The First Year Entrepreneur

Promoting Personal & Professional Wellness

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A Slightly More Personal Update

It’s taken me a long time to announce this news to our readers and to my whole professional circle, but it is time: My husband and I are expecting our first baby this June. We are overwhelmed by the support of our friends and family, and I think this kiddo is super blessed to be coming into the world loved by so many people!

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29 weeks pregnant

29 Weeks Pregnant

We are so excited to meet her, and I am facing a huge transition personally and professionally. It feels unique, and yet, is something that many (dare I say “most”) women do face! It allowed me extra perspective on the pros and cons of self-employment, to hear the stories of (and experience) discrimination in the work world, and to notice the change in how people “see” me, even in different environments (ex: the gym vs. the grocery store). It’s been a time for learning and growth (physically and intellectually).

This is also a part of why I have been so quiet on the FYE over the past few months- I have been more occupied than usual :) I have about 5 posts “in the hopper” ready to go, and my dear friend Amy has been kind enough to lend us her voice and expertise as well.

I will be on a complete maternity leave for 6 weeks, likely starting at the end of June and going through mid-August. After that, I will start to see my clients again and jump back onto the social media bandwagon. My hope is to have this time off be as smooth and painless as possible while allowing me some important time to get to know my daughter and learn the basics about living with sleeplessness, etc.

All of this leads to my second announcement:

We will be going through a “branding change”, if you will. The First Year Entrepreneur will get a new name and a new look. I am excited about this, and feel like it’s the headed in a wonderful direction! The content will remain the same, but with some extra room for other interesting topics. Until then, we will carry on as usual, and we will certainly keep you informed when we make our big shift.

Wishing you all a happy Spring.

Warmly,

Maureen

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Learning to Lead at the Bottom of the Totem Poll

I remember being that annoyingly optimistic college graduate who proudly accentuated every extracurricular achievement on her resume at job interviews. I proudly talked about my unique internship and the research I did with the University of Minnesota Psychology Department. Of course you can’t leave out a stellar GPA, Dean’s List achievements, and other awards or accomplishments one might receive during their undergraduate education. I remember this time fondly because of the way many of us feel when we land our first professional job. What happens to that confidence we felt when we reflected on all our achievements? We were able to talk with such ease about what we have done and proudly exclaim our success in those roles. So what happens on day one in the office when we are bombarded with feelings of inferiority, doubt and fear? How do we get that confidence and feeling of adequacy back?

My professional experience includes developing and coaching employees. I have been blown away by people in interviews and meetings who are so driven and encouraged to do well. They have strong backgrounds in teamwork and leadership that indicate a bright, successful future. After six months I can honestly say at least fifty percent of these people doubt their career choice, feel inadequate, or have one foot out the door. When I sit down and talk with them, their optimism and charisma are gone. They don’t know how to work with their peers or communicate with their superiors. Overall, they are overwhelmed by the reality of their new role. Most will say they do not see a light at the end of the tunnel and feel as though their work has no meaning. The passion and enthusiasm is gone and if something does not change, they will go find work elsewhere. This is a scary and sad reality that is way too common in the workplace today and has given the millennial generation a reputation for not being loyal or resilient. The solution to this problem requires time and patience. I would tell my teams that if there was an “easy button” I would be the first to use it. Maybe you are reading this and going through the exact situation in your workplace or you are gearing up for college graduation and job searching. Whichever place you are in, consider these ideas and recommendations:

Redefine your role: In volunteer or extracurricular roles, there is a sense of independence we feel. This allows us to be carefree yet productive, authoritative yet cooperative. These are the feelings and affirmations we all strive for in life and they come so easy to us when we voluntarily seek out an opportunity that welcomes our help or support. Now put us in a role where we are the “new person” and have yet to master a computer program or skill set related to the job. We don’t know our coworkers and our boss doesn’t seem quite approachable yet. You could be considered crazy if that didn’t affect you! So, how can you survive this? I tell people that this will be a very valuable time in their career. Entry-level jobs are not forever, but don’t count them out for being insignificant. It is hard to transition into a new role with little or no authority, but we can learn to be humble and seek help from those around us. Everyone has special qualities or abilities that got them the job, including you! Value your peers and their backgrounds. See what they do well and ask them about it. Regardless of your educational background, a lot of learning happens on the job. People respond to recognition and admiring other’s skills/abilities can spark great dialogue. This helps you not only learn what your peers to do well but also breaks an often uncomfortable barrier between you and your new team. So seek help from others and be humbled by the fact that you sometimes won’t know what the heck you are doing! We all have to start somewhere and when you advance in your career, I promise you the things you learned at the bottom of the pyramid are often times the most valuable. Redefine your job as a learning environment. You will receive constant stimulation from those around you and your day-to-day responsibilities, but your greatest opportunity will come from the way you act.

