Sunday, August 29, 2010

Washington Post- Leadership's next frontier: Changing how we use our words and bodies

"In Japan, we say there are three genders: Men, women, and American women," joked the head of our Tokyo office. It was 1992 and he was trying to inoculate me for my first week of Japanese business meetings - against any worry that I might be held to local female standards: being deferential toward men (not good at that), speaking in a soft, high voice (ditto), serving tea (spills likely). I laughed, thankful that he was giving me license to be myself - and thankful that I was a member of the third sex, American women, unburdened by the gender codes of traditional societies.

This summer, The Daily Show's "women" kerfuffle reset my blithe sense that we're so much freer of cultural baggage. Top female ex-staffers said they'd felt "ignored and dismissed" and the knee-jerk debate about sexism ensued. Is there a more useful way to look at these all-too-common rows?

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers offers one alternate frame. The book shows how the weight of culture can bring down even planes. Cultures laden with hierarchy, it turns out, have bad crash records because junior officers feel unable to voice concerns. Korean Airlines (KAL) was the worst - stunning the world with a string of crashes because their flight crews could not speak up. From the black boxes of doomed planes, Gladwell reveals an alarming truth. Social norms can be insidious, costly - and sometimes stronger than the will to live.

How did KAL fix this problem? They changed the language of the cockpit - to English. By changing the words spoken, KAL re-set the tone in the cockpit and gave subordinates a way to make themselves heard.

While U.S. women have cast off many a mental girdle, we've held onto social standards that cause a lot of trouble. With the help of the guys around us, we continue to act out norms that generate unhappiness between men and women - and make it harder for us to work together.

After many late nights, I'd flown cross country as the junior member of a restructuring team. Our client was a bank on the verge of collapse and our job was to save it. In the meeting, my boss glowered. The bank's leaders argued among themselves rather than responding to our analysis. When it was my turn to speak, I tried to ease the tension by putting context around our numbers and using a warm tone. The bank's CEO ignored what I was saying to instead squabble with a board member next to me - for 10 minutes. Yielding to the will of the client, I sat back and attempted a patient smile.

"You lost control of the meeting," my boss said gruffly on the way to the airport. "You should have looked the CEO in the eye and said, 'You're wrong! You're missing the point.' Worse, you were wordy and you smiled at him, like it was OK that he interrupted you." I didn't recall my boss saying anything so bold and wasn't sure how effective I, the team minion, would have been with a stare-down. But my boss made me think: Why all the words and why had I smiled?

Researching Getting to 50/50, I learned that women speak an average of 21,000 words a day while men use a mere 7,000. (My husband says I'm above average and should shield him from my verbal tsunami; but studies say female verbal supremacy is really a form of deference - that we feel obliged to explain ourselves more than men do). Data also shows we women more often tilt our heads and smile encouragingly because we've been socialized to think this is the polite thing to do. And we wait patiently for our turn to speak. And don't retaliate when interrupted.

So when women say they don't feel heard, should we tell them to act more like men? Or should men drop the dominance bit - and learn to like listening? Both would help. Men and women need to get on the same page about what's "normal," so we work together more constructively.

It's not generational, either. Talking with a panel of current business school students, a female lecturer said "You know, I make a big effort to call on women in my class. But it seems like the guys still dominate the conversation. Why is that?" The female students had an interesting take: It's not that the women are too quiet, it's that the men are too noisy. "Guys in our class feel free to express an opinion when they haven't read the case. They have no shame. Women think that's irresponsible and don't speak unless they have something valuable to say."

When a graduate school professor was asked why there weren't more female speakers in his classes, he had a simple answer: "Well, men bang down my door to come present their ideas. Women seem to be waiting to be asked."

To get beyond mere anecdotes, check out The OpEd Project, an effort committed to closing one specific gender gap: Men submit eight times more newspaper opinion pieces than women do. Sitting in an OpEd Project seminar, I saw women who are tenured professors, leaders in business, medicine and law reveal an extreme inability to utter a simple sentence: "I am an expert in X because Y" as in "I am an expert in cloning because I invented some of the first successful techniques." "It's so male to do that!" a highly accomplished woman said. "It sounds like you are putting yourself forward."

Catherine Orenstein, the group's founder, says this is common among the thousands of people who've gone through her program - that even world-renown women experience discomfort applying the word "expert" to themselves in a way men don't.

Korean Airlines imported a new language to fix its cockpit culture problems. Changing language - the one that divides men and women - can go a long way to fix glitches in gender culture too. To start, let's think twice about common phrases that widen male/female gaps, instead of shrinking them.

