I have a confession to make: I’ve never cared very much about women quotas or found representing the minority as a woman in any kind of team or group, whether at work or on the football pitch, anything odd.
I guess it has to do with the attitudes I have been brought up with, such as “Äh, Just do it!”. (Believe it or not, my dad invented the slogan long before Nike. The “Äh” here is a typical Finnish expression, but contrary of what you’ll find in the dictionary, here it does not mean “Argh”, which would be an expression of annoyance, but rather a caring downplay of my own fears and limiting beliefs).
In hindsight, I also have to give huge credit to the bosses and colleagues I have been fortunate to work with. I have never, at least knowingly, encountered any kind of discrimination or downplay because of my gender or age – quite the contrary.
On the flip-side, this has resulted in the fact that besides giving money to girls’ educational charities, I’ve not been very passionate about specific issues regarding women or female leadership. Yes, my clients have included women who have wanted to strengthen their leadership skills to feel more confident in going after or managing a leadership position. But I have not thought about them as “women leaders”. It would have, in my opinion, been discriminatory towards them – or, on the contrary, putting men down, whenever this “women leadership” was defined as something better.
The soft wake-up call
This has been a silent, mental lullaby which has allowed me to walk through life without much disturbance from headlines shouting about gender issues, quotas, or the like.
But recently I have been approached by several people with cheers to create a coaching program specifically tailored for women. At first, I wasn’t very interested. As I saw it, it would just mean putting a new heading – “Just for women” – on my existing programs. Boring. Discriminatory. No fun.
Nevertheless, the requests stirred up something in my mind, and since I’m a big fan of synchronicity, the upcoming International Women’s Day (which we celebrate today) gave me an additional spark to re-examine my view on the subject.
My first approach was, of course, to dive into the never-ending stream of information, opinions, articles, blogs, and research on the web, which left me dizzy and even more confused. The only thing I was left with was the obvious passion the issues evoked when reading different views related to women’s leadership, such as board quotas, staying at home or focusing on the career, glass ceilings, no glass ceilings, the necessity of being tough, and the necessity of embracing social and emotional intelligence etc. etc.
I decided instead to revisit some of my clients’ challenges and goals.
I selected women who had their eyes set on leadership positions, as well as women executives already in top positions struggling with specific issues.
I also reflected on the specific situations of wannabe or newly born women entrepreneurs, as well as “female talents who should be bolder in pursuing their career goals”, as labelled by their employers.
Here are some findings (and of course, many men struggle also with these same issues):
- Motivation and ambition: In regard to leadership motivation, I could classify clients into three categories: 1) Those who had an inherit drive for leading and supporting others, as well as creating business results, 2) Those who also had these drivers, but were not aware of how much it would give them in terms of life-satisfaction, growth and inspiration, because they had not yet dared to embrace and pursue them, and 3) those who were not at all motivated about leading others.
Needless to say, oftentimes the group most pushing forward and creating their own development goals regarding leadership were the ones in the first category.
The biggest revelations regarding how motivating leading others can be, was typically the case in group 2. Often, they had not thought about it before so much, or what it could mean for them. Or they had fears and misconceptions about going for leadership positions.
For group 3 the biggest relief was to establish that their career aspirations were not directed towards leadership. They gained much more by exploring other kinds of career visions and letting go of external pressures.
- Skill set and self-confidence: Those who wanted to develop as leaders, usually wanted to work on developing certain skills especially, such as self-awareness and self-leadership skills, understanding other people’s motivational drivers, coaching-skills (connecting, active listening and using thinking-stimulating questions), as well as feedback, presentation and team leadership skills.
To be honest, the male clients I have had usually have goals and challenges related to these same issues. However, one difference was that women were more aware of their deficiencies, forgot their strengths, and needed a bit more support in challenging themselves to conquer their fears and to put themselves into situations which were a slight mental stretch to them. Above all, they benefitted of strengthening sincere self-compassion attitudes.
Women clients would also more often build big roadblocks in their minds regarding their lack of skills or how pursuing a leadership position would negatively affect their life balance and stress levels. They seemed to be very engaged in a continuous negative internal dialogue regarding these issues, which had become sound truths in their minds because they had been left uninvestigated and unchallenged for many years.
- Life balance, wellbeing and stress: As stated, many of my female clients had a fear that leadership positions would push over their life balance and have negative effects on their wellbeing, as well as the lives of their families. Some had faced these unwelcome situations before and were scared of falling down the same rabbit hole again.
Helping them to see their career as a bigger picture, as well as identifying and creating awareness around specific periods when they felt they wanted to work more or less (for many it meant when having young children, caring for older relatives, wanting to pursue further studies, or having health related issues to deal with) was helpful for many.
Equally important seemed to be choosing and integrating certain wellness-building habits in their lives which would help them to 1) stay well and energized, and to 2) recharge and destress after challenging moments or periods of time.
Also, many had a need for suitable, specific tools to manage their stress levels in specific situations.
- Growing a supportive network: Only a few of my female clients had been consciously seeking out and building up a versatile support network. However, many identified the need for more mentoring, coaching, collegial support, peer groups, and “door-openers”. Simply becoming aware of this, and a little more boldly seeking out opportunities to connect with others, even strangers, was an eye-opener for some.
The viewpoint of finding ways to creating value for the people in their network was important to many, who were hesitant to ask for any favors.
- Building a personal brand: This was not a topic many were initially very passionate about, but when we dissected what a personal brand consisted of, many recognized big opportunities. Even thinking about what kind of a professional brand they wanted to be in the future, proved to be a fresh perspective.
That brands should always be authentic and reflect real values and attributes lowered the bar for many clients and made the issue more approachable and ethical.
Connecting their own brand to the brand of the company they currently represented provided clarity in seeing how they could both serve their organization and at the same time how their organization could help them in growing towards the professional they wanted to become.
Gaining more specific information about the professional use of social media seemed to be one core issue of interest, as well as growing as a presenter and speaker for various kinds of audiences.
- Finding my own voice: What I found to be the most important pillar to my female clients when growing as a leader and as a person, was finding their own voice.
With that I mean that they dared to became clearer of who they were, what they wanted, and why they wanted it. They started focusing more on embracing, nurturing and cherishing their unique package of specific values, experiences, knowledge, skills, missions, and dreams.
Also, they found a way to connect that internal voice to the outer world so that it worked for them.
Maybe this is something we can share and focus on in whatever way: to support every woman to find their own voice (or man! Sorry, can’t help it 🙂 ).
In the Fall it’s time to celebrate the International Men’s Day (November 19), so we can then focus on specific challenges men face in work-life and leadership. That makes me feel less discriminatory. 🙂
Christina Forssell is a certified leadership coach (PCC) and mental trainer who gets inspired by people who have the courage to flourish and who wish to catalyse others to thrive.
PS. The picture is called ”Vattenfall”, and it is the artwork of my incredibly talented cousin Marion Forssell. Check out her work: https://www.marionforssell.com/works.