Find a mentor: I highly encourage you to find a mentor within your company. If you haven’t had one, a mentor can be extremely valuable. I recommend a mentor having at least 8-10+ years experience. Please don’t get this confused with a happy hour buddy that you get together with to vent about work. I am not saying there is anything wrong with that (as long as the boundaries are healthy) but your mentor should be someone who knows the company well and has been there long enough to be well-respected and of higher power than you. Introduce yourself to them and offer to buy them a cup of coffee or lunch one day. If you feel too timid or your company is large enough, this is okay to do via email. When you meet with them, express why their mentorship would be useful to you. Talk about your company and how you see yourself contributing to its mission and organizational goals. Do you research on this person and know beforehand their history with the company and specific achievements they have. Admire their career and ask them questions about their professional history. The relationship you build with your mentor can be very powerful. You are connecting with someone who can give you insight into their world and may give you the opportunity to network with their peers. Your mentor can inspire you with new ideas or innovations you can implement in your role. I have been fortunate and was able to find a mentor when I was in graduate school and a mentor at my previous job. The biggest take-away from my relationships with them was the ability to see the big picture. This will be crucial for the folks who are feeling as if there is no meaning or purpose in what they do. It is easy to get lost in the daily grind of things, but when you have a mentor to show you the difference you make and even how you help them do their job, the relationship is a success. We have a lot to learn from our superiors, we just need to be open to the learning. “History has much to teach us, but we must know how to receive her teaching.” –Martin Buber.

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Think like the inverted pyramid: For those of you who do not know what an inverted pyramid is, let me explain. Organizational structure can usually be depicted using a pyramid. Generally, executives occupy the top slot followed by a series of managers and ending with staff/employees. The main idea is that the executives are at the top of the organization, thus having the most power and influence. If you think of an inverted pyramid, the exact opposite is true with staff/employees occupying the top slot and the executives at the bottom. One of my favorite organizations to research in graduate school was Nordstrom. Nordstrom is infamous for its customer service and has framed its organizational structure like an inverted pyramid (only with customers at the top and staff coming second). On a side note-Nordstrom is so dedicated to its customers that a man in Alaska went into one of its stores complaining he did not like the tires he had purchased. After a call to management, Nordstrom refunded his money for the tires. Funny thing is, Nordstrom does not sell tires. I find this story a bit ridiculous but the bottom line is, Nordstrom loves its customers. So, what if we program ourselves to think of our jobs replicating an inverted pyramid? Truth is, I think everyone who takes pride in their work should do this. We should approach our responsibilities with acceptance, strength, and the desire to grow/develop. When we have this kind of enthusiasm and esteem, we automatically feel that our job is crucial to the overall function of the organization.

Changing the way we think will change the way we act. It is an organization’s responsibility to provide its employees with the necessary tools and nurturing to succeed (consider this when researching companies to work for or incorporate into interview questions). I believe that you should feel empowered by your organization but I also feel that we can empower ourselves just as much. Know your worth and let your work reflect that. At the same time seek the wisdom, guidance, and perspective of your peers and superiors. Never be afraid to ask for help and always show your interests in growing with the organization. If you feel that you are struggling, seek the support of your boss or other HR resources that specialize in employee development.

AmyPolzin

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Abuse of Women in the Workplace: Challenging its Changing Forms

May I vent for a moment, FYE audience? There is something that’s been ever-present on my mind recently, and it’s a problem affecting a large percentage of the work world. That is, the abuse and false promotion of women. When I say false, what I mean is the subset of people who talk about how they’re there to empower professional women, yet they mimic all of the same marginalizing behaviors. Let me give you some examples of employers that have even gone so far as to call themselves feminists and behaved this way towards me:

  • In a meeting full of powerful people, a former boss said to me, “age before beauty, Mo”, and said to our guests, “I notice that there are no powerful women here today”. He then repeated that there were no female leaders there to our coworkers, to which a female staff member said, “but wasn’t Mo there?” Yes, I most certainly was.
  • My feminine voice was mocked, and I was told that myself and his wife could both be sweeter on the phone (to him).
  • A colleague told me to use my good looks to charm a young male client.
  • My physical appearance (and that of the women on staff in general) was a semi-regular point of discussion.
  • Though I managed the operations of a complex business (almost single-handedly), I was paid considerably less than new staff that were brought on. I was told I was lucky to be there- “it’s a tough employment market”, after all. Fresh out of grad school and female, I was ripe for the financial extortion.

If these examples don’t make your skin crawl, it’s a good time to evaluate your perception of women in the workplace. Do any of these stories remind you of things you’ve seen, heard or experienced? I’d imagine they do, as this stuff is still unfortunately common.

Visible vs. Invisible Mistreatment

This is unfair, but a part of me feels less threatened by this behavior in older men than by the women who mimic it. Why? Maybe this is because it’s so stereotypical, and thus, visible behavior. It’s so grossly common that we aren’t surprised when it happens. Unfortunately, these people do still hold a lot of power over other people’s well-being, and many workers must sacrifice their voice and integrity to keep their jobs. Obviously, that’s a huge problem.

