I was talking to Andrea, a leader in a big corporate here in the Seattle area. Brilliant and hardworking she was; her resume spoke for itself. As a senior director role in this new job, she was facing some challenges. The main feedback was, others didn’t know what value she was bringing to the organization; they were not aware of her contribution.
The solution in her mind was simple – only if she had the skill of being vocal in meetings and prolific enough to blow her own horn. Deep inside, though, she was not feeling confident about her contribution either. All her time was spent getting the team settled and letting go of some of the employees for various reasons. The organization’s priorities had been pretty flux and ambiguous; on top, her team was resource-starved. And that is where she was feeling stuck. All these years of hard work and success were not of much help.
Andrea is not alone; this is a story I often hear with some variations. I noticed that most of these smart, accomplished women have a very similar background story. They were very serious about their schoolwork; no one doubted their competence and future potential. I myself was no exception! I had a belief that no matter how hard things were, I would be able to figure it out if I worked hard for it. So, I did. It worked for the most part until it didn’t. After finishing school, I had great jobs and eventually had a family of my own. When I fairly and squarely earned the right to be called a successful professional woman, I started realizing it was too much work! And even though I was able to perform those well, it was producing an endless series of more hurdles without much of a sustaining fulfillment. I was getting depleted, I felt disappointed, I started to question my own competence!
It was a very crucial few years when I was looking for an answer to fill the gap between my expectations and reality. I didn’t know who to ask for help. Here are some of the nuggets I learned from my own exploration.
Shift Gear As You Speed Up
In a simple analogy, the career journey is like a car; those who have some idea of a manual transmission car might relate. When we start a car, it needs to put a significant amount of force to get it moving. As it gains some decent speed, we need to change to the higher gear to harness the engine power to accelerate. Similarly, for our career, If we keep on driving at the first gear and expect the same kind of result as we had in our early career days, it will be stressing the engine without much result. When we attain a higher level, say as a mid-level professional, the next level of growth would come from collaborating with our peers, our teams, and our bosses, how responsive we are to the environment/market. In a car/gear analogy, we change the gear to a higher level to leverage the engine power more and minimize the friction.
This is when we show up more like a partner to our bosses rather than waiting for their instructions. One common blocking behavior is we wait for instructions; we assume someone has to permit us to do something. In a recent article, I found this term, “permission-based” mindset. The author suggested, “Kill that permission-based mindset, become an idea generator instead.” This becomes natural when we are more aware of our purpose and how it aligns with the organization’s goals. In the driving analogy, it is about knowing where the organization is heading. How as a leader or an employee we can help to move it in that direction. There will be roadblocks. When we are clear about the destination and are excited about it, we are more creative. Instead of seeing the roadblocks as a failure and possibly getting disheartened, we figure a detour.
Do A Regular Maintenance
When we are cruising along in a car on the 4th/5th gear, we don’t necessarily keep driving like this forever. The maintenance or taking care of the car is a crucial part of the journey. Any decent driver knows that the car not only needs fuel, having a healthy tire pressure, oil changes, and other maintenances are a must for keeping the car in good condition.
Sadly enough, for high-achieving, high-performing women (and men), one common issue I see is we are very stingy about self-care. In the EQ assessments, very often, I see one outlier – very low emotional vitality. According to the book Emotional Energy Factor by Mora Kirshenbaum, 70% of our total energy needs have to be from emotional energy. Navigating the corporate leadership role with low emotional vitality is like driving off-road with low tire pressure. It puts an enormous burden on one’s willpower. We don’t have time to do anything fun, hobbies or any other regular activities for our own pleasure. Not too long ago, when I noticed this in my own EQ profile, I started a few activities to address it. One of them was taking a Zumba class which brought quite joy to my life. Hiking in nature, spending quality time with friends and family, spending time on a hobby are other ways to increase one’s emotional vitality.
If it is not obvious already, a grown-up life is very different from what we experience in schools. The high-demanding corporate life is even farther away. Suppose we keep on expecting it like that we would be doing big disfavor to ourselves. Given that there is so much progress required at the systemic level, we can not afford to ignore these relatively simple strategic ways to take care of ourselves. Treating ourselves and our career at least how we treat our car could be a great place to start!