Watch this interview with Sheryl Sandberg by Pat Mitchell at TEDWomen, talking about her experiences since her debut presentation on TEDTalk and her book Lean In.
The mid-life career-change is on the rise . This is good news. So many people I know struggle in a profession or a job they no longer fully enjoy but are too afraid to change. It can be scary to even think about retraining or changing careers, and the current hype over personal branding is making matters even worse.
Personal branding has become so fashionable that anybody with a sliver of ambition can’t live without a highly polished LinkedIn profile. You must have your personal brand message and your USP (unique sales proposition) figured out and at a cocktail party you feel like a loser if you can’t perform your ’30 second elevator pitch’ in an instant. The popular advice is to choose your niche and stick to it. You should be an expert in one thing, and one thing only. Right?
I struggled with my professional identity after having kids. I no longer wanted to fit into my old corporate job as a branding consultant. I wanted to work for myself and have more flexibility. However, I had spent all my life building a career in branding and a fabulous CV.
I tried to force-fit new ideas into my old profile and was in agony over what new direction I could take without losing my identity. I thought about all the people who knew me for who I was, all the press I had worked so hard to get and the set of skills I had acquired over time.
Would I be credible doing something completely different?
Then an opportunity arose to write a book. I had recently invested in a small start-up bakery café in Soho, London – a career move that felt compatible with my expertise in branding and design. We were approached by a large publisher who wanted a cookbook from us.
I decided to do it, but the project turned into a real ‘identity crisis’. Can a brand consultant be a credible cookbook author? The answer, as I discovered, was ‘yes’. I’ve always had a passion for cooking and baking. I grew up in a very foodie family. When it turned out that people loved what I was doing, it was very liberating.
I discovered that as I gave up my ‘identity’ ie my old personal brand, I got rid of the ‘crisis’. I’m now free to do what excites me most. I still do some freelance work on branding, but my main focus has completely shifted to other projects I’m passionate about: a women’s network www.drivenwoman.co.uk and an online jewellery design platform www.minkandstone.com. I’m not starting projects for an external CV but for my own interest and experience..
Dreams change as we grow older. Being too fixated on your personal branding can stop you from fulfilling your dreams and taking action on new ideas.
Here’s what I’ve learned from creating my ‘portfolio’.
- Keep an open mind and accept that you can be passionate about many things. Don’t worry if new ideas clash with your personal brand or current career. Write all ideas down – you don’t have to execute them but you will learn about yourself and become more confident about your choices.
- Accept that your desires and preferences change over time. It is unrealistic to think the choices you made at 18 are still completely valid unless you are one of those lucky people who have known from the age of 5 that they want to play a violin for the rest of their lives.
- Provide logic within each career or project. Explain to new contacts and clients where your passion for a particular field originates from and show evidence of your craft or skill to provide credibility. Different careers within your portfolio don’t have to be linked, but it’s good to provide an explanation why you have picked the ones you have chosen.
- Accept that you will have multiple identities at the same time if you are to change careers. Even if you were to fully shift to a new industry or expertise, there would be a transition period when you would have to communicate two or more ‘personal brands’ at the same time.
- Create separate websites and business cards for your projects. One effective way to manage your different profiles is to build separate brands for them. You may also vary the degree to which you put your personality into use. Define if you are the designer, owner, promoter or a freelancer for the project. When meeting new people highlight the project that will provide the best opportunity for you.
- Doing all the things you want is liberating. Don’t evaluate your success through the eyes of others. There will always be people who think you have lost your mind. Make choices that matter to you and build a realistic income stream over time.
- Let your personality and values tie everything you do together. Everything you end up doing will naturally have an underlying logic – YOU. Let your interests build your brand rather than your brand limit your interests.
*** Guest blog by Miisa Mink, a founder of Mink&Stone, an online fashion jewelry start-up that allows users to create their own jewelry; co-founder of DrivenWoman, a proactive women’s network, and investor and chairman of Nordic Bakery, a design cafe chain in London.
Taking these questions in turn, starting with the last:
Question 1: Is there a confidence gap between men and women?
A lot of people think so, including myself. That’s probably true in life in general, but what I’m specifically talking about is the confidence gap that evidences itself in the work place – the way we view our own contribution, the way we participate in meetings, the way we ask for raises and promotions. Every aspect of corporate participation and progression evidences a rift between confidence levels with which men and women approach them.
