Why You Can’t Have It All

Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a wonderful essay in this month’s Atlantic Monthly entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” It’s directed toward women, but it’s really for everyone who cares about work-life balance in his or her own life and in society as a whole. Her basic premise is that “having it all,” while possible, is predicated on a series of half-truths:

  • It’s possible if you’re just committed enough
  • It’s possible if you marry the right person
  • It’s possible if you sequence it right

To change this, we need to:

  • Change the culture of face time
  • Revalue family values
  • Redefine the arc of a successful career
  • Rediscover the pursuit of happiness
  • Enlist men

Slaughter’s essay struck me on two levels. First, the lack of women in positions of structural power does not reflect an “insufficient commitment.” Slaughter writes:

To be sure, the women who do make it to the top are highly committed to their profession. On closer examination, however, it turns out that most of them have something else in common: they are genuine superwomen. Consider the number of women recently in the top ranks in Washington—Susan Rice, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Michelle Gavin, Nancy-Ann Min DeParle—who are Rhodes Scholars. Samantha Power, another senior White House official, won a Pulitzer Prize at age 32. Or consider [Sheryl] Sandberg herself, who graduated with the prize given to Harvard’s top student of economics. These women cannot possibly be the standard against which even very talented professional women should measure themselves. Such a standard sets up most women for a sense of failure.

While these “superwomen” are trailblazers, we cannot view the existence of these kinds of women as a measuring stick for a more equitable society. I recently had a Facebook exchange with Tara Hunt about some of the systemic challenges that women in technology face. I referenced Janice Madden’s study of African-American coaches in the NFL and wrote:

I think the problem is that if you’re a woman in tech, you have to stand out in order to make it. We’ll know that real progress has been made when there are just as many crappy female programmers or entrepreneurs as there are male.

Second, we have to reevaluate how we define success for ourselves and for society as a whole. If success is solely about rising to the top of our professions, then the vast majority of us our failures. When did balance, happiness, and family fall out of that equation? And if they haven’t, if we all truly value those things, what kind of structural shifts do we need to make to support them?

At the beginning of the year, I blogged about Groupaya’s three goals for 2012. One of our goals is, “Space for renewal, learning, and play.” I noted:

This is my favorite goal, and it will be the hardest one for us to achieve successfully. When you’re action-oriented, it’s very easy to spend all of your time, well, doing stuff. But it’s not necessarily healthy nor good for business nor good for the world.

When I said, “it will be the hardest one for us to achieve successfully,” what I really meant was that it would be the hardest one for me.

I go out of my way to emphasize to my peers how important I think this goal is. I am constantly reminding my business partner, Kristin, never to apologize for her lack of scheduling flexibility due to her 10-year old son. (The fact that she often does speaks to the unfortunate societal mindsets around work and family to which Slaughter alludes and that we all unconsciously perpetuate.) I am constantly discouraging my colleagues from working on weekends. I go out of my way not to overallocate people’s times.

While my colleagues will credit me for all of these things, they will also (un)happily point out that I am terrible at modeling them and that it sends a very mixed message. Earlier this year, I was complaining to Kristin and my other colleague, Rebecca, about a client who was having trouble respecting boundaries. I observed how often this client emailed or called “after hours,” then admitted that it was more the symbolism than the logistics of this that bothered me, because in reality, I kept similar hours.

“You mean you both work late into the night and start work early in the morning,” responded Rebecca in exasperation. She then told Kristin about an epic email exchange that she was copied on between this client and me that had started after she had gone to bed and that had continued before she had woken up.

I have realized for some time that the sheer numbers of hours that I work along with the lack of clear start and stop times create stress for my colleagues and undermine our collective goal for space and work-life balance. On the one hand, I resent this. I’m not asking others to be like me. Why should I be punished for my persistence and commitment? Why should I hold back if I feel passionate about what I’m doing and compelled to keep doing it?

On the other hand, it’s not about either-or. It’s about finding the balance. The truth is, I’m not happy about where the balance lies for me right now. Adjusting how often and when I work won’t just help others, it will also help me.

Moreover, when I dig deeper into why I work the hours that I do, it’s not all about passion and drive and all that rah-rah stuff that I like to pat myself on the back about. There’s a dark part of me that doesn’t truly believe that we can be “successful” (whatever that means) if I don’t “work my ass off” (whatever that means).

