Leaders & Daughters - To My Daughter

Why women leave corporate roles–and how to help them stay


Geography is one of those concepts like time and space that is hard to transcend; it’s simpler to live in just one. In 2002, my husband and I made the decision to follow the geography of his job to Europe.

What started as a two-year expat assignment turned into more than a decade long, four-country adventure that I would never trade for having continued in my career in America. This decision wasn’t without obvious tradeoffs, and as an expat I was subject to not only the varying country regulations of work visas, but also to cultural differences regarding women and the workforce.

In Switzerland, for example, mothers can’t realistically work full time because children come home every day for two hours at lunch time and don’t attend school on Wednesday afternoons. In Denmark, inexpensive childcare called “vuggestue” is widely available and the majority of women work full time.
Our move back to America, now with only my 12 year old daughter at home, provided the freedom for me to continue in my career (actually, to call it a continuation is a complete misnomer; my career would look wildly different had I stayed and pursued it).

Because I’ve stepped in and out of the workforce for both personal and professional reasons, Egon Zehnder’s Leaders & Daughters event around International Women’s Day and the firm’s commitment to supporting women in the workforce has caused me to think about the following things I want to share with my daughter on this topic.

Do Your Research: While Egon Zehnder is a great advocate of adding diversity to executive teams, and many of our clients, like Hilti, are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion initiatives that accelerate women into leadership roles, this is not a primary consideration for all employers. When conducting a job search, do your research and ask lots of questions. Look at the current executive team; are women represented? What about the division you would be working in–are there potential female mentors available to you? Among existing female leaders, what was their career path; were they promoted internally or were they external hires? Talk to women currently working for the company and ask if the company has a track record of promoting women.

The importance of research serves to inform what you’re proposing to undertake. We have bought and remodeled homes in three countries, which perhaps speaks loudly to our lack of judgment. We started a “cosmetic renovation” of our new house in Copenhagen without first understanding that all the plumbing and electric needed to be replaced. One time, our kitchen in Switzerland…well, anyone who’s ever remodeled a kitchen will likely understand that a little more time and planning with the contractor is always helpful. Thorough research can help you avoid serious missteps; be smart, and follow a structured research process for your career.

If you identify no female leaders or mentors within an organization, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should turn down a role. Maybe the company is attempting to bring in women at the executive level, and you will be a wildly successful trailblazer among them. There are situations in which maybe you don’t care, are up for the challenge, and want to light up the path for others behind you. You should simply know what you’re walking into before accepting the job.

Driving requires a map and some courage: When it comes to your career, YOU need to drive the car.

Nobody else is ultimately responsible for getting you where you want to go, so sitting passively and waiting for those around you to recognize or promote you is simply ridiculous. Driving requires perspective (a vision for where you want to go) and courage (the unwavering resolve to get there).
Having perspective in one’s early career, or viewing one’s situation strategically, can be difficult. But try.

Ask a mentor or a trustworthy colleague to help you gain perspective on career path and opportunities. Evaluate company structures, look at how and where you fit within them, how you can best navigate them, figure out if you can challenge them. Develop a working plan, a roadmap, to manage the growth of your career actively and put it in writing.

I remember standing on the edge of Union Square Park, jetlagged and physically shaking from nerves. I’d contacted a New York based apparel manufacturer because I wanted an exclusive license to distribute their product in Europe. It was easy to formulate my plan, but actually sitting down with the executives in person and negotiating for what I wanted was terrifying. Turns out, the company was looking for a European partner, didn’t want to use a distributor, and things lined up perfectly. The biggest win in the situation was seeing courage deliver results, and I’ve returned many times to Union Square Park in my mind when in need of encouragement.

These concepts apply to your education as well. Find ways to continue your education and to continually build your skills. My company paid my way through my MBA program, so I went part time in the evenings, while working, and my husband and I found out that we were expecting our first child exactly halfway through my program. I had more than one meltdown, usually while doing finance homework, sitting on the floor next to my son in his bouncy chair. The entire thing was a grueling slog, but I have never once regretted it. Figure out where you want to go, get in the car and start driving.

If you want the flexibility to step in and out of the workforce, you must be prepared to be flexible yourself. In Switzerland, I took a job in the Swiss school system; it was “the perfect job” in everyone’s opinion, but not something I really wanted to do. Did I use my out-of-the-box thinking to morph and change it into my dream job? Absolutely not, I hated it. But one thing led to another, and I eventually transitioned into working with Swiss executives teaching American culture classes and English. I loved that job. Sometimes, just taking a job, in the name of flexibility, even if you don’t think you’re headed in the right direction, will still get you to the right path.

Help a Sister Out: A recent study in the journal, Brain and Behavior, shows that women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety than are men. Whether due to nature or nurture is a topic for another time, but we need to understand this reality and help each other. Early in my career, when I told my female boss that I was pregnant, she proclaimed: “Well, don’t expect me to cut you any slack; no one cut me any”. I hadn’t asked for “slack”, but her comment certainly increased my anxiety.

For those in the ranks behind you, an emotional boost, some of your time, or an encouraging statement go a long way. Don’t be threatened by other successful women around you, or work to increase their anxiety. Mentoring and helping others is always a required part of your job both at work and in life.
I continually remind my own daughter that she is limited only by her own anxiety, and not by her capacity. As women, we are often very aware of our own challenge, and limitations and can forget that men have struggles too. Many men are actively stepping away, or at least trying to, from outdated behaviors and ways of thinking amidst the current shifts in our political and cultural climate. They are seeking to understand and trying to reinvent a common and inclusive work culture.

There’s a lovely lounge in our office where we often celebrate birthdays and take breaks. I love the comfy couch in it and walked over with my laptop one day to sit and do some writing. One of my male colleagues was manspreading on the couch, and my mind instantly went to complete irritation and disgust. I made some haughty comment about manspreading and he calmly replied “you could have just asked me to move over”. Well stated.

Men are not categorically the enemy (although some are obstacles around whom we must navigate), they just operate differently than women do. Drive active and open conversations with them, learn from them, value their opinions, and above all be good friends to them. They are not the opposing team, but our advocates, colleagues, mentors, coaches, cheerleaders and friends.

Keep an entrepreneurial mindset: I’m not talking about starting your own small business; I’m talking about “scrambling”. There are lots of ways to be entrepreneurial both in and out of the corporate world. I was pushed into that mindset due to lack of control over my own geography. As women we need to be entrepreneurial in managing our careers: from seeking mentors, establishing our brand and working around obstacles no matter what path we’re on. At the end of the day we’re responsible for finding and building value within ourselves and making space for that value in the marketplace.

We adopted my daughter when she was just 7 weeks old, and I am full of gratitude for the life we’ve been able to give her. She is strides ahead of many women and girls who are without opportunity. If you ask her what I most often tell her when she faces adversity, I hope she would (after rolling her eyes) quote St. Ignatius Loyola; “Go forth and set the world on fire”. I want her to understand that her gifts and talents are that fire Loyola is referencing; those gifts are to be shared, and those talents to be used to help and serve others.

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