A few weeks ago, Jennifer Lawrence published an essay on Lena Durham’s blog about the inequality of pay between men and women in acting. While she openly admitted she has different challenges than other women in the workplace, her feelings and story could be the same for many women all over the world. She shared her open honest and heartfelt opinion that many of her business negotiations are clouded because of her fear of not being liked. In her own words, “If I’m honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem “difficult” or “spoiled.”
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein
As a female executive in a male dominated world her article struck a chord. Am I afraid of being labeled and does that influence my decisions? It was evident early in my career that I was not going to be a wallflower and hold back my opinion. I had confidence in my abilities, intellect and my intuition to know when something would work and when something would not. Sometimes this confidence helped move me forward and sometimes it held me back.
My experiences have taught me a few things, and these lessons apply to men as well.
1. As long as your motivation is in the right place, do not be afraid to do the right thing – regardless of what others may think.
I remember early in my career working for a large financial institution, I was part of a team that was responsible for a large customer conversion. We had a “Go-No-Go” meeting the Friday before the scheduled conversion. I sat around a table with 20 others who together had spent weeks doing quality testing. We all knew we weren’t ready. The Senior VP sat at the head of the table. I sat in amazement as one person after another, including my boss, said everything was a “go” and there were no issues. Did they not look at the same results I had? This thing was not going to work.
From the back of the room, unsolicited, I spoke up. I watched as my boss’s face turned pale. Everyone in the room just stared at me, appalled that I had made even the slightest hint that this should be a no-go for the weekend. I had a brief moment of confidence when the SVP asked my name and the reason why I did not think it would work. I explained in detail the reasons and then complete silence. He responded with a heavy sigh and then called the meeting adjourned. A few in the room approached me afterwards and applauded my efforts for standing up. They saw the same problems but were fearful of speaking up. Moments later I was called into my boss’s office and was told I was lucky to have a job and had even put her job at risk.
My boss felt betrayed. But I felt like she had let me down by not standing up even though she knew it would not work. I could not stand by and watch a train go over the cliff if I could prevent it. Late Sunday evening I got a call from a coworker, who told me the conversion had to be backed out. It had not worked. Surely I would be vindicated and recognized on Monday for being right. Not a word was said and instead I was reprimanded for my actions. The bigger shock came when my female boss told me off the record that she knew the conversion would not work yet she knew it would be political suicide to speak up. She shared, in confidence, that women who want to succeed in business need to learn to play the game. What game? Male or female, I was just being true to my beliefs and doing what I knew was right. My motivation and intentions came from the right place. In the end I discovered, the people that really matter will still respect you at the end of the day.
2. Labels are just labels and do not define who you are.
I soon left that job and moved back to Louisville where I began my career at an unknown startup called ACCENT Marketing. For 19 years I was true to myself and spoke up when I thought things were right and when things were wrong. There were many times when my opinions were not well received by my male counterparts. The day I was promoted to Vice President I received a gift from another member of the all-male executive team. It was a mug that read down the side, Boys I am Taking Charge Here. The acronym initially offended me but I soon realized that it was just a label and it does not define who I am. My actions and the end result is what matters. They can label me whatever they want, that does not change who I am.
Labels are placed on everyone including men. Why do people feel the need to label others in an unflattering way? If we are honest with ourselves, we do it when we are frustrated and are challenged in finding a logical argument for our position. Name calling comes from a place of insecurity, not confidence. In the moment, it can be difficult to ignore what others are saying about you, but try to take a moment to realize they are either seeing themselves in you or more likely are enviable of the strengths that you possess.
3. Be true to yourself.
I am a huge fan of Gallup’s Strengths Finder. It’s one of the first books I recommend. It’s my go-to gift for new college graduates. Part of the reason I love this book is that it provided language that helped me understand why others might perceive me a certain way.
I am an Arranger. I have been blessed with the ability to jump into the confusion, devising new options, hunting for new paths of least resistance and finding a better way. I am Strategic. I see patterns where others simply see complexity. I discard the paths that lead nowhere. I quickly cull through multiple paths and make selections until I arrive at a chosen path and I have conviction in the path I have chosen. I am also an Activator. Once a decision is made I act. I put myself out there. I must take the next step. I know I will be judged not by what I say, not by what I think, but by what I get done. It is the combination of all these strengths, along with a few others, that make me good at what I do.
You have incredible strengths. Take the time to explore and understand what gifts you have been provided. You will find the most fulfillment and happiness when you know who you are and are able to utilize your strengths on a daily basis. From time to time, just like Jennifer Lawrence, we will worry about what others think of us. But as long as your motivation is in the right place, you recognize that labels do not define you and you remain true to yourself, let them call you whatever they want. They are just being a $#%@ anyway.