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Personally, I consider this behavior a sign of poor leadership: a failure to adapt, to collaborate, and to see the strengths in those around you. It feels like rigid thinking, a refusal to move past “the glory days”, and makes me want to scream, “retire already!” Here’s the sick thing about it: these people truly don’t get that we (young, strong women) do not care about their opinion about us. We have self-esteem, a sense of purpose, and an awareness that we are gonna be around making change and doing awesome things when they are long gone. We nod and smile, just waiting for the time that their reign is over. Maybe it’s like those around Caesar before he was struck down.

So when I see women who mimic the same behaviors (ex: not valuing women’s contributions, monetarily and the like), I get the big time icks. This is even scarier to me, because these women operate under a guise and have inherent trust within the female community, so their slimy behavior is even more invisible. My concern is that this is the way that business is moving; that it is not in fact getting better, but that the exploitation and degradation are simply being shifted to more subversive and less visible forms. This should alarm us all.

My request to rise to action

For employers (of both sexes):

- Evolve: Women’s rights isn’t a new thing- it’s time to adapt. There are years and years of research debunking old myths about women’s differences from men (fun fact: largest actual difference between men and women? Pitching speed). There’s also an abundance of research proving that we are still not valued equally, seen as less capable, and treated more poorly (both through respect and money).

- Check your behavior: Being mindful and reflecting on your behavior will help you to be a better, fairer boss. We must always challenge ourselves to do better. Valued staff leads to higher staff retention, producing better outcomes for your business.

- Be strength-based: Good leaders can see the many skillsets of their staff, and women have an abundance of these things. Social pressures encourage men and women to engage in different ways of relating to others. Use these unique skills to your company’s advantage, and to the benefit of your employees and customers.

For female workers:

- Honor your worth: Don’t take a project just because. Or, if it’s important for your work experience, give yourself a ratio of pro bono work that you’ll commit to each quarter. Don’t go beyond that! We think it shows how flexible we are, but it really shows how easy it is to walk all over us without a consideration of our needs.

- Don’t stay at a job where you are being abused: It takes a toll on your psyche and your health. I stood up to the boss that did all of the above, and though it was challenging at first, it took my career to a whole new level. I was also surrounded by the support and care of all of my coworkers, who then also felt the courage to stand up to the abuse.

- Surround yourself by strong, positive men and women: Do you believe that men and women both deserve equality? Then you’re a feminist. Don’t shy away from it, it’s great, and it doesn’t mean what many think it does. How sad to have our own movement be so loaded with negativity. Challenge unfair behaviors and support each other in growth and development!

- Make the abuse visible: No matter who is doing it, it’s important to call it out. Obviously you must be strategic about this, but change is not made if we are silent about problems. If you need specific help around these issues, it may make sense to message myself or another consultant who can help you navigate the challenge of being heard and finding a better place for you to work. Your current employer doesn’t deserve your talents- find someone who does.

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My Private Meeting with a Business Mogel: Lessons for the “Sometimes Intimidated”

So once (upon a time), I had a private meeting with a powerful business mogul and training icon. I found him through LinkedIn and learned a lot in the process. Here is my story:

While on my laptop, I came upon a company of great personal interest. I decided to peruse their website and see if I could somehow get involved. There didn’t appear to be anything that fit my area of expertise, but I thought I’d take a chance anyways. I searched for the owner on LinkedIn, and after researching him thoroughly (a very impressive person, to say the least), I sent him the following message:

“I am extremely interested in your business- both the industry and the mission. How can I get involved here in Minneapolis? Do people volunteer or do internships for you?
Thanks for providing better (name of their industry) options for us all,
- Maureen Laufenberg”

I sent it out thinking, “You’re ridiculous, Mo. This guy’s either gonna be impressed with your guts or appalled by your nerve. Who the hell are you? I bet he gets pestered like this all the time”. I assumed I’d likely never hear from him; after all, who ever hears stories about LinkedIn connecting you to a business mogul?

8 days later, I get this:

“You can come and see me sometime. A meeting can be scheduled either here at (name of his personal place) or at (the company’s headquarters).”

I was shocked. Is he serious?! He’s going to sit down with me and discuss the possibilities of me helping with the business? I envisioned driving to his personal retreat and spending time there riding horses (I don’t even think he has horses…), meditating, hiking and generally enjoying a weekend of “quaint” (except that it’s a multi-million dollar facility) luxury…I hear the guest beds there are divine! I fretted about how many stupid things I could manage to say over that 48 hours, but was also thankful for the opportunity to let him know my authentic self. I wanted to get back to him right away, but didn’t want to make it appear as if I just sit at home on LinkedIn all the time. Sometimes I do, but he didn’t need to know that! After all, I wasn’t even sure that he handled his own LinkedIn account. Honestly, I’m not sure he even feeds himself.

After patiently waiting a good 24 hours or so, I replied:

“(His name),
Either one would be my pleasure. The (private location) sounds beautiful and meeting at (HQ) sounds practical, so I’m happy to do whichever you’d prefer.

