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Get in the Driver's Seat

 

I heard an NPR interview with a woman who has been organizing a high-end and classic auto show for over 30 years.  She works with classic car enthusiasts and uber-wealthy clients who buy and sell millions of dollars worth of vehicles every year.  At one point during the interview, she confessed that some men still won’t speak to her about their intended vehicle sales or purchases, instead demanding to speak to her husband. And she’s OK with this, she says, as long as she ultimately makes the sale.  She goes on to say that her husband always chuckles and tells them, “At some point, you’ll have to speak to the boss.”

Is she a savvy businesswoman, making the sale in whatever way is necessary?

Is she perpetuating gender bias by ignoring overt misogyny?

Is she simply of a generation that truly thinks this behavior is fine?

I would argue she’s all of the above.  And that’s what leaves me a bit queasy. What would happen if she refused to play the game? Women across all industries grapple with this same question.  The difference lies only in how much we each have to lose when we decide to take a stand. In smaller organizations, standing up for ourselves can be tricky.  We don’t have a big anonymous HR department that will receive our concerns confidentially. Small organizations can feel like families….with some of the same unspoken feelings, bickering and power dynamics.  So how can women who work in smaller workplaces change negative dynamics and keep their jobs and reputations intact?

Here are some strategies that have worked for my clients:

1)   Start with empathy

It sounds counterintuitive, but extending some empathy toward the persons or situations that are troubling you (even before you start talking) often leads to a good resolution.  Here’s an example.  A client of mine felt that her boss talked over her in meetings.  It got to the point where she wouldn’t speak because she felt that it was not worth the effort.  But not being able to share her ideas was really frustrating and she was considering leaving her job.  We talked through some scenarios that started with honest empathy toward the boss.  My client laid out some empathy-driven reasons why the boss would talk over her. 

Maybe she thinks so fast that she just has to get her thoughts out?

Maybe she is building on my ideas without realizing that she’s interrupting me?

Maybe she is so excited about our work that she can’t wait to let me finish speaking?

You’ll notice that nowhere on this list is “Maybe she’s just a jerk?”

Starting with empathy helps us get past negative feelings and focus on the only thing we can control, which is our behavior.

2)   Continue with confidence

Standing up for ourselves and working effectively with others takes confidence.  We can build confidence with lots of practice. Maybe my client’s boss really is a jerk, but that doesn’t actually matter.  What matters is how my client learned to be intentional in her own behavior and the confidence she built by doing this. My client chose to focus on pausing before speaking so that she was laser focused on the ideas she wanted to impart.  Whenever her boss interrupted, my client would let her finish and continue her thoughts by saying something like, “to continue what I started to say just now……” Doing this repeatedly did two things for her.  First, it helped her get her ideas out to the group instead of bottling them. Second, it cued the boss and the group that she was being constantly interrupted.  After a few weeks of practicing her new techniques, the dynamic changed dramatically and my client was able to stay in her job and start to enjoy it!  

3)   End with clarity 

It’s rarely simple to create behavior change in organizations. Some of my clients find it valuable to implement and “End With Clarity” exercise at the end of each day.  One of them even does this while she cleans up her desk! Ending with clarity means going over some of the tension points of the day or the interactions that leave us feeling dissatisfied and looking honestly and clearly at what we could do differently tomorrow.  It’s very easy to come home at the end of the day and gripe about what other people have done that was irritating or annoying.  But taking some time to think about our own role in interactions can be incredibly powerful.  This kind of exercise trains us to think and behave differently and to create different results.  

Yali BairComment
What is it About the DMV?

