Interview

Leaders who light the path

Phaedra Romney

Phaedra Romney is a coach and trainer and is about to publish a book on women’s equality and corporate careers. If you look a little bit closer at the advice that’s out there, one can get the impression that mostly, the advice is for women to become more like men. Phaedra has a different approach. She shows women a way to embrace the fact that they are women and to use what seems like a disadvantage to their advantage so that they don’t have to hide who they are, but instead embrace who they are and still get the career that they deserve.

Michael Gerharz: What’s so difficult for women to get the career that they deserve after so many years of talking about equality?

Phaedra Romney: There are different things at play. Here’s one: You have women who are very ambitious. They want to achieve the world and they can, but they have the tendency to just ignore the disadvantages and biases. They’ll say: “I just jump ahead and do what I want to do, outperform my targets and it’s going to be okay, I’m going to get that promotion.” But that doesn’t work for everyone and in part it’s winner’s bias.

Especially for the women who I’m focusing on, the women who really want to go to the top and reach the C-suite, it’s very difficult to take that last hurdle. And that has a lot to do with just ignoring the obstacles, ignoring the fact that there are stereotypes, ignoring the fact that there are men who do have privileges. They do have an advantage despite doing the same things you are doing.

They’re also working hard. They are also striving to get ahead, but the difference is that you don’t have the same privileges they have. So what do you do to balance it up? That’s what my book is really focusing on.

Especially for women who really want to go to the top and reach the C-suite, it's very difficult to take that last hurdle.

Why is it that these obstacles are dismissed or overlooked so easily?

If you look at the women who have made it, the women in executive roles, they tend to disregard the fact that they encountered obstacles along their path. If they talk about it at all, they make it look like it’s something that’s very easy to overcome. You know, you just have to ignore it and because they are doing that and they are making it look as if it’s just a question of working hard, it’s quite strange for women who are still in the trenches and for whom those obstacles are real and not easy to ignore. It’s not helping them.

Women who do make it, talk about it as if there were no obstacles. That’s not helpful at all.

They might say: “But I am encountering other things and I am working hard, too, and I’m doing this and I’m trying to connect with upper management.“ And yet, it’s not working for them. Add to this the things that really make women feel uncomfortable. The boss might say some things that are difficult for her to deal with, but she tries to ignore it because she really wants, you know, become part of that group. But if it’s not talked about, it’s just unimportant. And that’s what makes it so difficult for the women who are still in the trenches struggling to be their best, to position themselves in a way that they can get to the C-level. That’s a tough situation.

And how does a better way look like? How does the path that you’re lighting them look like?

Maybe I just provide you with a short passage from my because I think that can show what these women are up against. Understanding this is really the first step. It’s called “The Blonde” and it goes like this:

Once upon a time, there was a blonde haired woman manager who had just been promoted to her first managerial position. One day, someone made a dumb blonde joke. Unbeknownst even to herself, her unconscious brain makes a connection, a connection between her blonde hair and certain traits that are not conducive to leadership.

She finds herself going the extra mile to disprove the stereotype, working long hours, fearful of making dumb mistakes, always walking on eggshells, wanting to make a go of it, feeling anxious and stressed.

She ends up making mistakes she was trying to avoid. At the other end, the gatekeeper resides. The gatekeeper. This is the person – often a man, according to statistics – who has the power to make or break the blonde woman’s career. He is told the same joke.

The gatekeeper laughs. He laughs at a joke, but it was a hectic day. So he soon forgot all about it. He had five meetings to attend and a report to finish. Days later he meets the blonde haired woman. Their paths crossed for the first time. It was at a meeting where the blonde haired woman and a colleague presented their research.

Fine. Unbeknownst, even to himself, the gatekeeper remembered more of the time she got things wrong. But funnily enough, he remembered more of the times her colleague got things right. A fortnight later, their paths crossed again. He was very impressed with the quality of the work, but he thought the blonde haired woman could have challenged herself more.

Her colleague? Yes, he was the star of the show.

First, you have to acknowledge that the stereotypes exist. As women we are not seen as leaders but as followers.

First, you have to acknowledge that the stereotypes exist, the bias are against all kinds of things, such as blonde hair. If you have blonde air, the dumb blonde jokes do happen. You have something to disprove there. As women, we are not seen as leaders, we are seen as followers.

I just experienced this at a mastermind group I had. I asked them to do an experiment: Can you name some leaders? I mean, there were men and women, but everyone named the usual culprits, Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Elon Musk.

A few people said Oprah and Beyonce but that’s about it. It’s inherent in us. It’s socially seen the way that men lead and women follow. And if you don’t realize that you don’t have the strategies and tactics to deal with it, to play with them and overcome them.

It seems like there’s a deeply ingrained bias in our culture that we still haven’t fully overcome and that still affects – even for good willing people – their actions and the way they treat social connections with others. When we acknowledge that, what can women – and also men – do to create an environment where everyone gets to experience the career and the respect that they deserve?

