Women in top leadership positions remaining astonishingly small, even today, years after I sat in the C-suite of two major advertising agencies. Today, I’m often asked what’s holding women back? Why after years in the workplace, are women still so seldom found in the corner office?
I believe women assume success is about the performance, about working harder and harder, and achieving good and measurable results.
Hard work is important, of course, but it is never the tiebreaker when management is looking for a candidate to promote. Everyone does good work. What we in management talk about in those meetings — where the work itself gets about a two minute review — is your interior capacity, your tolerance for risk, your energy, your intensity, your reactions and emotional hot buttons. Obviously we deciders don’t know a lot about all these inner qualities, so we guess.
Doesn’t that scare you a bit? People taking the measure of you without really knowing you? There’s only one solution: You have to know the full measure of yourself and then teach them the size of you.
The question is, how do you get to know who you are, especially as the people at the top are looking for these less-tangible qualities they associate with leadership?
One sure way to discover the “stranger within,” that part of you that comes to the fore when challenges or trouble hit, is to court that kind of trouble and let it be your teacher.
In my first years as a pioneering woman trying to master the art of advertising; the all-powerful clients, the strange creative, the precise media teams. I was a star performer at J. Walter Thompson. I really aced the work: getting the strategy right, the ads sold, the messages delivered widely. Failure was not on my dance card. I was promoted six times in five years as my company bio boasted.
Then I hit a wall.
I was hired to be the CEO of a broken smaller ad agency. The problems, which woke me at 4 a.m. every morning, were gut wrenching: huge debt, druggies and drinkers in key positions, clients who had lost faith. This was not about my work performance. This was about my interior tensile strength. As things worsened, I had to admit I couldn’t do it. I was so swamped by fear. When another job offer came my way, I was faint with relief. Ready to flee the scene, I happened to read an anonymous review from the agency teams. They called me fearless! The fact that they believed in me more than I believed in myself actually gave me the courage to truly examine of what I was made, beyond my work performance and my resume. It was time to learn who I was from the inside out.