Women in the workplace

Photo credit: Bianca Good, https://www.gqrgm.com

In honor of March being women’s history month, it seems fitting to write a blog about women in the workplace.  This is simply my experience. I would not consider myself a feminist. However, I do notice when I am treated differently because of my gender.  I am also learning how to handle those situations with grace and dignity (for the most part). 

Last week I was meeting with a candidate who was looking to move here and start working with us.  He is an accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon, and is very interested in relocating to do research. As I was telling him about the infrastructure and support our office can provide for his scholarly endeavors, he repeatedly interrupted me to ask my male counterpart questions about what I was describing.  My coworker continued to turn the conversation back over to me, but this guy wasn’t having it. Finally, I excused myself for another “meeting” instructing the candidate to follow up with my coworker because they clearly had more in common.

Men aren’t the only ones who dismiss women in the workplace, women are guilty of this behavior as well. I work with some phenomenal, super accomplished women who exhibit this sort of “secondary sexism” (which is the best way I can find to describe it).  Secondary sexism for me has been characterized by minimizing my role, gossiping about my appearance, or spreading rumors insinuating that how I got to my job was by sleeping with someone important.  I have witnessed these conversations about others too. In trying to understand this puzzling behavior, I attribute it to the potential struggle they went through to get to their positions.  Maybe they started as an entry level administrator and worked their way through the ranks to get to where they are.  It was probably hard work. Conversely for someone like me to walk in as a senior level director at 37 having only been at the organization for 2 years is a little hard to swallow.  Where is my struggle? Why do I get to just walk in and be accepted by this elite group? 

Spoiler alert: I don’t, and that’s ok. I have no idea what it was like to get to where they are.  But I admire it, and them, for paving the way.  I couldn’t be here unless they were there.

A book that changed my behavior as a woman at work is Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.  In this book she describes a methodology in how to reinforce yourself both personally and professionally so you can lead effectively.  This book also taught me the importance of seeing the women I work with as allies first, because we are better together. So in the spirit of March, let’s stop competing and start collaborating!  Women should celebrate each other whenever possible; especially in the workplace. This means shutting down the gossip mill and teaching from that experience instead.  It also means listening to each other and showing up for each other when we need it. Most of all it means having the courage to speak up when it counts, not just saying things in the safety of closed rooms.  We have such a special comradery, and should leverage that to make real change. I would love to learn about the experiences, fortitude and grit of the women I admire at work.  I hope young women will want to learn from me someday too. 

Does this resonate with you? Leave a comment so we can talk about it.

Recognition and appreciation: What are they good for?

The answer is, absolutely nothing, unless you are doing it for the right reasons.  Organizations start to feel a certain pressure when the workload is high and the resources are slim. So how do they keep the morale high so employees stay motivated to move the mission forward? Some sort of recognition, surely that will do the trick.  But what does this recognition look like and why are you really doing it?  These are key questions leaders should ask themselves when faced with this dilemma.

Recognition can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.  In my previous blog, Better together, I stressed the importance of bringing your employees together to discuss important issues. Burnout is no exception.  Leaders need to genuinely listen to show employees they understand and really care.  Tossing a dozen donuts to a team that is being held together with scotch tape and toothpicks due to stress doesn’t cut it; you need to uncover and address the underlying issue whenever possible.

Photo credit: Tricia Lott Williford, tricialottwilliford.com

Advocacy and understanding are strong signals of appreciation, and they come at no additional expense to the organization. Many of us are facing budget cuts, mergers, and hiring freezes along with the pervasive message that we need to keep doing more with less.  How do I foster that message with my team to get the work done under these constraints?  I don’t.  It isn’t possible.  As soon as I realized that personally, I shared it with my team and we talked about how all of us were feeling that way.  One of my team members likened it to having all these balls in the air and was letting the plastic ones fall and bounce while keeping the glass ones suspended. We agreed we cannot do it all, I don’t expect them to, and I make sure higher level leadership knows what plastic balls we are dropping.

