One Friday night I stayed late at the office chatting with my executive assistant, Ali. I made the mistake of getting into a spirited discussion with her.
I usually come out the fool.
Ali is not only an assistant, she is a consigliere. Her insights about people are incisive. She can often help me figure out who we shouldn’t hire just based on her observations of how they interact during the interview process.
She is just as perceptive about the team. She gets to be there when the boss is not around. She keeps her ear low to the ground and sees team dynamics with clear eyes.
That Friday night we were talking about one team in particular. I raised the topic of the interplay between gender and teams.
My theory was that men help each other succeed at companies, whereas women hold each other down. While men form coalitions, socialize together, make friends with their peers, cozy up to their bosses and help “their guys” get promoted, women operate as individuals who see ascendancy as a zero-sum game.
She schooled me with her reply. Her view was that this was just another way to blame women for the challenges they face in the workplace. Not only does it confirm a manifest destiny that there are limited seats for women at the top, it puts the onus on women to achieve equality in the workplace rather than the men who enjoy a disproportionate share of the power.
Women aren’t broken. Organizations are.
It’s not the job of women and other minorities to assimilate, it’s the job of the organization to evolve so that assimilation isn’t necessary.
This past year I attended a CEO conference where I got to do a fireside chat. There were at least 50 white male CEOs in the audience.
At one point I polled the audience.
“Raise your hand if you are an African-American CEO.”
One hand went up.
“Raise your hand if you are a Latino CEO.”
Zero hands went up.
“Raise your hand if you are a woman and a CEO.”
Three hands went up.
“Raise your hand if you are a woman of color and a CEO.”
No hands went up.
Women at Work
My eyes have been opened wide by the Network for Executive Women board I sit on. One of the things I see on that board is tremendous collaboration between the women on it, and a fierce spirit of support amongst the women at the NEW events I now attend.
When I look around at what’s happening in the marketplace, I see the opposite of my theory from that Friday evening conversation with Ali: I see women helping women. I see it in venture capital. I see it amongst entrepreneurs. I see it with clubs for women, women’s groups within organizations, women doing everything they can to enable other women to grow and ascend.
There is absolutely no evidence for what I had said that night about women holding each other down. There is only evidence that women get limited seats at tables run largely by men. There is only evidence for women being paid less than men. There is only the deafening silence of men who are not talking about how to enable women to rise and, just as bad, those who are talking about it but not doing anything about it.
The Lift and the Climb
We have a ton of heavy lifting to do. First we have to acknowledge that the real way to ascend is to lift while we climb. As we advance in our careers, there is nothing to stop us from bringing others up along the way. There is a trample the way to the top approach, and then there is a bring as many with us approach — taking our expanding influence and network and raising others as we go.
The follower-ship that ensues only pushes us higher. Once we’ve taken as a first principle the power of lifting, we have to focus our limited energy on how we do it. We have to lift people like us, which comes naturally. We then have to acknowledge a painful truth, which is that some of us have an easier climb than others. We have to work much, much harder to lift people who have the more difficult climbs.
One of the myths of capitalism is that someone else has to fail for you to succeed. It is the exact opposite: many people have to be succeeding around you for you to be successful.
The paradox is that lifting others doesn’t slow down the climb.
It makes it a lot more meaningful.
It makes it a lot more fun.
And it actually speeds it up.