work life

Where Are All The Mentors?

I love people of my gender.  I love being a woman.  I listen to the original cast album of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and belt out ‘I’m a Woman’ with pride of ownership (as a side note, I never liked Helen Reddy’s  ‘I Am Woman’..what can I say?  It’s a taste thing).  I applaud our ability to balance conflicting priorities, the way we check in with each other when someone is having a tough time and how we ask good questions.  I am constantly impressed with how hard we’re willing to work on our relationships, career paths and still remember birthdays.  I like how we think and how we love.  And I’m calling us out.  Meet me at Starbucks at noon.

What is it about women at work?  Where are the mentors for young women?  Why aren’t we bringing our younger colleagues along with the same commitment with which we focused our efforts on our own growth?  Yes, this is a generalization – don’t get defensive if it doesn’t resonate with you.  Nonetheless, I submit that there are fewer successful women directing their attention to those just beginning their climb up the ladder than there are women who will strategically place the heel of their stiletto on those manicured hands if they get too close.  Hattie McDaniel once said that “…there are only eighteen inches between a pat on the back and a kick in the rump”.  I watched this happen all the time at the firm.  Women protesting the paucity of female leaders, decrying the absence of opportunities and protecting their areas of expertise with the ferocity of a nursing lioness.  Classic approach avoidance  – ‘come here – no, go away’.

I get it – perhaps it took more work for us to get ahead.  Perhaps we escalated professionally without the guiding hand of another woman and with a man’s hand groping our butts.  It can make a person jaded, territorial and defiant – all with good reason – but why do other women bear the brunt?  I have had a supervisor harass me sexually and watched as women in more powerful positions than mine shake their heads with disgust, pat my shoulder with sympathy and do nothing to help me stop it.   Ironically, the person who took action was a man.  My best professional role models and most ardent mentors were men.  I have been honored to work with some of the brightest women in the legal profession and marvel at their passivity when asked to share their experience in a meaningful way with younger women.

I think there are a lot of reasons for this, including our fundamental ambivalence with competition.  When competing with men, the permission is overt and our actions will parallel theirs.  Men are comfortable with competition and reflect that comfort from an early age.  In these situations we can explicitly acknowledge that regardless of how level the playing field may or may not be, we will be formidable opponents, and will go toe-to-toe to capture the flag.  We aren’t comfortable competing with other women – there’s too much wrapped up in the fine print of the rules.  We are supposed to ‘play nicely’ even if we don’t like our playmates.  Girls clamor for friendship and affiliation.  They want to be part of an accepted group, regardless of their feelings for these cohorts.  Thus the schadenfreude of a homecoming queen stepping on her dress and tearing it, the most popular girl being ‘outed’ as a bitch.  As much as we feel for their exposure, we love it.  So when we share a professional arena, we compete with a complicated, implicit agenda.  We want to win and don’t necessarily trust that another woman can complement our efforts without simultaneously diminishing us.  We embrace our colleagues with our fingers crossed behind their backs.

We can and should do more.  At the end of the day. wouldn’t we want this for our daughters, nieces, grandchildren?  To benefit from the guidance offered by successful, experienced women who have climbed the ladder and know where the stress points are, which areas require gloves to avoid getting splinters and what to do when one slips and falls (as we all inevitably have).  Can we move past our history to enhance another woman’s future?  We can – we’re that good.  We’re women.

life lessons

Looking Backwards And Forwards – Briefly

We were packing to fly home from Florida yesterday morning, when I heard a news item concerning pieces of an errant Soviet satellite expected to crash into the earth’s atmosphere later in the day.  Of course, they didn’t know when or where – two of the more seminal bits of data I was taught were necessary when reporting factual information – just that it was coming.

Well, wouldn’t it just be my luck.  Some people fly back and forth from Fort Lauderdale all the time, playing on their iPads or watching a movie.  One return flight and we would be destroyed by some feral piece of metal appearing literally out of nowhere.  My closet was a mess, I hadn’t left enough chicken for the dogs, my son and daughter-in-law needed to get back to their own house and I had a hair appointment on Thursday.  I was going to be identified by the DNA found in my grey roots.  How embarrassing.  Who do you call when the timing of such events is just not good?

