Be Bold, Lean In
Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad daughter/wife/mother.
Internal obstacles are rarely discussed and often underplayed. These Internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today by increasing our self-confidence “Sit at the Table”, getting our partners to do more at home “Make Your Partner a Real Partner”, not holding ourselves to unattainable standards “The Myth of Doing It All”. We can start this very moment, the choice is ours…
“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalise the negative messages we get throughout our lives — the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet. Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions. This is not a list of things other women have done. I have made every mistake on this list. At times, I still do.”
This small piece is the real life experience of the most looked up to woman — Sheryl Sandberg. This note is to remind us all to Lean In, BE Ambitious in any pursuit.
To move towards a leading, rather than a following role, one needs to embrace challenges and risks. When you find something you love doing and you do it with gusto, everything else falls along automatically.
“So please ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it.”
— Sheryl Sandberg
Feeling like a Fraud
Women need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking ‘I want to do that — and I’ll learn by doing it.’
Many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are — impostors with limited skills or abilities. This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name — “The Impostor Syndrome.”
From not having worked ever, to directly becoming a founder/ leader always made me feel fraudulent. I said no to a lot of opportunities when I was just starting out because I thought, ‘That’s not what my degree is in’ or ‘I don’t know about that domain.’ In retrospect, at a certain point it’s your ability to learn quickly and contribute quickly that matters.
One of the things I learnt is that there is no perfect fit when you’re looking for the next big thing to do. You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around. The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.
Author Ken Auletta summarised this phenomenon in The New Yorker when he observed that for women, “Self-doubt becomes a form of self defence.” In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others. We put ourselves down before others can.
Fierce Output Ownership
If we want the outcome to be different, we have to do something different about it.
So often I’ve faltered despite reading, learning, hearing so much and asked some stupid questions. There were times I was told ‘Just do this!’, ‘Don’t ask me, Google it.’, and I would still be like ‘How do I do it?’ But today, thanks to my colleagues, I’m independent and take immediate action.
Occasionally, I worked on topics upto 80% and left it pending either because I was bored or it wasn’t urgently needed or I was not satisfied and I wouldn’t complete it till it’s peak hour. This was turning into a bad habit of leaving things incomplete. No output ownership.
To change this attitude of mine I was asked to read Lean In, within just a day and a half of the weekend. I was very nervous with the target, but how could I say no? I can’t. That would show me as weak and guilty of never doing what has been asked for and then how can I give targets that are time bound, to anyone else.
I started reading since I got into my car. It was my husband’s birthday. But if I didn’t take control of the situation, my new work life would prove unsustainable. I cancelled our personal evening plans but celebrated at night with a group of friends and continued reading on Sunday. I’m blessed to have a full time cook and house help who could manage everything in my absence and my husband overlooked everything to allow my full focus on reading.
Every job will demand some sacrifice. The key is to avoid unnecessary sacrifice. This is especially hard since our work culture values complete dedication. We worry that even mentioning other priorities makes us less valuable.
I had to attend a family get together and I was short of 30 pages from finishing my book and while reading it, I learnt “Don’t be afraid to ask, even if it seems like a long shot.” I needed extension of a few hours as I lost that many in pre planned important events which I couldn’t sacrifice and I picked up the phone asking for extension. He smiled and said treat on Saturday — home lunch (which was a friendly gesture.)
The ‘New Normal’ means that there are just not enough hours in the day.
In the ordinary, ‘It’s not about the number of hours, it’s about increasing efficiency in those hours.’ Many employees focus on hours clocked in the office rather than on achieving their goals as efficiently as possible. A shift to focusing more on results would benefit individuals and make companies more efficient and competitive. But when work piles on, hours are also equally important.
I’ve tried to create an environment of professionalism with high standards. When it was necessary to get a job done, I expected my subordinates to work around the clock. When that was not necessary, I wanted them to work normal hours, go home at a decent time, enjoy family and friends, read a novel, clear their heads, daydream, and refresh themselves. I wanted them to have a life outside the office. I am paying them for the quality of their work, not for the hours they work.
I’ve become much more efficient — more vigilant about only attending or setting up meetings that were truly necessary, more determined to maximise my output. I also started paying more attention to the working hours of those around me; cutting unnecessary meetings saved time for them as well. I tried to focus on what really mattered.
People could do much more if they simply BELIEVED in themselves.
I know that my success comes from hard work, help from others, and being at the right place at the right time. I feel a deep and enduring sense of gratitude to those who have given me opportunities and support. I believe that all of us — men and women alike — should acknowledge good fortune and thank the people who have helped us. No one accomplishes anything all alone. But I also know that in order to continue to grow and challenge myself, I have to believe in my own abilities. I still face situations that I fear are beyond my capabilities. I still have days when I feel like a fraud. And I still sometimes find myself spoken over and discounted while others sitting next to me are not.
I would not suggest that anyone move beyond feeling confident into arrogance or boastfulness. No one likes that in men or women. But feeling confident — or pretending that you feel confident — is necessary to reach for opportunities. It’s a cliché, but opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized.
I needed to make both an intellectual and an emotional adjustment. While it was hard to shake feelings of self-doubt, I could understand that there was a distortion. I would never possess effortless confidence, but I could challenge the notion that I was constantly headed for failure. When I felt like I was not capable of doing something, I’d remind myself that I did not fail all of my exams in college. Or even one. I learned to un distort the distortion.
I have tried to set more personal goals for learning new skills. It’s often painful, but I ask myself, ‘How can I improve?’ If I am afraid to do something, it is usually because I am not good at it or perhaps am too scared even to try.
The Myth of “Doing It All”
“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.” - Eric Schmidt, Founder, Google.
