Top 10 things I learned from leading the women’s group at my company for two years

When I returned to the office this month, there was one big difference in my day-to-day work life. I no longer have an official leadership role with the women’s group at my company. For the past four years, I have served on the board, the past two years as president. As I reflect on these past two years, 10 things stand out as the major learnings.

  1. No big things happened during these two years for women. Lol. JK. I remember walking into the office numb after the 2016 presidential election. After quickly writing and posting this, I started my commute. I had two phone calls on my way to the office that day. One was from a fellow women’s board leader. She was scared. She didn’t know what kind of world we were living in anymore. I hung up and called my sister. I was equally distraught and your big sister is who you call in that moment. As I walked out of the office that day, I ran into three other members of the board. We embraced. In that moment, I knew we would be all right. Fast forward 13 months to my final month as president. I volunteered to lead a program on courage. I’ve never been more proud of a group of associates as I have in that moment. They stood up, spoke their truth, and owned their action plan to be courageous. (I wrote about this in more detail here.) There is something to be said for the empowerment women have in this moment. The more we share our stories, listen when others share theirs and take bold action, the closer we will get to the equality that seems so close, yet so far away.
  2. A common goal can unite strangers. When I read the names of the other winners after I was elected president, I only knew one name. We were located in three different cities. We held vastly different roles. I was worried about leading a group of people I didn’t know, who by title and location seemed so different. This is lesson #491 on why I shouldn’t worry so much. The group of women are amazing. We came together and devised our strategy, clarified our roles, and created an action plan that would get us closer to our goals. I’d say we didn’t do too bad considering our company was named to Fortune’s 100 Best Workplaces for Women and Fortune’s 50 Best Places for Diversity during our time together. Coming together with this group of women taught me to follow my gut when it comes to leadership. Communication, role clarity, and a common goal bring people together.
  3. Mid-career is hard. One of the conversations I’ve had repeatedly was with women who had emerged from the trenches of early motherhood and were ready to regain ground on their careers. They weren’t quite sure how to do that. Their foot had been off of the gas just long enough for them to feel like they had been forgotten. I never felt like I had the right advice for these women. Maybe it’s because I’ve been fortunate to have managers who understand my stage in life. Maybe it’s because I was more like them than I was different. Whatever the case is, it’s important for managers to recognize when people are ready to amp up and ease off so we get the best out of our associates at all stages in their lives.
  4. Moms get things done. Not quite a year into my role as president, a peer approached me and said she wanted to start a mom’s group. She had been meeting informally with a group of new moms and they had outlined a list of things they wanted to see happen for mothers at our company. We worked together to ensure that she had the right support to get things moving, and in less than one year, there were over 900 members of the mom’s group. Together they have identified and implemented ways that our company can be even more supportive of parents at all stages.
  5. Most people (not just women) want flexibility. For the duration of my time as leader of the women’s group, I managed a team of mostly men. The one thing that we all have in common is the need to have flexibility when it comes to our work-life demands. This may be the gift that millennials and generation Z give to the rest of the workforce. Why does 9-5 matter if we get our jobs done? Yet, why is it still so hard to ask for the flexibility that we need in order to be our best selves at both work and home? The more we allow associates to flex their work to meet the needs of their lives, the more engaged and productive they will be.
  6. We make time for the things that are important to us. One of the questions I am asked repeatedly is: do you sleep? People hear my rundown of work, women’s group leadership, family, side-business, and community involvement and immediately assume that I don’t sleep. Not me. I don’t think I’ve ever pulled an all-nighter in my life. I’ve learned that some people have a plate that can get bigger as more is piled on. I am one of those people. I have learned the fine art of shifting something to the side to make room for another thing or to mix two things together when it makes sense. When we are passionate about something, we MAKE time to make things happen.
  7. Unconscious bias is for real. Knowing my term was up as president of the women’s group, I wanted a way to continue serving in the diversity & inclusion space. I choose to become certified to facilitate training on unconscious bias. Through this training, and subsequent facilitation, I’ve learned that this mental shortcut is for real. While it may serve us well some of the time (think about your morning routine or commute to work in regards to unconscious decision making), bringing unconscious to conscious could be the biggest shift each of us make in our professional careers. It allows us to invite others into dialogue where otherwise we would assume they didn’t want to participate. It helps us walk in someone else’s shoes for just a moment – a moment that could change our lives if we let it.
  8. We are better together. Two senior level men recently joined the executive advisory council to the women’s board. It is refreshing to hear their perspective. They joined because they are fathers to daughters and managers to women. They want to see women succeed. My former colleague, Julie Kratz, writes about the importance of male allies in her book ONE: How Male Allies Support Women for Gender Equality. Read her work and follow her progress. This is the next frontier when it comes to the women’s movement. There should be no “us vs. them”. It should simply be “all”.
  9. I married the right man. In an earlier blog post, I wrote about how great I have it by having a spouse who is fully supportive of all I do. Since I posted that, he has gone on to graduate two more doctoral students – both women – in engineering. Currently, his entire lab is made up of women. Having a spouse who not only “gets it” but is willing to do the heavy lifting of latchkey pickup and sports practice shuttling has made all the difference in my ability to “embrace ambition” the past few years. It’s my hope that we give all men space to show up like this when it comes to parenting and partnership.
  10. I don’t want my daughters to join a women’s group when they enter the workforce. My daughters – ages 5 and 8 – are two of the spunkiest, smartest, and kindest kids I know. They dive into the pool headfirst and dance without abandon in front of packed auditoriums. They don’t say that they are bad at math or that they can’t do something because they are a girl. I give them advice from my heart. It’s my hope that by the time they enter the workforce in 15-20 years, the women’s group is something that has faded away. It’s my hope that in the next 20 years we see the glass ceiling crack wide open. That we continue to allow people to speak up. That we engage men as allies. That we stop the inner critic before she even has a chance to start telling us who we are and what we are scared of. That we are not labeled. That we are not categorized. We are simply ourselves. And that will be enough to help us be successful in whatever pursuit we choose to follow.

My superwomen

That’s it. Ten little lessons if you only read the headlines, and ten deep lessons if you read the complete text.

What’s next for me now that one thing on my plate has been removed? I’m going to keep speaking, coaching, advising and facilitating on matters of leadership, unconscious bias, emotional intelligence and courage. Those will be keys to getting to the world I envision for my daughters.

Natalie
Small Town Leadership Founder; Natalie believes everything she needed to know to succeed in her career she learned by growing up in a town of 600 people. As a Certified Professional Coach and award-winning public speaker, she helps her clients and audiences make wherever they are feel like a small town. She lives in Dublin, Ohio with her husband, Rob, a professor at Ohio State and two little girls.

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