The rational part of me understands the hidden traps of this kind of thinking. The rational part of me understands that space and balance means that I’m more creative, I’m more effective, and I’m more pleasant to be around. I know from experience that slowing down can mean going faster. I know all of these things, but I’m worried that my dark, hidden beliefs undermine my attempt to achieve balance. Even worse, I’m worried that they undermine my attempt to support my colleagues in living this balance.

Finding this balance takes work and discipline, but it also requires reexamining the structures around you. We’re experimenting with a lot of things at Groupaya right now. We have tools that help manage our information flow so that we’re not disturbed after hours. We all track our time, and I’m trying to figure out how we might reward people for working smarter, fewer hours.

It’s not easy, and we don’t have the answers yet, but it’s a necessary exploration. If your structures don’t reinforce your beliefs, then neither will your behaviors. This is true for individuals, for organizations, and for society as a whole.

Groupaya

A web site for a new company called Groupaya quietly cropped up last week. If you read the first blog post, you’ll see that I founded it with Kristin Cobble, and that Rebecca Petzel is part of our little cohort. I did a bit of explaining over there, and I’ll be doing much more over the coming weeks. What I’d like to do here is tell a more personal story about why Groupaya came to be and what it means for me moving forward.

Leading Change

2010 was a great and a challenging year for me professionally. My professional reputation had crossed some threshold where I had a steady stream of projects coming in, and the projects were getting bigger, harder, and more meaningful. I was also dissatisfied and completely burnt-out.

Blue Oxen Associates should have failed back in 2003, shortly after I had started it. We had no clients, a misguided strategy, and lots of debt. My cofounder had just left the company, and I felt very alone. We survived because of faith (both in ourselves and from others), because we worked like the dickens, and because we were very, very lucky. That survival process is a great teacher, but it comes at a personal cost, and if you’re not careful, you never heal.

As well as things were going in 2010, I wanted more. I was getting work opportunities, but I didn’t feel like I was fully empowered. I had big ideas about possibilities, and I was gradually moving toward those, but it was too slow, and I was exhausted from seven years of scrapping.

So I started creating space for myself so that I could think about what I really wanted and what I could do to get there. It was the healing process that I had put off for years. As I got clarity, I created new structures for myself, and the cycle of healing and clarity reinforced itself. One thing became very apparent very quickly: I was ready for a big change. I just didn’t know what that change should be.

That’s when beautiful, reliable serendipity took over.

Courage and Vision

In 2009, Pete Leyden, a journalist and entrepreneur who had been one of the founders of Wired, was returning to San Francisco after a stint in D.C. as director of New Politics Institute. He had this brilliant, wildly ambitious idea of combining the best of Silicon Valley and the web with a more traditional think tank as a way of revolutionizing public policy. He called his new company Next Agenda.

Part of his vision entailed bringing the best tools and processes for both face-to-face and online collaboration into a single, coherent practice. He started recruiting a team to help him make this happen. Henry Poole, one of Blue Oxen’s advisors, suggested that he talk to me.

Through his friend and former colleague, Katherine Fulton, president of the Monitor Institute, Pete also discovered Kristin Cobble. Kristin was an organizational and leadership development superstar. She had started her career at Innovation Associates (Peter Senge‘s consulting firm), and she had served as the Director of Strategic Change at Banana Republic.

Several years ago, Kristin had started to formulate a vision of a large-scale, participatory process that would empower the people in this country to take ownership of our future. When Pete discovered her, she had just left Monitor Group to try and make this vision a reality. She called her new company, “Courion Group,” where “Courion” was a combination of “courage” and “vision,” values that she herself embodies.

I immediately bonded with Kristin. We shared strong values around group process and the future of the world, and we brought complementary lenses and experiences to our work. Plus, I simply admired the heck out of her abilities. She is a tremendously skilled coach, designer, and facilitator, and she has the ability to think through complex, systemic challenges quickly and deeply.

We spent a lot of time outside of Next Agenda talking about our respective philosophies around collaboration, coming to a much deeper shared understanding in the process. Kristin also became a valued friend and advisor, and I started leaning on her as I worked through my professional angst.

New Life

By April 2010, I was 99 percent sure that I would shut down Blue Oxen and pursue new opportunities, most likely at someone else’s organization. I was exhausted, I needed a break, and frankly, I was curious to know what sort of opportunities were out there. Then I got an unexpected email.

