TOOLBOX: TRIED & TESTED – TRANSFORM YOUR STORY

A two-day workshop, Women in Leadership: Purpose, Power and Presence, with Hetty Einzig and Liz Rivers, examines a new kind of leadership, with women at its centre

By Liz Hall

I’m in the heart of London with a bunch of sassy women leaders, participating in a coaching programme on developing purpose, power and presence. As we share our experiences of power plays at work, I’m struck by how forceful stories can be. Not only in how they land in the moment when spoken, but in how they take root in our psyches, shaping how we show up, and what we deem ourselves capable, or incapable, of.

Encouraged by programme facilitators and executive coaches Hetty Einzig and Liz Rivers, we share how we’ve been labelled “strident”, “naïve” or “overly emotional”; been sidelined because of a need to be flexible around childcare, or been bullied, and how these experiences have taken their toll on our confidence.

We’re prompted, too, to share and explore other personal narratives, such as around the impact of key female role models in our lives, particularly in our early years, and around what worked well for us when we’ve tried something potentially risky.

The telling and transformation of stories is a core theme over the two days. I’m reminded how each of us has the power to strengthen or challenge and change our own stories, and the wider system’s, given the right tools, which of course is the territory of coaching, and of this programme.

“The spirit of this programme is around how we can create more inviting stories for women, men and the world. How do we want to create the worlds we want to flourish in and contribute to?” asks Einzig.

The programme, Women in Leadership: Purpose, Power and Presence, has run in cities including London and Edinburgh, and is aimed at women heading teams, departments or organisations, entrepreneurs, and leaders planning a new direction. In this group, there are leaders from sectors including law, coaching, journalism and not-for-profits, some of whom are CEOs.

To kick off the programme, Einzig paints a backdrop, both gloomy in terms of what’s going on out there for women at work and encouraging in terms of trends and potential. She highlights research suggesting women are at least as ambitious as men when they begin their careers, but that this gets knocked out of them, at least in the corporate world, over time (eg, Davey, 2015).

“Babies have nothing to do with it. It’s down to the kind of world corporates and other sectors create. Women lower their sights and start to take their creativity outside.”

Einzig shares her excitement about the impact of Generation Y, saying millennials are increasingly challenging and re-writing many of our stories around gender in the workplace (eg, PwC, 2011). “They’re more into flexible working and not being tied to the office, they’re less hung up by gender and they’re beginning to impact the world because they describe it differently.”

She highlights, too, the weakening in the power of the story of the Big Man in leadership, with different models emerging for more distributed, facilitative, collaborative leadership, drawing on team intelligence.

Other stories and current ‘realities’ include how men are often hired for their potential, while women are more likely to be hired for their experience, and how men are more likely to be encouraged to be risk-taking, adds Rivers.

After the programme, Rivers says, “Organisational structures and cultures are generally not favourable to women. Our organisations are much influenced by factory or military structures (business language is peppered with metaphors of ‘campaigns’, ‘targets’, ‘productivity’, etc). This culture is particularly hard on women as it emphasises competition over collaboration and imposes rigid working patterns on them. It’s no coincidence women are leaving organisational life in droves to become entrepreneurs, and reporting greater work satisfaction and work/life balance as a result.”

 

The programme

Over the two days, as Einzig describes it, there is a “pulsation between being and doing”. With a more internal focus, the first day explores how, as women leaders, we can survive and thrive, what our purpose is and what power is and looks like. The second day has a more external focus, delving into how we can shape our environment, grounding in everyday scenarios, listening and advocating.

A key programme offering is embodiment work, inviting us to come back to our bodies “not as an object of desire or loathing, nor a vehicle for the head, but as a fine, powerful and responsive instrument for being and acting in the world”, says Einzig.

Rivers leads us through a number of somatic exercises, explaining it’s not just about being more grounded, but expanding our horizons and our comfort zones:

“There is an invitation here to expand, rather than step out of, our comfort zone… to reflect on where we need to expand our bandwidth.”

Rivers draws on work such as Wendy Palmer’s (Palmer & Crawford, 2013), helping us explore our patterns of responding, so we can move from reactive to centred leadership. She invites us to explore how we can move our head from its focus on controlling, to perceiving; our heart from seeking approval, to being compassionate, and our core from seeking safety, to being confident – suggesting confidence starts with our hips. She invites us to reflect on where we spend the most time – seeking control or perception, approval or compassion, safety or confidence, and where are we least comfortable. We explore how to dance between compassion, perception and confidence.

Somatics is new territory for some, but it offers powerful learning.

“I found it especially valuable to be more conscious about body as well as mind,” says one participant, while another says the most powerful takeaway for her is “the physical exercises, particularly healthy body, healthy mind. Also, the bit where we told each other what we were good at – how often do we do that?”