Let me know what works best for you and I’ll do my best to accommodate that. I’m grateful for your time and excited about the possibility of getting involved.
Warmly,
Maureen”

I didn’t want to count my chickens before they hatched, so I continued to tamp my excitement as much as possible. He responded 5 days later with a time available the very next day. It was officially “on”, and I let my mind freely wander with excitement- what if this leads to some power job where I make great money, schmooze with beautiful and powerful people, etc? Is this my “chance”? With the very limited time I had until then, I made sure to do my research:

  • I stopped into headquarters and their store to check out all of their products. I purchased a few, and researched the rest there and online. Much to my relief, they were as wonderful in real life as they looked on their website.
  • I Googled the owner in great detail, learning about his background and accomplishments.
  •  I thoroughly researched the company’s website and checked out the titles and summaries of his published works.
  • I reflected upon my skill sets and how I could best represent myself and what I have to offer for an utterly ambiguous opportunity.

I obsessed over what to wear. How do I present myself in the best way to such a trendy (literally) and successful person? Can I go in there wearing a dress from Target, or is that pretty much failing from the jump? How do I hide how un-toned and Midwestern I am? After much thought (obviously), I picked an orange, white and pink dress (yes, from Target) because it was both flattering and orange was supposed to give me “good energy”, according to the energy scan I did the night before (at their store). After running through my mental list and finalizing my appearance, I headed out to my office to see some clients.

I had not heard from him confirming our final time, and the clock was ticking.

I sent a message:

“ Hi (his name),
We had spoken about meeting this afternoon sometime. I have a meeting from 12-1 and then will call (HQ) to confirm a meeting time for us today. I hope that this still fits your schedule this afternoon.

Looking forward to it,

Maureen (Mo)”

I get a call from an unknown number at 2:00pm. It’s his executive assistant, and they’re wondering if I can be there at 2:30. Oh, and bring a resume. “Yes, I can do that” I say while sitting (on my floor, mind you) amongst a heap of accounting. I scramble to Google the fastest way to get there from my office while simultaneously printing my most recent resume. I am out of color ink, so my fading green accents look more like brown and yellow. “Ah sh**”. Not much to be done- it’s 17 minutes away and time is of the essence. I rationalize that it’s better to have an ugly resume than no resume at all, and I rush out the door.

I arrive right on time and end up waiting 10 or so minutes. I don’t mind- him making me wait feels way more appropriate than the other way around. I mingle with the store manager that I’d met the day before (while exploring their offerings) and look around. The place is so damn “cool”: the music is super hip, it smells amazing, and everyone looks like they stepped out of GQ magazine. They’re all toned and trendy- like the models from Zoolander, but probably smarter and even more into yoga and Buddhism. (Some people may be figuring out who I’m referring to at this point…)

Did you ever think that maybe there’s more to life than being really, really, really ridiculously good looking?

Finally, three people walk out of the back offices: a woman in her 30′s (his executive assistant), the mogul himself, and a middle-aged man with beautiful eyes and peppered hair. The executive assistant introduces us all and invites me into the headquarters offices. They are setting up for an upcoming photo shoot, and I quickly admire the vibrant and eccentric artwork, cast lighting and atmosphere. This swanky environment has left me feeling very unconvincing, and all of my hard work suddenly seems so trivial. I present myself the way that I’d planned to, and add some comments that let them know that I’d not only done my research, but that this company fits my lifestyle. So far, so good.

Looking back, here’s where things start to go wrong: the mogul tells me that I will be meeting with his colleague, unless I am requesting his time specifically. “I am honored and appreciative of that offer…” and trail off into some reason why it’s okay to not have a private meeting because I know he’s busy and I would like to be respectful of his time. He shakes my hand, and gets back to work while I am ushered to sit down with the pretty-eyed man. Without getting into every detail of the conversation, I’ll say this: he was not aware that he’d be meeting me that day, and he did his best to ask questions to someone who had no job in specific that they were applying for. We explored a bit of my background and picked the area that felt best fitting- the area they’d need some help with in the future. I shared my passion for both their vision and their industry, and my interviewer and I resonated around some of what we value in a work place. After some time, the mogul joins us at our table.

What shocked me (and yet is simultaneously very logical, given his experience) was how quickly he honed in on what I needed that I wasn’t asking for. “You’re not really intern material” he says, suggesting that most interns are right out of college and have rich parents that pay for them. “It sounds like you need to get paid”. This is where I trip up. And I mean REALLY trip up. My answer is some confusing combination of, “well yes” and, “but my other work supplements me financially” and something about my “desire to be involved” or “contribute to the mission” or some such thing. Basically, I wussed out. He gave me an under hand lob that I could have hit out the park, and instead I totally bunted. My answer was unclear, and frankly, came off weak. I had the trifecta working against me here: I’m young, I’m female, and I’m a therapist- we aren’t supposed to talk about ourselves! My effort to be accommodating and flexible seemed to come off more as uncertainty and lack of experience. Alright, that’s fair. Crap.

