It’s A Jungle Gym, Not a Ladder


I’m reading Sheryl Sandberg’s much-talked-about book, Lean In.  When I was part of a collective of leaders at IDEO grappling with issues related to people & culture, one particular struggle was coming up with an alternate metaphor to replace the notion of a career ladder.   We never quite figured it out, but I’m delighted to report that someone has.  Sheryl credits Pattie Sellers, a senior editor at Fortune, with having conceived of the notion of careers as a jungle gym, not a ladder.  Sounds about right to me.  A few quotes I love discussing this concept:

“Ladders are limiting– people can move up or down, on or off.  Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration.  There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym.”

“Plus, a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top.  On a ladder, most climbers are stuck staring at the butt of the person above.”

Which better describes your work life? Has your career been a vertical ladder (perhaps with a great rear view), or more like a playful and challenging jungle gym?


Reflections on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton University, mom, and former Director of Policy at the U.S. State Department, recently wrote a powerful piece in The Atlantic entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All (click link to read the article).  Many of my friends shared the article with me, and it has struck such a chord that it is being brought up in my circles of conversation as simply The Atlantic article.   As in: have you seen the Atlantic article?  What do you think?  So here, dear reader, is what I think.  I think I am lucky to have had my two children while I was in my late twenties.  I had enough professional experience to be considered an asset at work, and was not so well paid that I had much to lose in asking for what I wanted, which was a three-day work week.  At that age, I was still naïve enough to think the world would have an interest in bending to my needs and had the nerve to ask for what I wanted, and not apologetically either. Conventional wisdom at the company at that time was that you could work a reduced schedule if you were willing to step back in responsibility (i.e. give up a management role).  I approached the department head, said I didn’t think that the policy made a lot of sense since the company probably wants people to contribute to the highest levels of their ability, and to continue to develop that ability over time.  Why would you want people who are good at leading to stop leading?  And with that, I asked for what I wanted, which was this:  A three-day workweek.  Compensation in line with work schedule (60% time = 60% pay).  Full benefits.  Retention of current title and role (with a narrowed client list).  Consideration for future promotions.  Full eligibility for annual bonus.  And guess what?  I got it.  It made total sense to me then, as it does now.  Except that now I know how utterly unusual it is for such a proposal to be accepted.  But it was accepted, and not by a touchy-feely leader, either.  He was the kind of guy who had the ability to distill everything down to its raw essence– a person who inspired admiration and fear in equal measure.  His reply to my request was this: “You’re telling me I have a choice between three days a week and zero?  [to which I sheepishly nodded yes] Then I’ll take three.”  It was clear-cut and simple, as he later explained at an all-company meeting.  Given a choice between losing a strong performer and retaining one, he would choose keeping one.  An easy decision to make.

I worked a three-day schedule for a dozen years, and quite often, people outside the organization would comment on how lucky I was.  I was always quick to point out that the company was lucky too:  I was a bargain at 60% salary, and the arrangement benefitted us both.  What pleased me greatly was that my work arrangement did not remain a one-off special case.  Though I pioneered the concept which became known as “part-time professional,” many others, men and women, also opted for reduced schedules.  Some devoted time to raising children, others to graduate school or other pursuits.  It became possible to continue to perform a challenging role at work and to participate significantly in life outside of the office too.

Making work a part of my life portfolio but not my whole pie gave me time to invest in my community.  I participated in boards and committees, got to know my neighbors, and spent long hours seeing the world anew through the eyes of my young children.  Often this involved examining small rocks and marveling at them like treasured jewels or watching highways of ants busily marching from one side of the sidewalk to another.  Later it became answering awkward questions about “family living” (our town’s euphemism for sex ed) while driving the kids to activities after school.   The ability to be engaged in so many ways with so much of life made me show up joyfully wherever I was.  I would like to think that this was ultimately a very good thing for everyone involved: happy woman, happy work team, happy family.