My friend, Scott McMullan, is responsible for partnerships for Google Apps. One of his customers (let’s call him “Harry”), then a CIO at a Fortune 500 company, wanted to explore an initiative for improving collaboration across his organization. It was a very big, very vague idea, and he was looking for a non-traditional thinking partner who understood collaboration deeply and who wasn’t afraid to play and take risks. Harry asked Scott if he knew anyone, and Scott generously mentioned me.

So Harry sent me an email. One energizing conversation later, I realized something about myself: As tired as I was, I still felt passionate about my work and my path. All it took was the right conversation with the right person to get excited again.

I knew that Harry was talking to other larger, more reputable firms. I also knew that we could do a better job than any of those firms. So I started putting together a team and a plan.

This was also an opportunity to start testing some of my structural changes. One of those was a requirement that I bring in a senior partner for all big projects. The first person who came to mind was Kristin, who, to my delight, agreed to join me.

Another change was an intention to create opportunities for people who were less experienced than me, but who were as passionate as I was about collaboration and who were hungry to learn.

I had recently met Rebecca Petzel at a tweet-up organized by Christina Jordan. I was literally on my way out the door when I met Rebecca, but she stuck out for three reasons. First, she had started a cohort in graduate school that called themselves “collaboration ninjas.” Second, she had moved to the Bay Area without a job because she was drawn by the people here and their purpose. Third, when I told her I was a collaboration consultant, she was absolutely delighted. She had no idea that such a job title actually existed!

We had coffee a few times, where I learned more about her work and her drive. In the process of putting together our team, I learned that Rebecca was thinking about transitioning from her job as community catalyst at Myoo Create. I told her about Harry, and I set up a meeting with Kristin. The three of us clicked, and the third member of our team was in place.

Groupaya

Kristin and I filled out the rest of our team from our network of colleagues, we made our pitch, and we got the gig. Thus began the best working experience of my life. We were working on a complex project in a large, global organization with strong leadership support. We had a superstar team in place that kept challenging my thinking and motivating me to work harder. Everyone on the client’s team was smart, great at execution, and simply good people.

Working with Kristin was just really generative. It broadened and deepened my thinking, and it emboldened me to step into my vision. It had a reverberating effect on the rest of my work and even my personal life. I was happier and more productive, and I felt a renewed passion for my work.

In September 2010, we decided to join forces. Rather than ask Kristin to join Blue Oxen Associates, I decided I wanted to create a new organization with her. I’ll explain why in a more detailed post on the Blue Oxen blog, but the short explanation is that I wanted a sense of closure and starting anew.

We’ve spent the better part of a year figuring out what we were going to do together, and we finally signed our partnership agreement last month (September 15, 2011). We’ll be documenting that part of our journey over the next few weeks on the Groupaya blog. It’s a great story, and it involves a lot of important people in our lives. I can’t wait to tell it.

And the journey continues. We’re still getting clear and moving forward, but we wanted to start sharing earlier rather than later. It’s part of our ethos of openness, and it’s also a great way for us to learn with a broader group of people.

In some ways, I feel like I’m getting married after living with someone for a long time. It’s special, but it’s not really new. Kristin and I have been working together for over two years now, we’ve been working with Rebecca for almost a year, and we’ve been operating as if we were already a company since the beginning of the year. That said, we have so much ahead of us, and I’m really excited to be making more and more people a part of this story.

You can follow the ongoing Groupaya saga at our blog, on Twitter (@groupaya), and on Facebook. I’d love to hear what you think!

Appreciating Execution

I have the pleasure of working with Rebecca Petzel on two of my current projects. She has great instincts and passion around collaboration, and she’s a thinker, a doer, and a learner. She’s already very good at many things, and if she stays on her current path, she’s going to be a force.

On our teams, we expect everyone to uphold their commitments. Rebecca is responsible for a long list of well-defined tasks. She does them all, and she does them well, without supervision.

I was synthesizing some notes today, and I needed to draw from a lot of prior work. Everything I was looking for was exactly where it was supposed to be. That was Rebecca’s doing. And even though this was a straightforward, ongoing task and she was “just doing her job,” I greatly appreciated her effectiveness at doing it.

Frankly, I know a lot of people who are smart. Only a small percentage of those folks are good at execution. I’m lucky to work with people who are good at both. Even though I expect everyone on our teams to live up to their commitments and to execute effectively, I don’t take it for granted when it happens.

I love what Stanford professor Bob Sutton says about execution: “Implementation, not strategy, is what usually separates winners from losers in most industries, and generally explains the difference between success and failure in most organizational change efforts.”