HELENA MORRISSEY, former CEO, mother of nine, and founder of The 30% Club, says you shouldn’t have to walk a narrow tightrope to succeed: the key is to develop your own voice …
Much of the advice doled out to women of all ages focuses on self-improvement. It’s fine to be encouraged to be the best version of ourselves but not to feel we have to change radically or that we must walk along a narrow tightrope to succeed. Such advice erodes rather than builds our confidence: it’s so easy to become focused on what we are doing “wrong” rather than what we are getting right.
It is time we women stopped worrying about being “too this” or “too that” and instead focused much more on getting the job we want. Focus on understanding what works for you, including when you are at your most energetic and effective. Newspaper articles often make a point of referencing how early I and some other “successful” women get up in the morning as if that’s part of a plan – but what they don’t mention is that I have always been an early riser and early to bed. I cannot function intellectually past 9pm, and I do my best work in the mornings. Getting up early is part of my natural rhythm (and annoys my family at the weekends), not a “beating the competition” strategy.
A quick look through what’s been written about me also reveals more than a few comments about my style of dress, often conveying surprise that I don’t “look like” a senior City woman – or a mother of nine (whatever she is supposed to look like). I do like pink and I do like dresses, but before you picture me as a (much) older version of Elle Woods, Reese Witherspoon’s fabulous character in Legally Blonde, I’m afraid the reality is much less exciting. The only statement I am making in my choice of clothes is that we can be feminine without being frivolous. I do feel more powerful in my work dresses, colourful though they may be, and feeling that way means that I am in turn perceived as being more powerful.
In areas of both style and substance, the key is to develop your own view, a strong inner compass to guide you in most situations and decisions, big and small. I once took part in a conference on economics and politics alongside Lord Forsyth, former Secretary of State for Scotland, who explained that in Margaret Thatcher’s government, long before the days of WhatsApp, texts or even emails, ministers didn’t need to be told how to respond to an unexpected development; the central view was strong enough for them to be able to react “on message”. As individuals, we need a similarly strong core.
But much of the guidance given to women doesn’t help us become more centred. Ironically, it’s usually based on teaching us how to play the (past) men’s game, just as men move on from that. Women in mid-career are bombarded with advice on how to network, how to be more assertive, how to dress for success. While we are doing all that, men are taking aim at the role they want. We are embarking on a much more convoluted route, sometimes without even knowing where we are going – so it’s hardly surprising that we are more likely to get lost along the way. There couldn’t be a better time to take a more direct approach: having made some progress in the boardroom, the emphasis now is on encouraging the appointment of more women executives. It’s not just a good time to be a girl, it’s a great time to be a woman. If you want to be the CEO, or even just to progress to the next level, concentrate on “getting on the bench”, not on joining yet another women’s network.
Don’t worry that any of this sounds pushy. Studies like the 30% Club’s Cracking the Code confirm that women tend to express ambition ambiguously, and that gives very mixed signals to bosses looking for clues. Help them out here. This is not about “acting like a man”, it’s about acting like someone preparing for the next role. So often, I’ve seen women being overlooked because it’s assumed that they are not particularly interested – yet they have been waiting politely for someone to ask.
Both attitudes and working practices have moved on a long way since I had Fitz [her eldest son] in 1991 but the reality is that having children is not something to fit neatly into a busy life. It’s complicated, emotionally and physically, and changes us – often in very good ways. Again, there are as many lives as there are people, as many childbearing experiences as there are mothers, but we share common strands of experience.
There’s one piece of advice I came across very recently that encapsulates what has made the difference for me between having a “successful” business career in the eyes of others and actually feeling happy and confident that I am making a valuable contribution outside as well as inside the home. Indian Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) said, “Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life, think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.” My “idea” is the big rebalance between men and women – something that has ramifications for my family life, for my roles in business, for the commentary and analysis and speeches I make – and yes, is the motivation behind this book. All roads lead back to this idea. It’s obviously far from a new idea, but it often feels to me that people don’t understand how powerful a genuine balancing would be and my contribution is to try to change that.
A Good Time to Be a Girl by Helena Morrissey (£14.99, William Collins) is out now.
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