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Opinion Editorials

Letter to my daughter: get ready, it’s lonely at the top

Being a leader can be a very lonely experience, so I want to tell you what that feels like and how you can overcome it, because you are amazing and I think some day soon, you’ll rule your world!

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lonely leader

Dear daughter,

You’re almost 16 and you’re finishing up your sophomore year. You have such an amazing life ahead of you, and we’re feeling confident that we’ve raised you well and that you are ready for the ups and downs of college, then of your career, but I think there’s something we haven’t spent much time on, and it’s one of the cruel secrets of being a leader – it’s lonely at the top, especially for women.

We’ve showed you the entrepreneurial path and the corporate path, and because you are insanely intelligent, an amazingly fast learner, a great communicator, and a superior listener, you can take either path you chose and crush it. But what we’ve always agreed is that you’re destined for the top no matter where you are.

Because you’ve seen me work as a leader in my industry and our company, you’ve seen a very positive view of what it means to be at a company that has more women leaders and employees than male, so I’m not lonely here. But I have been before. Let me explain.

You already know I’ve experienced sexual harassment and discrimination and I’ve told you to tell men to get their own damn coffee, that you’re brains, not boobs. And you already know that I think a lot about cultivating female leaders at an early age, so we talk about it a lot already, but did you know that almost any female executive you come across will have been called a “bitch” for most of her career because she refused to accept that women are required to be receptionists?

Did you know that some women go to work and know that there are many people with eyes on her that are angry that she’s in charge and shouldn’t be? Did you know many women leaders are suspected of having slept their way to the top rather than earning their spot? Sexism is still alive and well and while the pay gap between men and women is improving and great strides are being made, there are still offices that will give you the biggest challenge of your life.

As if you won’t have enough on your shoulders running a company some day, you may have to deal with the garbage that comes along with being a female leader. I’m sorry I haven’t expressed this sooner and that I’ve let you think that my situation is normal – it’s not.

So darling, here are some things you’ll need to do in advance:

  1. Know in advance that it may be lonely at the top. Knowing that much can be quite empowering. Because you’re a kind hearted person, you’ll be tempted to compromise your core values to make people like you at work, but you know everyone has haters, so it’s better to have haters for the right reasons than the wrong reasons.
  2. Network. Find other female leaders and connect with them. Find mentors who you admire and connect with them. Go to networking events for leaders in your field and make time to talk to one another.
  3. Play hard, have hobbies, and don’t obsess over work 24-7. Keep doing the things we do together now – go kayaking on weekends, read every night, run marathons, look at internet kittehs, and go shopping even if you don’t want to buy anything. Keep competitive and healthy and you’ll always feel energetic at work, and there’s nothing that overcomes a bitch reputation more than a natural smile because you are happy.

Now that we’ve talked about being lonely at the top and how you can overcome it, let me share a secret with you, honey – it’s only lonely if you let it be. Now get out there and crush it, the world is waiting for you! We love you, we are insanely proud of you, and we can’t wait to see your life take off!

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. vanhoosear

    April 12, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    Good Advice, Lani! You have every reason to be proud of both yourself and your daughter!

  2. Tinu

    April 12, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    Great advice. My advice to young women is that, while it’s harder out there for some due to economics, gender, race, lack of skill or talent — it just means your “yes” is in a different place. It does NOT mean it doesn’t exist, nor does it mean that you have to sit around and wait for yes. In some cases you can make your own.

  3. Jill Przybyla

    April 17, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    I wish I received this letter before I started my career. American values tell us we can do anything if we try hard enough, because we are all equal. While we strive for this, we have different chances and hurdles to overcome. Knowing this is half the battle.

  4. Charity Kountz

    May 19, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    What a great post! I wish someone had told me this ten years ago!

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Opinion Editorials

Can Gen-Z talent build social capital in a remote working world?

(EDITORIAL) As corporations plan for the future, it is important that business leaders take Gen-Z’s unique traits into consideration.

