A letter to my daughter

Dear Pats

You’re going to start out in this industry with no idea whatsoever.

As crazy as it sounds, you’ll have no idea for the first few years that what you say isn’t always as important as who’s saying it. No idea that people may react differently to a 21 year old in a mini skirt (who, by the way, knows the data inside out) than a man in a suit.

But then you’ll get that bit older. Maybe you’re more confident, maybe you’re more impatient, maybe others are more threatened. Maybe it’s a little of both. But words like “dismissive”, “opinionated”, “stubborn” will start to creep into your appraisals. Because you’re a good student, and anything less than perfection is failure, you’ll take this very seriously to heart. You’ll onboard the lesson that you’re highly capable but not that likeable. It’s a narrative highly familiar to any student of American politics.

But it’s not a narrative many men will be familiar with, because men are allowed to be very senior and very successful and have a “but”. “He’s super bright but not that great with people”. “He’s amazingly creative but he has a bit of temper”. “He’s fantastic on the commercials but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly”.

Women don’t get to have a “but”. We have to be the whole package, and we have to do it, as Ginger Rogers said, backwards and in heels.

The tricky thing of course, is that some of this feedback is valuable. One of the most valuable lessons you’ll learn, and play back to the many passionate, bright, utterly convinced young planners you’ll work with is “it’s not enough to be right, you’ve got to take people with you.” (Thank you Jim Carroll for that one.)

Building consensus is incredibly important. Forsaking rigid thinking, getting comfortable with chaos, allowing other people in before the perfect edifice of impenetrable logic is created is important.

But for a time younger Pats you’re going to overcompensate. You’re going to worry so much about being liked that a few years later a group of your peers are going to tell you that you’re just too nice. Your boss is going to tell you that “You ask way more of yourself than you do of your teams” and you’ll know they’re right.

You’ll have two incredible children and you’ll learn so much from them about gender, nature, nurture and how men and women make their way in the world. Learning more about how boys and girls navigate the school system will crystallise an idea you call the Good Girl Trap.

The Good Girl Trap is what happens when women in the workplace adapt to a model of female accomplishment that is socially and culturally acceptable. That model is the good girl model-diligent, conscientious, hard working, agreeable. The good girl model is rewarded for a time but it ultimately represents a huge opportunity cost both to women and to businesses.  Because at a certain point in anyone’s career trajectory, male or female, it becomes more important to (constructively) challenge the rules, to be an agent of change, than to follow the rules in a perhaps broken model.

So for a while you’re going to want to tear your hair out.  But at some point in all this, you’re going to find a balance between too nice and too opinionated, too difficult and too deferential, too argumentative and too agreeable.

At that point, you might just have some useful advice for your younger self that goes a bit like this:

Storytelling is a superpower: Telling people the story of where the business is going. Telling disparate groups the story of why they’re stronger together. If you can tell a story, you don’t need to be the loudest voice to be the most powerful, or the most memorable.

You can be too nice, you can’t be too kind: Women, in particular, can be too nice. Too nice, for me, is when accommodating and agreeable behaviours start to become self- destructive and ultimately value destructive for the business. Too nice is when super smart, super qualified women over compensate or don’t hold others to account-meaning the business never sees what they can really do. So, yes, we can be too nice. But we can’t be too kind. Over the years you’ll find extraordinary reserves of kindness in some of the industry’s most superficially fearsome characters.

Generosity is an operating system: You’ll be lucky enough in your career to work at Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty for eleven extraordinary years. You’ll work in a culture shaped not only by a tireless commitment to excellence but by John Bartle’s passionate belief that “The best strategists are generous at heart”. Over the years you’ll learn that giving things away-ideas, coffees, time, credit-comes back to you a hundredfold. The industry will start to agonise over integration and you’ll have a hunch that it’s actually pretty simple. Hire generous. Hire curious. And get out of the way.  

The truth will set you free: Women are phenomenally adept at picking up social cues and fitting in. We’re inundated with advice on beauty norms, how tos, what to wear, how to speak, how to sign off emails, seven habits that are killing our credibility….

The truth is, Authenticity is one of the most valued characteristics in successful leaders. Interesting people have interesting ideas. Interesting people make interesting connections. Interesting people connect others.

To wrap up….. One of the many benefits of having young children is that you have a great excuse to watch Disney movies. We watched The Little Mermaid recently, and I started to fume. To walk in the world, to find love, the mermaid has to give up her voice. But then (spoiler alert) it turns out that it’s not until she finds her voice that she wins the prince (if you like that sort of thing), kicks ass and ultimately saves the day.

And so, I have a point. If you have to give up your voice to be liked, to fit in, that’s too high a price. You might find, over the years, that there are better and more effective ways to make yourself heard. Different tones, different techniques. That’s okay. But don’t give it up. Your voice is invaluable. You have a point.

Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s