If you have any doubt that women’s roles are becoming more important in the workplace, look no further than the upcoming new Star Wars film. In the film, the main robot character, BB-8, has been designed to be female, according to news reports…and not just female, but pivotal to the plot and strong in character.
I love this new twist on Star Wars, as it occurs to me that it is our national standard to default to assuming most things are male, especially robots and CEOs, unless they are pink and purple and frilly. But most of the strong, fierce and successful women I know are neither pink nor purple nor frilly but are far closer to BB-8: curvy perhaps, but strong in character and pivotal to the plot. More often than not, they dress in black like the ninjas they are.
I read this story about BB-8 while on my way home from a retreat with a group of very senior female healthcare leaders. It’s an organized group who meet once a year to share thoughts, stories, encouragement and support.
The group, which shall remain nameless and for which I will provide no specific details, Fight Club style (the 1st rule of Fight Club: you don’t talk about Fight Club), consists of about 32 CEOs, financial gurus, public policy leaders, not-for-profit executives and other such women who sit squarely at the top of their game and who have been at it for a while (there are also emeritus members as the group has been going for almost 30 years). The members come from all over the country and are each nationally recognized in their own way. Some are nationally recognized in every way – household names in healthcare at least, if not even more broadly. It feels pretty amazing to have been invited to join this group and I was struck by how many actually took 2 days out of their schedule to be there (about 23 made it to this meeting).
What these women share, aside from membership and a strong affinity to spa appointments, is the desire to connect with others like them in a setting where they can freely and unabashedly share their wisdom and accomplishments, but also open up entirely, discussing everything from family and career challenges, personal adversity, health issues and fears. If women of this nature ever talked about those things in the workplace, they would be branded as weak. In the safety of the group, it demonstrated their power and prowess to lead—and the pivotal nature of their roles–especially when things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Never forget: everyone has a story behind their exterior and not all of them have happy beginnings, middles or endings. It reminded me how important it is to be kind when I encounter less-than-lovely people and to listen for the story behind the façade that may belie the face they show the world.
In any event, the primary activity of the 2-day retreat was to allow each individual 15-20 minutes uninterrupted to tell the group anything they wanted to about their lives. No rules for the speaker except to be yourself and to ask for help if you need it. It was a profound experience watching these women, many of who would normally intimidate the hell out of me, discussing what scares the hell out of them, as well as their recent triumphs.
Very much in contrast to the stereotype of women undermining each other, these women were all-in to provide advice, support and a pretty amazing form of kinship to one another. It was a profound experience. As I sat there listening to each take their turn, I was struck by some of the advice and observations I heard. Nearly every single person said something that was worth writing down to remember over and over. Because I am often asked by younger women than myself (which is rapidly becoming a larger and larger number of people, much to my chagrin), for advice on how to navigate the workplace and life at the same time, I decided to collect some of the especially notable quotes to pass on to my sisters-in-arms. Here they are below. I hope they are as helpful to you as they are to me. Whether you are male or female, this is good stuff.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day.” (originally said by Peter Drucker, it means that you may have a great product or technology, but if you have a toxic company culture, you are more likely than not to fail anyway)
“Sometimes a staff can be too enthusiastic to move ahead. Without good leadership teams will bust right through a brick wall even when there’s a door right next to it.”
“I love conflict. It just demonstrates to me that there is a 3rd way to do things: go around.”
“There is nothing like feeling that nobody is watching you and you can just have fun doing the work you want to do.” (on being your own boss)
“It is gratifying to be at an age where you are living a life with a lot more to learn but with a lot less to prove.” (on being over 50 in the work world)
“You are only as happy as your least happy child.” (so true: it’s important to recognize the impact that your family has on your overall well-being and work performance)
“It’s important to go after what you want when you want it. I call it WYO WYO” (pronounced woo-woo). (FYI, this is a corollary to my own favorite saying which will undoubtedly be on my tombstone if my daughter has anything to do with ordering it: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”)
“Work is the most dangerous form of procrastination when it comes to thinking about a needed career change.” (On prioritizing the right things when you know it’s time to find a new job)
“You may not know what your next step is or what you are supposed to do, but if you approach the world with openness and intention, things will come to you.”
“You are always becoming. It’s not a destination.” (in the context of career and how important it is to understand that there is always a meaningful next place to go)
“It is essential to take care of yourself as a person if you are going to do your best at work and in relationships. The airlines tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before others for a reason.”
I believe that living by these thoughts will make women even stronger in character. They are already pivotal to the plot. Thanks very much to my colleagues for these great words of wisdom.