But as I have gotten older and experienced other workplaces, I have been less likely to ask for what I want.  I wonder how much our demons of self-doubt as women get in the way of us standing up for ourselves.  George Bernard Shaw said that the unreasonable man “persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.”   I think I was more brash in my twenties and figured the world should bend to my needs when I suggested a three day schedule and got it.  I was more comfortable being “unreasonable.”  As I have gotten more seasoned, I have a better sense of the long odds and risks associated with bucking convention.  Plus as I have advanced in salary and title, the stakes have gotten higher.  I have much more to lose.  So despite the expansion of my influence and status, I am less apt to use it. How unfortunate.

It seems to me that the question we should really be asking in the perennial debate about “having it all” is how we might make it easier for each of us to contribute to the very best of our abilities, and in a measure appropriate for the portfolio of activities which compose our life.  We seem to be mired in institutionalized systems and structures which fail dismally at meeting the needs of people.  If we are to change that, articulating our needs and having the nerve to be unreasonable might be precisely what is call for.  And even better if we do so with the head-held-high confidence that doing so will be a gift for everyone.

Parent Report Card

In the great dice game of life, I won the parent lottery.  I had audaciously awesome parents who told me every day that they loved me, that I was beautiful, and capable of anything I put my mind to.  Like most kids, I thought my parents were crazy.  But I also thought that if they could be fooled, it was possible that someday I might find one other person capable of similar delusions.  Lucky for me, I found just the man: a wonderfully supportive and loving spouse.  Now we are raising two kids together, and of course the expectations I have for my own parenting are impossibly high.  I’m measuring against the standard of audaciously awesome.  But here’s the thing: my only audience is my kids.  So it really doesn’t matter what the world’s standard is, or what the grandparents or neighbors or people at the park think.  What matters is what my kids think, measured against the standard that I set.

A few years ago, when my children were nine and twelve, I developed a parent report card.  Here’s my daughter’s review from last year.

Offering this report card to my kids in effect told them what I think my job description is.  And it gave them a chance to say how they think I’m doing.  Clearly I have some things to work on– no surprise there.  Now I know where to focus my efforts.   What do you want to be measured on?  And by whom?

Here’s a blank version to use as a starter for crafting your own report card. Please consider sharing what you create so we can continue to learn from each other.   Create your own parent report card

© May 2012 by Pam Daniels.  All rights reserved.

If Dr. Seuss had been an accountant

Most of us at some point embrace the notion that we should let go of childhood dreams and settle for the conventional and safe.  Along the way, we begin to believe that it is selfish to follow our hearts.  We start to think it makes sense to abandon our love of writing and illustrating and that the responsible thing to do is to get a job in finance or accounting.  Is it really responsible to abandon your dreams?  If debit-left-credit-right lights you up, then go for it. Grow up and be a Certified Public Accountant.  But if your heart is elsewhere, honor that.  Passion is an indicator and a path marker, much like the emergency evacuation lights onboard an aircraft which illuminate to lead you to the exits.  When we find an activity which brings a brightness to our eyes, and an energy to our living, we are wise to lean into it and follow that path.  Doing what we love is a way of living in harmony with our hearts, and it honors both who we are and the people around us.   Putting our true talents to use can be glorious.  How might we better nurture that divine spark of passion in ourselves and each other, and find the courage to lead with our hearts?

I for one am glad that Theodor Geisel did not grow up to be an accountant.  I doubt we would gather around at bedtime to look with triumph at the tax savings achieved for Mrs. Williamson if Theodor had become a CPA.  But lucky for us, Theodor grew up to be a writer and illustrator called Dr. Seuss.  He had the courage to open a window into his imagination and transcribe it with pen and ink so the rest of us could see what he saw.  What a gift!  He even left us a story to remind us that the same possibility is open to us.  We pick our path.  We choose our contribution.  We have brains in our head.   And feet in our shoes.  And we can steer ourselves any direction we choose.  So… let’s make like Dr. Seuss and get on our way!