Intimidation

So here’s what I’ve taken away from this whole thing:

  • Don’t be afraid to put yourself in front of powerful people, even if they seem way out your league. Everyone starts somewhere, and we learn a lot through these intimidating conversations.
  • Continue to follow up. It’s not that they don’t want to meet you, they’re just extremely busy running their business and being moguls. Demonstrate your interest by staying on top of communication.
  • Social networking CAN get you some great exposure; as long as you’re actually connecting in real life to those that you connect with online (I’m writing more about this shortly).
  • When you land a big meeting, trust in yourself. They obviously think you’re worth checking out, so bring that energy into the room with you.
  • No one will take you seriously until you take yourself seriously. This is where I messed up. Self-assurance is critical. If you don’t have it- work on it! Stretch yourself and put yourself in new and challenging professional situations where you must learn how to represent yourself with confidence.
  • Be your authentic self, rather than who you’d like to be. I didn’t realize that the man interviewing me was not from HR, but was actually the president of the company. I was subsequently relaxed, warm and genuine with him, because I didn’t know enough to be intimidated. Emulate this naivety as much as possible- people are just people, after all.

The next day, I sent them all “thank you”s and spoke to the executive assistant by phone. She reminded me to make sure all applicable info was to the president and assured me that I seemed to fit the mission of the business, but they didn’t yet need that role filled, so they’d stay in touch. Realistically, I doubt I’ll ever get a call. I’d come off passionate but unable to endorse myself truly, and I think that bored these powerful businessmen. They didn’t have the time for waffling young people- if I was going to have a power job, I had to have a power personality. Had I instead responded with, “Yes, I do need to get paid. I’m highly educated, skilled, hard-working and excited to get on board”, I may be schmoozing with powerful people right now. I’m not.

However, it wasn’t a loss, because I had a humbling experience that taught me more about myself and my professional identity. It can be really hard to come off assertive as a young woman- not because it’s not in us (ask my husband- I’m plenty assertive), but because it violates all that we are taught to do in regards to respecting elders and those “more powerful” than us. In reality, that assertiveness is what got me in the door, and my lack of assertiveness in my delivery was what ultimately lost me the opportunity.

 

 

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When Strength is Your Weakness and Weakness is Your Strength

Those in leadership and public roles are encouraged to “keep it together” (Bowfinger reference, anyone?) We have societal pressure to do this: we represent our business and our work through our fortitude and even-keeled strength. But this desire to appear “composed” can be hugely detrimental to our mental and physical health, and can sometimes be linked to things such as eating disorders, severe anxiety and suicidality.

Why?

Because when we feel pressure to appear “strong” or “together”, we start to hide the reality that we are complex human beings with complex, human lives. No one’s life is without problems. This means that these problems becomes secrets, and problems thrive in secrecy. Human connection can help us resolve problems (two of the leading links to suicide: isolation and hopelessness). That night out with a friend, coffee with a colleague, the hug of a loved one, the call from a family member, etc. can make an exponential difference in our personal well-being and validation that we are loved and cared for.

When Your Strength Becomes Your Weakness

When we try hard to be all of the things that we “should be” all of the time, it can be an exhausting facade. Though it is inevitable that not all times and places are appropriate to burst into tears or explode with anger, the desire to do these things should be signs to us that there is some underlying stuff that we are dealing with that is requesting our attention. If we ignore these things, they tend to grow in their strength, and can eventually leave us feeling out of control and powerless.

So What Do We Do?

Connect: We often think that those around us don’t want to hear our concerns, but sharing these things can strengthen our bonds, validate their own struggles, and offer people the opportunity to help a friend (which most people love to do). Vulnerability is an important piece of having a full relationship and a full life.

Seek out resources: Sometimes this is therapy, sometimes it’s not. Maybe it’s working out more, a pottery class, bowling league, tennis, photography, whatever! If there aren’t places where you can be “yourself” (as in your “full” self), seek them out!

Challenge the inclination to be silent: This desire to stay quiet and appear “together” perpetuates not only the problem at hand, but the community isolation as well. If thoughts such as, “no one will care”, “will they still like me?”, “will they still see me as capable/competent?” cross your mind, then imagine that as “the concern” whispering in your ear, encouraging you to quietly suffer its wrath. Quiet that voice by raising yours.

Lighten the load: Overwhelm is not uncommon in busy leadership roles. Don’t hesitate to defer or re-assign some work if you are so overloaded that the quality has been compromised. Would you rather do a few tasks with great skill or a lot of tasks with very mediocre quality? Hopefully every level of your operation is focused on the former. Many hands and minds can lighten the load and make the seemingly impossible again possible.

When Your Weakness Becomes Your Strength

The concept of “Authentic Leadership” (a Bill George book title) refers to this as well. Knowing where you fit in the puzzle is a good thing! In order to know this, you must evaluate both your “strengths” and “weaknesses”. I once spoke to a manager about an employee that he worked with closely. He says, “Yeah, he has all of this knowledge of X. I don’t have that, so he should probably run the place” (usurping his own position). My point to him was this: “you know this company’s operations and needs inside and out, and desire it so much so that you’d promote someone to be your own boss. That, to me, means that you must not give up your leadership role, because you are excellent at what you do. Lead together, utilizing his skills in X and your skills in Y.” In seeing his own weakness (and, conversely, someone else’s skills to fill that role), he showed great strength!

