Tell a better story, step into your power and lead | Sharleene Bibbings

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I shouldn’t be here right now, talking to you about women in leadership. I failed at the first hurdle when I was 18. But I’ll come back to that.

We have a problem. It will take another 118 years for the global pay gap between men and women to close. Women across the world, earn 10-30% less than men for the same work. This is set against the fact that profitability return on investment and innovation all increase when women are counted among the leadership.

Yet women also have major economic clout.
Take America for example. Women hold 85% of the purchasing power and own 50% of small businesses in America.

Equal pay is morally the right thing to do. We can’t wait, we need to accelerate change for you, for other women and for your children, both boys and girls. Developing  leadership skills as a woman is a crucial part of accelerating change. You matter.

I am a wholehearted, empathetic and present leader, who engages others in transformational change for a more inclusive society and economy. I work in Whitehall as a transformational change leader, and started working in the public sector twenty years ago. During that time, I have won a number of awards for work with communities. I have a BA, MA, and PhD that explores social transformation, trained professionally in project and programme management and published a book on the politics of organizational change.

I am a non-executive Director for a foundation that supports individuals with profound disabilities, and am a board member for a community arts organisation and work with the board of UN Women UK. I also have the pleasure of coaching some amazing women through my company Vi Et Animo (Latin for strength and courage).

But I know the pain of failure. At 18 when all my friends, (who I’d known since I was four years old), got the grades they needed to go off to university, I did not. I remember that morning vividly, waking up feeling excited, driving to school with my parents, touching base with friends when I arrived, and waiting my turn to get my results.

When I saw my results, I wanted to climb under a rock. You know how it goes in the movies; when the camera zooms in and the background blurs? After going home to lick my wounds for a day or two, I took control of that pivotal moment by not focusing on my dyslexia, but by telling a better story, one of opportunity.

I can’t take all the credit. After I received my results, a teacher took me aside and offered me a second chance. I could be held back a year with my younger peers and retake my exams. She in turn would use her personal time to coach me. She said that this was my opportunity to change things – if I was willing. That was my first introduction to the power of change. Like I said, I shouldn’t be here now talking to you about women and leadership.

Now ask yourself, have you ever had to:
• face a major challenge, that you alone have to deal with as a leader?
• lead under extreme constraints, fear, recession, feeling overwhelmed?
• have to keep yourself on track when the gap between where you are now and where you want to be seems massive?

If you’ve ever had any of these experiences, I’m going to get you to focus on something every woman has: your birthright: your ability to tell a better story, step into your power and lead.

Feeling alone to feeling energised about the opportunity

One challenge that female leaders face is feeling alone. A study by Relate and TalkTalk quoted in the Telegraph in 2015 said that a fifth of 35 to 44-year-olds feel lonely, compared to 13 per cent of over 65s. The article said:‘ older people are expected to feel the most loneliness,’‘But this study found that younger women, striving in their careers, working long hours or from home, juggling children, with little time to invest in relationships, were the loneliest.’

The solution is the power of re-framing. Getting back to being 18, I could have said I had been ‘left behind’, but instead I saw this as a year of immense opportunity. I would use all this free time – (my mates were no longer around) – to explore my values, go to new places, make new friends, and read new books by writers like bell hooks. I went from running to keep up with the pack, to raising my consciousness and opening up a whole new set of ideas for myself. How can you re-frame a change that you alone face into an opportunity?

Constrains to solutions

The story you have about the number of constraints you are facing is crucial. When you feel its one thing after another and things are mounting up, it can be overwhelming. A catalyst study quoted by the Harvard Review said, research showed 90% of the women in the study left not to care for families, but because of workplace problems, chiefly frustration and long hours. The answer is a solution frame. During my re-sits, if all I did was focus on what I had lost, my friends, a sense of progress, the missed grades, I would have not got out of bed every day. Each challenge and set back was given a solution, and a reward. This would be fun and engaging, not self-torture. How can a ‘solution focus’ to your frustrations transform your work life day-to-day?

Distant goal to local mission

Thirdly and finally, have you ever had to motivate yourself and/or team about a goal that seemed really far away? This is a tough space to be in. As a women, (and many men too), you have the power of empathy, which is a crucial skill. A RSA report quoted in The Financial Times said “Three quarters rated women higher than men for intuition and possessing greater awareness of the motivations and concerns of other people.’’

The skill of empathy helps you became a better leader. When I did my re-sits, at 18, a year was a very long time. I crafted that year, not as a never-ending high way, but as a stepping stone to a larger story about what I wanted my legacy to be. I said I wanted to be an academic, stating with this first right action; passing my A levels. The benefit of empathy is that I was able to link into my larger why. Longer term, this made me a better leader so I could help others do the same. What is your stake in the ground that drives your forward, your vision that can give you staying power?

Leadership is personal, it doesn’t just happen at work. On that note, I had the sadness of dealing with my fathers’ terminal illness this year. Although I have struggled to accept the situation, one of the main ways I have moved forward is to use my courage to make sure all the things I wanted to say to my Dad were said. Something that flowed from these conversations, was a commitment to raise my own game, not a little bit but a lot. This started with my fear of flying and leading to one of the most amazing trips with my first visit to New York. In fact, I’m returning this Autumn to attend Yale to study leadership.

So the next time you find a chasm between where you are now and where you want to be, craft carefully the story you tell about the opportunity. Focus on solutions and connect with your vision, it could just transform your life and the lives of those around you.

Follow Sharleene: @SMBibbings

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