"She's aggressive." Before I worked for her, this is how a guy friend described one of my favorite bosses. The woman, I learned, was indeed vocal - and incredibly kind. I've since heard experts say there's one trait that defines successful women in business: they're louder. So no matter how uncomfortable it makes people, let's encourage as much volume in our daughters as we do in our sons.

"My wife stays home; it's better that way."
I once hired a lawyer to review an employment contract. Unprompted he cautioned me: "You don't really want this job, do you? When both parents have demanding jobs, kids don't do well." While I was paying for this inaccurate advice (real facts here), many women tell us they get it for free - often from well-intentioned co-workers. No matter what you believe about kids, if you wouldn't urge a man to back away from a job, please don't suggest it to a woman.

"My husband can't multi-task." "Learned incompetence" is debilitating for all of us. When we use words that excuse a man from knowing how to handle household chores and children (or a woman from knowing how to handle an oil change, the TV remote or money), we set ourselves up for collisions that could be avoided.

And every time we apply a common language to men and women, we nudge the culture, inch by inch, away from double standards.

But, there's a silent language that we can each change instantly - if we know it exists. At Stanford Graduate School of Business, leadership professor Deborah Gruenfeld teaches a course called "Acting with Power," where students learn to look for and use non-verbal cues of high and low status. Guess what? Most high-power behaviors, like claiming space, bold gestures, and interrupting, are typically seen as "male." Acts of "playing low", including keeping limbs close to the body, glancing away and nodding encouragement, are often thought of as "female."

Gruenfeld points out that, when it comes to having influence, the quality of the argument is often less important than the status of its proponent. And status is signaled in milliseconds by each of us when we walk in a room. So who gets heard is also a function of the language our bodies convey. "The students in my classes come in feeling trapped by the ways they have learned to play gender roles," she says. "But they learn very quickly that what feels natural is just over-learned, and that different work roles call for different kinds of physical actions, regardless of gender. To succeed in a hierarchy, you need to be able to play both high and low. There are real benefits to both."

As we try to find a lingua franca both genders can use, new research offers some norm-shifting ideas. Whether you're a man or woman, putting your body in positions that speak power makes you feel good. See yourself as the executive in the boardroom who "crests the table with his feet, fingers interlaced behind his back, elbows pointing outwards" and amazing things happen. Your testosterone (confidence) rises, cortisol (stress) falls, you're more likely to take risk and feel "in charge." Who doesn't like that? So let's encourage our girls to put their feet up - and make changing the language both comfortable and fun.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Gandhi for Gals – the Beauty of Thick Skin

New on my firm's trading floor, I was glad to know at least one person. Derek had been a year ahead of me in college and was now a junior T-Bill trader. One day, I walked up behind Derek's desk to ask a question. His head was turning from side to side checking the multiple screens in front of him. Suddenly, he shouted an expletive. Expletives continued to erupt for the next several seconds. Derek's boss walked up, less worried about the money being lost than something else. "Derek, don't talk like that in front of a lady," he said. The boss was 30. I was stunned.

On trading floors, like navy ships, colorful speech is standard. I was accustomed to bad language: it was a vice I suffered too. Letting off steam with a few foul words came quite naturally to me and seemed harmless. Derek's boss didn't know that I, for good or ill, shared more with Rahm Emanuel than Scarlett O'Hara when it came to cursing. "It's an honest mistake," I heard myself saying, "but I am NOT a lady!"

While a true statement (I flunk Miss Manners daily, on many counts), my response looked nutty. The boss was only trying to be kind. But I was so mad, I couldn't help myself.

I've huffed and puffed about many things I should have blown off. So I could only nod when I heard this wisdom from an executive recruiter for C-suites and board seats: "Thick skin. That's what more women need."

But not just one layer. To get to the top, women likely need three.

Let's start by shedding the soft veneer we're encouraged to grow as girls - for something more battle-ready. This month on Harvard Business Review's site, management expert Jeff Pfeffer points out that women won't get equal power until they project equal toughness.

"We've ruined her," said a male friend about his tween daughter. He explained that while he and his wife bred a love of grit in their sons (rolling in mud, staring down bullies), they had indulged their daughter in little-girl-ness. Her nose was always wiped, her clothes never dirty. When the playground was rough, her parents would come to school and sort things out. "She spends hours crying about wisecracks, what's she going to do when someone yells at her at work!"

I assured my friend that most girls find their inner-street-fighter soon enough; that like many of us, raised to value niceness, she'd learn its drawbacks and find the ability to push back or laugh it off (though I'm still learning). In the name of kindness, we should nurture as much "tough guy" in our daughters as we do in our sons.