I had to call DMV the other day.  You're groaning, I can tell.  It was just as bad as you are thinking it was.  I called to sort out a minor problem and was put on hold for an hour and a half.  To their credit, they now have a "virtual hold" option that lets the caller hang up and receive a call later.  So I wait an hour and a half for a call, only to have the staff person tell me, "Oh, I can't actually do anything.  Our computers are all down. Maybe call back in a couple of days."  It's as if the system is built to be as unhelpful as possible.  It's as if the system is built for the maximum comfort and convenience of the DMV, customers be damned. It's easy to make fun of the DMV.  They are notorious for being unhelpful.  But in my experience, I have seen nonprofit organizations fall into the trap of creating self-centered systems that ignore client needs.  

5 Ways to Avoid The DMV Trap

1) Develop a smart strategic plan                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Strategic plans are meant to be tweaked. Having a strong strategic plan is important, but it's important to build in the flexibility to take advantage of new developments or timely opportunities.  One way to achieve this is to conduct quarterly or semiannual strategic plan reviews and build in new goals and strategies.  Creating some flexibility in the organization's overall strategy allows it to be responsive to changing client needs. 

2) Get close to your clients                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

As much as we think we know our clients, it's important to seek feedback frequently and in several different ways.  One of my clients uses a combination of on- site 3 question surveys using an iPad, periodic longer surveys and focus groups and are now developing a client advisory committee.  Another client conducts frequent shadowing and asks managers to sit in the waiting room and listen and document feedback.  The strategy matters less than the frequency of the feedback and the systems that are put in place to act on the feedback. 

3) Cultivate staff innovation                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Staff very often have solutions to problems that management don't know exist. It's important to build mechanisms to solicit staff input on the pain points that clients are experiencing and on the potential solutions.  Some organizations use staff or team meetings for this purpose.  Others intentionally train staff on process improvement techniques like Six Sigma, that facilitate collaborative thinking and problem-solving.

4) Follow the (right) money                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Nonprofit organizations are often dependent on grant funding and will understandably seek out as many funding opportunities as possible.  While this may result in a larger budget, that budget often comes with strings attached.  I have seen organizations that are beholden to funders that impose strict mandates on grant funding, but don't necessarily address the most pressing client needs.  While it is attractive to bring in as much grant funding as possible, it might be a better strategy to selectively pursue only grants that advance the organization's strategic plan and its clients needs.

5) Keep up on trends                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Clients and staff input is essential to developing a client-centered strategy, but it's also important to keep up on trends that can inform future strategy.  One of my nonprofit clients offers job training and support services for homeless women.  The CEO spent a significant amount of time developing relationships with city government, planning councils and developers to ensure that the needs of the homeless population would be considered in new major urban planning initiatives that were being developed.  Another client has an internship program for local college students who conduct market research to inform programming.  These nonprofit leaders are investing in activities and relationships that ensure their organizations meet client needs now and in the future.

Yali BairComment
Cultivating Talent

The women of Nike caused quite a stir by revealing data on the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and gender bias within the organization.  Many have expressed concern that, while there may be immediate actions taken in response to bad publicity, a true change in culture will remain elusive. A recent Fast Company article describes the financial and cultural impacts of undervaluing women's contributions.  Nike has lost millions and left billions on the table by relying heavily on male-driven decisions.  More importantly, they have undervalued and under-activated the large and growing market of women consumers. Whether the company learns from its past and creates meaningful change is yet to be seen.  Whether the company addresses potential bias beyond gender is another question altogether. Maybe Nike can afford to do nothing.

Small businesses and nonprofits don't have the resources to leave money or talent on the table.  Organizations that are able to truly leverage diversity of ALL kinds and cultivate the talents of ALL staff will emerge as the most competitive.  Some of my favorite "diversity" strategies involve activities such as coaching, offering staff opportunities to "rehearse" in safe settings before presentations or important discussions, and providing customized staff development opportunities that advance the goals of the individuals and the organization.  Providing opportunities like these that offer meaningful engagement and tangible support elicits the best work from all staff. As we have seen from the Nike experience, undervaluing talent has significant consequences and organizations that welcome diverse thought also benefit from it. 

 

 

Yali BairComment