What does it even mean to be an “executive”.
You’re a decision maker? An executor? An “executioner” (as one résumé I recently came across described)?
Being and executive has all sorts of meanings across all sorts of industries, but I think there is one thread that spans across them all, and that is what it means to be an executive woman. There are a ton of articles and blog posts out there describing the role and challenges of the modern female professional. I’ve marinated on many of them trying to ‘lean in’ and wondering if I can ‘have it all’, and I won’t attempt to try and juxtapose being a lady-exec to being a man-exec. Frankly, because I’ve never been a male executive. What I am curious about is whether others have come across the same sets of questions, challenges, and realizations that I have. So, here they are…
When I was first starting out in my career, I couldn’t figure out why my female bosses seemed to set strict boundaries around their personal lives, time, or relationships. I was an outgoing, ambitions young thing, and it seemed strange to me that many of the women around me wouldn’t share (not resources, but stories). They kept everything close to the vest, and always hedged about their time for meetings or after work events. At the time I took this as maybe a hesitance or a dislike toward me. As I matured in my career, I realized why they did this. In my experience, as women, we seek to bond with those around us, and to reduce the purely transactional nature of our interactions. I think we are wired to build communities (or some of us are), and that is something we learn to reduce when we become managers. I swore I’d never come off that way, or let myself become too careful – to not be myself. But as I started managing more and more people, it become really clear: showing vulnerability can sometimes be detrimental to managing, as can forming too close a relationship with more junior staff. Sometimes you don’t know who you’ll manage next, or when you’ll have to have a really tough conversations. Setting boundaries around time spent, and personal sharing, makes so much more sense to me now that I need to be the “bad person” more often.
I know others experience this, especially those who meet the challenge of intersectionality in a box-or-nothing world. As a woman, and a powerful woman, I find myself more and more watching how I speak, stand, sit, and generally come across to others, especially to men. I’m a young woman and at first glance I can be mistaken for someone younger, and even asked for coffee or even worse, interrupted as I try to lead a meeting. It’s not just those starkly sexiest, or agist situations that require vigilance, it’s the everyday interactions that require an added layer of thought and effort to maintain a certain level of respect. I’ve learned to compensate for any perceived disadvantage, no matter how small or large, in a variety of ways: by making myself bigger, better dressed, louder, more abrasive, by smiling less, fretting over my clothing choice, putting my hair up, and even purchasing glasses. There are a million ways in which I have to monitor my appearance, my posture, voice/tone and my physicality on a daily basis. As I continue to grow into higher levels within my career, I fear that these ‘monitoring’ activities only get worse.
Some days my brain is so shot at the end of the day that I can’t string a full sentence together. Deciding what I’m hungry for turns into the hardest thing in the world. I spend 10-14 hours a day making a decision about every 8 seconds. Whether it’s how to spend my limited time, whether to purchase this or that for the company, or figuring out the most strategic way to approach a tough situation, my brain is constantly triaging choices. Granted, I was built for this, and I thrive off of it, and I’m not complaining one bit. What I am trying to do is describe the intensity of this so called “executive” position. The choices to put something off, to admonish a colleague, to praise someone’s work, all of these things come with hundreds of repercussions, most of which are my job to predict and head off. Hint for younger staff: when you bring me work product, make it easy for me to know what decisions need to be made, and help with anticipatory analysis. The easier you make my decision, the more I’ll come to appreciate your great work. Now, I pose this as an executive issue, and likely not specific to female-executives, but I am curious if men feel the same, or if the subtle differences in our wiring make this a different experience.
Relationships with Other Women
This is a theme that’s been hashed and rehashed. Why don’t women help other women more? While I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty on the female animal instinct, or competition between women – one thing I do care to discuss are the times when women do support each other, and how even then in can backfire. Making great friends of female colleagues can be a huge boon to productivity, venting, work-life balance, and general morale. It is also often a trap when it comes to male colleagues. I’ve encountered times when men on my team have taken my advocacy of another woman’s valid ideas, and accused me of only supporting her out of “loyalty” or “friendship”. Experiences like these have made me understand a little bit why women so often “go it alone”, or rebuff attempts at meaningful relationships with their female colleagues. I think it’s also only fair to note, that my initial-personal-anecdotal research suggests that giving feedback to women who are also friends is a lot harder. This is an area I want to work on in myself, but I also wonder if that has to be true, or whether it’s unduly charged by external sources. As an executive with female friends within the company, I will continue to struggle with the right balance, and the best methods for handling external viewpoints and challenging moments.
There are a thousand other struggles to being a female executive that I haven’t explored here, and many more that I probably haven’t experienced. I find the journey a dazzling one of high-highs and low-lows, and everything in between. I hope someday the term “executive” will mean more to me than “person who has no choice but to choose.”