Girls also need a layer that boys don't - added protection to be successful outsiders, until we finally get comfortable with females wielding power as overtly as men do. Not long after I snapped at Derek's boss, I was assigned a mentor. This woman was the rarest of breeds, a female proprietary trader, Wall Street 1988. She took me to drinks and said, "You're going to be lonely. But you'll succeed if you want to." At the time, this wasn't particularly motivational. But the words stayed with me because they were true. And, unless progress accelerates, they will still be true when my daughter goes to work in 15 years.

While a lack of gal-pals is survivable, the second thick-skin layer is about more than warding off loneliness.I've always hung out with guys as much as women, so it never occurred to me that spending my career in mostly-male places could be a problem.

But when you're the only one of your kind in the room, there are no standard expectations - no one knows what they want from you. I got advice on all the many things I shouldn't be. "Young women should not be funny" - when I tried to ape (perhaps poorly) witty male superiors. "Try to be less squeaky and talk slower," was my colleague's brotherly prompt as we walked into client meetings. "Cut the 'professor' voice," said a favorite guy friend, when I carried on about topics I knew well. All good feedback. But how to be is hard to navigate when you're stuck zig-zagging between male and female norms.

As one of two women at an off-site, I watched my only female peer present to the group. Her approach to striking the right tone was to remove all affect from her voice. Predictably, no one listened. I got up to speak next but had forgotten to breathe. My fear of being a female flop rose so high I almost fell over. I clung to podium, painfully plodding, and jokeless. I've since learned to find the humor in these moments - and now know others share my sweaty palms.

Researching Getting to 50/50,
we found this issue has been well-studied. Columbia professor Claude Steele recently conducted a study showing that even female engineers (no strangers to being outnumbered by men), have higher heart rates, temperature and distraction when they are less than 25% of the room. Make the room gender-neutral and group results improve - women perform well and men perform no worse.

This isn't an argument for quotas in engineering or anywhere else. It is simply to point out that some environments will enhance our chances of success while others won't. Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, a creator of the Implicit Association Test, offers even more usable advice. If you can't fix your workplace, if you can't recruit your way to a more gender-neutral team, find other ways to surround yourself with evidence that you are not alone. To escape the cultural swamp, the one in our minds, Banaji puts famous women scientists on her screen saver and fills her office with reminders that human greatness is not bounded by sex or color.

Now, it's at that pinnacle - big power, money or fame - where women need a third shielding layer, like chainmail. What do I have in mind? How about Sarah Palin. I agree with Palin on very little, but her raw ambition makes me smile. As does her ability to walk right through flack - untouched by bi-partisan detractors and inconvenient facts. Let's get that super-strength body armor on the many talented women who lack it.

Jane, a neurosurgeon, was an expert in her field and held a big position at a major teaching hospital. She got pregnant at 40. Her male colleagues thought she'd lost her mind - that child creation and brain surgery didn't mix. She took six weeks off to recover from the birth and returned to the hospital game to resume her full schedule. But her boss had a different plan. "Your colleagues had extra work while you were out, you need to pay them back. I'm doubling your call schedule until that happens." You could see his point - her peers needed a break and she had caused the problem. But was this the optimal approach? With a six-week-old baby, feeling betrayed at work, Jane quit. What if she'd had Sarah's skin? She might have done a Mama Grizzly, bear hugged her boss and assured him she'd pay the time back - in a year, when she could see straight.

Women don't need a child to need the chainmail layer, just a man-sized set of dreams. The dean at a major professional school said, "It awes me how the knives come out. When a woman here is poised to beat out a male peer for a big job, some men will say things that just aren't true, it makes them uncomfortable that a woman could win."

Who wants to believe this? I don't. But then you start to see little things that say it might still be so. In liberal northern California, I watched my son's soccer game, in a league divided by age and gender. One parent said, "hey, wouldn't it be fun to have the boys play the girls?" Another replied, "yeah, but look at the girls, they're more focused - they'll clobber these guys. And some dads just won't deal well if their sons loose to girls." (Check out data collected by the National Science Foundation on the resistance we still have to seeing women as winners.)

What's the cure? Keep at it - think Gandhi for gals. A small man with a very thick skin moved minds (re-moved an empire) by helping people like him stand up for themselves, in the right way - again, and again, and again.

Leadership expert Jean Kahwajy tells women to "assume people are doing the best that they can." The trick Kahwajy says is learning to "receive," to hear what you don't want to hear and react in a positive way. So you have the energy to stand up for yourself - and for others.

