To women I'll say, if someone asks you to take on a stretch assignment you should start by just saying yes. I know that sounds so simple, but I can't tell you how many times I have tapped a talented woman and said, “Do you want to do this?” And how many times the answer that woman gave was, “Well, you know, I'm not sure I'm thinking….I have this other project.”
In that first minute, what you've basically done is give doubt to your boss so they think, “maybe she's not ready or maybe she's overwhelmed”. I have found over time that a lot of women are actually thinking out loud and don't realize how much they hurt their cause by doing so. You must discipline yourself not to do that. If somebody suggests something to you, the only appropriate answer is “I am so thankful you've thought of me, give me a minute, or give me an hour to think about it”. Or “I just want to process that”. Or “let me get right back to you”. Then you can go and have a meltdown on your own. You're completely allowed to do that. But don't hold yourself back by conveying that you're not ready or you're not interested.
The second thing I would say is it's quite important to straightforwardly tell your boss you're interested in a stretch assignment. Because a lot of times we don't know and with women, even with all the progress we've made in the world, when I'm in a private setting where we're making decisions around who to tap for something challenging, a very nice man who thinks he's supportive of diversity will say, “I don't think we should pick Gunjan, she's got young children”. Or, “well, I'm not sure she can travel.” It drives me nuts. Why do you think she can't travel? Despite our best efforts, there are still these preconceptions. So it's very important for you to say, “I would love a stretch assignment, I can travel, and I want to show what I'm capable of”, and to look out for an opportunity.
"The burden of leadership is not perfection, it is good intention"
You are responsible for a team of 8000 plus people. What tools and techniques have you employed during the pandemic to ensure you’re an effective leader and communicator?
I'll tell you, the pandemic has been a learning moment for all of us. And it has really been a learning moment for me. I am a fairly introverted, private person, which I sort of conveyed to most of the people who work around me. The pandemic took all those assumptions and threw them out the window. We are headquartered in Minneapolis, and George Floyd happened next to one of our branches. It created so much confusion and anxiety in people's minds.... There was so much emotion. So you just say to yourself, “I'm going to open up and talk to people about things they need to talk about, to put things in words that we normally would not. We’re going to think differently about how we communicate, how often we communicate, how we engage.” I'm not sure I got it right, but I know I tried my best. And that's all you can do. You can't be a different leader than you are....The burden of leadership is not perfection, it is good intention.
How personal were you in those conversations? Did you feel that you had to lead by example by sharing some of your own insecurities in a way that you might not have prior to this?
Some of that was, in very subtle ways, an invitation to be open to conversation. It started with a picture I posted. I was wearing my tattered jeans, a sweatshirt and flip flops and I was in my home office. My son had taken the picture and I just posted it and wrote, “not feeling like alpha leader today, because nothing is working”. It got so much PR, and gave people permission to also not be their best work selves. So I started doing more of it eg I would post pictures of me trying to cook. It was just permission to show myself in a different light and to share things that I would not normally share. But also asking and inviting others to do the same. It was wonderful. I had to ask myself 'why we hadn’t done this before'?. Why were we asking ourselves to be defined by the protocols of what we consider work? I think this will be our learning going forward - that there are some assumptions that need to be challenged.
We've all read the statistics around women leaving the workforce because of the pandemic and how many women have lost jobs and how many women have scaled back for a variety of reasons. Looking forward, what would you like to see that would help really shift gender dynamics and get women on a path into leadership positions?
I am of the view that this pandemic will, in the end be better for women, because working from home once in a while and working in a digital environment is now so much more accepted. These are big issues for women in the workplace. Let's think on the positive side and say, yes, we have a big dip in numbers and yes, we have work ahead of us to bring all these women back with a graceful thank you for what they have done for their families. Hopefully their experience will be better. You won't have to quit just because you're a mom. You won't have to quit because we'll make the workplace meld to your needs. In the long run, this might end up being the best thing that's happened to women.