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Grace Hopper Celebration

Career Advice, Equality

Feeling like a failure every day – and overcoming it

I doubt myself every single day. As a CEO it’s the dark secret none of us are supposed to talk about, but it’s real, and so it was marvelous for me to listen to Maria Klawe yesterday say that she wakes up feeling like a failure every day.

Now Maria is one of the most successful people in academia. She’s president of Harvey Mudd College, educating the next generation of brilliant computer scientists, mathematicians and physicists, she sits on the board of Microsoft and she’s a much admired water color painter… and a wife and mother too. Definitely an over achiever who is universally admired.

And yet, every day she feels like a failure. She told this to 4,800 women at the Grace Hopper Conference yesterday, but then said the way she deals with it is that she consciously listens to the other voice playing in her head which says “I want to lead the world!!!”

Sheryl Sandberg, on stage with Maria, used the analogy of running a marathon. For the men in the race, voices are telling them “you’re great!”, “you can do it!” and “keep going!” but for the women in the race the voices are “are you sure you can do it?”and “what about your children?” Imagine trying to run a real marathon with everyone around you questioning whether you can, or worse whether you actually should?

My experience for the first 25 years of my career was just that. Everyone around me, family, friends and co-workers questioned what I was doing (except my husband – he never questioned but went along for the ride). I was ambitious, determined to make a point, and determined to win the race I had chosen which was being a high tech CEO. As I had children people came out of the woodwork to question my decision, and as a (younger) blond woman I was also consistently underestimated which attacked my confidence (maybe they were right and I was about to be found out!)

For almost every day in those 25 years I would feel like a failure, waiting to be caught out. I’m a classic example of the imposter syndrome: where you feel like an imposter or fraud, waiting to be caught out. It’s not uncommon in smart, talented people and it’s especially common in women.

I would beat myself up in my head – you’re not smart enough, you’re too aggressive, your children need you, you need to lose weight… an endless dialog that got louder the more tired I got. And the voice would stay inside my head because no one else wants to hear about your self doubt. It’s old news to your family, boring to your friends (they’ve heard it before) and must not show to your co-workers or employees.

So what to do?

It took a few colliding changes for me to finally conquer it. I passed forty – and felt more confident over forty than I ever had under. I had a nasty health scare which made me take each day above the dirt much more seriously. And I realized that I was not alone, my peers feel the same way, and it’s OK – you just have to push through.

When you’re looking in the mirror feeling like a failure try this:

Step 1 – acknowledge that it’s happening and it’s not real. Learning about the imposter syndrome really helped me understand the dynamics.
Step 2 – create and listen to the other voice in your head. Maria was spot on. There is another voice, it knows you can do great things, but you have to listen to it, consciously.
Step 3 – be open about your own self criticism when coaching others. Sharing the fact that I have self doubt made it more clinical for me. It’s normal, but it’s not useful.
Step 4 – get exercise and sleep. Feels great and you can lead the world with a good swim and a good night’s sleep.

Feeling like you are failing is normal. It’s part of what drives us – the need to prove to ourselves and everyone else just how much we can lead and change the world. So embrace it as a funny part of you that you just have to slap down every day – and you will!

image: http://akiaino.deviantart.com/

Equality

Why women need sponsors more than mentors

I was on a panel at GHC 2012 last week “Sponsors or Mentors – which will get you there?” Standing room only in a large room, it was clearly a topic of great interest to the female tech students and geeks at the conference. And the questions were priceless…

The panel, lead by Anne Losby of Thomson Reuters,  was prompted by a report Catalyst put out last year on Sponsoring Women to Success. In it the research clearly shows sponsorship is a powerful differentiator at the top and key to overcoming the barriers for women. And while we are making good progress as a gender, and women make up more than 50% of the workforce, they still only make up 3.8% of the CEOs of the Fortune 500. So plenty of room to improve the ratio.

First – do you know the difference? Mentoring has been talked about for
years but talking about sponsorship is a fairly new fashion. Mentoring is about advice and coaching, helping the younger employee figure out the system and skills. My advice to people seeking mentors is seek someone willing to tell you the truth about yourself. Seek someone who will hold the mirror up to you (and your behavior), even is the image is ugly. And a great mentor will put the time in to teach you.

A sponsor, however, is not a mentor. A sponsor has power and the ability to help you get ahead. They know you — strengths and weaknesses, talents and warts — and are ambitious for you. They help you prepare for opportunity by steering you into the right experiences and the right training. They will advocate for you and make the case when you are not in the room for why you should get the next promotion, the next cool project. They win when you win be because the company, and possibly their reputational capital in the company, are stronger when you do.

I experienced this myself in my first 12 years in Silicon Valley. I worked for 2 companies – one for 4 years, one for 8, but was never in the same job more than 21 months. I had two sponsors (although I could not have labeled them as such at the time) who were watching me, grooming me and putting me into opportunities to learn and stretch. Both were men, because back then there were no women in the organization above me. I would not have become a tech CEO at 36 without their sponsorship.

So why is this so important for women?

The tough reality is that women face a double bind. Catalyst research has shown that women who advocate for themselves can be penalized in the workplace. Women get labeled as “aggressive” when the same behavior in a man would be labeled as “assertive”. I’m not complaining, it’s just reality and so sponsors can help women get ahead by advocating for them and helping them avoid the double bind.

Sponsors are also important for women because men tend to know what they want and ask for it, women tend to wait to be asked. There is unconscious sterotyping going on with the men judging the women who do ask, but there is also stereotyping going on by the women who restrict their own behavior. Afraid to appear “pushy” or “too aggressive” they moderate their own behavior to meet the expectation of humility from women.

And this is where the questions lead on the panel. All the discussion, in the end, led to the double bind. How to get ahead and ask for the project, the job, the doctoral research without offending the men around you and being judged? Lots of advice ensued, but in the end I told the group to “Just go for it and course correct when you are in the job. Don’t tap down your natural energy and your drive, we need that in our companies!” Strong women (and men) – apply here.