Never use appreciation and recognition as an apology for bad behavior. Dropping off a bottle of wine at someone’s office, or giving them a gift card because you disrespected them is an empty gesture, and doesn’t indicate that you learned anything.  What it does say quite clearly, is you don’t respect them enough to really listen to them.  This is far worse than the original infraction. 

Motivations for giving recognition and appreciation should be driven by the recipient, not the giver.  Seek to understand and meet your team where they are to show genuine care and concern for their well-being.  We spend so much time with our colleagues in our workplaces that this should be a given.  The sentiment that all ships rise together should be a mantra in your organizations.  Just make sure your boats are in good working order to make the journey.

When I was a new leader I had several members of my team read the 5 Appreciation Languages of the Workplace so I could figure out how they like to be recognized.  They have it on Amazon at the link below.

Now go appreciate yourself with a glass of wine. You have earned it!

5 Appreciation Languages of the Workplace

Better Together

A hierarchical structure exists in organizations where certain levels of the team are referred to by different titles.  Chief executive officer, executive assistant, manager, director, dean, vice president, administrator, custodian and even master of the universe.  OK, the last one doesn’t really exist (at least I couldn’t get it to stick where I work), but you get my drift.  Labels matter, but so does the way we interact with and refer to the individuals holding these titles.  A key problem with organizations is thinking of the function of these different tasks in limiting ways.  Surely the administrator who is taking minutes for this meeting doesn’t have anything meaningful to offer. Or do they?

Consider the breadth of operations an administrative assistant sees every day.  These people are interacting with different departments/units/colleges to ensure various processes are being executed and followed through with daily.  However, this informal network is often overlooked.  The very nature of the “other duties as assigned” designation allows them to glean valuable knowledge from a large catchment group which renders their advice and insight invaluable to their home team.

As a leader, it is important to bring everyone to the table and treat them as equals.  Furthermore, it is important to foster a community where all employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and ideas regardless of ranking.  In meetings, encourage your team to introduce themselves with what they do not the title they have in some HR system or job description.  This gives them agency to describe their function and what it means to the overall organization and its success. 

The key here is to acknowledge that a leader can’t begin to and shouldn’t try to understand the limits of any one person’s competency to weigh in on complex issues.  The more brains involved with solving a particular task, the better.  When we capitalize on the intellectual powerhouse across all ranks in an organization, we open the door to more creative problem solving.  We are literally looking outside of the decision maker box and saying, “You, over there. What do you think about this?”  A welcome consequence of this championing behavior is it builds up the next cohort of great leaders.  Having seen this example, they informally lead their peer groups and foster a collaborative culture.

I encourage you as leaders, in any capacity, in any venue, to keep an open mind and consult with your most trusted advisors.  I guarantee that administrator who has diligently been organizing your meetings for the last 6 months has something constructive to offer.

In the spirit of soliciting advice from stakeholders, what do you want to talk about with me on this blog?  I would love for you to leave me a comment so we can talk about leadership topics you are interested in.  Better together means my virtual blog fam too!

But first, humble pie…

Over the weekend I received word that my cousin, who is 1 year younger than me, was in the ICU and would likely not make it. After taking care of my younger sister who was assisting the rest of my family with details and logistics (I am the oldest, taking care of my younger siblings is pre-disposed, and dinner will be delivered promptly at 5pm so she doesn’t have to think about it), I offered to call my father to let him know what was going on. My parents divorced when I was 31, and I have spoken to my dad a handful of times in the last 6+ years. There are various reasons for our estrangement which individually are not important to the theme of this blog. What is relevant, is knowing how uncomfortable it was to make that call. He answered as if I were a stranger, I gave him devastating news about his nephew (he had no idea), and I ended the call with asking if he was ok and telling him I loved him. I faced my fear of whatever was going to come my way from this incidental reach out because it was the right thing to do.

Humbling myself to make this call as the informal leader of my two younger sisters was hard. Which got me to thinking about how important being humble is as a leader, and how it is even more important to allow those you lead to see you in this space. So often we avoid the temporary discomfort of being wrong, or conceding in some way to override our own judgement of what is actually the right thing to do. Leaders will hang on so desperately to something they know isn’t the best for an organization all in an effort to save face or avoid the humiliation of a poor decision. I have seen this happen where a group of leaders holds on so tightly to an antiquated way of thinking, they refuse any other ideas. Literally “my way or the highway,” even if that way will run us off a cliff in the near future.