We certainly don’t get any do-overs on our days.  Nor do we get to cancel cosmic appointments which we can’t calendar and over which we have no control.  I face my date with middle age with great reluctance even though I’ve been on this date for a few years now and intend to extend this phase until I’m well into my sixties (and then I’ll call it post-middle age).  I would love to get everything lifted and tightened without compromising my ability to raise my eyebrows, smile broadly and laugh a lot.  True, it takes my thighs ten seconds to catch up with the rest of me once I stand still, parts of my body hurt in ways I never imagined and I haven’t partied like it’s 1999 since 1992.  Yet, I still think I’m going to go on forever and somehow none of this will get any worse, so it’s ok.

Am I wistful for a younger me?  I suppose so – certainly in terms of my energy level, comfort in 4 inch heels and the ability to rebound after a rough night.  I miss riding horses (hard to do with a fused spine), driving to the beach and back in the middle of the night with my night owl newborn and watching the sunrise.  I miss the breathlessness of youth without the need for either an inhaler or under eye concealer.

In other ways – not at all.  I am with the man I still want to be with after all these years (let’s not discuss that part of my youth that it took me to get here), my kids and daughters-in-law are amazing, talented and fun adults to totally adore and hang out with, I feel less hysterical and a skosh wiser.  On most days I really do appreciate the gifts I’ve been given – the ability to truly care and listen to other peoples’ stories, give a giggle and get a grin, not worry too much about the day-to-day dramas that aren’t going to matter to me in five years.  And to love those I love really, really hard – and just as importantly, to have their love.

I don’t always feel this way, though I have been called a Pollyanna for far less.  I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow.  But to close this loop the space junk fell into the Pacific, I haven’t straightened out my closet and my roots will receive their highlights and lowlights on Thursday.


No One Calls It Work For Nothing

There are certain immutable truths I’ve learned about working with others.  I also believe that everyone knows them, few people practice that which they know and none of these concepts reflect untapped genius on my part.  It amazes me when I am consulting and/or speaking with people frustrated by their colleagues, supervisors, etc, that I am met with enthusiastic agreement and surprise.  Not to shoot myself in the foot, but people shouldn’t be paying for this information – they know it already.  Please don’t misunderstand, I appreciate and enjoy every professional opportunity I’m provided – truly I do.  Sometimes though I wonder what the workplace would look like if we assumed our responsibilities with the common sense already in our possession.

1.  Everyone is in the middle of the hourglass.  Everyone feels that no matter which way the hourglass is turned, they’re getting sand on their head.  And they are.  Everyone has to answer to someone and/or entity above and below them.  It may be unpleasant, but no one really ever moves from that spot – regardless of how high up the food chain you get.

2.  Email can be great.  It can also be enervating, a massive time drain and a manipulative medium to hide behind.  How many times are emails sent to avoid a discussion, to cover one’s butt (which tangentially is a very funny visual to me) or to lob a problem onto someone else’s court?  The back and forth exchange becomes comical after awhile, and worse still nothing gets done.  We employed the ‘M’ rule at the firm – if emails involved more than two exchanges, the writers had to speak with each other to ensure shared clarity and come to closure.  I told you this was simple.  At the risk of sounding like a typical boomer, there really is something to be said for the human voice.  Inflection is a wonderful complement to understanding another, emoticons be damned.

3.  What if the word “manager” was removed from every position title where supervision of people was a requirement?  Processes are managed, time is managed or mismanaged; people aren’t.  Perhaps we could substitute the word “developer” in its stead.  If each supervisor saw himself/herself as responsible for the professional development, enhancement and growth of those with whom they work, I am confident companies would see tangible ROI in recruitment and retention.  The highly valued companies with the most outstanding employees, provide continuous learning opportunities, mentorships, cross-training – and their supervisors, managers, directors and c-level officers are held accountable for the effectiveness of these programs in their objectives and compensation.

4.  If you’re too busy to take care of your people, you need to re-think what you’re doing.  It really isn’t complex.  It’s your first priority.

5.  I joined a newly minted HR Manager at her first firm wide HR meeting.  The introduction to the meeting involved each manager admitting what they most disliked about their job.  Her response? “The people”.  What made this event even more cringe-worthy was her passionate reiteration of this view.  The laughter in the room was uncomfortable.  I think I hid somewhere under the conference table.

This one is easy – if you don’t like working with people, you should consider a career where you have no responsibility for their professional well-being.  That may be a bit cut and dried – and yeah, it probably is, but this is after all a blog.  In short, you can’t fake it – I’m sure you’ve seen as many people try it as I have.