Here are a few anecdotal statistics and examples:
- In a 2011 survey of British managers asking employees how confident they feel in their professions, half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared with less than a third of male respondents.
- Men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women do, and when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 % less money than men do.
- When students at a UK business school were recently asked what they expect to earn, and what they deserve to earn, five years after graduation, on average, the men thought they deserve £80,000 a year and the women £64,000—or 20% less.
- In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality.
- At a study conducted by Hewlett-Packard, women applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 % of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60% of the job requirements.
You get the gist. So, while individual women may disagree with this notion, evidence shows that there is indeed a confidence gap between the way men and women operate in the corporate environment.
Question 2: Why should this matter to us?
The answer is probably obvious, but I’ll spell it out nonetheless: in order for women to progress up the ladder and contribute their most as a significant talent of an organisation, women need the tools, most significantly confidence, to contribute on a level playing field with men. Otherwise, we will continue to work in organisations where boards are made up of men of largely similar backgrounds, coming up with ideas and solutions that are not particularly insightful, viewing the world from a very similar perspective, denying the company opportunities to evolve and prepare for the future. And companies really do need to prepare for a future that is changing so fast it’s impossible to predict it five years in advance, let alone a decade. This is therefore the time when companies should draw on all their diverse talent, to encourage and motivate people of all backgrounds to contribute their most so that all ideas and perspectives can be heard and considered.
And while true diversity is the ultimate goal, it is quite difficult to institute the kind of changes that would provide a level playing field to all talent of a diverse background or perspective. We should, of course, continue to strive for it, but perhaps there are things we can do in the interim that will help us progress towards that ideal state. I believe that this next step – and the most effective way to inject diversity into decision-making bodies – is to increase the representation of women in these bodies. And to do that, we need to ensure women are equipped with the same tool kit as men.
Question 3: How do we bridge the gap?
Confidence is one of the most elusive of skills, and even when we succeed in becoming more confident, we all go through bouts of loss of confidence or self-assuredness. Resilience, therefore, is the other side of the coin that we need in order to bridge that gap.
If the aim is to encourage gender diversity at top company levels, then companies must invest in helping their female talent bridge the confidence gap. To get the most contribution from their talent, companies ought to invest in providing the support women need to contribute their best. And there’s a role for women to play here as well. I encourage each woman to observe her own actions over the span of her career and ask: have there been instances in which you have limited your own success because of fear of failure or fear of being perceived incompetent? Have there been instances when you passed up opportunities because you were afraid to speak up? Have you avoided networking opportunities or casual conversations with potential stakeholders in your career because you were afraid that you might not come across as valuable or significant – or worse- be found out as the imposter that you think you are? If you’ve had these thoughts in the past, chances are, you have limited your career in such a way that men (generally speaking) don’t do. So do what you have to in order to eject the fear factor and to start bridging that gap. Go to a confidence building workshop, work with a mentor or a coach. Do whatever it takes, but don’t let it hold you back.
The beauty of confidence is that it builds on its own success! So once you’ve taken a small step to overcome the one big fear that has been looming ahead, the success of this accomplishment alone builds enough confidence to tackle the next step. In fact, this repeating process is so powerful that what we women need is often just a jump start!
Of course it’s also the case that confidence can be knocked again by the lack of success of an action. This is why we also need to build resilience and a set of tools that we can pool out of our kit to build ourselves back up again. Tools like asking yourself the right questions, correctly analysing the risks of failure, correctly evaluating what’s at stake if we do or don’t take action, if we do or don’t succeed. Incorporating these tools into our behaviours takes time and practice, but as we get better at using them, our confidence continues to grow and with it, the benefits of a more fulfilling career.
Founder and MD, Voice At The Table Ltd, empowering women to speak up and progress on their
There’s a lot of talk about women not excelling in the existing corporate culture and about the need to change present leadership models to models that make it more appealing and welcoming for women to contribute their very best.
But what exactly does that mean? What is it about the current corporate culture that makes it so unattractive for women and how do we change it?
