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Why Women Should Go for “Impossible” Jobs

Issue 110— October 14, 2019

Greetings from Arizona where I’m up reading (time zone change) with no one else awake to talk to about this horrible article The Next CEO Of Wells Fargo Will Be A Female…Human Shield, subtitled “Giving the worst job in American banking to a woman is the wrong way to make history.”

I shake my head.

Obviously the man who wrote it can’t imagine anyone taking a big “impossible” job for any reason other than “wanting power.” Power in his traditional male model “power over” mindset, that is.

He can’t even imagine that someone might relish the challenge or love the business so much that she is willing to use her “power TO” change it, retool it, improve it, revitalize it. Or that a really smart woman or man knows that taking over a company in chaos can be the very best opportunity she or he will ever have to demonstrate their chops and the vision to do what others think is impossible at worst, or risky to one’s career at best.

A blatant example of implicit gender bias about leadership.

Why We Need to Shift From Power over to Power TO.

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Unless the organization is such a disaster that no one could resuscitate it (Juul for example, to name names, should either go away or take its assets and do something healthy with them), I advise women to snap up those opportunities.

Because it’s precisely when companies are in crisis or chaos that they are open to new ideas and new ways of doing things, and a leader can move effectively to implement needed changes in her own way. Carpe the chaos — that’s my Leadership Power Tool #5

Let’s face it: putting a woman into any top job is still paradigm shifting in and of itself. And while not all women lead in the same way, more women than men are acculturated to make the power paradigm shift absolutely necessary for business success today and even more so in the future. That mindset shift is at the heart of what I found to be the breakthrough secret for women who are or aspire to be leaders in any sector — public service and nonprofits, and across all professions as well as business and entrepreneurship.

It’s not an airy-fairy idea. I’ve personally taken “impossible” jobs before, where I fixed a broken institution, retooled its vision, and set it back onto a growth trajectory. Thornton McEnery just doesn’t get how women think and work. Or, apparently, how exhilarating it is to do the impossible. And to use the power of intention in a positive, purposeful way.

Women aren’t waiting to become leaders in traditional companies. Many like Denise Lee, Founder of Alala, are starting and growing companies. I am honored to be part of this campaign.

Ambition’s Gender-based Differences Affect Intention

But let’s assume for a moment that McEnery has a point. Maybe all this work for gender parity is for naught. What difference would it make if we reached full gender equality, equity, parity — whatever is your favorite term — because women simply adopted traditional, and let’s face it, traditionally male, ideas about power? That’s a fair question.

And it’s why I caution women to be intentional about maintaining our culturally learned qualities that result in higher profits for companies with more women in their upper leadership. 

Most research about why women were hold so few C-Suite posts conclude that women have less ambition than men. Well, I thought that’s just not true.

So I dug deeper and identified the missing factor in every women’s leadership program I studied. It’s women’s culturally learned ambivalence about power. And this in turn leads not to lower levels of ambition, but to lower levels of intention: the likelihood of seeing oneself in that C-Suite role and knowing it can and will happen. 

The researchers were looking through our culturally learned lenses on power and ambition, biased toward male leaders. As a result, leadership gurus told women how to be like men to succeed. But that ultimately didn’t work, because it wasn’t authentic. And women were smart enough not to want the kind of “power over” culture that men thrived in. After all, women had borne the brunt of many negative aspects of that kind of power, like abuse, violence, and objectification.

That plus implicit bias in the system makes us stand back, be more risk averse, and less likely to self-advocate.

With good friends at our annual Arizona State University football game, enjoying the president’s tailgate party on a perfect day.

The traditional view of power also postulated that it is a finite pie, whereas women, who had been socialized to be more collaborative, love it when I show them that power is an infinite resource, especially when it comes to the most important human attributes: innovation, imagination, and ingenuity. We can always make more pies.

So, when women change how they think about the power paradigm to the power TO, masks fall off and they say, “Oh yes, I want that kind of power. I can innovate, create, and make life better for my family, my company, my community.

Once I saw that happening, I knew I had cracked the code holding women back and I knew we could help women have the tools to thrive in the world as it is while changing it.

This Harvard Business Review report has some dandy data predicting how long it will take to reach gender parity by region and what the gap is in economic, political, educational, and health/survival dimensions if we keep on doing what we have always done. Huge thanks to my friend Nicole Yershon for the article. One way to disrupt that predicted glacial progress, while improving organizations’ performance, is to proactively recruit and hire women for top slots.

Where I’ll be speaking this week. More women taking the lead!

And what’s the worst that can happen if we don’t succeed?

Any progress is going to be better than where we are now. But the more individual success stories we have, the more motivated we’ll be to keep going.

Glass Cliff theories be damned. It’s super fun to take on a big challenge and do the impossible. I want women to know that, and not to be afraid to apply for top jobs in troubled companies. In addition, it’s important for boards and search committees not to defer automatically to the safe choices, the ones most like the people they’ve always seen in the job.

Postscript: The new CEO of Wells Fargo is a traditional choice — Charles Scharf, a middle aged white male who was most recently CEO of BNY Mellon. 

I wish him luck. We’ll watch how it goes, and report back to you.

A relevant podcast. Listen, share, subscribe, rate, and review to help us reach more women with tips for success.

GLORIA FELDTis the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet @GloriaFeldt.

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