I had the good fortune of being asked to speak on a panel for Women in Technology. The panel was called Government Leaders at the Helm. Like with any other discussion focused for women in leadership, we are asked typically to answer these questions:
· How do you break through the glass ceiling?
· How do you get work-life balance?
· What’s it like being a woman in a male dominated field?
This was the third year that I did this panel. As each year passes, there has been an increase in the number of men who attend. I’m not surprised. Perhaps posed in a slightly different manner, these are questions that any leader should ask himself or herself as they manage their lives and their careers.
Glass ceiling. It’s difficult talking about this. Acknowledgement may not cast your organization in the most positive light; yet ignoring it may be reacting like putting your proverbial head in the sand. Rebecca Shambaugh, in her book “It’s Not a Glass Ceiling It’s a Sticky Floor”, acknowledges the existence of the glass ceiling, but challenges her readers to focus on those things that make your feet stick to the floor. Some of the things we learned as girls in Kindergarten may be some of the traits that hold us back in our leadership careers. She goes on to say:
The strengths and traits that got you to where you are, such as getting results, being detail oriented, being process focused, or a team player, are more of a recipe for being a good middle manager than an executive-suite executive. In contrast, executive-level leaders need to think strategically, have a vision for their organization and people, lead complex change, and build strategic and collaborative relationships inside and outside the organization.
Focusing instead on these executive skills, is the key to getting “unstuck” on the floor. Focusing on the wrong thing causes you to overlook your strengths.
Focus … there must be a golf story coming. I was playing golf in Hilton Head, SC. I finally got to the point where I could drive the ball and not go into the water by NOT focusing on the water. But, at Hilton Head, there were alligators at every hole – plus, I’m hitting from the forward tees which are closer to the alligator. I did not lose my focus on the alligators and every single drive with an alligator went straight for the alligator. Focus. It works.
Work-life balance. This question always drives me nuts. It’s not like I am 33 1/3% wife, 33 1/3% friend, and 33 1/3% CIO! How can you not be 100% wife? Or 100% friend? Focus and priorities make this a non-linear problem. Einstein says it best:
Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason, mastery demands all of a person.
There are times when folks will ask my husband, how does it feel to have your wife blog? He says, almost always, that it’s ok except when I blog on “his time”. So then I thought what part of MY time is not HIS time? Then, I came up with it: while he’s sleep, working outside, shopping, or fixing something. So, if I focus and write faster … and chose the appropriate time, then everybody’s happy.
What’s it like? I like to answer this question like this … how does it feel? Well, today, I’m at a conference with a bunch Java developers. A whole bunch of men. A WHOLE BUNCH! Imagine, you are late (ok, ok, no wisecracks), you are wearing a flashy silver and white metallic jacket in a sea of blue jeans, and you haven’t seen a woman yet. Then everyone turns and looks at you when you get a shout-out from the stage. It feels like that.
Many of the executive traits that Shambaugh described are associated with Right-brained thinking. And some studies have shown that right-brained thinking is often associated with women. Some of those attributes are: big-picture thinking, seeing both present and future, appreciating, presents possibilities, and taking risks.
Dan Pink, in his blog, Too Many Left-Brained Thinkers Spoil the Pot, suggests that left-brained thinking prevented some companies from seeing financial disaster coming. He goes on to blog:
I have a theory that people who find themselves running major-league companies are real organization-management types who focus on what they are doing this quarter or this annual budget. They are somewhat impatient, and focused on the present. Seeing these things requires more people with a historical perspective who are more thoughtful and more right-brained — but we end up with an army of left-brained immediate doers.
So, I guess the conclusion is whether you are a male or female executive; or a CIO or regular person, you should focus on your strengths, be prepared to stand out in a crowd, and watch out for alligators.
Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center