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Can women executives have it all without DOING it all?

Among one of my professional idols is a woman I met several years ago while I worked in management consulting. She was a hot property–the kind of executive-level consultant that you bragged about having on your team. Word was, she’d signed a sweet deal with the company and why not? she’d built her own consulting business to great heights and then sold it for (I presume) millions. She could now take whatever jobs excited her, not just whatever would pay.

Among one of my professional idols is a woman I met several years ago while I worked in management consulting. She was a hot property–the kind of executive-level consultant that you bragged about having on your team. Word was, she’d signed a sweet deal with the company and why not? she’d built her own consulting business to great heights and then sold it for (I presume) millions. She could now take whatever jobs excited her, not just whatever would pay.

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Her task with our company was to do what she loved and was good at–build a major new practice area within the firm. Though I didn’t have anywhere near her experience I remember being jealous that she had the distinction of having an entrepreneurial position in a corporate setting. It seemed like she had the best of both worlds.

I had heard so much about her professionally, but When I met her I must confess I was shocked: she was a departure from the vision in my head. She was, well, colorful, wearing a bright, celery sweater-suit-set and an eye-catching necklace that I wondered if she borrowed from MOMA–it was a work of art. I wondered if this woman had ever worn a navy pantsuit, or her long hair back in a bun, or a neutral shade of lipstick.

We met at a company dinner. She extended her hand and introduced herself. Wow–surprise no.2: she had a thick Long Island accent, the kind that women friends of mine from New York tried to hide or tone down in the office.

We sat down to eat, and she ordered an incredible pinot noir. I asked her if she liked wine and she confessed that, yes, she did. In fact she had a wine cellar in her home and often hosted elaborate wine tasting parties for her friends. I asked her where she got her beautiful necklace. In her free time, she said, she collected and sold European art. She was in Italy when she found the necklace and couldn’t let it go.

I spent the rest of the evening in awe and confusion: I had built a model in my mind of what a self-made businesswoman would be like; I assumed she would be frazzled and a bit pissed off for having spent the majority of her life working. I assumed she would look tired and sartorially uninspired, because she had no time to shop. I assumed she’d have a “phone voice” –something I’d learned to adopt when I got out of the Midwest and learned that some people thought I sounded funny. This woman, however, made no apologies for her style–she combined the personal with the professional. She knew how to take things in the moment. She knew how to have a business and a life.

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As we began working together I noticed more unusual things about her. For one, she didn’t suffer. She didn’t raise her voice, or “lose it” in moments of stress. This woman had no stress; she asked others to do things when she couldn’t, or when she didn’t want to, without profuse apology, and she didn’t beat herself up when things went badly. She knew when to put things down when they weren’t working, including, eventually, the job. She left with little angst or drama, wishing us all the best.

We met months later when I connected with her for an article I was writing about women leaders. I was working on my own now, and I felt like I understood her much better. Initially I’d thought she was an enigma and a bit of a prima donna. But things had shifted dramatically for me. I had left the company to take on meaningful work, and I’d learned that a lot of what I had been doing previously had not been meaningful to me, or even that mission-critical to the company. Perhaps she had known something that I hadn’t. Perhaps she wasn’t the type to settle for anything that wasn’t mission critical.

I was interviewing her for an article about women in business: what were the things that she would offer up as advice? She provided me with one word: Delegate.

“Women have an issue with taking on everything,” she said. “What they don’t understand is that not everything deserves to be taken on.”

I thought hard about that comment. Over time my work has become increasingly mission critical, even the mundane aspects of it. It’s hard to imagine being excited about doing budgets, but these things are important to me, and that’s what makes the difference.

Still, even with my own business, I’m constantly chipping away at things that have become routine, but not useful. Initially these things were hard to spot; the pleaser in me doesn’t want to seem like a quitter, or like I’m abandoning my work. But I assure you, when it’s your own business, or your own project, or your own department, these inefficiencies begin to stand out more. The more the work matters, the more the distinction of importance can be made.

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If the best word for describing yourself is overwhelmed, and you can’t determine what matters anymore, stop doing for a moment and ask yourself, does this deserve to be done? And do yourself a favor, don’t freak out when you come up with the answer. Just fix it.

Jory Des Jardins • Co-Founder, BlogHer, LLC • San Francisco, CA • jory@blogher.org • www.blogher.orgwww.jorydesjardins.com