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Gen-Z

The following is the thoughts and analysis of Kevin Davis, the founder and chairman of First Workings, a nonprofit helping underrepresented NYC high schoolers acquire social capital through paid internships and one-on-one mentorships.  

Pre-pandemic, only 2% of workers were remote. By May 2020, that number was up to 70% according to SHRM. As more and more Americans get vaccinated, questions about returning to the office continue to persist. Hybrid work (a combination of work from home, and in the office) has grown in popularity, and many large tech companies like Amazon, Meta, and Alphabet, have announced permanent policies on remote work.

As corporations plan for the future, it is important that business leaders take Gen-Z into consideration. They are currently the largest generation in America, and a generation rapidly entering the workforce as interns and entry-level staff. With the Great Resignation still occurring, firms need to take the concerns of Gen-Z into account to grow their workforce.

I have learned a lot as the Founder and Chairman of First Workings, a nonprofit organization that helps high school students from underserved communities build social capital and workplace readiness skills through paid summer internships and mentorships with large firms across New York City. Working with high school students throughout the pandemic has taught us valuable lessons on virtual learning and working.

Gen-Z is the most diverse generation

According to a Pew Research center study, Generation Z has more racial diversity than any generation before it. Their entry into the workforce has coincided with a huge “racial reckoning” throughout every industry in America. Over the past 18 months, many of the industries we partner with including finance, law, medicine, and media have taken strides to broaden the diversity of their workforce.

Virtual jobs and internships can fill in some gaps…

Virtual jobs and internships allow students and graduates to get experiences at companies regardless of their locations. Not all students can afford to move to expensive places like New York City for the summer.  Others may need to spend time living with family members in places far from the firm’s headquarters. For them, virtual positions make a lot of sense and broaden their access to opportunities.

Additionally, working remotely can give new hires more one-on-one time with mentors and supervisors. Indeed in our experience, interns and mentees get far more one-on-one time from a facetime call with their supervisor, than amid the hustle and bustle of a busy office. One obvious reason for this is that when a conversation is taking place through a video call, the employer or mentor is able to focus entirely on the mentee for a set amount of time. This makes their engagement far deeper and more meaningful.

But there are costs

For new hires from underserved communities, virtual work is not always the best fit. Finding a quiet place for Zoom calls can be difficult, especially when one shares small living spaces with extended family members and or siblings. Additionally, we have noticed that many of the students we have worked with over the past 18 months are reluctant to turn their cameras on while interacting. Zoom fatigue, paired with feelings of shame or embarrassment about one’s camera background, can have a detrimental impact on their ability to make connections in virtual environments.

Companies need to prioritize face-to-face interactions

A young person entering the workforce will not have the same office relationships as older colleagues. It’s important for HR staff and management to encourage as much interaction as possible outside of Slack and email. If new staff members have a question or concern about a project, they should set up a Zoom call (or meet in person, if possible) allowing relationships, trust, and social capital to develop. Furthermore, employees should be encouraged to connect “offline” by working in person at the same time, if in-person work is optional. This will help colleagues relate better to one other, and build trust.

New employees should spend as much time as possible building intentional relationships. This does not mean idle office chat, but something deeper based on shared interests, goals, and aspirations. Those new to a job should show initiative by joining a committee or offering to help out on ad hoc projects.

Mentorship doesn’t happen naturally

 If employers want their employees to mentor one another, an active effort should be made to facilitate these relationships. Companies need to outline clear guidelines and expectations to ensure an equitable and beneficial professional experience for everyone involved. The lockdown forced First Workings to develop a virtual mentorship model, and we are noticing how many of the added benefits are here to stay, despite the return to in-person work.

Managers Need to Prioritize In-Office Work for Gen-Z

If firms want to succeed in attracting and fostering Gen-Z talent, a critical eye must be turned towards remote work. It is not enough to institute small fixes, as we cannot build the future workforce from our home offices. Bringing the new generation into the workplace is the best option for building a sustainable workforce.

