Despite the many advances our society has made over the last several decades, inequality remains an increasingly complex reality. This presents everyone – the C-suite, people leaders, and individual contributors alike – with challenges related to communication, trust, and equity.
Last week I joined 12,000 other women (and several brave men) at the Massachusetts Conference for Women to address these issues, discuss how to make the modern workplace work for everyone, and explore ways to become my best self at work and in the world. Throughout the Workplace Summit, opening night, and conference breakouts and keynotes – which included presentations from Brené Brown, Cy Wakeman, Malala Yousafzai, Wade Davis, Yara Shahidi, Simon Sinek, and Megan Rapinoe, among others – these five themes surfaced again and again:
1. To receive top performance from your people, give them a “just cause” to work toward.
“How do we get the most from our people?” Simon Sinek asked rhetorically during the morning keynote. “We don’t. We should ask how as leaders we can create an environment where they can bring their best selves.”
One of his suggestions for organizational leadership was to dedicate their companies to a cause beyond the products and services they sell by giving the work purpose and meaning. “Make sure your just cause is clear and teams trust you and each other,” he said.
2. Diversity is still vital, but representation is the increasingly important next step.
Former NFL player Wade Davis, the NFL’s first LGBTQ+ inclusion consultant, said while D&I are as necessary as ever, we need to “shift the conversation from diversity to representation.” A company should certainly strive to employ qualified humans across ethnicities, races, classes, and the spectrum of genders and sexual orientations, but if those people aren’t represented in the C-suite, then the organization will fall short of its potential.
“When we ignore women, the whole world is losing out,” Malala said during her keynote. Wade also explained, “When you create a world more equitable and equal for women, men benefit too.”
3. We must prioritize authenticity and courage over being liked.
Many women are raised to be compliant peacemakers. Rather than stand out, we’re taught to hide ourselves and our thoughts, spirits, and true selves. “Women accept disappointment and inconvenience when men don’t,” explained author and breakout speaker Sara Laschever. This can’t stand – we need to learn to ask for what we want and be clear about how we intend to get it – yet, as Brené put it, “We fail to draw boundaries because we want to be liked.”
When asked about receiving criticism, Malala said, “I do not care about that. … It’s important to remember there are so many people who are standing with us and supporting us, and there are so many good people in the world who believe in your cause and do not think like that.” Wade told us, “It’s not your responsibility to worry about being liked,” and founder and CEO of The Difference Bea Arthur said, “Being who you are is what matters.”
4. Work communities with intergenerational support systems will help more women advance.
During her keynote conversation with journalist Celeste Headlee, actor and activist Yara Shahidi focused on the need for peer and intergenerational support within organizations. “Our networks are more than who we surround ourselves with,” she said. “They’re our past, present, and future.” She suggested we all operate from a space of lifting each other up, regardless of the outcome, and that we focus on overall impact versus personal legacy.
Wade suggested that women “sponsor” each other at work by talking about our colleagues and their accomplishments when they’re not in the room. When asked for her advice on how women can support each other, Malala said, “It’s crucial that women stand with each other, that we hold hands with each other in this fight for equality.”
5. The kindest thing you can do for yourself is to build your resilience.
During his talk, Wade explained that being able to bounce back after a failure is the most important quality in the NFL. If a player throws an interception or misses a catch, his response – whether learning from it and moving on to do better, or getting stuck in a negativity loop – is a better predictor of success over his career than any statistic.
Similar to a growth mindset, resilience is a set of skills, habits, and behaviors that can be learned. It’s like a muscle in that it must be broken down before we can build it back up, which is why we should view discomfort as a catalyst for growth. Resilience expert Anne Grady said, “Not dealing with uncomfortable emotions keeps us stuck.” Her advice was to take a step back, zoom out, and realign with your mission so you can keep moving forward.
As we enter a new decade, we have an opportunity to shift how we approach work, the world, and each other. Champion U.S. soccer player Megan Rapinoe left us with this message:
“You are more impactful than you think. Think about if every person in this room picked up once piece of trash in Boston every single day when they went out – it would be a cleaner city. In terms of politics, or having hard conversations, or inspiring other people … you can have massive impact if you think about how that ripples. Also, we have a lot of women here in the room: Force multiply with each other. I think there are so many more stories out there, and so much more power happening with women than we really realize. We need to gain power from each other’s stories and find those common threads. At times it’s difficult because you might be the only one in your job, or very few, or isolated in that way, but take the experiences and power that other women have for yourself as motivation or protection or as a way to then motivate other women or other people – take that into your daily life.”
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