We all need support systems – especially women, who tend to value the collective above individuality. I was recently reminded of the importance of support systems when I was contacted for some advice by a female executive who has worked her way up through the ranks of her company and is about to be appointed Chief Operating Officer. While it should be a time for celebration, she instead finds herself frustrated and unfulfilled. In spite of the great strides she has made at work, each day she faces a male-dominated company, complete with a masculine value system which leaves her feeling alone and unsupported. On top of this, most of her female coworkers have left to raise families, leaving her with even fewer confidants. It’s lonely at the top.
As a result of these feelings of alienation, she is now considering quitting to do something else with her career, but is concerned that she may regret it. What should she do? Where will she find counsel to make such a big decision? How can she continue to use her wealth of talent in this job or the next while finding more satisfaction in her work life?
I was impressed with this reader’s awareness and her desire to seek help when she noticed the waves of dissatisfaction starting to lick at her feet – it’s so important to notice these little waves before they get big enough to knock you over! So many of us ignore the signs, telling ourselves to “quit being so silly” as we continue to march forward, putting our happiness and eventually our health at risk. Women are relationship-oriented creatures and we need group acceptance to feel safe (a tendency that probably has its origins in our status as the physically weaker sex). There are a few relationships that can make all the difference to our success and satisfaction. Here’s what I recommended to my reader:
1. Find a mentor. This can be a formal or informal association, but it should be with someone you trust and who has been through what you’re now experiencing. They can provide advice regarding the “lay of the land” or what could be “over the horizon” based on their own experience. A mentor is like a sage: someone with more experience to whom you turn for feedback. Just having someone to bounce ideas off of can increase our feelings of connectedness, as well as supply additional knowledge to specific situations when your base is insufficient. We have to solve our own problems, but with the benefit of a mentor’s expertise, we’ll be encouraged to take more risks and be better positioned for greater rewards.
2. Engage a coach. I belong to a few groups of executive women, many of whom are not only coaches themselves, but also have their own coaches. This outside perspective helps them walk the narrow minefield of expectations that women face: we are supposed to be strong, tough, and unemotional to be considered good leaders, yet society doesn’t like women with these characteristics. It’s no wonder we need some guidance! A coach can help us strategize about our future and play devil’s advocate regarding our plans. They can also be a cheerleader when we need some encouragement (they don’t need pom-poms, just enthusiasm for our cause!). I remember the first session I had with a coach, and what a great relief it was to hear someone say, “I remember going through that myself.”
3. Establish a personal board. This functions much like a business board in that it’s meant as a check on performance. The members may be consulted individually or as a group, and are often valuable networking tools. Executive coach Patty Beach often recommends her clients build a personal board of 4-5 people to reach out to for advice, as well as to answer questions about important life steps or help move them through difficult situations. Women are often reluctant to seek help (we’re so much better at giving it), but Patty says that being asked to be on such a board can be a big honor. It’s kind of like being asked to be a Godfather or a maid of honor – these positions of service are rewarding! If you believe that being asked to be on such a board is an honor, then it isn’t so scary to ask the people you admire to be on your board.
In a world where we are becoming increasingly isolated, it’s imperative that we consider finding mentors, coaches, and personal boards. The self-assurance you’ll find is an external validation of your internal compass. We all need positive mirrors to enhance our energy. It may feel risky to open ourselves up to others, but you’ll find them anxious to help – after all, the only thing better than getting encouragement is giving encouragement. None of us were meant to travel this journey alone, so start today by reaching out. It will change your life for the better!