In Summation…

All people struggle. Being able to identify what you struggle with and sharing this (appropriately) will encourage connection, healthy interpersonal relationships, psychological well-being and a more cohesive work atmosphere. These weaknesses can transform into magically powerful strengths, if you use them strategically :)

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Why I Don’t Think That Marissa Mayer Is Responsible For All Women

A Millenial Feminist Defends Mayer in Her Right to Make Choices

I’m a little disappointed by this recent onslaught of negative commentary about the choice of Marissa Mayer, new CEO of Yahoo! and soon-to-be mom, to take a short maternity leave. Don’t get me wrong- the right to maternity and paternity leave is a national conversation that must be had, and changes should be made for the well-being of parents and their children alike. But here’s what gets me: why must she, one individual, be responsible for taking on this fight for all women? Her decision to take a short leave doesn’t have to impact other women’s decision to want a longer leave. She does not, in fact, hold all of the power for making these changes for everyone everywhere. Rather than criticizing a woman making her own choice about her own time off, why don’t we hold the policy makers (of both sexes) and our national work culture accountable?! Why don’t we talk about the “freedom to” or “right to” take a long leave, rather than an argument that she “must”?

I have yet to see an article raging against a new dad whose decided to only take a short time off for his new baby, as if he somehow makes that decision for all other dads too. Ya know why you don’t see that? Because people in positions of cultural privilege are not seen as responsible for their entire demographic. Each person of privilege is seen as representative of themselves only, which seems appropriate. However, those who are not in privilege positions who then assume some power are suddenly responsible for representing their whole demographic, which is unfair and, in my mind, inappropriate.

Here’s the thing: I’m a millenial feminist. I’m a third-waver: the kind who doesn’t judge you if you love or hate wearing makeup, shaving or wearing high heels. Whatever. The reason for this is that it is your choice how you choose to be in the world, and that’s what seems like endorsing real equality to me: the right to make your own choices without being stifled by social norms, criticized, harassed, mistreated or shamed. Is this not exactly what we are doing to Marissa Mayer? If she wants to be super human and take no time off, that’s her choice. It doesn’t have to infringe on others’ desires to have time off to nurture their relationship to their newborns, and she has not taken a position that infringes upon these rights. If she came out and said, “no, I don’t think women (or ‘men’ or ‘parents’) deserve or need time off”, then she’s taking a detrimental position. I have yet to see this. What I see is a busy women who was just handed a HUGE promotion and probably feels pressure to dive in there and get working. And frankly, who wouldn’t?! So let’s open this up to a bigger conversation about role conflicts, life-balance and rights, rather than blaming one women for her busy life.

One thing that’s for sure: if a woman of Mayer’s status still needs to make these choices that are so loaded with criticism in our culture, imagine the challenge of making this choice when your job and financial security are in far worse jeopardy. Unfortunately, most women don’t have to imagine, as they’ve lived this decision-making process. I wish our focus was more on making their lives more manageable, and less about this N of 1.

Congratulations, Marissa Mayer. You are now responsible for being a new mother, a new CEO and the representative of working women/mothers/parents everywhere. And for free, we’ll throw in some harsh criticism and judgment about your role conflict. Woohoo! You’re welcome.

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Professional Women’s Wellness: What’s Your Story?

PS. Men, members of the GLBTQ community that don’t identify with this title, and others not mentioned (exclusively) in this post: we know that you have unique challenges too. I don’t mean to ignore or silence you- your day will also come :)  

In August of 2012, I was asked to speak to the St. Paul Business Women regarding mental health and wellness for professional women. There were topics to be covered, both broad and specific, but before I jumped into my own ideas, I wanted to reach out to YOU, the working women, as you are each in different “spaces” regarding your work, experience level, priorities, obligations and wishes for the future. My hope was to come into the presentation addressing the unique challenges that women in different contexts may be facing.

Well August is long past, and I was excited about the responses that I received. Here’s some of the valuable information on professional women’s wellness that was shared that day:

“Role Strain”

Role strain is when one role creates inherent conflict for us, often in regards to our values.

Examples:

  • You want to do well and be noticed at work, but you also want to promote the work of others.
  •  You want a promotion that you know you deserve, but you care about the interest of your fiscally “tight” business and don’t want to stress them.
  • You want to be able to engage with your colleagues/staff/employer in a certain way, but your work culture does not endorse this way of interacting.

Therapists may call this a “conflict of interest”. For example, you want to grow your business, but you want to ethically preserve the working relationship in its current state. Say your client loves surfing and you own a surf shop- it’s debatable whether you can tell them this, as it’s not focused around them. We must respect the client’s therapeutic experience over sharing our work with them. Can you think of examples in your own work or life?

“Role Conflict”

Is the term used to refer to the juggling act that is the balance of our many different roles. These may include things such as: worker, care-taker, partner, friend, individual, athlete, musician, volunteer, etc.

Research shows that tasks at home are still largely done by women (even in homes with very well-intentioned, helpful partners), and if they’re working full time as well, this is the life of an immensely busy woman, even before adding any of the things that she’d like to do for herself (see friends, do fun activities, take time for wellness, etc.)

