10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Becoming a High-Ranking Female Executive
(And How I Keep My Sanity with 10 Secrets to Work-Life Balance)
By Connie St. John, President & CEO, No Weapon Productions
Work-life balance is extremely important for any executive, but for women in the workplace, it’s even more crucial. We deal with issues that our male counterparts rarely encounter.
Early in my career I was excited to move up the ranks in the professional world, getting promoted from assistant to coordinator to manager. What no one told me or prepared me for was that when I got to the level of senior manager and director, then later to president and CEO, the game changed. It was no longer just an uneven playing field. It was a completely different field altogether.
Here are 10 things I wish I’d known or fully understood before I became a high-ranking female executive.
1. You Become a Unicorn
. As a member of senior management, or the head of your organization, you are often the only woman in the room. If you are a minority female, then you are usually both the only minority AND the only woman in the room. To excel in the workplace, this reality is something you need to get comfortable with to the point of not reacting to it or even noticing it. Some of my executive sisters have admitted to exclaiming, “Oh wow. I’m the only woman in the room!” They later found themselves irritated when that fact was used as a handicap or jokingly as part of the dialogue. “We have to watch our language since we have a woman in the room.” The less you react to the gender difference, the less your male counterparts will. You are all executives in the room, there to get a job done.
2. You Become a Cryptologic Linguist
. Imagine being dropped into a foreign country where you don’t speak the language of the land but you are still required to excel at the same level as its citizens, or beyond, lest you be faced with deportation. Welcome to the upper ranks of Corporate America where men have their own language, activities, and work styles. They meet on the golf course, the cigar bar, or at sports events to talk business. It doesn’t typically occur to them to invite you to those places, and when you invite yourself, the conversation changes. (It’s similar to how we adjust our conversation when a man walks into a beauty salon or the ladies room.) Since man-speak is still the primary corporate language, women executives often must work harder to get the same results simply because we communicate differently. We are required to either become cryptologic linguists to break their language code, or we have to manage to get by on the breadcrumbs of information we can snatch up. The good news is that we have learned how to create masterpieces out of breadcrumbs!
3. You Frequently Have to Be a Ventriloquist
. In male dominated meetings, it is not uncommon for a female executive to present a brilliant, well-thought-out idea only to not have it heard until one of their male colleagues repeats it, at which point it’s deemed excellent and innovative. Of course, the “dummy” who shares it as his own typically has no idea how to implement it, so you end up being asked to assist…with your own idea.
4. You Are Perceived as Too Much or Too Little
. If you have a great sense of humor and like to laugh, you may be considered silly and not taken seriously. If you’re more the serious type, you may be perceived as moody or too intense. If you speak with the same force and tone as your male counterparts, you will likely be called attitudinal, bitchy, or too sensitive. If you’re too quiet, you’re deemed weak. If you’re too vocal, you’re considered too talkative. I was once labeled “hard-headed” because I disagreed with a colleague’s idea. When our male colleagues disagreed with him, however, it was considered a “counter viewpoint we need to hear.” There is no middle ground that satisfies everyone, so just be you.
5. You Have to Build in Bathroom Breaks
. Physiologically, we women are completely different from our male counterparts. In addition to pregnancy and post-partum changes, we have monthly issues we must face. Having to leave a long meeting for a desperate bathroom break, with a tell-tale purse or supply case in hand, can be embarrassing. What’s more embarrassing, however, are the numerous stories I’ve heard from my executive sisters who waited too long to make their exit and literally left their mark in the board room or on the president’s office chair.
6. Nobody Believes You’re the Boss
. A few weeks (or days) into your new executive position, as you start attending conferences or business meetings, surely it’s normal to expect industry colleagues and vendors to be eager, impressed even, to meet you, the head of the company. Instead, if you arrive at a meeting with one of your male employees or counterparts, people will immediately defer and direct all conversations to him. The male-dominated corporate culture is so deeply ingrained that even other female executives will make this mistake. Being on the receiving end of this can be humiliating and infuriating, so practice your coping and redirection strategies in advance. Here’s a tip: You’re the boss whether they believe it or not. Don’t try to convince them. Don’t even introduce yourself. Arrange in advance for your male colleague to introduce you.
7. Lunchtime Can Be Lonely.
As a high-ranking female, you’re rarely invited to lunch by your colleagues. Everyone assumes you are already booked solid with business engagements. I recall when I was a director and one of my female division presidents invited me for a casual lunch. We had a great time laughing and talking. When I thanked her for asking me to join her, she said, “You know, you can ask me sometimes, too.” Not until I became a president did I truly understand the loneliness she felt in that moment.
