What glass ceiling?

Or, the power of perception

The glass ceiling is an obvious reality for some, a concept for others – for women in leadership, it’s the former – for men leaders perhaps the latter.

Business-Woman-VisionA few years ago I started mentoring as part of a global volunteer organisation. During the selection interview, it was agreed that I would focus on mentoring professional women; not only because I’ve been a feminist since I was a little girl (I just didn’t know there was a name for demanding equality) but also because I’ve been a communication professional for numerous years, and worked with many leaders.
As such, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the extraordinary. And all three are irrespective of gender.
I still learn about leadership every day – from my own journey, experience, reading, listening and very much from being a mentor.
I would like to share 3 sets of observations relating to mentoring women in – or on the road to leadership, and some of the hurdles commonly encountered.

Don’t get stuck: trust the vision, not the plan.
‘Trust the vision, not the plan’ has been my motto for so many years it has become ingrained in everything I do, in my personal life as well as my career. It’s the advice I give my mentees when they feel stuck:
It has the power to turn every opportunity into a stepping stone and every set back as a bouncing board. 
For example, Clarissa, one of my mentee, felt completely at a loss because her next career plan didn’t shape out. Instead of being offered the higher job grade and a team to lead as in the goal set by herself at this point in her career, she was offered a side move in a different part of the company. She felt she was side-stepped, not valued and losing control of her career, slowing down rather than progressing. 
She had a plan, not a vision. 
We spent time on articulating her vision: being successful for Clarissa meant becoming a thought leader, an inspiration for her team and peers, and becoming a mum. 
Clarissa eventually welcomed her career move, as she could place it in the perspective of her own vision. She then

She had a plan, not a vision. 
We spent time on articulating her vision: being successful for Clarissa meant becoming a thought leader, an inspiration for her team and peers, and becoming a mum. 
Clarissa eventually welcomed her career move, as she could place it in the perspective of her own vision. She then realised what this new assignment could do for her: it would provide her with a wider perspective on the company, equipping her with the knowledge and exposure that would prepare her best for the role of leadership she had in sight, and making space for her role as a mum the way she wanted.

A plan will always get setbacks, u-turns, or stall, while a vision will always guide you towards who you want to be. Clarissa’s journey to her envisioned success is well underway.

Sometimes, it’s not what you think it is
Frustration is a recurrent element of many mentoring conversations. Career perceived too slow, as above, or it can be about not feeling heard or recognised by the management. Lin, a Chinese national based in China, had a critical role in the delivery of technology component and led a team of twenty. However, she had problems being invited to meetings or being included in conversations with her management based in the USA, to the point she thought they were thinking of firing her.
Still, her management was inclusive with respect to her time zone when they set-up global meetings and once a year she was invited to the USA for strategy day. Then she was back to China feeling like an outcast again. Lin told me; ‘I don’t understand why they are not interested in what I’m doing, or what my team delivers, we contribute significantly to their bottom line.’
What Lin wanted was more respect, and she was waiting for her efforts to be recognised. As for the USA management, as she found out after a few mentoring assignments, they were very satisfied with her and her team and expected her to promote them and her work.

Both expectations didn’t meet, not because of management antagonisms, or lack of appreciation, but because of West-East culture differences as we found out in the course of our mentoring sessions. It was a true eye opener for Lin, and I know she felt happier about her position having realised that. However, changing her behaviour in becoming actively visible was too far out of her comfort zone, and we developed other tactics to engage her management in a two-ways working relation.

Stay true to yourself
I was once told, to become a leader I had to emulate the one I admired the most. At first, I understood I would have to demonstrate similar style and qualities. Then it quickly became evident that I admired a variety of leaders, each with different styles. So, rather than slipping into an unhealthy multiple personalities pattern, I concluded that only one style would work: mine, for true authenticity. This is after all, what some of my day to day job entails, helping leaders to be authentic.

We can link leadership types to gender differences, but in fact, leadership styles vary more according to culture and personality than to gender stereotypes. And this is very comforting. Successful male leaders are just successful leaders, and there is room for all types.
Leaders can be introvert, extrovert, they might step back and delegate, or they might want to be hands-on, they might thrive in a conflict situation, or prefer conversations, they might want consensus or decide alone upon feedback. There is no qualitative judgment there, it just is. And the qualities you might choose to develop as a leader need to agree with who you are as a person.

Finding out what leadership traits made them feel authentic triggered so much confidence in some mentees that they felt they could tackle any situations, from public speaking to difficult conversations – and they did. What is your strength as a leader?

What glass ceiling?woman
I recently came to a conclusion – or rather, consideration – that women have invented the infamous glass ceiling. And it takes efforts to reach towards a glass ceiling that is only a moving target, as we keep setting our bar higher while different kinds of hurdles keep altering our perception.
Why inflict this on ourselves? There is a gap of course, but there is a glass ceiling only when we want to see one.

We just need to step back once in a while, pause, congratulate ourselves, regroup on the vision. Women don’t always take the time to consider they made it as indeed, there are only a few of them to enjoy the view through the thick glass. But making it a gender glass bubble, feeling constricted by our own interpretations won’t help either: reach beyond the glass ceiling accepted mindset and jump through the looking glass of leadership. You’re entitled.

(Mentees’ names have been changed)

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