"The senior guys I work for didn't want to promote Lynn to run a simple, local business," said a female executive who'd built her career (and sturdy shell) working at a big company. "They said Lynn didn't have enough experience to be in charge. But, weeks before, they'd made a man named Jack the leader of a complex, global business that he knew nothing about. So I said, 'Hmm, I'm trying to follow the logic here. Is it just that Jack is much smarter than Lynn?' The guys stopped, laughed, and gave Lynn her promotion."

With a strong hull, you feel safe to act on Gandhi's maxim: "An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching."

Friday, August 6, 2010

Hand a Congressman a Baby! --The Washington Post

In my early banking career, I oscillated between all-nighters and cross-country red-eyes. Not fun. But I enjoyed the delusion that these rookie years were the worst of it, that I was building life-long skills and endurance to face any test ahead. Then came kids.

Sensing my pre-child naivete, a few kind souls tried to open my eyes: "You won't have time to take a shower," said a friend who'd dodged bullets as a reporter and finished medical school with two infants. "Very tired, all the time, for years," my dad recalled, about starting out as a parent -- worrisome coming from a guy who'd survived foster care and World War II.

Still, I clung to that belief that it couldn't be that bad. Until a few months into working parenthood. Then, driving the highway to work one morning, exhausted after a string of bad nights, I had a weird cop fantasy: I imagined that a kindly patrolman pulled me over to give me a ticket - and an order: "Park your car, ma'am. Take a nap."

Last week, Vice President Biden's Middle Class Task Force reframed the problems of working parents "not as women's issues" but as "issues of middle class economic security." Great start.

Biden and Attorney General Holder vowed to collect better data on the working parent pay gap and better educate the public about laws to protect workers with kid duties. But can policy alone do the trick?

Only 25% of families have a parent taking care of things at home full-time. Why aren't the rest of us - the 75% of us responsible for both jobs and kids -- getting things fixed faster? Half the workforce is female. And eight-in-ten women become mothers. So primary care for children impacts at least 40% of workers at some point in their lives - and the majority if we acknowledge that many men are primary parents too.

My hunch is this: Compelling demographics aren't moving enough of us to action because we are flummoxed: Why and how should working parents change the workplace? Standing in the way of finding even basic solutions -- think paid leave, daycare, child sick days -- are a set of hazardous thoughts, sometimes unspoken, often emotional, that are hard to resist. I've fallen prey to at least three myself:

1.The underestimation: "Babies can't be that hard" (afflicting non- and pre-parents).

2.The overestimation: "Babies are infinitely hard," (suffered by new parents in the manic early years).

3.The exasperation: "A baby? Now?" (the look in the eyes of many bosses and co-workers, saying that having a baby is not convenient - ever).

First, it would help if we accurately talked about what it takes to bring new people into the world. While our children are a source of unspeakable joy, the process of raising them is not. "I'm so glad you'll have time to relax and bond with your baby," a non-parent said to me before my first maternity leave - the grittiness of 12-hours of daily breastfeeding and other post-partum charms invisible to both of us then.

Now we know: babies are just a wild amount of work, from the hurricane of infancy to croup and ear infections to pre-verbal tests of will and whining. After our first child recovered from hand-foot-and-mouth disease (which covered him in tiny painful blisters, making eating impossible and crying endless), my husband asked me: "Do you think the stork could deliver babies at age two?"

Second, let's admit inaccuracy can swing in the other direction -- that we parents can get a little nutty in the name of protecting our kids As a 20-something, I raised my eyebrows at overly fussy parents and vowed I'd be much more easy-going. Hah.

When a nurse hands you an infant and it's clear that you are actually responsible for another life, you find yourself succumbing to all sorts of scary ideas. There are plenty of bona fide threats to children, but the intensity of early parenthood can make it hard to draw the line between prudence and paranoia. I imagined an invisible army of microbes perpetually menacing my baby; I double sterilized bottles and used Purell in ways its makers never intended. My husband obsessed over SIDS, despite baby bumpers and doctor's assurances. He would get up at night to make sure our kids were still breathing.

As individuals, working parents can do a lot to help themselves - talking early and often about what's needed (and not) to raise the next generation. It's the third kind of hazardous thought - the workplace impulse to see kids as irksome - that Mr. Biden can help with most.

It's tough for me to confess, but the first time I saw a pregnant peer where I worked, the only words that came to mind were: "Why is she having a baby?" Child creation just didn't seem in the spirit of a hard-charging workplace.

Sadly, my sentiment then remains in the workplace today. Writing our book, Getting to 50/50, we learned how this view (that being a primary parent is incompatible with serious work) plays out in many venues today - including board rooms.