As Tony Schwartz recently observed in an article for NY Times Online (http://nyti.ms/10LBiZ9) “great leadership requires a delicate balance between challenging and caring for employees” and yet “[m]ost leaders continue to pay far more attention to the first, at the expense of the second.” Most leaders focus on customer centricity, operational excellence and efficiency, with far too little emphasis on employees as human beings, with needs that extend beyond the ambitious goals of a company.
This is particularly detrimental for women, most of whom have a number of vying priorities which demand just as much attention as their careers. As set out in more detail in a book by Brigid Schulte called “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has Time”, women in the United States look after housework and children twice as much as men do. Women with higher education also tend to spend more time on mothering, “and working mothers spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1960s.” Women get up at night more frequently than men to take care of others and stay awake longer than men – so much I know first-hand.
And so Tony points out, it is not surprising then that adult women in America “are the fastest growing group being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” and that “a growing number of researchers believe it isn’t really the neurological disorder, but rather that they’re so overloaded.”
All this should lead to the realisation that companies are leaving behind a pricy chunk of their talent because women are not given the flexibility and time they may need to address these imbalances and to contribute their most. The few companies that have given this some thought and taken some drastic action – like Google’s decision to extend its regular maternity leave in the US from three to five months – started reaping the benefits almost instantly! In Google’s case, for instance, attrition rates for new mothers halved. As a result, Google is benefiting from retaining the talent it worked hard to recruit and foregoing the cost that comes along with having to re-recruit high calibre talent.
So the question is, why don’t more companies see this and make the necessary changes? The answer, I believe, is pretty straight forward. Most industries have a long tradition of working in a particular way and culture, and to ask them to change their modus operandi is easier said than done. Granted, a lot of companies recognise the need for retaining and promoting women, but most of them aren’t truly vested in the process – big change is a big ask and takes time, especially the kind of change that requires a culture revolution. And make no mistake, for women to be able to contribute on level playing field with men will require nothing less than a revolution.
So where does this leave women?
We women know all this but we don’t speak out, as we believe that we must sacrifice in order to have “it all”. Or maybe we don’t think speaking up will make a difference – in the words of the Borg of Star Trek, perhaps we believe that “resistance is futile”. We tend to be “grateful” for the opportunities we get and rarely negotiate for an uplift in remuneration packages or flexibility. We tend to underestimate our own worth and contribution to companies and continue to grin and bear it, or quietly complain to our friends and family about it, or step out of the corporate game all together.
So if companies aren’t going to change their culture and if women don’t do it for themselves, how will corporate culture change?
I have a friend who works three days a week and has just been promoted to a very senior role – only second from the top of her department. This is a woman who has three children, having taken a full year of maternity leave for each one of her children (yes, that is still possible here in the UK), and has managed to get the balance she wanted at work at a very senior level. This is just one of a number of examples I can point to where senior women have found ways to persuade their companies to make adjustments to meet individual demands; and the one common theme that emerges from all these stories is that women who have the confidence and skill to speak up tend to get exactly what they’re asking for.
In my opinion, there are a number of reasons for this:
- Managers inherently understand the value that women bring to companies and sometimes are not fully aware of what it is women need to continue to thrive and to contribute authentically – once they are told what it is, they are more than happy (perhaps initially reluctantly) to make special arrangements to accommodate those who dare speak up.
- Women who are able to speak up on their own behalf know how to make a compelling case. They are strategic about their careers and lay the foundation early on. They are not prepared to compromise either on their priorities outside the workplace or their contribution at work and they let their managers know this.
- I often hear men say that they do not wish to stand in the way of women and are not actively doing anything to leave women behind, and my personal experience agrees with this contention. So if women were to tell men what it is they need them to do – in the workplace and at home – they would likely get more support from their male colleagues and partners than they currently assume.
For these and many other reasons, I strongly believe that changing corporate culture is up to us individual women. We need to be each one of those women who made it to the top by being able to speak freely and without fear of failure. We need to take more risks with our careers and have these conversations not only at work but also at home. In other words, we need to become a little bit more selfish and ruthless – something that we might be able to learn from our male counterparts who most of the time don’t give their own bullish behaviour a thought! And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – that’s something we can improve on ourselves!
We shouldn’t wait for things to change for us; for culture change to be handed to us. If we want a workplace that takes us into account, we need to voice ourselves clearly and assertively. Because we can change corporate culture one person at a time.