Another participant highlights learning “how to recognise your energy sources (breathing/centring techniques) and how to apply them in confrontational work situations”.

Shifting to doing, we explore our purpose through group and solo activities, looking at what we love doing, and what our world needs now, for example, and drawing up our personal purpose statement.

In our stories of when we’ve taken risks which have paid off, themes include the importance of following instincts and listening to oneself, how a sense of flow and things falling into place can manifest, how such times can put into question our identity, and how we can experience ‘success anxiety’.

We explore “navigating the oscillation between dependence and inter-dependence” (Einzig) and “how we can keep our authentic selves, but still be a part of society” (Rivers).

Einzig invites us to explore how we can draw from our achievements with a sense of “abundance, not scarcity”.

Rivers, again drawing on Palmer’s work, suggests we explore how we create a field around us, how we can be inclusive and receptive, while being centred. For some women, she suggests it can work to “tune into the womb”, bringing to mind a pyramid with the womb at the base, breathing into our heart and our womb.

Einzig leads us through a guided visualisation helping us explore “both yin and yang, being and doing, stillness and the dynamic, bringing their different energies together”.

Rivers says, “We urgently need a new style of leadership, for the benefit of all society, not just women. Women are ideally placed to ‘show the way’ towards this new leadership, given their innate capacity to connect and create environments of trust. This then gives men more choices in their leadership styles and frees them from having to follow the stereotypical alpha male style of leadership, which is no longer fit for purpose in our complex world.”

 

The pitch

As the programme concludes, we’re invited to think about a change project we want to lead, culminating in each of us doing a two-minute pitch to the others, a call to action, bringing together purpose, power and presence. We then listen to encouragement and constructive criticism from others in the cohort. Participants share how much we appreciate the honesty, being with women all day and being supportive, not competitive.

Flagged up in the programme and by participants interviewed afterwards, a number of factors come to the fore that are hindering and helping women leaders flourish. Obstacles can be both external and internal. They include organisational culture, and unconscious and conscious bias.

Often, however, our own stories get in the way. One participant says the main obstacle for women leaders “in a strange way is ourselves. There is something about permission, ie, we wait to be given it rather than assume we have it. More women should embrace the principle of asking for forgiveness, not permission.

“This isn’t about being aggressive, but applying judgment to situations, having the confidence to carry decisions through and knowing you can explain what you did and why. Young women need encouragement in this area as in my experience of managing both men and women, this doesn’t come naturally to them. They have lots of good ideas, but will get drowned out and give up trying to be heard [unless encouraged] and don’t offer to run projects as often as they could. It requires encouragement and support in the early stages.”

 

Hugely valuable

The participants highlight how hugely valuable coaching and mentoring can be “for self-reflection, confidence, validation, release”; “helping [women] realise that they are far from being alone in the problems they face… a huge help with confidence-building, as generally speaking women have more of a tendency not to put themselves forward, to keep quiet about their achievements and to undermine themselves”; and “playing a valuable role as a regular form of support and as a sounding board” (mentoring.)

One participant shares how, as a leader, coaching “has provided a neutral and supportive time and space to take problems and be presented with options for doing things differently”. She says as she has “become more successful and understands more about myself and what I need to thrive as a leader, I have become an advocate of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy… tailored to help me avoid behaviour traps and use much less energy to navigate the difficult situations faced as a leader. I’m much happier in my skin as a result and, I believe, a much more confident leader.”

 

Mutual support

Participants also say how helpful it is to gather with women in an environment such as this, marked by camaraderie, mutual supportiveness, encouragement and non-judgment, authenticity, vulnerability and allowing ourselves, and each other, to be seen and heard.

Drawing on previous programme experiences, Rivers says, “Given the right environment, women will bond and create an atmosphere of deep trust with each other very quickly, in a way that is rare in organisations.

“We each have our own unique brilliance, yet it takes the reflection back from a group, holding up a mirror, for us to see this, and our gift to the world. [On our programmes] we see women become much clearer about their purpose and that they develop a quiet, determined conviction to put purpose into effect.”

One participant says later, “Working with an amazing group of women on redefining purpose, managing power and projecting presence was a profound experience, both from a professional and personal perspective.”

Another says she values “being with a group of impressive women and getting their feedback and observations on me and my leadership style. It was honest, constructive and supportive and made a big impression.

“It’s an empowering experience to have the support and wisdom of a group of fellow female professionals whose sole agenda is the success of one another. I haven’t experienced that before and I liked it!”

 

Learnings for group coaching with women leaders

  • Share and explore the wider backdrop
  • Help clients, and yourself if you’re a female leader, seek out and listen to others’ stories – the good, the bad and the ugly
  • Explore the impact of early female role models
  • Be on the lookout for a lack of confidence, but don’t assume this is the problem
  • Approach female leadership systemically
  • Don’t be afraid to pay attention to the body – it’s so often the missing link
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