Humility and vulnerability are seen as weaknesses. They are rarely recognized as the cornerstones which contribute to a substantial foundation on which all viewpoints are valued in an organization. Exhibiting these attributes as a leader creates a safe place for ideas to be shared from ALL stakeholders. They level the playing field. No single offering is worth more than another, across ranks and positions. As long as people can provide feedback openly, without fear of being belittled for less than enlightened thoughts, the best ideas are allowed to shine through. No egos, no top down decisions – straight progress. This can also help disburse the blame if a choice ends up being sub-optimal, likewise the celebrations are shared when things go well. Safety and/or accolades for all!

It is hard to admit when you are wrong, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Not only should we admit when we are wrong even though it is hard, but we should do it openly, and learn to laugh at ourselves when we fall short. Adam Grant talks about this in his new book “Think Again.” He stresses the importance of working through the temporary discomfort of failing and learning to find joy in your mistakes. You’re learning! He notes several tales of when people do this right and wrong in this book. It is an excellent read, or listen (he narrates this one himself). I highly recommend it.

As leaders, admitting when we are wrong and exhibiting this behavior to those we lead and influence, both personally and professionally, is a more honest and productive way to be. It allows us to approach problems head on and deal with them constructively and comprehensively. Since we aren’t trying to constantly cover up a mistake to save our image or ego, we are open to numerous viewpoints and ideas which might enrich our environment in new ways. Promoting vulnerability and humility can help us learn from our mistakes, creates a psychologically safe space for a wide range of idea sharing, and paves a way to doing the next right thing. I encourage all leaders to foster this practice in our organizations to create a more stable footing for the future.

I would love for you to come with me on my blogging journey!

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Who is your administrator, and what do they do?

Administrators make all industries run. They are the people who coordinate daily activities, manage finances, and conduct complex clerical functions. They are editors, advisors, chief organizers, master troubleshooters, confidants and have the uncanny ability to anticipate the needs of their stakeholders, while maintaining a friendly office environment for those they serve so the leadership in turn can be freed up to make the important decisions and engage in higher level activities. They do this ALL whilst they are also parents, partners, mentors, and side hustlers. They are ultimate multitaskers.

This group of people is routinely seen as those who make things run, but how often are they really SEEN for all the WORK they actually do? How often are they referred to as secretaries (steno pool anyone)? How many of them are tasked with getting the morning coffee started before beginning their actual daily tasks? How often are they the informal dumpster for anything that went wrong on any given day?

Don’t get me wrong, I like my morning coffee just as much as the next person, however I am more than capable of making it myself. In my role, I lead a group of extremely talented, dedicated, and sometimes frustrated individuals who show up daily to support those with more credentials, status, or higher level responsibilities. While I certainly do not mean to discredit executive leadership, as they are the reason administrators exist, I do intend to raise awareness and start a discussion on this often overlooked class of people. I have been there, and risen through the ranks to achieve my current status. Because I know what it is like to be in their shoes, I have a unique perspective and sincere appreciation for all that they do.

I am starting this blog in an effort to raise awareness about the lifecycle and lifestyle of an administrator.

What do we do in the situations where administrators are so underappreciated or under recognized that it starts to affect their performance? How do you motivate a team that is overworked in this environment? How does a leader stay motivated to keep the rest of the cogs turning? I have been there. I AM there. I walk a line of buffering decisions and policies made by people who are far removed from my team who are the ones implementing and standing on the front lines of those decisions. It isn’t easy, but the bottom line is, my team is worth it.

I am hopeful that admins everywhere will be encouraged to reach out and join me in understanding and celebrating their accomplishments. I want them to feel empowered to LEAN IN where they are, and let their ideas be heard. I did it, it was humbling, and I learned that HUMILITY is the cornerstone of my leadership (more on that later.)

Let’s start a movement!