Founder and MD, Voice At The Table Ltd, empowering women to speak up and progress on their own terms.
Granted, many people would rather talk about that other word than give flexible working its due consideration, but let’s face it: like it or not, adjusting the 9 to 5 office work culture would make a big difference to women employment numbers. And the talent pool would exponentially multiply.
Companies that “get it” are striving hard to accommodate people’s (mostly women’s at this point) desire to work in a less rigid pattern. As recently printed in an IFLR publication, even law firms have started adjusting their office culture to allow their (female) talent to meet the job’s requirements in an adjusted work environment. Here are some examples.
The sky is the limit
One firm reported that one third of all its partners work flexibly. This is a result of having introduced a policy three years ago that allowed everyone (not just women) to apply for flexible work arrangements after having worked at the firm for six months. As to what kind of flexible working arrangements were possible, that is left entirely up to the applicant. The main consideration in facilitating flexible working is ensuring that the business’ needs are met, and applicants are free to propose how they might do this as part of their proposal to work flexibly.
Not a women’s issue
Role models are an important aspect of encouraging and nurturing agile working. Another firm reported that its senior partner works in a flexible arrangement and holds himself out as a role model to others. This way, people with needs beyond motherhood can take advantage of the arrangements and flexible working becomes a talent management tool rather than a women’s issue.
Being seen as an employer that encourages a flexible work structure is also an important aspect of agile working. This firm advertises all their external jobs as flexible so that all potential candidates are informed of the flexible work culture that is a main theme in their employment ethos.
Accommodating personal needs
Retaining talent goes beyond getting the needs of the company satisfied; talented people need employers to be considerate to their personal requirements, as well. One firm explains that, having understood this, it has been able to accommodate employees in a number of unusual requests, including having to work abroad for a while or even finishing their studies in a different jurisdiction (which required a prolonged period of paid leave). It’s these type of mutually-beneficial relationships that builds trust and loyalty within a company, thus enabling the organisation to get the most from its talent.
Parting with the traditional approach to work culture is the main common denominator to all these forward-thinking employers. People say that only certain types of jobs are suitable for flexible work. To those people I say “you haven’t been creative enough in coming up with a workable solution.” It’s time to recognise that the traditional approach to work is no longer good enough for today’s and tomorrow’s work force, so companies have to adjust, break the mould, think out of the box, and be themselves more flexible institutions. After all, the world is changing faster than ever, and those companies that are willing to adapt their approach to work are going to be rewarded by that changing environment.
How many times have you heard women say that they don’t want to be promoted based on “targets” or “quotas” because that undermines their meritorious credentials as a candidate? Well, guess what: merit-based processes are in fact biased in favour of men! Despite the fact that we try to level the playing field in the work place by introducing processes to make promotions and other work-related decisions more objective, they can, in fact, have the reverse effect by activating more gender bias.
Given that a merit-based system prefers candidates with more “merit” for the job, there is a latent layer of discrimination embedded in this system. Merit-based systems are based on the assumption that merit can be achieved equally by men and women – a preconceived notion that is unlikely to be true.
The assumption is based on (1) the belief that men and women have the same attributes and are therefore starting from the same base line – not the case, and (2) the assessment criteria that is set to judge a person on merit applies equally to men and women – again, not the case. After all, if these assumptions are true, and considering the high levels of achievement by women at universities and professional schools, why are women still underrepresented at senior levels of organisations?
Research from the US suggest that focusing on merit leads to biased outcomes. This research was prompted by the observation that, despite having introduced performance pay and merit-based reward practices (with the aim of making advancement and remuneration opportunities more objective), companies continued to experience the same levels of inequality in personnel-related decisions as before the introduction of these measures. The research found that in situations where merit was emphasised as a basis for selection and performance appraisal decisions, men were more likely to be selected, and more likely to be awarded higher salary increases, compared to equally rated women.
What we can glean from this study is that, although organisations strive to make unbiased decisions, meritorious processes do not appear to have successfully stripped out gender stereotypes and unconscious bias.