8. You Can Be Unapologetically Feminine (or Not).
Contrary to popular belief, dressing like a girl does not make men take you less seriously. If they’re inclined to do that, they will do that whether you have on a tailored pantsuit or a form-fitting dress. Thankfully, professional attire encompasses a wide variety of looks. Figure out which style of dress makes you feel good and empowered, and wear that. If a male colleague offers to hold the door or carry a heavy bag, let him. You don’t have to prove your capabilities to earn their respect. I’ve had male counterparts or superiors let out a string of profanity, then turn to me and apologize. Some women would be offended by that, but I’m honored. It’s a form of respect. Conversely, if you want to wear boxy or androgynous suits and carry your own heavy load, feel free to do that, too.
9. You Become the Mentor
. Unlike men, women don’t typically have female mentors who are grooming and preparing them for executive leadership. There is often a competition factor. As a high-ranking female, many other women – young and mature – will look to you for mentorship, even if you’re still figuring it out yourself. The thinking is you made it this far so you must have wisdom to share. A bit surprisingly, I mentor as many men as I do women.
10. The Work Is the Easy Part.
The work itself is rarely the biggest challenge most female executives face. More often, it’s subtle misogyny and, if you’re a minority, not-so-subtle racism or discrimination. In my previous position, one of my female clients snidely remarked to me, “Before you came we NEVER had to observe Martin Luther King Day.” I smiled politely and reminded her that before I came, and grew the organization, the business was closed on Mondays.
So, now that you know some of the challenges you may face, you understand why self-care and having work-life balance are important.
Here are 10 of my secrets to maintaining my work-life balance.
1. Factor in Fun.
Schedule (at least) one social activity each week. Most men are great about doing this. They golf, go to a game, grab drinks after work. It’s important to have a regular non-work outlet. Discover your secret passion – maybe it’s ballroom dancing, playing board games, or trying new restaurants. Perhaps it’s Escape Rooms or float tanks. Whatever it is, indulge.
2. Pamper Yourself Regularly.
It makes you feel and look good. Get your hair done, your nails done, your eyebrows done. It’s worth the investment, and you deserve it.
3. Take Time to Relax.
Schedule daily and weekly relaxation into your regular routine. Whether it’s therapeutic massage, yoga, music therapy, reading a good book, doing a jigsaw puzzle, or soaking in a bubble bath, you need downtime every single day.
4. Unplug (Literally).
Turn your phone (computer, tablet) completely off for 12 hours at least once a week. If you have children, this is not an easy thing to do, but it’s possible. Once a week, ask someone in the village (a family member or good friend), to be on-call for 12 hours. Let them, and only them, know how they can reach you in the case of a real emergency. Unplugging is necessary for good mental and physical health.
5. Eat Right.
I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes not due to overeating but because I skipped meals for so much of my professional life. Now, I make sure to eat a small breakfast every day. I prepare healthy, easy snacks for work, and I make sure to eat lunch. My weekly lunch strategy is 3 business lunches, one social lunch, and one personal lunch – where I run errands, have quiet time, or use daytime hours to take care of personal business.
6. Schedule Social Media Time
. Unless accessing social media is part of your job, turn it off during the workday. It’s a distraction. Check your messages and notifications for 30-to-60 minutes a day, at the end of your day. Consider going to an every other day schedule, or even less frequently. Social media and news sites can be a time-sucker and mood changer. We don’t have to let it control us.
7. Girl Time Is a Must!
Schedule a “girls only” get together at least once a month. The key is making sure these are women you truly love, trust and enjoy; your besties. This time provides a special type of recharging that is necessary to our well-being.
8. Know Your Body
. Exercise regularly, it dissipates adrenaline. Pay attention to when you’re not feeling well and take a day off. Consider downloading a Period Tracker app to your smart phone. It’s important to know when your cycle is due. During that time, I intentionally put off making important decisions, because my thinking isn’t completely clear, even when I’m convinced it is. It may sound sexist or weak, but my executive sisters and I have often looked back on decisions we made in the heat of PMS and wondered what the heck we were thinking. Know thyself!
9. Take Vacations.
If you can’t take a week or two off each year, then schedule mini vacays (long weekends) once a quarter. Schedule them in advance just like you do business trips.
10. Hire and Groom a #2
. You need a strong second-in-command so that you can truly unplug when you take time off. Being able to fully step away from work is priceless.
You’re already super woman. Delegate.