Only if You Believe it is

Only if You Believe it is

Dear ECWO readers,

I would like to begin this blog with an adapted version of story that has been told many times and that resonates with me.

For a further two hours Alice sat on the rocky outcrop filled with conflicting emotions. She recalled leaving her hiking colleagues earlier in the day to spend time alone so that she might commune with nature and reflect more intensely on her dreams and aspirations. She believed that much had been achieved through this period of quiet introspection amongst the beauty that is the Drakensberg mountains.

However, Alice now found herself at an impasse. Having begun her journey many hours before, it appeared that the only way to continue would be to cross the ravine ahead using what appeared to be an extremely treacherous old and rusty footbridge. Fearing that it would not support her, Alice found herself staring at the footbridge for hours as if her thoughts could make it miraculously transform to its original and pristine form or, even better still, into a significant concrete bridge that trucks might safely use. She began questioning her original judgment in leaving the group to seek her own path of discovery and self-actualisation. Should she turn back and accept that she was just not meant to complete her journey?

As Alice was reflecting on these questions in an the increasingly darkening environment, she noticed an old, somewhat frail Zulu woman appear over the horizon carrying a large pile of firewood on her head in the traditional fashion of the region. The woman reached the footbridge, stepped onto it without hesitation, and began to walk over it, matching her gait comfortably to the sway of the rusty, seemingly treacherous bridge!

Alice was aghast and inspired! Hours of doubt and fear evaporated. She picked herself up and followed the old, somewhat frail Zulu woman across the footbridge as if she didn’t have a care in the world!

There are two aspects to this thought-provoking story. First, we need to avoid constructing hurdles to our own progress where none otherwise exist. Alice sat for hours converting the path to her progress into a roadblock. Second, Alice needed someone to show her it could be done – you cannot be what you cannot see.

Where are our role models? It has been estimated that only eleven percent of senior management positions in large publicly listed companies across twenty-seven states in the European Union are women. This sad state of affairs means there are few female role models in the business arena that can inspire others to follow suite.

Thinking of my own career, I realise that I haven’t had any female business role models. There just weren’t any in business education!  I learned how to lead by watching and emulating men in senior positions. The consequence was that I was perceived as abrasive, pushy, as someone who spoke too much in meetings, and as self-promoting. I was competent but not liked and this really hurt.  My male boss was pulling his hair out trying to teach me to be more cajoling and less directive but I would always respond by saying “you are directive, why can’t I be.”   I had no idea what I was doing wrong since, at that time, I knew nothing of gender biases and that leadership traits attributed to men – being strong, goal-oriented, and courageous – were not appreciated in women who were expected to be kind and relationship oriented. I was acting like a leader but not behaving like a woman! Finally, my boss organized a female coach for me. After months of talking, analysing and soul searching, I found a more suitable style that had a better impact on the people that I was dealing with – both inside and outside the organisation. I believe my style became more androgynous in combining traits that people perceive to be female and male.  Looking back, I am sure that if had come across women role models earlier in my career I would have experienced far less anguish and distress.

Women are as intelligent as men, as driven and goal oriented as men, and just as inspirational and innovative! However, they continue to exit organisations early. Some may leave because they see an extremely treacherous old and rusty footbridge and there is nobody to show them the way! You cannot be what you cannot see!   We need more women role models in business so we can learn from them. YOU can be that role model.  Show women in your organisations how to navigate through the murky waters of politicking, show them how to network to be successful, show them that risk is enthralling, that both failures and success should be celebrated, show them the difference between being right and doing the right thing.  Most of all show them the power of positive talk.

We need to talk about and celebrate women who are inspirational and motivational. We need to celebrate the women like Joyce Banda, Hilary Clinton, Ertharin Cousin, Maria das Gracas Silva Foster, Melinda Gates, Julia Gillard, Neelie Kroes, Pauline v.d. Meer Mohr, Marissa Mayer, Angela Merkel, Indra Nooyi, Sheryl Sandberg, and the many, many others out there who are making a difference. Celebrate the women in your organisation.

Turning to another Alice, let’s heed the advice of the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when he responded to Alice’s statement “this is impossible” by saying “only if you believe it is!

Dianne Bevelander MBA, PhD
Professor of Management Education
Executive Director of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations