management team.
Yes, we are now a team! I am confident that this matriarchal approach will now start to filter through the company and lead to people feeling more appreciated and better supported - time will tell!
6. LEARNING TO ASK FOR WHAT I'M WORTH
The final point of learning from DrivenWoman is about money. There are many reasons for there being a significant gender pay gap in favour of men. One of them is our tendency to be less confident and so likely to suffer from imposter syndrome. How can you possibly go into salary negotiations with any confidence if you feel uncertain about the value you bring?
In all my years at this company I have never challenged a pay review. Never. I simply accepted what I was offered and trusted the company to be fair. We’ve had healthy discussions in our DrivenWoman groups about money and being paid what we are worth.
This month for the first time ever did I feel truly confident in the value I bring and the impact I will have on the happiness of our people and therefore the productivity of the company - and I challenged the package that was put forward. It felt good - and it paid off!
Would any of this have been possible without DrivenWoman? I truly believe not!
I hope I am just one of many who will find their way through to a position where they can have a positive female impact - and continue the change away from the limiting and at times toxic patriarchal structures and cultures leading into radical career success. Oh, and I should probably mention that this week, our chairman turned to me and said "I wasn’t sure you’d be able to make it in your new role, but I was wrong, and I am aware of the impact you’re having, well done!"
Birgitte Woehlk is a DrivenWoman member in London and a Group HR Director and a Board Member
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