I didn’t play with dolls much growing up. I opted for a game of catch or a trip to Fenway Park, a Giants football game on TV or a putting lesson from Dad. So when it came time to grow up it was probably no surprise that I chose high school and college athletics to prepare me for a twenty-five year forward dive into a male dominated field of work; technology.
Unlike those early days of my career, there are now more women in the workplace than at any time in US history. We outnumber men. We hold roles that range from assistants, to middle managers, executives and everything in between. While still a minority on Boards of Directors and in the C Suites, the gap is closing. Times have changed and the change matters.
Much has been said about the difference between men and women in the workplace; how they make decisions, how they manage change, and how they lead people. But perhaps nothing draws out the contrast between genders like those moments of organizational upheaval. In all my years as a technology leader in several organizations, I somehow found myself still grounded in those generational lessons of my youth; that hard work, loyalty and sacrifice pay off in the end.
When change happened to me, it became very personal. I began to question the very foundation of my workforce mantras and embark on a journey to reinvent my brand. I am reminded that how women handle change is perhaps as different from women and men--as it is from woman to woman. And while every woman has her own story, her own journey, here’s mine.
Shattering the Glass Ceiling
It was an April morning on my drive to work and I’d worked most of the weekend. In my role, working nights and weekends had become the norm, and unfortunately I had stopped realizing this was anything but normal. I was completely exhausted from the months of long hours and extensive travel, and here I was heading right back into the chaos, dysfunction and corporate antics I’d come to know as an IT Division Head in a large Financial Services organization. No one believed more than I in the altruistic mission of our company. Caring for the financial health and retirement of those in the most noble of professions, teaching and academia, was as good as it gets. It was an inspiring and galvanizing mission set in motion a hundred years earlier by the father of philanthropy in this country.
Our company, like many others, was going through a substantial leadership change. Changes at the top of an organization often result in a trickle down effect, and I knew this was about to affect me. I had worked for several people over the course of four years and I wasn’t sure I had the energy to re-start a new agenda or absorb yet another change in direction. I understood the game at this level and, in fact, I’d played it myself. So I decided to offer my help, opting to take a cooperative approach in this transition and offered my own role up for the taking if that was the necessary path. But the offer had been rebuffed with the assurance that I would never have to worry about surprises and that we would talk in advance about any changes.
Feeling somewhat prepared for the day, I checked my email that morning to find a request to meet my new boss as soon as I got into the office. My intuition said something wasn’t right, and it was on target. Within an hour I was told that my role was being eliminated and that I was free to leave the campus by noon. While I saw this coming, and thought it was something I wanted, nothing prepared me for the impact of what instantly felt like failure. I was left contemplating what I’m sure countless others had felt before me; dispensability. My journey of self-doubt and self-recreation had just begun.
A feeling of betrayal, expendability, and loneliness were the collateral damages of being terminated. All the commitment, the 24/7 stress of being a divisional CIO in a company engaged in change, a thousand people to oversee, project plans and deadlines, the things that had made up my life were instantly gone. My core beliefs in loyalty, hard work and sacrifice didn’t match what had just happened. Was I losing my identity? What do I now do with this excess mental capacity? Had I not been good enough?
I’d always prepared for the next step of my professional career. I spent the next several days and weeks in a daze of disbelief, trying to make sense of what happened. And then it happened. Disbelief gave way to what I can only describe as grief. The immediate phone calls of support and encouragement came, but then silence, and I was left only with my thoughts and myself. I was angry. But anger can be tiring. Instead I chose to be reflective, and somehow knew that giving myself the time to understand what this change meant was an important first step. Over the year ahead, I traveled extensively, spent my time with friends and my beloved pets, and started to imagine what might be next.
I’ve heard it said that we learn the most about ourselves when we’re uncomfortable. I now believe we learn the most when we sit in our discomfort and force ourselves to learn from it. It is courageous to let sadness invade us. My natural instinct was to fix this, make the hurt go away, and feel better. I’d always been in the driver’s seat of my life. Now I was barely a passenger. Looking back I believe that learning to handle my grief and demoralization was the turning point for me. My role as a corporate technology change agent has just evolved into change agent for my life.
As a female senior executive in a male dominated industry, I had set out to become successful in a distinctly feminine way. I’d created my own style and discovered that the satisfaction of leading and helping people made me truly happy. So naturally, I dusted off the resume and began the proverbial job search to “replace” the one with all the trappings I’d just lost. I interviewed with several organizations with exciting challenges in attractive markets, but pushed away these CIO level opportunities if they didn’t match the size, caliber and compensation package to which I had become accustomed. It was as if I needed to validate myself to those around me, including myself, by once again taking on a substantial IT role in a large organization.
Over the months, what I began to realize was that I dismissed many of these opportunities if the magnitude of the role and dollars didn’t add up. It was as if I had allowed these two components to be the primary decision points. I had to expand my own view of value. I knew developing people and offering professional expertise was the greatest part of the work for me. And yet, I had not factored these into the equation of evaluating new opportunities. Compensation and size of division had defined success in so many ways, until now.
My challenge was letting go of how I had allowed my job and my role to define me. I created a personal value proposition based on what I did, instead of who I was. And once this shift happened for me, I was suddenly entertaining the notion that maybe my future wouldn’t look like my past. And when I finally listened to that nagging voice inside, I began to understand that I needed to evaluate opportunities not based on the price I wanted to be paid, but rather what I was willing to pay. This was going to be a gradual change from the mental model of what I was--to what I could now become. The change needed to occur inside of me. And it was liberating. I felt as though I was back in the drivers seat.
Women in the Workforce
It has been suggested that women have a particular resilience in how they handle change, which is perhaps different from how men might handle a similar change. As I worked with and managed men across nearly 25 years, my observation is that men often innately bury emotional impacts of change and seek to quickly replace what has been lost. I’m not suggesting this is empirically true, but from my particular experience, discovering how to be resilient gave me the ability to evolve and move forward. It fueled me to take on the future, and recast myself into a wonderful opportunity versus perpetuating the same tired course I was traveling.
For the first time, I began to define for myself what would make me happy. I re-examined my experiences, and how many different ways I could apply and leverage them. Turns out this didn’t mean taking up photography or opening up a flower shop, as wonderful as both of those ideas sound. If I stayed true to what I really enjoyed, helping people and being part of a team, I discovered there were many ways to apply this skill set.
Old habits are hard to break. Even looking at different ways to apply what I’d learned had me drifting back into how big a role was or could be. I kept reminding myself that there was a price to be paid for this, and in the past, I had paid for it dearly. I’d lost my boundaries, or better yet, had never really defined them. So I began to draft what these boundaries would be moving forward. Ultimately, I chose a path that would not in-debt me to corporate compensation and power structures. What became most important to me was my own autonomy, personal control of my decisions, and my future. This has changed my life.
The Enterprise of Equality
It has been said that change is what happens when the pain of holding on becomes greater than the fear of letting go. For the first time in my life, I let go and became a change agent for my life’s progress. I wonder why I never saw this as my sole obligation before. I have come from way back there; from defining my life and myself by how much I earned, how many people I managed, how large the company for which I worked…to here; liberated in that I am the value I bring regardless of size and amount.
Change will happen. It is what we do with it that matters. I’m certainly not the first person ever to endure this kind of impact. But it was a first for me. It wasn’t my decision to take it on, but it was my decision to manage my reaction to it and sit in the discomfort long enough to learn. We must chip away at the old encumbering mental models and redefine our guardrails. Only then, can we embrace what’s possible, and step forward into something new, different, and rewarding. In doing so we see again and again the value in our selves and the lives we lead.