6.  If risk mitigation is important to you, try fostering trust (see #5).  Typically people who feel invested in their workplace, who feel pride of ownership in their work and loyalty to those around them don’t engage in unethical and/or illegal behavior.  I recognize that systems get hacked, funds are embezzled, time is inflated and my intent is not to minimize the precautions that organizations must take to self-protect.  Nonetheless, skipping these first steps on the preventive ladder increases the likelihood of serious slips (to maintain the analogy).

7.  Laugh – take work seriously and take yourself lightly.  Enjoy what you do and remember what it is you want to be remembered for.  I forgot this shortly after I retired from the firm.  After more than twenty one years it was stunning to realize how easily I was replaced. For a few weeks I struggled to adjust to the absence of emails, phone calls, etc.  I had a pretty nice pity party for myself with no guests.  Honestly?  I had to get over myself.  I’m still in touch with many people; I’m no longer in touch with some I thought I would be close to forever.

At the end of the day, I have been incredibly lucky – I had a ball, had an amazing boss who is still an amazing friend, had some lousy bosses who taught me which of my buttons could be pressed and how to protect them, worked in an environment that embraced my chronic irreverence and still trusted me to mentor hundreds of people.  All of that said, I don’t want to be remembered for what I did at the office.  I want to be remembered for being a great mom, wife, sister, friend.  I hope the people at the firm remember my exhortations that the greatest professional success is realized when it stops being about you and starts being about everyone else.  I hope they remember to smile – God knows a work day is l-o-n-g, might as well enjoy it as much as you can.


A Little Credit, Please

I’d like to put in a good word for the baby boomers.  Not too big of a surprise of course, boomers like to put in good words for themselves.  It’s part of our gestalt.  Over the years, I’ve spoken to many audiences about appreciating the benefits of multi-generational dynamics and let me tell you, we’re not getting a whole lot of love out there.  We aren’t retiring soon enough, we love to work in teams as long as we’re the captains, we can talk a problem to death and never make a damn decision in the name of building consensus.  We also have unrealistic expectations of the generations that succeed us – what is ‘work/life balance’ and why do you consider it a priority before you spend years as out of whack as we were?  We like to meet; you like to IM, text and abbreviate all that we enjoy sharing for hours on end.  Sigh…it’s not easy being a boomer these days.

Lest you roll your eyes and decry my gross attempt to defend the virtues of my generation, let me mention some of our significant contributions.  It is humbling without question.

If it wasn’t for us, there’d be no Deepak Chopra.  Would Barnes and Noble be able to devote shelf upon shelf to self-help books?  Would ‘self-help’ even be a topic for discussion?  We believe in bettering ourselves you see, and we are prepared to spend a pretty penny in the process.  With each decade that passes we create new markets – that’s impressive.  In fact, we were the first generation that was directly targeted by mass-marketers.  Wail til you see what enhancements are made to ‘hoverarounds’ now that some of us are getting up there.

We believed that Spandex was a privilege, not a birthright.  I don’t think we are to blame for its popularity.  Not to say that we didn’t have our sartorial blunders – construction boots and overalls hardly rose to the definition of a ‘Glamour-Do’.  We did however like to match our knee socks and sweaters (and wear Bass weejuns – a cute look), wear colored tights with adorable Mia Farrow-like smock dresses and introduced bell bottoms (now referred to as wide leg pants).  We collected I.D. bracelets from our pubescent boyfriends – reinforcing the belief that jewelry is always a lovely expression of affection and accessories make an outfit.

We gave you Barbie and Ken in all their iterations.  Soon to come of course is Barbie and Ken in the assisted living facility, with their aide Skipper.  What can I say?  We continue to break new ground.

I think it reflects way too much hubris to take credit for Michael Bolton, so I’ll move on.

Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, The Beatles, Lou Reed, The Doors – I could continue but you see the inestimable talent of the generation.  I concede that Iron Butterfly’s lyrics left much to be desired.  We also pioneered writing journals and love poems in all lower case and chanted how war wasn’t healthy for children and other living things.  And if you think that ‘multi-tasking’ is a new phenomenon, may I just say that I could listen to music, do my homework (allegedly), obsess over love gone wrong and talk on the phone with my friend JoAnn for hours.  All of this without sustaining permanent neck damage or seriously compromising my matriculation.

Certainly these examples are but a small sampling of our accomplishments….I offer this to you as a heartfelt testament to the boomers and the love we desperately seek.  Fret not my fellow mid-lifers, we are totally cool – if only in our own minds.