What would you have done?
Two colleagues and I had scheduled a working session with clients to receive feedback on a project proposal and engage in a co-designing session.
During our preparations, we assigned roles for the meeting, with mine being executive sponsor. This made sense, as I was the highest-ranking person on our side of the table. We also had a relationship manager and a solution designer, the latter who was charged with facilitating the meeting.
When we walked into the meeting and sat down, it didn’t take long for me—and everybody else—to realize I was the only woman in the room.
As the meeting started, everybody seemed tense and the discussion stalled. People were hesitant to open up. But I knew if we didn’t get the marbles out of our mouths, there was a distinct possibility this project would fall apart.
Our relationship manager asked for feedback on the solution we had presented, and the silence was deafening.
Realizing someone had to do something, I stood up.
I quickly moved to the front of the room and started making notes on the flipchart. I also attached printouts to the wall and then prompted everyone to engage in a friendly and purposeful conversation. I was building trust with the two groups and encouraging collaboration.
There I was, floating around everybody, jotting down the relevant ideas and asking questions. Both sides in the meeting were suddenly working with each other, creating something. We were all energized by the progress we were making.
When the meeting was over and we had thanked the clients and sent them on their way, my team stayed for a debriefing. One of my colleagues immediately thanked me for my facilitation and consulting skills.
I admitted that, at first, I was a bit hesitant to stand up and start organizing the meeting. As the only woman in the room, I almost felt like I was the “maid” for the meeting.
That’s when my second colleague piped in and thanked me for mentioning that. "I had the same feeling. It was almost embarrassing,” he said.
It was a true dilemma. Before I stood up, I hesitated and told myself that, as the most senior representative of my company, I was not going to take on menial tasks of facilitating the meeting. “I will not do this and put myself into this lower position,” I thought.
But then I realized that my skills and input had really saved the meeting. My and my colleagues’ first instinct was wrong and luckily, I was able to reframe in the moment and clear my path.
To really understand what had happened, I tried to look at the two different “frames” through which my colleagues and I had viewed the meeting.
Frame 1: Facilitating the meeting was beneath my position. I should stay in my seat and wait for someone else to take on that role.
Frame 2: I was the only person in the room with the skills and experience to take on the critical facilitating role. I knew how to build trust, oversee the discussion and help everybody relax enough to open up and make some real progress.
I wonder, how many other leaders feel the same way in similar circumstances? How many times do we get in our own way with the wrong frame?
In the #MeToo era, it’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusions as a vigorous debate rages on among women about how to define equality and our professional aspirations. Every major publication and news outlet is full of people offering their perspectives on what it means to be both a woman and a leader. It’s an exciting time.
But it’s also a perilous time where it’s difficult to know how to act and react. And even though there has been real progress towards true equality, there are a lot of situations where double standards still rule.
For example, I often think about how people respond to parents who have to leave work to take care of their children.
If a man has to take his daughter to the doctor, many people will respond with respect and approval. “What a great dad, taking time off to care for a child,” they will say.
But if a woman takes time off for the same reason, people will often sneer disapprovingly. “There she goes again, dropping the ball at work. We clearly can’t rely on someone who is always putting her family first.”
Thinking about situations like that, it’s hard to know when to stand up and get involved versus when to stand down and be more cautious. In other words, there is no clear road map for women leaders. We all have to be willing to examine each challenge independently and try to find the best frame to clear the path forward.
In a now-bygone era, hierarchy, status, dominance and ego were key elements needed for someone to be a successful leader. Thankfully, this “frame” is no longer relevant to the work of a solid leader. Now, leaders need to respond to the relentless demand for change by being able to reprioritize and make good decisions in rapid fashion.
When confronting a challenge, leaders—both men and women—need to be as objective as possible and resist the biases that cause us to see only what we want or expect to see. If you are the best facilitator in the meeting, stand up and do what you do best. Don’t worry about whether you think the work is beneath you; focus on the importance of the work.
That having been said, we should remember that women do not need to act exactly like men to be great leaders.
I don’t want to become a man. I love being a woman, with all of the ups and downs that it brings. And I love being able to show people how women leaders, while different from their male counterparts, still bring a wide array of skills and capacities to the table.
I know that no matter what I do, I will never be a good enough man. But I know I can be a great woman. And when we work together, we can make this a better world.