© March 2012 by Pam Daniels. All rights reserved. References to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! ©1990 by Dr. Seuss, published by Random House.

Dandelion Chains and Such

I’ve been reflecting on a piece I read recently in The New Yorker.  In an article entitled ‘A Woman’s Place,’ the role of women in leadership is explored through the personal story of Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook.

One of the key elements of this article and so many others on the topic of women in leadership is that women need to be more assertive.  So often that comes across to me as “be more like leaders as we know them today, i.e. be more like men.” Is that really true?  I’m all for women being assertive if that’s what they wish to be.  I am also in favor of valuing the classic feminine traits of being nurturing and helping others succeed, and find the world sorely in need of this approach to leadership.  It seems to me that the big opportunity for women is not so much to adapt to the work world as it is currently defined but rather to redefine the objectives and rules themselves.  We did this on the playground.  While boys generally ran around roughhousing and enacting zero-sum games where one side won and the other lost, girls looked on bewildered, choosing instead to initiate more collaborative games like hopscotch or jump rope, or to sit together and create something of beauty by making dandelion chains in the grass.  When we were younger, we were sure of ourselves and the superiority of our choice.  Boy games just didn’t make a lot of sense, and we would create our own games, thank you very much.  But then as life goes on we too often forget our inner girl wisdom, and come to believe we should join in the typical boy games, and play by boy rules.  We give up valuing our approach.

Perhaps the thing is not to admonish women to be more assertive.  What if we instead began to truly honor women as they are and build up one another’s confidence in having a different point of view?  What if we regained that sense of certainty that our approach is totally valid?  How might the wisdom of women help shape what leadership even looks like?  By valuing our distinct approach to life and work, we might help everyone—male and female—to bring their unique gifts to the table and remake the world for the better.

And by the way… I know boys who make darn good dandelion chains too.

© July 2011 by Pam Daniels.  All rights reserved.

Bring your Momness to Work

My daughter called an official end to Mom’s day off at breakfast. “More pancakes please. Chop chop. Mother’s Day is over.” So back to work it is. As I head in to the office, the disjoint between what is celebrated on Sunday and the reality of Monday morning is gnawing at me. And it’s not just about getting breakfast on the table. It is about the way we value or de-value the mom approach to life.

The prevailing approach in workplaces, particularly in a post-recession economy, seems to be command and control. But that is not how my mom did it. She was in control, but she did not lord it over you. She made tasks fun. When there was firewood to be brought in, my mom would declare in a happy, energetic voice: “Let’s make a brigade!” Each of the five of us wMother's Day is Overould take a position on the stairs and pass logs from one to the other until a full cord of wood had been successfully relocated. Doing useful work became fun. We didn’t learn to associate meaningful activity with drudgery or fun with being passively entertained. Life was fun. What distinguished fun from not-fun was not the action itself but how you chose to handle the task. At the heart of the mom approach to life is the belief that the right things can get done without making people suffer.  How true is that at work today?

Mother’s Day was initiated in the United States after the Civil War. A chief advocate for the setting aside of this day was Julia Ward Howe, a social reformer and pacifist. Her “Mother’s Day Proclamation” was a call to action for women to join together in shaping society in a more constructive and peaceful way. Her 1870 proclamation began as follows:
Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts…

Howe goes on to encourage women to “leave all that may be left of home” to gather together, mourn the dead, and form a global congress of women to promote “the amicable settlement of international questions.” She wanted us to go out and change the world. That’s a far cry from breakfast in bed or a day at the spa. Howe believed that women had a responsibility to shape their societies at the political level. In today’s age, we have achieved much. We have seats in the boardroom. We hold high political office. We own businesses and run universities. But I wonder how much we are using our authority to truly shape and change the organization where we lead. Are we still playing by boy rules? Or are we insisting on getting the right things done without making people suffer?

Perhaps it’s time for a new generation of Type A nurturers to use our positions of influence to bring our momness to work.

© May 2010 by Pam Daniels.  All rights reserved.