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Opinion Editorials

Struggle with procrastination? Check your energy, not time management

(EDITORIAL) Surprisingly, procrastination may not have anything to do with your lack of time management, but everything to do with mental energy.

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making lists in order to combat procrastination

Your author has a confession to make; as a “type B” personality who has always struggled with procrastination, I am endlessly fascinated by the topic of productivity and “hacking your time.”

I’ve tried most of the tricks you’ve read about, with varying degrees of success.

Recently, publishers like BBC have begun to approach productivity and procrastination from a different perspective; rather than packing days full of to-do items as a way to maximize time, the key is to maximize your mental energy through a different brand of time management.

So, why doesn’t time management work?

For starters, not all work time is quality time by nature. According to a study published at ScienceDirect, your average worker is interrupted 87 times a day on the job. For an 8-hour day, that’s almost 11 times per hour. No wonder it’s so hard to stay focused!

Second, time management implies a need to fill time in order to maximize it.

It’s the difference between “being busy” and “being productive.”

It also doesn’t impress your boss; a Boston University study concluded that “managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to.” By contrast, managing your energy lets you maximize your time based on how it fits with your mental state.

Now, how do you manage your energy?

First, understand and protect the time that should actually go into deep, focused work. Studies continually show that just a few hours of focused worked yield the greatest results; try to put in longer hours behind that, and you’ll see diminishing returns. There’s a couple ways you can accomplish this.

You can block off time in your day dedicated to focused work, and guard the time as if it were a meeting. You could also physically retreat to a private space in order to work on a task.

Building in flexibility is another key to managing your energy. The BBC article references a 1980s study that divided students into two groups; one group planned out monthly goals, while the other group planned out daily goals and activities. The study found the monthly planners accomplished more of their goals, because the students focusing on detailed daily plans often found them foiled by the unexpected.

Moral of the story?

Don’t lock in your schedule too tightly; leave space for the unexpected.

Finally, you should consider making time for rest, a fact reiterated often by the BBC article. You’ve probably heard the advice before that taking 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes worked is important, and studies continue to show that it is. However, rest also includes taking the time to turn your brain off of work mode entirely.

The BBC article quotes associated professor of psychiatry Srini Pillay as saying that, “[people] need to use both the focus ad unfocus circuits in the brain,” in order to be fully productive. High achievers like Serena Williams, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates build this into their mentality and their practice.

Embracing rest and unfocused thinking may be key to “embracing the slumps,” as the BBC article puts it.

In conclusion, by leaving some flexibility in your schedule and listening to your body and mind, you can better tailor your day to your mental state and match your brainpower to the appropriate task. As someone who is tempted to keep a busy to-do list myself, I am excited to reevaluate and improve my own approach. Maybe you should revisit your own systems as well in order to combat procrastination and ensure you aren’t making detrimental last-minute decisions for waiting.

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Opinion Editorials

Follow these steps to change a negative mindset into something of value

(EDITORIAL) Once you’re an expert, it’s easy to get caught in the know-it-all-trap, but expertise and cynicism age like fine wine, and can actually benefit you/others if communicated effectively.

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Man on couch drawing on ipad representative of change to the negative mindset.

In conversation with our friend John Steinmetz, he shared some thoughts with me that have really stuck with us.

He has expanded on these thoughts for you below, in his own words, and we truly believe that any individual can benefit from this perspective:

Over the last few years I have realized a few things about myself. I used to be trouble, always the dissenting opinion, always had to be on the opposite side of everyone else.

Then, I started reading everything I could get my hands on dealing with “how to change your attitude,” “how to be a better team player,” etc.

Over the course of that time I realized something. I realized that there was nothing wrong with me, only something wrong with how I communicate.

Unfortunately, once someone sets the context of who you are, they will never see you as anything else. I was labeled a troublemaker by those who didn’t want to “rock the boat” and that was that.