If merit is to be interpreted as “competence” or “capability” specific to the requirements of a particular role, and if we also agree (on the basis of research and evidence) that women are perceived as interpersonally warmer and less competent than men, and men are perceived as less interpersonally warm and more competent than women, then we might start to understand how meritocracy might work against equality and impartiality. When a person is asked to make a merit-based decision, these sub-conscious perceptions (warm vs competent) are activated and men and women are perceived to differ in their degree of competence or capability by the decision maker. Once activated, the stereotype unconsciously influences the decision in favour of men based on performance criteria that are packed with competence-related characteristics.
There is a study that backed up this thinking and found a way to overcome this unconscious process: A research conducted with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra involving blind auditions. Based on audible auditions only, the percentage of women represented in the concert body went from 10% to 45% of new hires.
This orchestral example is extremely enlightening. Selectors had long insisted that the lack of women musicians in the orchestra was not based on discrimination but on the fact that the preferred playing style was more predominant among male musicians. Blind auditions have refuted this line of argument quite clearly. Hopefully, it is now clear that the different playing styles argument was based on a gender stereotype, a stereotype that was “turned off” through the simple process of not being able to see the musician. In other words, if we discount gender as part of the equation, women appear to have just as much “merit” as men.
It would be great if we could try this “blind audition” approach in organisations, but, unfortunately, this might be an unrealistic and impractical aim. What we can take away from this, however, is that people – men and women alike – are overestimating the egalitarian nature of merit-based systems and do women a disservice by discounting other equalising systems – like targets, for example – on the basis of merit. We should all keep in mind that a focus on merit does not protect decision-makers from bias and may even make them more susceptible to it. Otherwise, we will simply continue to proliferate the status quo.
I recently had a conversation with a male colleague whose wife gave up her very lucrative professional job to look after their children and, when she decided to return to the work force, she went to work in an environment in which she could never match her previous earning potential or career aspirations. Digging a bit deeper, my colleague explained that, when they first got married, his wife was an up-and-coming professional, working for a prestigious financial institution, with aspirations for her own career progression and growth. Then, when she fell pregnant with their first child, she felt ostracised and actively (albeit inconspicuously) squeezed out of her team and her job. This evidenced itself by assuming she had neither interest nor energy to work on high-profile projects, regarding her as not pulling her weight in the team, and changing behaviour towards her to such an extent that she no longer felt welcome in the team and the organisation. No-one in the company stood up for her and other than to confront the situation through formal means, the only sensible solution to her was to leave the work force. The wife’s confidence was shattered to such an extent that when she decided to resume her career, a career in the financial sector – or any other corporate environment – was no longer an attractive proposition.
My colleague told me this story when I shared with him what I had heard about another young colleague in our company who was expecting her first child and facing unprecedented difficulties and challenges from her previously supportive line manager. My colleague was dismayed by this behaviour and stated that, not only is this appalling behaviour towards the women in question, it is detrimental to the company, and most of all, detrimental to marriages. My colleague wanted very much to share the financial burden of having a family in London with his once equally capable wife, but has wound up in a situation where he is the sole bread winner, fearing to compromise his job, given financial family burdens. The colleague felt resentful towards his wife’s old manager who pulled the rug from under her feet and the company that let it happen. The colleague was now in a position where he could no longer pursue his passions, share in the upbringing of their children, or – being the main breadwinner of the family – hope for any kind of work-life balance.
This story opened my eyes to the exponential impact that corporate treatment of women might have on society. I realised that it’s not only women who might aspire to a reasonable work-life balance; more and more men recognise the value of sharing a home life with their spouse a more fulfilling proposition than dedicating their entire existence to the corporate beast. The generation behind me is certainly looking for this kind of balance, as other male colleagues have and continue to demonstrate. Yet corporate culture doesn’t recognise the fact that the kind of things that women are traditionally known to fight for – flexible yet meaningful work so that they can attend to more than just one priority – are also secret aspirations of today’s professional males. Unfortunately, as things stand, it wouldn’t do for a professional man to admit this to his line manager or even another male colleague as he would instantly be deemed uncommitted to his career and company. But I have no doubt that these conversations do take place among friends and families.
I therefore strongly believe that all the changes that we, professional women, are fighting for in the corporate world, will eventually benefit not only our own gender but also our male friends and colleagues. And the sooner the old-fashioned corporate thinking changes, the sooner will companies be able to start building a work place and work force that is equipped for the future.