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Who Does She Think She Is?!: Women Business Leaders

Did you know the counseling center paradigm is becoming the deFacto standard in the “psychotherapy market”?  It is and more are cropping up every day.  Yet each center has an underlying vision or mission.  Psyched in San Francisco is unique in that;  it was the first woman-owned counseling center in San Francisco, we have a clear focus to reach people beyond the therapy room who might not ever come to therapy,  we are focused on unbiased outcomes research to inform how we work with people so they get the most effective treatment currently possible, we are driven by high integrity in how we market and we strive to relate as humans, not gurus.  Because many of us have corporate backgrounds and a well-balanced masculine and feminine side we appeal to men as much as we do women.  I am proud of this!

white shoesOver the holidays I had one-on-ones with trusted colleagues and mentors because I wanted to make sure I was staying true to my vision: that the business model was a good match for my desire to have a life of connection and ease with my husband and kids I really enjoy, that my marketing was not only high integrity but also high value (yes marketing can help people not just sell to people), that I was moving from empowered authenticity and not “look-at-me” narcissism or “money grubbing”.

In my one-on-one strategy sessions with one of my colleagues, I said, “Hey I am afraid. I mean ‘who do I think I am’ going big?  I am not perfect.  I am a woman.   I am still learning about good relating even after 20 years of therapy (See my interview in The Wall Street Journal last week about my challenges as a listener to my husband).  And I am still learning about being in a state of ease and flow rather than compensation.”

My sage colleague, Marty Cooper, reminded me  “Own all the funky stuff, it is so much easier”.  We laughed together and played around with different titles for the article I would write  – “Owning the Shit” or “Your Shit Stinks Only Sometimes” (yes my analyst friends point out all the time my anal retentive references in my language).

So with that preamble here is a more psychologically minded list of things to think about for women in any industry who lead a business:

1. Step out of the “bad mom” role.

Gender discrimination is still alive and well – consciously and unconsciously.  The Book of Life, published by The School of Life talks about how all of our unconscious stuff left over from our own relationships with our mothers, some of it that was pre-verbal so we don’t even remember as a specific transgression of our mothers’, gets transferred to women leaders.   These women become the “bad mother” eliciting all kinds of responses from employees and peers – aggression, dismissing, patronizing, longing for mothering etc.  Fascinating.  Research out of the University of North Carolina in December showed that students rated the same teacher higher if they were told that online professor was a man versus a woman.  Heather Knight wrote a piece for the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday about women’s rise on the city board of Supervisors.  London Breed, now president had the response “Whoa, really? Me?” when colleagues egged her on to lead the board.    Debora Spar, a former Harvard Business School faculty member, and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Lean In fame both attempted to raise the conversation in a constructive way with their books in the last three years.  Ms. Sandberg said “Lean in” and Ms. Spar said “Public Policy must change and women need to end perfectionism.”  Yes!  And there is more psychology can add.

Women leaders can step out of roles and make a different kind of dent in gender discrimination. How?   Be flawed.  Say what?  Yeah.  Back to Marty again. There is something disarming about having the capacity to love yourself and go big in the world and talk about, reflect on and own and correct the errors you can and accept the ones you know will never change.  It also allows people’s ideas about you to slide right off because when you are being so clear about who you are nothing much else can stick to you.  Even if they still place you in a “bad mom” role (or any role) your own flaws don’t shake your self-confidence so you can continue to relate compassionately rather than defensively to naysayers.  Owning my flaws has utterly liberated me in the last year. For more read an article by my colleague, Brett Penfil, on psychologically savvy leadership.

2. Get support.

Look, if I made one big mistake early in my undergrad career it was I did not ask for help so when it was time to apply to law school I had no professors to write me letters of recommendation (and what a happy twist of fate because I have found my true calling as a therapist).  What kind of help should be sought?  Ask wise others for feedback on your direction, on your strengths and weaknesses.  Who to choose?  One impartial paid person…a coach.  I have one and they are invaluable.  Then trusted people in and outside of your industry who can help you do some critical thinking about your business and cheer you on.

3. Get clear on your values and your business plan.

soccer goal for psychotherapy goal focus pageIt can be tempting to get caught up in grandiosity and narcissism and  the paid advice of some questionable coaches who sell the “think positive and believe in you and the rest comes.”  The reality is, you have to premeditate going big.  Your business has to be built on a sound business plan.  Personally, this part was the least interesting part of starting my business but I have learned to enjoy the focus it brings to my priorities and the calm that it brings to my life.  I have a tornado of ideas that I can get carried away by and a good business plan is my tether.  Built into that plan you have to be clear about your personal values and what your business stands for.  I had some unsolicited commentary a few years ago from a male colleague who told me my “traciruble.com” website wasn’t good.  It had too many words and was a bit “too much” and would turn people off. I said thank you for the feedback hung up the phone and thought “well sometimes I am a little too much so people that would be turned off by my website wouldn’t be a good match for me.  Excellent!  Accurate advertising is my core value so I am doing it right.”

4. Don’t compare.

In the internet economy virtually anyone can create a website and start a business. This  colleague who felt I should “look a certain way” could not have been more wrong.  Being you combined with a business plan to test your idea and brand is your locus from which to move.  Others will do some things differently and better than you and sometimes your “less than” “be small” gender training will tempt you to compare yourself or move from different standards of integrity because you are afraid.  Don’t.  Sure get some market information but if you have a solid business plan too much comparing is wasted mental and creative energy.   We all do this comparing though.  Just know it is normal brain stuff from stone age days and come back to your plan.  If you struggle with this one, therapy is a good medium for working it out.  Plug: the savvy therapists at Psyched would be great!

5. Own your strength and fragility.

Look one of the most radical transformations in running a business for me has been to genuinely love myself inspite of a lot of my own fragilities that might whisper in my ear that I can’t be a leader.  Fooey.  Not true.  I now have an automatic kind internal voice that has grown even deeper and thicker roots with practice.  Women’s gender training has told us to be small so we tend to err on the side of overcompensation or its opposite “compare and despair” as my colleague calls it. There is a more authentic and human way to lead: Own your fragility and your strength for they both are true.  When I honor both, I steer clear of the pitfalls many women are faced with: overcompensating for their gender in a man’s world through workaholism, narcissism or codependent people pleasing.  I am not successful all the time but practicing embodying a calm centered power and authority feels more gratifying to me and to those I am around.   If you are cruel to yourself for being strong or for being fragile therapy might be a good investment.

In closing I want to say thank you to all leaders everywhere and especially the great men and women leaders I have had in my career in high tech and therapy.  Thank you for being good at your job.  Randall, Karin, Dave, Bill, Scott, Mike, Nicole and Wilma and any others I missed…thank you. You have inspired so much in me and have rooted me on.  I carry your support with me.

Traci Ruble

Traci Ruble

Traci is a therapist and the CEO of PSYCHED & Managing Director of Sidewalk Talk. Her therapy work is centered around working with couples and individuals working on their relationships. Her many years in corporate life make her a good match for executives and leaders.

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