Closing the Gap: Finding More Realistic Role Models

“I don’t know how you do it”

“I don’t know how you do it” — a phrase I must hear frequently from friends, my parents, or people on my team. Sometimes I take it as admiration and genuine curiosity. Other times, I don’t hear it as the implied compliment that it is.

What I’ve come to realize is that there’s a big problem lurking behind that innocent comment: a lack of visibility into the realities of success, the different forms it can take, and the different paths people chart to get there. As a result, we all tend to hold ourselves to unrealistic standards based on impressions of what success looks, sounds, or feels like. So, it’s not surprising when we feel like we constantly fall short — because no matter your definition of success, chances are you haven’t been presented with a clear picture of the choices and steps it takes to get there.

The myth of having it all

The truth is, no one has it all. That’s physically impossible. But it’s easy to read into others’ success and come out with a rose-colored vision of how it all pans out. And, it’s difficult to chart a path to success until you are exposed to models of success that you can mirror. For women, this is doubly an issue because there are fewer women in leadership positions.

Recent research conducted by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org highlights that women are highly underrepresented in senior leadership roles. (This isn’t new news.) But according to the study, which gathered data from 118 companies and close to 30,000 employees, only 17% of the female workforce occupy C-suite positions, a 1% increase from three years ago when a similar study was conducted. At that rate, the study claims, it will likely take 100 years for U.S. corporations to achieve gender parity.

There are a lot of external factors that play into this slow rate of advancement but there are some things we can control when it comes to pursuing our career goals, the primary one being the choices we make. Our career paths (and our lives outside of work) are all but a set of small choices we make along the way. The set of choices of where and how you spend your time is powerful. If we don’t consciously map out how we spend our time, life’s pushes and pulls will dictate that for us. Fundamentally, making it all work is a series of trade offs and explicitly making those choices is important.

For me, thinking about how I split my time in a pie is helpful. I think about what percentage of my time and energy goes toward career and professional advancement, family, friends, hobbies, etc. As you can see, despite the social hustle-and-bustle of the holidays, I haven’t spent a lot of time with friends lately. I know I don’t want to take away from the time I spend with family, but maybe I can work from home for a day or two instead of commuting so I can grab dinner with a friend. [I also left sleep off of the chart; I am blessed with little need for a lot of sleep. It’s an unfair advantage, I know.] The problem for all of us is there’s a delicate balance to spending enough times in the areas that are important and small disruptions like a sick child or a sudden business trip can throw the whole thing out of wack.

Draw your own life’s pie chart

What would yours look like? Take a moment to draw it out and assign percentages. Are there any parts that you wish were much bigger? If so, think about the “smart sacrifices” you can make to help grow the areas of your life where you feel you are lacking.

  • Do you decline social invitations so you can dedicate a few hours per week to a new strategy which could help you land that promotion?
  • Do you consciously choose which part of your life takes the back burner so you can spend time managing a 30-person team?
  • Do you draw a line in the sand when it comes to taking on extra-credit projects at work so you can preserve one-on-one time with your spouse?

Personal lives and careers are layered with constant compromise, and what success looks like to each of us is as individual as the hair on our heads. I have successful friends who don’t want kids because they are more than happy with their lives’ existing pie charts and I have other friends who have changed careers entirely, opting for what they consider more kid-friendly occupations. Yet, we are far less likely to see these women as “having it all”.

I think that as a society, we envision role models as people who are perfect, but a role model is just a person whose success can be emulated. Role models are real people, and real people make mistakes. They hit bumps in the road like the rest of us, but when they do they choose to keep on driving. Bill Gates said it well: “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” I encourage leaders to share more of their mistakes and what they’ve learned from them to help debunk the idea that role models have had flawless careers. Let’s also make those trade-offs and smart sacrifices known so others can find inspiration in the imperfect.

I’m kicking off a project to help paint pictures of more realistic role models

There are an infinite number of pathways to leadership, no two of which are exactly the same or without obstacles. Take this five-minute survey so I can learn more about what you’re thinking about. What are the things that you think are going to prevent you from reaching senior leadership? As you think of role models you want to hear from, what do you want to hear? Their choices / pivots / mistakes? How do we better paint the infinite number of paths to leadership to inspire you? What choices have you made in order to advance your career or other parts of your life? The survey’s findings will be used to fuel future article about realistic career paths and the many different routes to success.

Kerry Cooper is CEO of Choose Energy, the leading online marketplace for energy choice. She is a wife of one, mom of two (five, if you count her pets), she secretly loves country music, and publicly loves podcasts. @kerrywcooper

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