Women are at a disadvantage in certain aspects and a lot of studies have shown that. E.g. if you want to reach to the top, you have to be seen as someone – not only as a leader, because women in middle management, they already have a team, they’re known to be leaders, good ones. If you look at how their boss looks at them, they will acknolwedge that these women are very good at what they do. So, she’s a leader.

But she is still not seen as someone who could lead at the top. Because you have to have an extra something there. And I believe for you to be able to reach that pinnacle, you need the support of other women. You need to form a group, you need to form a community.

You need to have someone you can talk to. Who is also dealing with the things you’re dealing with. And then you can exchange ideas. You can exchange strategies, you can practice and get feedback. If you don’t get feedback, you don’t know how you’re doing.

And that’s why it’s very important to first be in that bubble. Pick your sister managers who are going through the same things. That’s important.

Women need the support of a like-minded community to make it to the top.

And this is, I guess, the reason why this book will be accompanied by a community to build these support networks. Could you speak a little bit to that? What will the community be about specifically?

You can say that it starts with the book because when you download the book, you’re asked to not start this journey alone. You’re asked to do it with a buddy, a practice partner, someone that you can exchange ideas with. The book is also an activity book because the intention is not like many other non-fiction fiction books you read and you feel: Oh, I’m so inspired. But that inspiration. It has a due date. It ends very shortly after you read a book and you don’t take action.

My book is written in a way that number one, you have to have a buddy. I mean, you can read it without a buddy but if you want to get everything out of the book, do it with someone else. And when you’ve done that, I’m going to ask you whether you want support along your journey because you can also sign up to get a work book, a writeable PDF.

With the support of a community, you will feel the power of the others behind you.

The community also is a place where if you sign up to the community you can practice. You have more people like you. Suddenly, you have allies in your corner. You have the buddy, you have the community of women exchanging ideas, exchanging strategies, encouraging you, helping you to take that leap. And when you worry to confront your boss, others will chime in to encourage you: “You can do it.”

You feel the power of the others behind you and you can go out there and reach for the top. Because you’re really tapping into the knowledge of the whole community of ambitious women who are in the same, or at least similar situations as you. You can support each other based on the experiences that you’ve made and give tips that worked for you, but might have not worked for others who did it just on their own.

My role is to make sure that the community is a safe space, a place where you feel at ease to practice and give and get the support that you need and deserve.

You’ve been to my masterclass “Leaders Light the Path”. How did the things that we covered in that class help you craft your message and find the voice to tell that story which is so near and dear to your heart?

I had an idea to write my nonfiction book as an activity book, but then I started looking around me and I was thinking: no one is doing it like that. And I was like, oh my goodness. Look at this one. She’s a professional. She has so many followers. I loved her book and I’m going to do an activity book?

So, I started asking people: Do you read activity books? Do you have activity books? And all of this made me afraid of being different. Of doing what I thought was the right thing to do. So, I changed everything and I kept second guessing myself and changing stuff.

But then, after a while, I had a story that wasn’t what I wanted to tell. It was just generic, like everyone else did it. It fit in well with all the other books. But it wouldn’t stand out.

Thanks to the “Leaders Light the Path” masterclass I feel so empowered and I'm not afraid anymore to stick my neck out and be different.

You helped me to see that whatever the outcome will be, I am who I am. I want to put something into the world, according to my own ideas. I know that an activity book is something that can help people to have more fun with the concepts and the ideas I share and have support while reading it with a buddy. You helped me to see that it’s okay to do that, do it like that, even if I’m not seeing others doing it, this is me. And that’s enough.

I have to thank you for that because it gave me wings. I feel so empowered and I’m not afraid anymore to stick my neck out and be different. You could say that I found my voice and the courage to trust in it. Yeah, that’s it. You made me trust my own instincts.

That’s beautiful. Thanks for sharing that.

One final question that I’m particularly interested to hear an answer to from you. Who was a leader who lighted the path for you? And in what way?

My mom. When she was little, she was really good in school, super sensitive, the brightest and smartest of the entire class. And in sixth grade at 12 years old, she could go to a higher education level. But my grandfather said: No, you can’t do that. You’re going to use it in the kitchen anyway.

So my mom grew up just having a very low level of education. If I see what she did with what she had, this is a woman who cleaned the bathrooms for me. She always kept encouraging us and say, look, I’m scrubbing toilets, make sure you’d be more. Do more because you are more! She’s the one who did that. She lighted the path for me to just do all I can to become more because I can be more. In the last years of her life, she was a bookkeeper in a small hotel. From being someone who cleaned hotels she beame the one who kept the books. And so, she didn’t only tell me, she showed me by example that you can be more if you just don’t let whatever is in your head tell you that you can’t. Just ignore it. You can ignore that.

What a beautiful message: Believe in yourself! Take the opportunities that are out there! Don’t ask for permission, but just take them and go for it! It’s such a powerful message.

I’m really grateful for your time. Thanks a lot for sharing these stories with us. I’m really looking forward to your book. If you are as a woman looking for the career that you deserve and you find yourself faced with obstacles, I highly encourage you to check Phaedra’s book out and connect with her.

Thanks a lot, Phaedra. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you, Michael.

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