The boss holds THE Conversation …
Consider how often this conversation occurs as a woman moves upward in her career, and then think, is there anything that was said, or left unsaid, that should be handled differently?
Mpho was a knowledgeable and well-liked woman of 26 when she began her transition from Junior to Senior manager in one of the Big 4 financial firms. After a week, her new boss took her aside to give her the ‘praise sandwich’.
‘You’re doing a great job, and I’m really pleased with your progress so far,’ he began. ‘But can I offer you some advice on how to succeed in your job at this level?’ he enquired?
Mpho nodded her, while her eyes lost their sparkle and she sat up a bit straighter.
‘You need to become more decisive in meetings now, more direct in the way you explain things when people ask you a question. And stop using ‘feeling’ and ‘fluffy’ words, because no one will take you seriously if you do.’
He closed the sandwich with : ‘You’re a clever girl, so I’m expecting the best from you, so don’t disappoint me.’ He got up, smiled kindly and left.
What were your thoughts as you read this simple interaction?
Did you think, that he was a considerate boss for dealing with it so kindly, and that of course she must adapt to accommodate the culture at work. Or not?
In this case, do you think that it is surprising that her boss wanted her to adapt her style of communication so she could be more effective at work? The reality is that the business world is still predominantly a man’s domain, where his form of communication holds the most sway and it gets things done quickly.
Was that conversation the most effective way he could get her to acquire the skills to navigate the underlying culture of the organization? What else could he have done?
Or … did you feel for Mpho, as she was being told that her more reflective, authentic way of communicating with others was flawed, not approved of here – that she must become more like a man. Well, she would always be a women and could at best only be a mirror of a man, a second-class version of one.
Mpho’s story continues:
Mpho head was swirling. She had just been told that though her work was good, yet she left the meeting with her confidence slipping further the more she replayed the conversation in her head. She was anxious and confused and wondered how exactly she was to become more decisive, direct and effective in meetings.
Mpho arrived back at her apartment after eight thirty and played a missed call from her mother. She was was missing her daughter and did not understand why Mpho couldn’t just stop her work for the few hours to attend the family gathering on Sunday. In fact, she was concerned that Mpho’s new status and way of life might be making her a bit ‘uppity’. Where had the gentle and loving Mpho gone – the ‘caring and ever-helpful person she had reared her to be?’
Mpho ate quickly then settled down for the next two hours to write a financial report needed for tomorrows meeting. She reviewed her day as she climbed into bed. ‘How odd’ she thought, ‘that the very people I care about pleasing the most, both want me to be someone else! Why is it that while I’m trying so hard to do my best, I’m failing at being myself.’ She finally thought,’Maybe, because ‘myself’ works very hard, but at the bottom of it all is not really good enough for the challenges ahead!’
Feeling despondent, she turned over and tried not to let her anxiety prevent her from falling asleep. She had a tough day tomorrow and had to be strong.
A different Mpho?
In answer to the at the beginning of the article, what could Mpho or her manager do differently? As she transitions into a new role, I agree that she will need to upgrade her level of skills and knowledge to accommodate the new challenges at this level.
The manager could realize that Mpho needs some development support if she is to be effective and he could suggest she join others – both men and women – for transition coaching or a suitable workshop.
Mpho could also realize that she did not have all the answers if she was to become an effective communicator, on-the-spot. She could enquire from other staff who had been in a similar position what they did, or simply google available resources on the dilemma.
The second is not hard for her to do, because women are bombarded with advice from a stream of books, magazines and coaches, all illustrating the ‘right way’ for women to communicate effectively at work today. And all the while, she must of course maintain a confident sense-of-self while navigating new ways of adopting a better way of being in the world. Not so easy!
Resilient Women approach
After 2 decades of supporting women and men to effectively transition into their next role, I’ve found that good performance is achieved by focusing an objective whole-brain lens on both the individual and the context (environment) and then asking open questions that allow them to make sense of their situation from a more objective mental space.
There is no one-right-way forward. Each person needs to find a way to explore the realities, restraints and opportunities in their specific challenge and then design their way forward.
Mpho’s ‘Situation’ Workout
If Mpho were to do a ‘Situation’ Workout, she would find that she does already have the talent and wisdom required to excel in her world. She simply has to do what all people do when they transition to the new level and position: update her knowledge and skills to meet the new needs at this new level.
After a transition workout, Mpho will be able to design insightful ways that help her to move forward with intention, confidence, awareness and hope.
And hopefully she could guide her former boss to adopt a more mindful approach to handling that conversation. We all need to upgrade for today’s 21Century conversations!