"What is she thinking?" a board member asked in a meeting a few years ago when he heard that a founder of the soon-to-be-public company was going on maternity leave. "She's thinking that she's 39," responded the only woman the room.

The board wrangled over whether the decision to reproduce meant the founder would be less focused on her job. Anticipating the worst, the board decided to re-allocate some of her pay to other executives - who weren't under suspicion for losing their edge to kids.

Research by Stanford professor Shelley Correll shows how all of us (men and women) list toward the belief that motherhood (aka primary parenthood) permanently drains commitment and competence from talented women. When a father of small kids is late or looks dazed in a meeting, we're more willing to assume it's an aberration, a passing phase, and he'll snap back to top form because he values his job. We give him the benefit of the doubt. Do we give women the same?

Biden's task force can do a lot to address the woeful miseducation of many people at the top. While only the minority of families have a parent at home, the majority of people who make the rules and set the tone at work come from these households.

In fact, the a Council on Contemporary Families paper recently pointed out that the mismatch between family cultures of . executives and the rest of the workforce is the largest blocker of sensible workplace policy.

Leaders with spouses at home need to stop assuming that this is normal - or necessarily desirable. Research shows that kids do at least as well when both parents work. Executives should also read the growing pool of business school research that further upends traditional thought: It says we get statistically higher results if we tell everyone (not just parents) to go home for dinner. That replacing 24/7 machismo with time out of the office yields better teamwork, better thinking and better output, according to the Harvard Business Review).

After spending a weekend with his kids alone, one male executive told me, "If every man in Congress had to do this, we'd have some very different laws." So let's give Mr. Biden a hand and do our part advancing the ball.

The next time a politician kisses a baby, let's tell him to hang on to the tyke for the weekend. And let's think of everyone we know who somehow missed the course in mano-a-mano kid management - our dads, brothers, uncles, buddies - and get them a multi-day childcare gig (solo flight, no helping hands allowed). Education can do a lot to turn dangerous thoughts into useful ones - and nothing teaches faster than a little baby bootcamp.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Perfectly Imbalanced

Three years ago, I was sitting at a Ladies Who Launch event, enjoying a rare day away from my just-turned one year old son. I was considering launching my business, and I wanted to see how these other women were doing it. I attended to be inspired, motivated and guided, but reflectively, I was also using the event as a reality check: do women really do this? Do they actually have babies AND have a full-time career? Are they happy? Do any of them obtain that much sought-after state of BALANCE?

And then, much to my delight, their keynote, Geraldine Laybourne, the creator of Nickelodeon and Oxygen Media, spoke these words:

"People often ask me how I stay balanced and I answer, 'I don't! I'm perfectly imbalanced!'" She went on to talk about how there are days or even weeks where it's all work. Then there are days or weekends that are all family. She said it's always 100% no matter what she's working on, so it's often "imbalanced" but that it's perfect for her, and it's how she's chosen to live her life. She doesn't not strive for a "balance" - she feels that's an impossible quest and you will just make yourself unhappy trying to do it.

Perfectly Imbalanced. This phrase was both freeing and scary to me. Freeing because I could actually see a path of happiness that didn't necessarily involve being a superwoman. Scary because it meant letting go of a mental model of perfection I'd created - some things might actually slip or be neglected while I was focusing on others. Was that really okay?

Three years later, I realize that the concept of "Perfectly Imbalanced" is actually a survival technique as well as a way of viewing life. When I'm having one of those days where I feel like work is getting neglected because of my kids, or my family is getting neglected because of work, I use the phrase as a mantra to keep me going..."I am perfectly imbalanced. It's all meant to be, and it's perfect."

The phrase also applies to what we are supporting in
Getting to 50/50. Many people, upon hearing the title, assume it's about splitting it down the middle - perfectly balancing work and home responsibilities between husband and wife. But 9.9/10, you are not splitting 50/50, but striking a perfect imbalance that considers everyone's short and long-term needs, and works for your unique situation.

Letting go of the notion of "balance", and ceasing all effort to obtain it, has allowed me to enjoy my perfectly imbalanced life of ever-shifting priorities. I see my days as a series of decisions that dictate how I am going to spend my time, vs. a prescription for the "right balance" of activities that ultimately never gets met. Viewing my life through this lens allows me to have a longer term view of my life that can be co-created with my husband - it's not about being perfectly balanced every day, but about being able to look back at my life and see that I was able to give proper focus when needed to the right things - sometimes that's family, sometimes it's career, and sometimes it's just me. And that yes, letting things slip can actually be the fastest path to happiness.

Rebecca Rodskog is a Change Management Coach and Consultant, an Actress, Speaker and Writer. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children.