Last month I read “How Women Rise” by Marshall Goldsmith and Sally Helgesen. The book starts with a story of how Goldsmith and Helgesen once did a conference together. Goldsmith didn't prepare much and was pretty disorganised but won everyone over with his charm and subject knowledge. Helgesen spent hours preparing and worrying about how she would come across. Towards the end of the conference, Goldsmith finds out that his flight leaves earlier than he thought it did (did I say he was disorganised?), rushes off and leaves Helgesen to close on her own - which completely throws her as it wasn't in her plan.
In the book, this is given as an example of how "female" habits can put women leaders at a disadvantage - the delegates readily forgave Goldsmith for rushing off and appearing scatty as he was such a good speaker. I had a lot of empathy for her - to me, it seemed that he had "dumped her in it” because of his own disorganisation.
It got me thinking back to my own similar experience in the workplace. A male colleague and I were once asked to work on a project together. We were the same grade, and both of us brought different areas of expertise that were equally required from the project to be a success. He was naturally disorganised - I am naturally very organised and always want to do a good job.
I forgot that whereas I did have a responsibility to make this project a success, it was not my responsibility alone. Bill (let’s call him that) was a perfectly nice guy and expert in his field, but he would leave all the project details to me. I relish taking ownership of projects but assuming nothing would get done unless I did it; I took on all the project management and organising workload. I spent most of my time chasing him to review things, agree to something or let me know when he could make meetings. Of course, I didn’t do all this myself and had junior team members to support, but I took on the responsibility.
Although I found him frustrating to work with at the time, looking back, I can see that he was the savvy one. The project got about 80% complete and then faltered - the truth was that the powers that be in the organisation did not see it as a priority and were not wholly committed. Bill’s focus was on his career, and as he was closer to the sponsors than I was, he probably knew it was not a priority.
I don’t think I’m alone in this behaviour. Women often seem keener to help with tasks that need to be done in the workplace. I don’t know if this is about needing to be liked, or that we have been conditioned to see ourselves in a subservient role or about something else entirely. What I do know is that it can sometimes get in the way of our own career success.
What do I know now that I wished I’d known then?
I am generally an advocate for taking on project roles, as they provide excellent opportunities for learning and visibility. But think carefully before you say yes - is this the right one for you? Is it a priority project for the organisation? What will your role be?
On a joint project, decide who will do what and how you will each be accountable. There doesn’t need to be an equal split, but if one is doing more than the other, they should get the credit. Bill’s disorganisation and distractions meant that I never got proper written feedback from him or recognition for my part in the project - despite his verbal assurances.
Don’t accept other people’s problems as something you need to solve - politely explain that you’re busy too. This also goes for when your team members push back to you on delegated work, saying they don’t have the time or skills.
It’s ok to help out every now and then - sometimes, we all need to roll our sleeves up and get stuck in. But if it's just you who has this attitude and everyone else on the team is letting you get on with it, then you’re not demonstrating servant leadership - you’re being used.
Having a balance between focusing on your needs and the needs of your organisation or team can be tricky. Don’t let other people’s shortcomings put you in a position where you are resentful of wasting your precious time on a piece of work that no one else cares about.