In my readings of books and articles by some of the most prominent technical leaders, they all had something in common. Paraphrasing of course, they all said “you can’t innovate and change the world by doing the same thing as everyone else.” So, in actuality, it wasn’t me, it was my communication style. For that reason, you have to say it out loud – “I will make waves.”

Physics

There are two things I reference in physics about making waves.

  • “A ship moving over the surface of undisturbed water sets up waves emanating from the bow and stern of the ship.”
  • “The steady transmission of a localized disturbance through an elastic medium is common to many forms of wave motion.”

You need motion to create waves. How big were the waves when the internet was created? Facebook? Just think about the natural world and there are examples everywhere that follow the innovation pattern.

You see it in the slow evolution of DNA and then, BAM, mutations disrupt the natural order and profoundly impact that change.

Communication

Where I was going wrong was, ironically, the focus of my career which is now Data. For those who do not know me, I am a product director, primarily in the analytics and data space.

More simply: For the data generated or consumed by an organization, I build products and services that leverage that data to generate revenue, directly or indirectly through the effectiveness of the same.

I was making the mistake of arguing without data because “I knew everything.” Sound familiar?

Another ironic thing about what I do is that if you work with data long enough, you realize you know nothing. You have educated guesses based on data that, if applied, give you a greater chance of determining the next step in the path.

To bring this full circle, arguing without data is like not knowing how to swim. You make waves, go nowhere, and eventually sink. But add data to your arguments and you create inertia in some direction and you move forward (or backward, we will get to this in a min).

So, how do you argue effectively?

First, make sure that you actually care about the subject. Don’t get involved or create discussions if you don’t care about the impact or change.

As a product manager, when I speak to engineering, one of my favorite questions is “Why do I care?” That one question alone can have the most impact on an organization. If I am told there are business reasons for a certain decision and I don’t agree with the decision, let’s argue it out. Wait, what? You want to argue?

So, back to communication and understanding. “Argue” is one of those words with a negative connotation. When quite simply it could be defined as giving reasons or citing evidence in support of an idea, action, or theory, typically with the aim of persuading others to share one’s view.

Words matter

As many times as I have persuaded others to my point of view, I have been persuaded to change mine.

That is where my biggest change has occurred.

I now come into these situations with an open mind and data. If someone has a persuasive argument, I’m sold. It is now about the decision, not me. No pride.

Moving forward or backward is still progress (failure IS an option).

The common thought is that you have to always be perfect and always be moving forward. “Failure is not an option.”

When I hear that, I laugh inside because I consider myself a master of controlled failure. I have had the pleasure to work in some larger, more tech-savvy companies and they all used controlled experimentation to make better, faster decisions.

Making waves is a way of engaging the business to step out of their comfort zone and some of the most impactful decisions are born from dissenting opinions. There is nothing wrong with going with the flow but the occasional idea that goes against the mainstream opinion can be enough to create innovation and understand your business.

And it is okay to be wrong.

I am sure many of you have heard Thomas Edison’s take on the effort to create the first lightbulb. He learned so much more from the failures than he did from success.

”I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb; I only needed to find one way to make it work.” – Thomas Edison

It is important to test what you think will not work. Those small failures can be more insightful, especially when you are dealing with human behaviors. Humans are unpredictable at the individual level but groups of humans can be great tools for understanding.

Don’t be afraid

Turn your negative behavior into something of value. Follow these steps and you will benefit.

    1. Reset the context of your behavior (apologize for previous interactions, miscommunications) and for the love of all that is holy, be positive.
    2. State your intentions to move forward and turn interactions into safe places of discussion.
    3. Learn to communicate alternative opinions and engage in conversation.
    4. Listen to alternative opinions with an open mind.
    5. Always be sure to provide evidence to back up your thoughts and suggestions.
    6. Rock the boat. Talk to more people. Be happy.

A special thank you to John Steinmetz for sharing these thoughts with The American Genius audience.

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