It goes without saying that every woman’s experience in the workplace is different. Some work in male dominated environments, others may go their entire career working for female founders. Yet it seems to us that there’s often a real gap in mentors available to young women entering the professional world.
We created the SWISH network to help connect women at different stages in their executive search career. We want to open the doors a bit and give everyone access to the bigger world outside their individual firm. As the network grows, we hope to provide lots of different themed events, addressing the good, the bad and the ugly with authenticity and honesty.
With the launch, we wanted to start somewhere near the beginning. More specifically with the questions of “Who guides you?” and “Where can you find the resources and influences you need to support you as your career evolves?”
Inevitably any conversation on diversity leaps to gender, but wider issues of inclusion can often have as much if not a greater influence on your career. Something that is often overlooked is the trial of joining a professional, corporate firm as a first-generation graduate without ‘professional parents’ to guide you through the initial pitfalls and potential traps. It’s easy to come out of university with the attitude that if you keep your head down and work hard you will be rewarded accordingly. However, as life goes, this is often not the case and suddenly you find yourself in a game where you don’t know the rules. Working them out can be massively challenging without guidance.
A number of people referenced the struggle between operating within the confines of corporate cultures, with a level of politics that accompanies that, and the nagging feeling that it would be nice to bring “your whole self to work”. Particularly in the early stages of your career, striking the right balance is a minefield of internal conflict. In a culture that cultivates working for your own reward, it can end up feeling incredibly lonely; you view colleagues as competition and let incidents such as micro-sexism slide for fear of jeopardising your own career. But that can leave us feeling dislocated from our environments or dislocated from our true selves.
We recognise that many years into our career we now feel powerful. But looking back to the age of 25, dealing with issues at work was something we wish we could have had a guiding hand to help with. We all recognised, either from having had them or not, that a guiding hand to navigate these conflicts is invaluable. What would we have told our 25-year-old selves, when often leaving it can feel like the right option?
At risk of sounding clichéd, it boils down to working out how to own the space. How can you make a place perform better for you?
And the answer to this isn’t easy and it’s different for everyone, but finding a way to draw lines and boundaries, speak up and maintain a sense of yourself within, whilst maintaining the right level of respect for your peers is important if you are going to progress and feel true to yourself. As an example, something as simple as physically standing up as a means of exerting control over a situation can immediately empower you. It’s far harder for someone to unnecessarily dominate you when you put yourself on their level.
Today’s working world is completely different to how it was 25 years ago. The benefits of diversity in the workplace have been recognised and professional women are celebrated. However, it can still seem like there is still a long way to go. And it’s up to us, whether we are women well into our careers or women just beginning, to keep making those necessary changes. As such, having a mentor and having a relationship with women at different stages, can be a brilliant way to find that guiding hand through challenging professional situations. If someone isn’t treating you right, a cup of coffee with a mentor to talk through what’s happened and how best to address it, can give the necessary confidence to stand up for yourself and do so in an effective way.
So, the next question you come to is how exactly do you find these mentors? Should they be someone you work with? Someone to offer an at-arms-length perspective? Do they need to have had the same experience as you?
The short answer is you need different mentors for different circumstances at different stages in your career. It’s dangerous to think you can find everything in one mentor. For example, an in-company mentor works well for daily critique, but certain situations require a different, more distanced perspective. Here it’s useful to have someone more separate from your direct job. Thinking of mentor relationships almost as a personal advisory board brings the idea to life!
To some extent you have to go looking for these different perspectives and be proactive in doing so. As women in search, we are immensely lucky to be meeting different hugely successful women every day. Taking five minutes at the end of an interview to ask how they juggle things so well or the mantras they’ve used to get them to where they are gives you access to an invaluable pool of advice. It’s a great way to bond with other women, look for potential mentors, and open up a mutually beneficial dialogue.
The right mentor is also situation appropriate. For example, the all-too-common “I need to change my career!” crisis can feel incredibly overwhelming without a sense of what it actually means to make career changes. It’s somewhat easy to create your 5-year plan but when life has a funny way of not working out as expected, having the perspective of someone who has been there herself can be hugely beneficial. It’s also important to recognise when it may be useful to use mentors that have similarities to you (values, gender, education, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc.) and when it may be useful to reach out to those who are quite different.
Mentors can help shape ideas, and give you insight, but it’s also worth remembering that for some of your most critical career decisions and life decisions, the answer is usually in you. We all wish we knew to have more trust in ourselves earlier. When making career decisions, it’s easy to be blindsided by the materials of money, hierarchy etc. But ultimately you need to work out what brings you energy and motivates you on a more personal level.
This brings us to dealing with life triggers that can often change your relationship with your career or act as a reflection point. These can come in a huge variety of formats (having children, taking a career break, illness or health issues, changing career etc.) and can often trigger a crisis of confidence and identity. Traditionally, the executive search industry has not been hugely adaptive to flexible working and whilst progress has been made, we as women have a responsibility to ensure this continues.
When dealing with something like maternity leave or working as a mother, hearing other’s “what I wish I’d known” can really make a difference to your own experience. For example, no one tells you how vulnerable you may end up feeling with hormones, lack of sleep, feeling a lack of inclusion from work. Maternity is one example, but similar feelings of dislocation can come from a series of times “out” from your core employment. Where possible, planning prior to the event, thinking about how you are going to maintain your relationship with your employer, who is going to take responsibility for your reintegration, to help you get back into the slipstream of company action, is a helpful way of tackling these issues. Something as simple as coming back to a couple of live projects can make all the difference. All of this is easier said than done which is why we think there is such a benefit to having a continuous support network who can be there for each step.
Additionally, personal time that doesn’t resolve around children is equally valid and should be recognised as so. For those without children, it can be difficult to carve out the time that is not work. It may seem like less of a priority but it’s just as important and crucial for living a balanced life with different passions. Being “always-on” is often a characteristic of the successful, but has significant impact on balance, health and wellness. Creating the right boundaries to carve out some time for you is also an important learning for everyone.
And for those in positions of leadership, being honest with the fact that you are doing something for you sets a great tone for the team. Mark in your calendar that you are swimming at lunch or walking the dog in the morning and set a positive, proactive precedent which will end up with higher levels of productivity.
Most importantly, support people who want to work in different ways. Executive search is an output focused industry and there are numerous ways to achieve the same goals.
We want to support women in finding their own definition of success and hope that through this network, we can get one step closer to making the executive search industry as inclusive and supportive as can be.