I have worked for a wonderful company for over 25 years during which time it has grown from a small local setup to a business with global reach from offices in five countries. I was given opportunity upon opportunity over the years and built a career that covered a series of interesting and fulfilling roles. What drove me forward was in part a need for confirmation that I was good enough and in part a love of what our company does.
I joined DrivenWoman in 2016 hoping it would help me build more confidence to have a voice in management meetings. I found the male dominated board slightly domineering and at times patriarchal.
DrivenWoman gave me a setting where at first I found benefit in meeting likeminded and caring women – strangers with whom I found I could be completely open. But then Lifeworking started to have a more profound effect.
Looking back, I can identify each of the crucial ‘aha’ moments which led to a fundamental shift in my professional life – let me share them.
6 Empowering Lessons For Leading the Feminine Way
1. Learning kindness towards myself
A fellow group member observed that I was very hard on myself, something many of us women suffer from – and that I should try to write down each day the good things I had achieved. I did so – even only for a short while, but it helped me put a little more focus on the good things – a little daily celebration of achievements.
2. BUILDING A DEEPER AWARENESS
We reflected on our childhood ‘baggage’ and on my way home from the group I was wondering why I had this intense need for approval – my parents had always been supportive, encouraging and complimentary of my progress and choices in life, so it wasn’t from them.
Then it suddenly struck me. I was standing on the platform at St Pancras station and my knees went slightly wobbly: I remembered a moment (I still remember vividly the surroundings) when my grandfather said the words ‘you’re ok, too’, indicating that my older sister was their shining first grandchild – and I was just ‘ok’.
So right there on the platform at St Pancras station, I realised that there was an inherit need to seek for male approval and our chairman represented my grandfather. This awareness was significant. Understanding that we women tend to seek for approval of our male colleagues that has been instilled perhaps long ago was freeing.
3. USING SELF DOUBT IN A POSITIVE WAY
I attended the Festival of Doers and was amazed at the brilliant speakers, the openness and sharing and starting to understand that there was a whole movement underway. A movement of saying ‘enough is enough’ to a way that worked for men, but really doesn’t work for women.
I attended a talk by Hazel Gale, a female kickboxing champion who told us what we all knew in isolation: that we each have this monster telling us that we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not brave enough – the message was different for each of us but in effect it represented the lack of confidence and the greater self-criticism we women tend towards.
Hazel he gave us the greatest possible insight: you cannot fight that monster, because it’s part of you! But you can turn it into your coach!
So, from then on, whenever my monster said to me ‘you’re not good enough’ I stopped and reflected on why that was, and what I could do to get better! I became better organised, better prepared for meetings, better at communicating – my monster became my coach!
4. LANDING MY PURPOSE
I was making progress but I still couldn’t master ‘the art of confidence’ and I didn’t know why. Until the Lifeworking group session when we did the exercise on authenticity vs conforming. I analysed the components of my role and was most surprised to find a number of activities which I thought I enjoyed were all under ‘conforming’ – and a very clear common theme was emerging in the authenticity area: all to do with people and talent management and development. This was only a relatively small component of my role at the time but so fulfilling!
So now to the all-important small steps towards big goals (this is what we always do at DrivenWoman!): the first action I committed to was to talk to our CEO about this, to tell him that this was what was my strength and what I should do more of.
Now, sometimes the stars do align – our group personnel director retiring, after 30 years, so my revelation was very welcome. From then on, things moved forward at a pace – I was appointed to the role of HR director, a first step to learn the ropes and gradually take over from her.
Within a few months I felt more at home in this role than any previous role in my 28 years with the company. My deep knowledge of our product and our culture were hugely beneficial and learning HR was a relatively easy process. At one DrivenWoman meeting I talked to the group of my despair that our management meetings were always fraught affairs with much focus on the negative.
Why couldn’t we just enable everybody to speak freely, positively to solve business issues together?
At this point my Group Leader exclaimed “that’s your purpose! That’s what you need to do”.
Wow! Tough ask!
How could I ever address this I thought at the time? But the seed had been sowed!
5. CHANGING MY COMPANY’S PATRIARCHAL LEADERSHIP MODEL
So now DrivenWoman was for me not just about my personal career development and happiness. It opened up a new realisation about how badly suited the old patriarchal structures are to women in the work place. And I’m not just talking about the need for flexible hours!
I started to gather insights from our group meetings about how women work differently, what makes us all question ourselves so much and what we have to offer that is so different to men. I wanted to understand leading the feminine way. This was probably my biggest and most important discovery.
We have a strong representation of female leaders in our company, and yet our leadership model was more suited for the masculine way.
I took the opportunity to make this the point where we would part with the old patriarchal structures and introduce a more matriarchal approach.
I put the results of my findings to our CEO and explained to him that the way to successful leadership would be to understand the following:
1. Women are on average 30% less confident than men – so there is a much greater need for positive reinforcement and confirmation of what we do well in order to build a team of confident female leaders. And it takes confidence to take daring strides forward for the business so to succeed he would need to focus more on acknowledging positive actions and less on criticism.
2. Women (mothers) are giving up so much more when they choose to have a career rather than spending more time with their children – so it has to be worth the sacrifice! They have to do something they can truly believe in. It was time to make sure we have a clear purpose and a positive environment.
3. Women work together, support each other and share in each other’s successes. This goes right back to hunter-gatherers: a man would be celebrated for single-handedly bringing back a major kill that would feed the tribe, but it took a collaborative effort to gather enough berries to be sufficient to feed them.
A collaborative approach is required in a strong female leadership team. We needed to create a meeting culture which allowed for discussion, sharing and consensus – rather than the old ‘tell’ approach. This is also why trying to motivate female leaders by creating competition between them doesn’t work in the way it does with men.
4. All people are emotional – to different degrees, of course, it just manifests itself differently in men and women. So, if one of your female leaders bursts into tears, don’t tell her not to be emotional, don’t think she’s not strong enough or not cut out for the job – it’s just her frustration showing in a different way where a man would get angry and ‘throw his toys out of the pram’.
Soon after this conversation, I was appointed to a Group role with responsibility for our culture and talent and the remit to help build this thinking into our 5-year plan.
My purpose coming to fruition, we now all have a voice in the meetings, and challenges and issues are solved through contribution from each of the amazing individuals on our management team.
I am confident that this matriarchal approach will now start to filter through the company and lead to people feeling more appreciated and better supported – time will tell!
6. LEARNING TO ASK FOR WHAT I’M WORTH
The final point of learning from DrivenWoman is about money. There are many reasons for there being a significant gender pay gap in favour of men. One of them is our tendency to be less confident and so likely to suffer from imposter syndrome. How can you possibly go into salary negotiations with any confidence if you feel uncertain about the value you bring?
We’ve had healthy discussions in our DrivenWoman groups about money and being paid what we are worth.
For the first time ever did I feel truly confident in the value I bring and the impact I have on the happiness of our people and therefore the productivity of the company.
Would any of this have been possible without DrivenWoman? I truly believe not!
I hope I am just one of many who will find their way through to a position where they can have a positive female impact – and continue the change away from the limiting and at times toxic patriarchal structures and cultures leading into radical career success.
Birgitte Woehlk is a DrivenWoman member in London and a Group HR Director and a Board Member
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