In honor of Father’s Day, and as I depart on my latest professional excursion—this time to Japan—to advise (mostly male) executives on the advancement of women leaders, I have been reflecting on being raised by a single father, and how this unique aspect of my personal story has impacted my style as a woman leader and my approach to my profession.
Go For It: Believe in Your Potential
My parents divorced when I was two, and agreed that my Dad would take full custody of my older brother and me. Over the course of my childhood, we visited with Mom and were raised full time by Dad. My father was the only single father I knew. He loved my brother and me equally, and, I think because I was a girl, he spent extra time reassuring me that I had what it takes to create whatever life I wanted for myself. He told me, “Your place is in the kitchen [meaning in the home] only if you want it to be, Susan.” I recall thinking when he said this to me, “Why on earth would I think my place is in the kitchen? What an odd thing to say!” Little did I realize just how much I would come to want to be home with my own family (enjoying life in the kitchen, cooking and chatting with my daughters and their friends) and out in the world inspiring women about their potential, and also executives about what it takes to advance women leaders.
There are so many instances of my Dad telling me to go for it. “You can do it.” “Go get ’em. I believe in you.” He wanted me to reach my full potential. While he may have been biased, my father thought I had unlimited potential. Somewhere along the way, I started believing it too. Right or wrong, good or bad, I have been at this “working mother” thing for 15 years and I still don’t have balance. I do have a very fulfilling and rich life, which begins and ends with believing I can do anything I set my mind to. Lately, it’s being a great parent and doing what I love and feel called to do professionally. It’s sloppy at times and utterly imperfect. It’s also my life, and I love it.
Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down
Being super tall (I was 5’8”-ish in 5th grade), having unruly red hair and eye glasses, and having a man as my primary parent meant I had an extra dose of different from an early age. Despite my physical awkwardness and my rather unique home situation, Dad made me feel like I belonged. And when I didn’t, when I felt not-so-ok for whatever reason, he would say, “Honey, don’t let the bastards get you down. You’re OK just the way you are. There will always be critics and meanies. Learn from them, but don’t give them too much of your time and power, ’cause they’ll just slow you down.” (Note: Dad was an equal-opportunity guy. He used the term “bastard” loosely. I recall the first time I received this wisdom, it was about a girl who was being mean to me…)
As I venture out into the world and speak publically, I know the critics will come. I speak about a self-management practice of returning to worthiness when in the face of harshness or judgement. And, in the back of my mind, I hear my father’s words the minute I step on stage: “You are A-OK.” And if I need a smile, I channel him looking down at me, with a twinkle in his eye: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
Unconscious Bias is Real
Thankfully, Dad was ahead of his time. He was determined to raise a confident daughter and to support what is now a very close relationship with my mother. In my day-to-day life, however, and despite my pleas, the toilet seats were almost always left up. I had no idea that, mid-career, I would recognize that the metaphorical toilet seats are still mostly up in the C-suite—and in executive ranks for most businesses the world over.
I have spent the last 20+ years as a student, teacher and practitioner of leadership. For most of my life, I deeply believed in—and expected—meritocracy. The only pre-requisite for “making it” was effort. I’ll work really hard and treat others with respect while I do. I believed that hard work and effort and results alone would lead to appreciation from those around me—and thus to leadership roles. And it did. Until it didn’t.
Success for those who enter into positions of leadership comes from advocacy from someone in a position of power and authority. Period. Recently, a CEO of a Fortune 100 company told me that he never had to ask for a promotion or a raise—ever—in his career. I looked at him wide-eyed and asked why he thought that was so. He thought about it for a bit and said, “Well, I guess others did it for me!” All I could say was, “Yes. Yes they did.”
Naming beliefs and biases that aren’t as true for some (like letting performance speak for itself, and not seeing sponsorship because it has been there all along) can remove barriers for awesome women who aspire to leadership. I think about what my Dad might have experienced as “that single father.” I imagine it was often respect (which he didn’t feel he earned) or pity (which I know he never asked for). Bias is real. We all have it, and all we can do is become aware of it so that we can address it and shift our thinking. To that end, I introduce myself at the start of my talks now as a woman who is both competent and likable. And then I explain the likability bias and how it works. It never occurred to me, growing up with those male voices in my life, that the world wasn’t as ready for me as I was for it, so “outing” a bias some may (unconsciously) have about me often helps.
Believe in Women and Don’t Blame Men
By now, you won’t be shocked to know that when a woman (at least this one) is raised by a man who thinks she is the bomb, she might have a favorable view of men. Men have raised me, mentored me, believed in me. I have a special place in my heart for men (yes, the wolves are, in many ways, my pack). Alas, I am not a wolf. Yet my understanding, respect, compassion and appreciation of men generally leaves me with a favorable bias toward an entire gender.
The actual power in this stance is that I naturally seek to understand their point of view, and I also assume good intention. Rarely have I met a male leader who intentionally kept a woman from fully stepping up and into her potential. It’s so much more complicated than that. Removed from my point of view about the advancement of women in leadership is blame and shame—toward anyone. I truly believe that there is a host of unintended bad impact from well-intended, bias-filled policies and practices and belief systems. It’s a new day, one where women want the experience of true equitable treatment. Because men hold the majority of leadership roles, they need to step up to the challenge and create fair playing fields where sponsorship is availed to those who don’t look like them. While those in positions of power don’t like to lose their power, I have a good deal of time for any man in leadership who wants to create diversity in his senior team. There is work to do, and leaders need to step up.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this: men have a critically important role to play in the role of women in leadership. Fathers, brothers, mentors, sponsors, coaches, managers, friends, boyfriends and husbands―no matter how a man identifies, he has women in his life whom he can choose to believe in fully. Without men, the retention and advancement of women in leadership and gender parity overall will not happen. This is a game of togetherness if there ever was one. Where can we all start? Perhaps being aware of the toilet seat? I suppose I could put it up when I’m done once in a while…