A Tale of Two High-Performing Women

By Rebecca Self
Rebecca Self

Last week I received two unsolicited emails for coaching -- both from young, high-performing women I know, both wanting to make a change in their professional lives.

The messages were both overwhelmingly familiar and radically different.

One said simply, "I am looking for your professional services with respect to leadership coaching, and perhaps team building." When we spoke, there was a palpable energy to her request. "It's not urgent, but important," she said. There was also a hint of exhaustion. "We're a small organization. I used to do every single one of my team members' jobs. Now I need to learn to lead." and "We have budget."

The other read: "I am so bored. I keep having these expectations that work will be challenging and I will learn so much. In fact it's just more of the same white, male, political nonsense that I really don't care to partake in."

It's a classic tale of two high-performing women. Both young women have advanced degrees and experience working in high-profile organizations. Both were hired by men 30+ years their senior.

You might think that the difference lies in personal attitude. I don't think so. These women are so remarkably similar, they even look alike. They're high energy and enthusiastic and can both be outspoken to the point of "getting in trouble." (It would not show up this way if they were men.) They have both been expats in the same European country and are both American. Both have worked in developing countries in related fields.

The difference in their situations comes down to two things:

  • The way their male sponsor/mentors treat them, and
  • what male sponsor/mentors expect from their colleagues.

In the first instance, a male leader past retirement age is supporting growth, aggressive promotion, and both organizational and leadership development. Gender is not necessarily a factor, he's targeted talent and is supporting her increasing levels of responsibility. He defers to her decisions and waits for her to ask his opinion. "I think he loves to watch me figure things out, succeed, and make mistakes and learn from them."

In the other, a male leader has made excuses for the culture and colleagues, taking a "You'll have to learn to deal with these guys and not come on too strong" approach. In the onboarding process she was told, "They're French men." That doesn't give much credit to any of the involved parties, and certainly doesn't create an environment for this young woman to do her job well or develop into the leader she can be. A year on she's even heard, "Just go have babies now. It doesn't matter how smart or strategic you are, this place will never change."

In one case, the entire organization will benefit from the development of one young leader, and her career and self-concept will be impacted positively in the long-term.

In the other, one young woman's professional path becomes less clear and less stable, she's shaken and set back, and the entire organization misses the opportunity to grow and develop.

Only once in my career have I had a leader like the first one. I'll never forget my annual appraisal. It was over a decade ago. Near the end of our conversation he said to me, "I've been thinking about things you might like to do. Would you like to sit on the State Supreme Court's Committee on Media & the Courts?" and then, "Would you like to have your own column in a regional newspaper?" Those were opportunities I had not imagined for myself. He had thought through and connected my skills, his network, and opportunities that would benefit the organization.

The lesson is this:
Be great sponsors and mentors.

Find a high-potential or high-performing female employee (or colleague) today (or once a week, every week) and give her a big, interesting challenge or opportunity. There are high-potential and high-performing women everywhere underemployed and frustrated, looking for mentors, sponsors, and opportunities worthy of their passion and skills. This is why we leave organizations in droves.

It is not that we cannot find opportunities ourselves. It's that if we assert ourselves, we're "steamrollers;" if we speak up, we're "shrill;" if we promote our skills, we are seen as arrogant. We need you, leaders, sponsors, and mentors, to pave the way for our work together -- to discover our useful talents and underutilized expertise, and to ensure that those around us treat us as valued colleagues and rightful leaders, too.

I believe this is how we'll change our workplace cultures, this is how we will lead inclusively -- by consciously promoting the leadership, creativity, and skills of women at every level of the leadership pipeline. If we do so, cultural transformation can happen faster than we imagine.