We have a finite amount of time, and we must all use our own value systems to choose where we invest our energy and how much we put into each area. This changes over time, according to circumstances. A retired woman with children out of the house looks different than a working woman with young children, who looks different than a working woman with no children who volunteers a lot, who looks different than a woman with no children who doesn’t work, etc. These are simplified examples, but you get what I’m saying. Add in factors such as amount of partner support, commute, financial circumstances, personal preferences, etc. and you have an endless amount of unique challenges that women can face.

Wellness”

Google “wellness” and there are a million (I’m exaggerating) definitions, but the majority at least focus on balance and the promotion of “good health”. See the wellness wheel? These are some common domains of our lives where we work towards maintaining wellness. Are there others in your life?

(Thanks to the University of Michigan’s Health Services for creating this particular “wellness wheel”)

 Reflection Questions:

  • What are your experiences with role strain and role conflict? What do they look like in your work? Home? Other areas of your life? Do they blend from one area to the others? If so, how?
  • If you scaled your state of “wellness” from 1 (not well) to 10 (very well), where would you be? Does this number move? If so, what causes this change? What are the factors in your life that lead to you choosing this number?
  • What’re some things that you do each day, week, month, or year for yourself? For others? Are they compensatory?

 

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Strategic Communication: Creating a Productive and Meaningful Conversation

How to Get What You Want Without Sounding Like a Total A-Hole.

Even people with the best intentions can come off sounding like total a-holes sometimes. Why? Because the way that they’re expressing themselves is, in one way or another, offensive to those around them. In work settings, this can be particularly challenging- many don’t have the ability to tell off an employer or stomp out of the office, so as leaders (and those that work with/for them), it’s our responsibility to learn to communicate in the most effective and non-offensive ways possible. Sometimes “being short” with someone can come off as rude or demanding. In fact, this is something that many professionals are taught to do- CEOs and other executives are inclined to keep e-mails short, as are University faculty and other busy individuals. In graduate school, I was encouraged to keep e-mails to faculty as brief as possible (“brief” is a relative term). The truth is that communication, be it verbal or written, can be concise while still being affirming, genuine and effective.

Here are some things to be mindful of when talking to (or e-mailing) others:

Avoid passive-aggressive remarks:

Don’t slip an underhanded insult into the conversation- it doesn’t go unnoticed, and it can make you look slimy. One of the problems with this method of communication is that it does not allow someone to defend themselves or speak to this comment without it appearing confrontational. The implicit insult feels like a stab in the back: you didn’t see it coming, and it’s really not a fair fight. If you have something to say, find a way to approach it with transparency or don’t bring it up at all.

Focus on/position the issue outside of the person (ie. externalization):

Conversations are far more effective when we remove the shame and blame that comes with internalizing a problem. Even something as simple as “Did you finish that?” to “how’s that coming along?” goes from an internalized, closed option answer “yes/no, I did/n’t” to an externalized, open-ended answer: “it’s going along great; it’s tough; this or that is happening, etc.”. It’s not only removing blame, but it’s also opening up the discussion so that details of the task are the focus, rather than the individual themselves.

Collaborate:

Nothing is more effective than encouraging someone to join you in collaboration to solve a problem. It says, “we’re in this together”, and makes you a team, rather than individuals at odds. Conversations that are presented collaboratively diminish defensiveness and increase engagement.

Avoid (unnecessary) statements of responsibility:

Nice people often subsume responsibility through their language (“let me take care of that for you right away!”) because they want to be helpful. What that does is removes all responsibility from the other individual(s) and puts it right on you. So when the project isn’t finished because so-and-so in such-and-such department was sick, or when the client is pissed because some other whosy-who did this-or-that, now you (sweet, well-intentioned you) are on the hook for it. Instead, try using collaboration and externalization when offering to help: “I imagine that we can get this done right away. I will go check with so-and-so in such-and-such department!” Only take on what you have control over.

This is NOT to say that you blame others for mistakes that you have made. We must all remain responsible to those around us if we want to continue to have productive and effective work relationships. If you messed up, be honest, sincere and work to resolve your issue.

Acknowledge those around you:

People want to work with those that recognize their hard work, passion, dedication and experience. Letting people know that you notice these things honors them, decreasing threat (“s/he’s out to take my job”) and increasing collaboration. Countless people have told me how little they appreciate the generic “Great job! thanks for working here!” comments. Though the intention is good, it remains dismissive of that individual’s contributions, and instead of making them feel noticed, it makes them feel invisible. Oops.

Understand Closed and Open-Ended Questions:

Closed: Allowing for only “yes” and “no” answers. These don’t always give us the information that we need (ie. any details) and can, at times, put unnecessary responsibility or blame on people. Examples include: “Did you? will you? can you? have you? are you going to?” Even changing the wording of a closed-ended question can make questions more benign: “Did you take your lunch?” vs. “Was there a chance to eat lunch?” shifts the responsibility from the person to daily circumstances (externalization).