When I got the opportunity to work with my husband, it was exciting and satisfying as it meant spending more quality time and growing with my husband. Initially along with working I was deeply involved in household chores. Whenever I would have time I would get to clean, organise, re-organise, keep doing it again and again every few days. If delegating work, I would scrutinise everything and irrespective of how good it was I would tweak it. ANAL, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) is what everyone tagged me as and after sometime people stopped doing things as they were finding their efforts rejected and redone by me. I thought, ok I’ll do it myself so continued on my own. But I started getting exhausted and irritable. It was tiring to do everything.
Over time my partner noticed that I would quit for one reason only: I was burnt out, tired of working long hours and traveling. He said he could understand the complaint, but what he could not understand was that I would feel this way when I tried to occupy myself unnecessarily, never resting or giving my mind free space even during free time.
Trying to do it all and expecting that it all can be done exactly right is a recipe for disappointment.
I started learning where to focus my attention. I had to decide what mattered and what didn’t and I learned to be a perfectionist in only the things that mattered. I refused to worry about whether ‘the floors were shining or the pillows were positioned at the correct angle.’ You can’t be obsessive about these things that don’t matter. I realised I need to delegate work and create a team and encourage them for their good work and where not necessary apart from consumer experience learn to say ok and move on. Everyone came back to being happy and my workload was shared both at work and home.
The best way to make room for both life and career is to make choices deliberately — to set limits and stick to them.
It’s true!! People will always occupy you, but it is our own responsibility to draw the line, determine and plan how many hours are we willing to devote to all the side things and people. Personal entertainment sacrifice is better at times when workload is excessive so the body and mind can relax.
One thing true for all women — Our desire to be liked by everyone will hold us back.
It’s true, when you want to change things, you can’t please everyone. If you do please everyone, you aren’t making enough progress.
I would never claim to be able to find serenity or total focus in every moment. I am so far from that. But when I remember that no one can do it all and identify my real priorities at home and at work, I feel better, and I am more productive in the office and probably a better daughter in law as well.
The First Step to Finding a Path Forward
Asking for input is not a sign of weakness but often the first step to finding a path forward. If we want someone’s time we have to be crisp, focused and gracious. Ask for help and always follow up with the results of the discussion. Experienced people’s wisdom will help us avoid mistakes — and clean up the ones we weren’t smart enough to avoid.
Seek and Speak Truth
As kids grow up, we teach them to be polite, watch what they say, not hurt others’ feelings. But as we learn to speak appropriately, we lose something in authenticity.
Authentic communication is not always easy, but it is the basis for successful relationships at home and real effectiveness at work. Yet people constantly back away from honesty to protect themselves and others. This reticence causes and perpetuates all kinds of problems: uncomfortable issues that never get addressed, resentment that builds, unfit managers who get promoted rather than fired, and on and on. Often these situations don’t improve because no one tells anyone what is really happening. We are so rarely brave enough to tell the truth.
When I left from work at 4 and went home to work, it was scary to think that someone, even people working for me, might doubt my diligence or dedication. I would see other founders openly sharing their schedule; work mainly but sometimes even if it was chilling. They wanted to encourage others to personalise their schedules as well. I saw that it helped people to talk more openly and not pretend to work when they weren’t.
Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence. The more people can stick up for one another, the better. Sadly, this doesn’t always happen. When arguments turn into “she said/he said,” we all lose.
Being open to hearing the truth means taking responsibility for mistakes.
On being given a target to make product renders, the designer and I missed the deadline by a month. We were totally not aligned to output. We admitted it was more activity over productivity with no clear planning and we got down to metrics to improve and take responsibility.
My partner never made me feel like he was delegating work to me, he always worked to help me grow, gave me full responsibility since day one without interrupting or cross questioning unless really required.
What this shows: Sharing responsibility should mean sharing responsibility. Each partner needs to be in charge of specific activities or it becomes too easy for one to feel like he/she is doing a favour instead of doing their part.
As women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home. I have seen so many women inadvertently discourage their husbands from doing their share by being too controlling or critical. Social scientists call this “gatekeeping,” which is a fancy term for “Oh my god! That’s not the way you do it! Just move aside and let me!” If every woman acts as a gatekeeper and is reluctant to hand over responsibility, or worse, questions the husband’s efforts, he will do less.
Imagine if men behaved similarly at work not letting women take her decision but constantly nagging that I know better, how would women lead.
I must admit I couldn’t have reached where I am without the support of my husband and my parents who show a willingness for me to move ahead in life and not be bound by household chores, social obligations. They are actually my gatekeepers from the gossiping society.
Major changes can result from “nudge techniques,” small interventions that encourage people to behave in slightly different ways at critical moments. The simple act of talking openly about behavioural patterns makes the subconscious conscious.
Whenever I got stuck in a meeting for an hour plus, or simply organising things at home, I would have 2 eyes staring at me pointing at the wrist. That’s my husband trying to make me realise what the time is and how much stuff I have pending for the day yet and I would be alarmed to finish the things that are of more importance and cut this slack. When I would feel burdened with a pile of to do things he would sit with me to go through them and so much of it was just to make the list long and get the anxiety devil in my little head ruling over me.
Talking can transform minds, which can transform behaviours, which can transform institutions. Shutting down discussion is self-defeating and impedes progress. We need to talk, listen, debate, learn and evolve.
Throwing up our hands and saying “It can’t be done” ensures that it will never be done. Read this book, “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. It will encourage you to dream big, forge a path through the obstacles and achieve their full potential. I can see how it’s changed me.
I hope you find true meaning, contentment, and passion in your life. I hope you navigate the difficult times and come out with greater strength and resolve. I hope you find whatever balance you seek with your eyes wide open. And I hope that you — yes, you — have the ambition to lean in to your career and run the world.