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...another reason I didn't make it to the corner office

23 May 2013

I don’t want to explain why I never made it to the top of the corporate ladder.  The truth is, I just don’t know.  Perhaps I wasn’t CEO material.  Maybe I just didn’t have that Star Quality big organisations are looking for.  After a long, long time, I’ve decided really, I should stop wondering and just celebrate where I am today.

During the course of my time in the corporate world I would seek out role models.  Examples of women I could emulate.  At one point in my career I was working for an organisation not known for its female representation.  There were no women in senior management or on the board.  But there were LOTS of middle management women and admin staff.

Being a bit of an activist (and yes there was some self interest there), I was able to convince a VERY senior female executive (let’s just call her Kate) to come to our offices and to speak about her career experience with our employees in a group setting.   The idea was that by having someone of Kate’s calibre in we could get both genders comfortable with the concept of women in leadership positions in our organisation.  That I had managed to secure Kate to come to our offices was considered by many across our firm as a pretty serious coup.  So we booked our best meeting room and organised for our other offices to  participate via large StarTrek like Polycom device which is used for telephone conferencing.

The sense of relief I felt when Kate arrived at our reception quickly turned to ill ease.   To say she was aloof is an understatement.   I felt no warmth or attempt to connect what-so-ever with me or any of my colleagues who welcomed her.  Our many attempts to engage her discussion were returned with monosyllabic answers or nods.  It was like the Ice Queen had stepped off the elevator.  On more than one occasion, I found myself resisting the urge to shiver.  Confused and somewhat disappointed, I wondered whether the person I had spoken with on the phone really was the same person standing before me in our office reception.

As proceedings commenced we attempted to “dial-in” the other offices on the Polycom device which we had placed on a panel table in front of Kate.  Suddenly, I wasn’t cold anymore.  I was rather hot actually and extremely anxious.  That’s because our Executive Chairman was also participating on the call.  He was waiting (rather impatiently I was told) in one of our other offices listening to Polycom hold music.  After several unsuccessful attempts at entering the “dial in” code I was near hyperventilation.


A Polycom…just in case you were wondering…

I saw Kate shift uncomfortably.  After a few obvious glances at her wrist watch, I decided it would be better to remove myself and the Polycom from the meeting room and allow the proceedings to commence while we dealt with the technology.

It took another ten minutes for our IT technicians to realise they had given me the wrong code.   As I was keen not miss another minute, I rushed back to the room which was, at that point, overflowing with a respectful, heavy solemness that could be cut with a carving knife.   In full flight with Polycom in hand, I made a spectacular entrance, tripping over a sliding door rail and – in what was my WORST nightmare scenario – losing grip of the Polycom which over turned and skipped along the carpet floor.

Kate did not flinch.  There was no acknowledgment that anything untoward at all had taken place.  No look of horror.  Nothing.

As for me, well I should have been absolutely devastated.  Really.  Truly I should have been crestfallen.  Instead I suddenly felt this uncontrollable and, yes, unprofessionally irrepressible urge (as I do now writing this) to giggle.  Not a small sniffling embarrassed giggle either.  An enormous belly laughing, I’m going to snort if I’m not careful giggle.

I’m sorry.  I can’t explain why I reacted like that.  Perhaps it was because in the weeks leading up to this event, I had built up in my mind how it would play out.  Or maybe I was just reacting authentically to what was a pretty unbelievable epic fail.  Anyway I’m guessing there would have been a few of my colleagues who, like me, were holding on for dear life to maintain decorum.  As luck would have it the Polycom somehow managed to stay connected (I can’t imagine what the other offices were thinking when they heard it crash land).  After I placed the Polycom in front of an incredibly composed and deadpan Kate, I excused myself from the meeting room closing the door behind me.

I spent the next 15 minutes in the ladies room trying hard to stop giggling.  I’m fairly certain that when I returned to the room my colleagues must have thought the tears I had wiped from my cheeks were from crying.  But they weren’t.  Throughout the balance of the presentation (I think I got to watch 20 minutes of it), I focused more on trying to suppress my laugher than Kate’s words of wisdom.

At one point, close to the end of the discussion someone asked Kate how she managed challenging situations.  I had to hold onto myself when she said, “it’s very important to maintain a sense of humour….”.  Thankfully she didn’t look at me or I would have seriously cracked it.

Ok so in the end, I didn’t learn very much from cold Kate and although neither she nor the event quite lived up to my expectations – I thought what a good sport for coming to demonstrate to my colleagues that women are capable of holding leadership positions.   While I have no doubt that Kate’s many achievements were more than deserved, in the end she was not the kind of leader I would have wanted to be.  Though it must be said that that many women do find her “Devil Wears Prada” leadership style successful.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself. “  I’m sure I can think of a multitude of learnings from my big trip up – but here are a few to get the ball rolling….

1.  IT issues should be left to the experts.   Best to allocate responsibility for dial in codes etc to others….there’s no need for you to do the running and tripping.  Just because something is going wrong doesn’t mean you need to step in to fix it.  Rise above the little setbacks – focus on why you are there in the first place.

2.  Don’t work yourself up, remember CEO’s and Executive Chairpeople are people too.  It’s not going to break your career if things don’t go exactly to plan and if you take the attitude that things usually don’t (even with careful planning and preparation) then it’s a pleasant surprise when they do.

3.  Always maintain a sense of humour.  You’ve probably guessed by now that I don’t have Kate to thank for that pearl of wisdom.

4.  Celebrate what’s good about what you’ve achieved.  When things go wrong – don’t focus on the negatives.  Learn from it and carry on.

5.  Gender really doesn’t matter when it comes to role models.  You know all that time I was searching for a role model – the fact was it mattered little whether it was a man or a woman.  Find people you think are good leaders and follow what they do.  I’ve been working for a male CEO for the past 2 years and I’ve watched a learned a great deal from his management style.  Oh and just because they are in the corner office…doesn’t necessarily make them a good leader.

As for why I never made it to the corner office, you know I could never authentically be an Ice Queen and yes I will freely admit, I have control issues but you know what…I think I’ll still blame the Polycom.