This article was recently published in the Alumni Newsletter of The Leadership Ascent. I participated in this profound program in 2001, when it was called the Women’s Leadership Institute. Earlier this year, The Leadership Ascent received HR.com’s Global Leadership 500 Excellence Award.
A Call for Work & Life Integration
Lean in, lean out, have it all or don’t even try – what’s a woman to do?! I have to admit that part of me is really weary of the barrage of articles telling me how I should manage my life and career. I resent being thrown into a grab bag with every other working woman, having so many “experts” tell me what I should be doing to do it “right,” and the presumption that if I just follow their advice the corporate world will finally become that aspirational workplace where the human spirit can thrive.
On balance, though, I am glad we are finally talking about it. At least the dialogue has shifted, albeit subtly, to a point where most articles start from the assumption that, “OK, we get it. We really do need more women in leadership positions.” Though far from universally accepted, most credible corporations have moved beyond questioning the value of diverse leadership to talk more about “the why.”
So it’s only naturally that the “experts” are now focused on prescribing the approaches women need to follow in order to be more successful, which they assume means to reach the top of the corporate ladder and thrive. Those who know me know that I read these articles voraciously. In Strengths Finder terms, my highest strength is Input, so I eagerly consume as much information as I can get my hands on – especially that related to topics for which I have a passion.
What has surprised me most is not that the various books on women’s leadership have different points of view, but how poorly those points of view are understood and reported by journalists (and I’m using that term very loosely to include all the people who “report” on content, from reporters to bloggers to heavily followed generators of LinkedIn & Facebook content). Many summed up Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as, “Women, it’s your own damn fault.” Indra Nooyi’s recent interview was abbreviated to, “It’s miserably hard. Mary well & pick up your own milk.” The lessons shared by the two women are largely portrayed as being wildly different from each other. I saw them as very similar attempts by two of America’s most successful corporate women to reach a hand back to say, “Yes, it’s hard. It’s been hard for me, too. I can’t make it easy for you, but I can support you. Here are some of my experiences and the lessons I’ve learned from them. Take what works for you, and don’t give up.”
One of the questions I’m most often asked by younger women is how I have managed to maintain balance. Well, let me be honest – I don’t have children, and I do recognize how much easier that makes the task. We all have multiple demands on our time and our hearts, and regardless of which demands we each juggle, we have to make decisions every day that will affect the level of balance and harmony we feel.
My fellow Wise Woman, Teresa Taylor, in her book The Balance Myth, proposes the concept of work-life integration vs. balance. She argues against the assumption that work and life are separate worlds, which must be kept completely separate, thus forcing us to choose between the two as we allocated every precious minute. Instead, she challenges us to realize that work is a part of our life. We can then integrate the two, which allows us to bring the best person we are at home to work, and the best person we are at the office home with us. When work & life are integrated, you don’t balance them, you just live. So your child’s recital, your workout, and your friend’s birthday party, are no longer distractions. They are the things that enrich your life, give you energy, and help you to feel whole, thus making it easier to be fully present when you are at work.
Sheryl O’Loughlin, the former CEO of Clif Bar & Company, notes that we are taught in the business world to disconnect the personal separate from the professional, & that after years of struggling to perform this separation she realized it was unproductive. She learned that bridging the personal and the professional and bringing her authentic self to both worlds allowed her to unleash more powerful creativity, because she was more sensitive to her customers’ needs, and to be a more inspirational leader, because she was more in touch with what motivated her team.
I’ve followed a very similar philosophy throughout my career. It doesn’t completely eliminate the moments when I feel that there are more demands pulling me in opposing directions than there are hours in the day. It doesn’t mean I never feel stressed, or that there’s never any tension between competing demands. But I choose to use that tension to fuel deeper awareness and new ideas. I choose to take responsibility for my choices, to set my own standards for success and happiness, and to honor them.
I love the way Marilyn Nagel framed the issue in a recent blog post: “I measure my success on what I have done and what I am doing with my life, how I contribute to those around me, how I show up and how I make a difference in the world, and there is nothing that limits my success when I define it this way. “
The Leadership Ascent gave us a lot of tools to help us stay in touch with our values, and give our authentic selves a voice. The Leadership Investment gives us an incredible support network to reach out to when integrating our worlds feels most difficult (I’ve lived away from Colorado now for 7 years, and I still regularly leverage this network). I encourage you to give yourselves a break, and to reach out to each other as you integrate your lives.