I’m a positive person and the recent election in the U.S. has dealt my positivity a serious blow. But I will do my best to turn it into a lesson we can all learn from.
A week ago the world watched as a highly qualified Wellesley and Yale educated public servant, with decades of experience for exactly the job she applied for, was rejected in favor of a bully and braggart with absolutely no experience for the job he now holds. Many of us played a part in this process and regardless of which side you were on, the gender dynamics of the contest were hard to ignore. It’s a story many of us have seen too many times: the misogynistic bully gets away with all kinds of indecencies and inadequacies, garnering the favor of the decision-makers with his braggadocio and willingness to say what they want to hear. All this while the highly qualified woman is discredited and pushed aside making room for the braggart to ascend.
This has happened over and over in company leadership selections and it’s happened to many of us personally. If you supported Hillary Clinton last week, you have a sick knot in your stomach. If you supported Donald Trump, you may also have a knot in your stomach since his lack of experience puts a wild card in the White House. Or you may be one of those who believe his outsider’s approach is exactly what qualifies him. Despite where you stood a week ago, I invite you to look at the recent U.S. election and take from it a lesson in why, if you don’t feel valued for your hard work and experience, these admirable qualities may simply not be enough to help you realize your goals. If women ever needed a reason to let go of the myth that “hard work will get you there,” the recent spectacle of American politics is it.
The Myth of Hard Work
The first time I saw the myth of hard work in action, I was Vice President of Marketing for a small start-up in D.C. We were rebranding and working to assert ourselves in a new market so I was lining up speakers to go to conferences that would put us on the map. We asked our leadership team for volunteers who wanted to speak. All the women said they were too busy while many of the men raised their hands. I talked to the women individually and found them each worried that they “had too much work to do” and “wanted to be sure they did a good job” before they “exposed themselves” to getting distracted by travel and trying to “be an expert when I don’t feel like one.” None of this bothered the men.
Fast forward 15 years and where are the men vs. the women in their careers? As you might guess the men have advanced more than the women.
The women had admirable goals. They wanted to do good work. They wanted to be 100% sure they could deliver. They wanted to stay safe. They didn’t feel “enough” to take on the risks of putting on a public face. But guess what? All these years later, many of them still don’t feel enough. And the sad fact is that they aren’t.
And we see this pattern in Hillary Clinton. As a lawyer, first lady, Senator, Secretary of State and candidate even her detractors give her credit for hard work and knowing the issues at a level deeper than anyone else in her business. She’s a renowned wonk who digs into the details and works tirelessly to be prepared for the challenges she seeks. She dedicated a great deal of her time and wealth to helping others and she networked relentlessly. She knew her stuff in the debates and her web site was stuffed full of detailed policy positions on everything from national security to child care. But working hard, being knowledgeable, connecting with powerful people and having detailed plans wasn’t enough for the electorate. They didn’t care that she was a hard worker with experience and connections. They wanted something else. In the end it was clear that no matter how hard she worked, no matter how much she knew, or even who she knew, it would never “be enough” for them.
What does it mean to “be enough”?
I never felt enough. I always felt like there was at least one more thing (if not many) that I needed to do, or be, before I could claim success. As a result, for many years working for big and small companies alike, I simply didn’t claim success. I put my head down and worked hard and hoped my efforts would be recognized and rewarded. I was recognized in many ways, but I didn’t always feel rewarded—at least never to the extent I wanted it. In my corporate career I always felt undervalued and often taken advantage of. The myth of hard work didn’t pay off for me. I worked hard (really hard) but I didn’t get the promotions or recognitions I wanted into the senior ranks of leadership.
What I learned later, when I was on my own working with executive leadership teams, is that at lower levels, people will mentor you and hard work is often rewarded. At higher levels of leadership, however, hard work isn’t the key, self-confidence and a willingness to claim success is. And even when you’re self-confident, especially when you’re a woman, it’s not always enough to get you invited all the way up the ladder.
So many women I coach run into this dilemma too. Whether you’re conscious of what’s going on or not, many women do what I did, they opt off the ladder. They decide that they don’t want to make it into leadership in cultures that reward self-confidence, bragging and connections over hard work and experience. I get that. I made that same decision and there’s nothing wrong with it.
The thing is that you can’t make that opt-out decision and then blame yourself or the system. You have to own your own values in hard work and experience. You have to own your choice to opt-out because you don’t want to “be enough” for that system. Why? Because the system isn’t rigged. It operates predictably and rationally, and it will keep operating the way it does until it has reason not to, regardless of what we think about it, say about it, or do. The bottom line is that you have the right to choose in which system you want to “be enough.”
But if you decide to stay in the game and try to “be enough” to get into higher levels of leadership where male culture writes the rules, you have to learn from the lesson Hillary Clinton and many others have been dealt. “Being enough” isn’t about hard work, experience or qualifications. It’s about something else entirely.
What the hell do they want from me? How do I become the “right woman” for the job?
If I were Hillary Clinton right now I’d be furious, sad and flummoxed. In many ways she did exactly what she should have done to win the election (and she did win the popular vote, so it’s not like her strategy wasn’t “successful” by at least one important measure.) She followed the script by shaping her career to give her the experience necessary to be knowledgeable and credible. She built her early career on her passion (helping families and children) and then she sought stretch assignments (Senator and Secretary of State) to round out her experience in areas she was less qualified in. She networked with powerful people who helped her. She modified her appearance and approach to limit her “feminine vulnerabilities” in the eyes of a public and press not used to seeing a woman with such political power and influence. She ran a campaign modeled on her successful predecessor, with whom she made peace after a hard-fought competition. And her mentor and colleague became her sponsor; he went to bat for her and presented her as his obvious successor publicly and often. He put his own very valuable credibility on the line for her. She believed in herself and made millions of other people believe in her too. I can’t even imagine what more she could have done to achieve her highest goal, and ours, of seeing a woman rise to the most powerful position in the world.
But all that wasn’t enough. In the end the non sexists, including the women, said things like, “of course we’re ready for a woman in the White House, she just wasn’t the “right woman.”
What more could Hillary Clinton have done? That is a subject we’ll be asking ourselves for a long time and I don’t intend to address that here. But it is a question we can each ask ourselves. What do we have to do to “be enough” and “be the right woman” to reach our leadership goals?
That answer for each of us in our own situations is very personal, but I think at a minimum Mrs. Clinton’s experience tells us the following:
- You have to believe in yourself to even try
- Hard work alone won’t get you there
- In the end, the people get what they want
I could easily have written this same piece, but with a happier ending, about Senator Tammy Duckworth (IL-D) or Representative Martha McSally (AZ-R), women who won their elections last week among many others. Sometimes a powerful woman is exactly what the people want and the hard work and the being enough does pay off. All I ask is that we all learn something from Mrs. Clinton’s experience and let go of the myth of hard work. Step up to the reality that success isn’t about hard work or other people choosing you. It’s about doing the work and taking the risks that can deliver tremendous success and devastating defeat. Last week’s reality was that over 1.16 million more voting American’s wanted to see THIS woman in the White House instead of a misogynistic braggart. If I were Hillary Clinton, I’d consider that victory HUGE.