Open-Ended: Allowing many subjective responses and important detail. These tend to feel less threatening because people may position themselves appropriately in relation to a situation, rather than just saying “yes” or “no”. “How? What? Why?” are examples for how these sentences may start. Our example for positioning (above) was a comparison of a closed- and open-ended question. Another example: “What’s your day looking like?” is open-ended, versus “Are you busy/free today?”, which is closed. Get it? Here’s the simplest rule: how would you answer this question? If it’s with “yes” or “no”, it’s closed.

I hope that this list is helpful and a nice start to evolving the way we communicate with others. Philosophers such as Derrida and Postmodernist therapists such as Michael White have long proposed the idea that our words give things meaning. Psychologists are now seeing this in the research as well: people are better able to rationalize and problem-solve when they use a secondary language, rather than their primary, as it removes some of the “loaded” meaning that we place on things. This also explains some of the benefit of talk therapy- it’s helpful to speak our minds, and helpful to see our own words (why I use a whiteboard in therapy and/or give clients a copy of the notes) and even more helpful when we can do it skillfully. The way you speak to those that you work with can make or break your relationships, which are critical to an effective and pleasant work environment. Get what you want without sounding like an a-hole. Your team will be grateful and can often reciprocate the tone that you set for the work environment you wish to create: affirming, genuine and effective.

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Further Reading:

Jacques Derrida. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Derrida. Retrieved July 13, 2012.

Michael White. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_White_%28psychotherapist%29. Retrieved July 13, 2012.

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Transitive Trust: Its Critical Link to Your Success

Relationships and Transitive Trust:

The Social (and Geometric) Principle that Explains the Value of “Networking”.

I first studied transitive trust in relation to human relationships for my master’s thesis. What I discovered exploring the work of individuals such as Josang and Pope was something that felt very intuitive: we are more apt to trust the referrals from those that we already trust. This principle of transitive trust comes from that idea (this should take you back to your high school days) that if A=B, and B=C, then A=C. Let’s put that into more human terms: If I trust Mike, and Mike trusts Maria, then I (am much more likely to) trust Maria. Here’s a more complete blurb from my paper (Short attention span? You can skip it- I forgive you):

“Josang and Pope (2005) describe the principles for modeling trust transitivity and define forms of trust, including Decision Trust, Reliability Trust, Parallel Trust and Trust Network Analysis (p. 59-62). They describe the requirements that must be satisfied for transitive trust to take place, including the definitions of referral trust (trust in ability to refer to a third party) and functional trust (belief in referral’s ability to accomplish whatever goal or mission for which they were referred) (p. 61-62). They say that in order to have a valid transitive trust path, functional trust must be present at the “last edge”, or end person of the transitive trust path… Josang and Pope define different types of trust and the transitive trust path clearly, as well as offer expressions and computations for trust measurement.”

What does this mean for growing a business?

Simply put, it means that relationships matter. They talk about the 6 degrees of separation that tie us all together, and it helped me realize that all of us, no matter what our situation, know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who can really endorse and support your great work. The quality of what we offer cannot be understated- if what you’re doing is crap (or you’re a jerk), then you won’t establish the endorsement of your peers that would result in this exponentially growing circle of trust/referrals. I see this fitting what Josang and Pope called “Functional Trust”: can you actually do this work well?

When I think about this from a psychological standpoint, it totally makes sense: we want to see “good” people be successful. We want to endorse the work of people we respect, those who share similar values with us and our community (“I like that Betty, she’s very passionate about her work!”). This isn’t the high school definition of “popularity” (you and your 10 friends said you were cool, so you are?), this is the REAL kind: you are genuine, passionate, amicable, do great work and gosh darn it, people like you for it! I also cannot under-emphasize the importance of the “genuine” piece – if you don’t truly like meeting others, hearing their stories, triumphs, failures, ideas, and hopes, find someone else to do that for your business. Nobody likes phony (think of the overly-enthusiastic salesman as an example)- you’d be better off not talking to anyone ever. Okay, maybe that’s harsh, but it may be true- focus on quality, not quantity. Also, don’t spend your time with people that you wouldn’t endorse, or else they aren’t great candidates for building your social and work circles.

In the age of social media, this begs the question:

  • Does the network size or the depth of the relationships have a greater impact?
  • What balance of close relationships and/or networking breadth will maximize our ability to be successful?

Undoubtedly who you are close with matters to some degree (ie. the size of their network and effort to promote you within it). You would be better off knowing Bill George, author, educator and former Medtronic CEO, then you ever would knowing me (or at least at this point, right?). Though shaking his hand isn’t the same as consulting with him daily, and you’d be better off knowing less “known” individuals more in depth than being just another dude(tte) to Bill George. Frankly, I don’t have any answer to this that would have substantive legs- a future post in the works? What’s your experience with today’s social media frenzy and how it’s impacting relationships? Does it help or hinder transitive trust, due to its more “generic” nature?

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References

Josang, A., & Pope, S. (2005). Semantic constraints for trust transitivity. Darlinghurst, Australia: Australian Computer Society, Inc.

Six Degrees of Separation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_degrees_of_separation. Retrieved July 10th, 2012.

www.maureenlaufenberg.com