Hogan Lovells

Hogan Lovells

Monday, March 26, 2012

Spring Reading: Stop and Smell the Roses (and Eat the Berries)

By Randy Segal, partner, global merger and acquisitions, technology and telecommunications

Years ago, I worked with a CFO whose picture was in the dictionary under the word “unflappable.” The company was a start-up, going from one financial, technological or operational crisis to another. One day the CFO told me the following mini-parable: “Imagine you are running through the forest with a lion chasing you, and you then find yourself at the edge of the cliff, holding onto a berry bush with the lion snarling within inches of you. You think that you are about to either be eaten by the lion or fall off the cliff to a certain death. Make certain while you are holding onto that bush to take a taste of those berries, and savor them.”

I was 15 years younger at the time, at the height of juggling my career and raising four young children, and all I could think in reaction to his parable was that I was hanging off the cliff about to die and the CFO guiding our company’s success wanted me to stop and eat berries.

Well, fast forward to present day. I have now read The Trusted Advisor. I know that Women Don’t Ask, but that I need to Ask For It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want. I also know “How Hidden Bias Affects Everyday Workplace Interactions.” And in helping my 26-year old daughter try to determine why she was not happy with her incipient career, I learned to Do What You Are. So that is the start of my Spring Reading List. Of course, after you read about King Peggy.

Trying to assimilate all of this, I have realized that the berry-eating CFO’s words of wisdom were not so crazy after all.

As I re-read The Trusted Advisor this week in preparation for an associate training program, I realized that many of the skills of a “trusted advisor” are traits women inherently excel in: listening, empathizing, giving away ideas, telling the truth, communication, making extra effort to understand the client needs, being accessible, building trust.

What I also realized, was that one necessary ingredient to becoming a “trusted advisor” was typically a challenge for women: devoting time to relationship building, which time could not be then spent on technical mastery of any given task at hand. Throughout the earlier stages of my career, I was also missing that ingredient. My definition of “success” was tied entirely to technical mastery of a task, working non-stop through lunch, and trying to get home in time to see my family before everyone was asleep. It has only been in the past 5 years of my career that I shifted the balance, albeit unconsciously, to start to “stop and eat berries.” And, just as unconsciously, amazing things started to occur with clients and potential clients.

But as Professor Joan C. Williams wrote, for the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession, on “How Hidden Bias Affects Everyday Workplace Interactions, women tend to be judged based strictly on achievements while men tend to be judged on their potential:

  • “He’s skilled, she’s lucky”
  • “He’s busy, she has trouble with deadlines”
  • “He’s thoughtful, she’s hesitant”
  • “He’s prudent, she’s passive”

These studies indicate that these characterizations may be rooted in an assumption that men are competent in executive roles unless proven to the contrary, but that no such assumption applies to women who need to prove their competency.

But are the hidden biases entirely the cause and not partially the effect of different internalized gender mindsets? I cannot hope but wonder if this dichotomy may be partially self-induced – women tend to focus almost exclusively on performing, but men tend to make time for building business relationships. As I think back on the early stages of my own career, I remember being self-driven to perform and conscious of work-life balance choices I was making, and believing that there was no time in the mix for building relationships. If women were able to shift their focus earlier in their careers to devoting time to relationship building, it might make a change in the way women are seen in their career development.

And if my berry-bush-lion parable does not sufficiently resonate with you, then just remember what Professor Joan Williams reminds us:

“Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did – but backwards and in high heels.” Frank and Ernest cartoon by Bob Thaves

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