I’ve usually done things with my career in response to something I’ve seen as not right or fair. Sometimes it’s because of something that I’ve experienced directly. Like my experiences with bullying were what drove me to connect Human Resources people to come up with ways of making workplaces more humane. That was the award winning social community NZLEAD. Sometimes it’s because of something I’ve seen that has made me very uncomfortable. Like walking out on a job for a profit mongering company that quibbled over small increases to the pay of their minimum wage and vulnerable employees. It’s always been a process of moving away from something that doesn’t serve and towards something that does. And, although I began my career working in Human Resources, I’ve moved closer and closer over the years to helping people be full human beings at work and developing the leadership in order to do so. The work I do with my coaching, and with my PhD, is no different in that respect. My own experience was my inspiration to begin my research, and to support other women on their own leadership journeys.
When I returned to work after maternity leave, when my son was 1-year old, I struggled to reconcile work and leadership with the embodiment of motherhood: breastfeeding; sleep deprivation; the revolving door of daycare illnesses; squeezing my post pregnant body into now too small professional clothes; and, wrangling my often crying baby out the door and into the arms of strangers. I left after 5 months, after my body literally shut down. Despite no-one else in the house getting sick (and if you’re a parent you know what daycare bugs are like!) I was vomiting, exhausted, and bedridden. It was as if my body had decided it needed to step in and give up the mental and emotional fight the rest of me was waging.
What led up to that wasn’t helped by some of the informal, unspoken, mechanisms of work that left me feeling an outsider to the behaviours that got rewarded and recognised. Despite part-time hours I felt pressured to work longer than contracted, and be contactable after I had left for the day in order for my contribution to be ‘seen’. And although I exceeded all objective measures of work performance, I was passed over for a leadership position in my team, kept out of the loop on interesting projects that might require travel, and told I lacked ‘confidence’. When I challenged and pushed back on those decisions and assertions there was no evidence to suggest that any of them were valid. After over a decade carving out a career and being told that I could ‘have it all’, I found that even ‘doing it all’ meant I wasn’t going to be recognised as a legitimate worker and leader.
Part of my journey during that time was working with a leadership coach and meeting with her regularly (and who I paid for myself – it was worth the investment!). We worked through difficult conversations about my role at work and family responsibilities, the voices in my head that were telling me I wasn’t good enough, how to ask for what I needed and set boundaries around that, and identifying and leveraging my strengths as a leader. Each time we met, we got closer to uncovering, and tuning my focus towards, what was really important to me and my family and the kind of leadership I wanted to demonstrate. From this exploration I was able to recognise my strengths as a leader, acknowledge the things that made me truly happy in my work, identify the sweet spot between the two and the career options that would leverage those. I was able to make a decision about the kind of leader I needed to be for my son and my work. It’s an ongoing process and has had some particularly rough patches, particularly over the past few years, but it’s one of the most truthful and rewarding journeys I’ve been on. I’m now able to say I’m doing the leadership work that best aligns with my strengths and how I want to show up in the world, and somehow everything else is falling into place.