I remember it clearly, my friends and I laughing at the absurdity that we were now managing a group of interns. Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were the interns?! How did we get so old?! And yet now, ten-ish years later, many of us are managing not just interns, but employees, and lots of them. This leap from intern, to intern coordinator to manager of many seems both instant and gradual in the rear-view mirror. And until recently, I thought I was nailing it.
Like many career women my age, I read and recommended Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In with voracity. I took a catalogue of moments when I should have asked for more, sat at the table, dreamed bigger and I vowed to do it differently. I congratulated myself for having found a great partner who supports my career and encourages me to achieve more. We’re fortunate that he works at a firm that embraces the concept of work-life balance, so he is able to come home early to be with our small children on evenings when I have dinners or events to attend. We answer the “how do you do it all” questions with breathless references to our nanny who is like a member of the family, and acknowledge how fortunate we are to have help.
I have also patted myself on the back for being an ideal manager and mentor for younger women. How lucky are they to have a young female manager with small children, who understands where they’re coming from and will encourage them to be their best?! At least, that’s how I thought of myself, until I read a passage in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new book Unfinished Business about female managers. You may recall that Ms. Slaughter wrote an article for The Atlantic a few years back called Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. It went viral – I even tweeted about it! – and exposed how difficult it is for women to achieve both huge career success and the ideal family life. Here’s the passage from her new book that gave me such pause:
“…almost every time I give a talk someone raises her hand and tells me she has a female boss who’s much tougher and less accommodating of work-family conflict than many male bosses in the office. It’s human nature to absorb the values and practices of the system that we survived and succeeded in and to demand that others make it the same way. So it’s not surprising that some of the women who made it to the top in a system that demanded they compete on exactly the same terms as the men who had full-time spouses at home may see less need for change than many of their male peers”
My mind leapt back several years to a situation with a young mother who worked for me. She and her husband were dependent on assistance from her parents to help care for their child. When her father got a new job across the country, she was stuck in a very hard place. She wanted to continue working at our company, but she desperately wanted – and needed – to be near her family. She asked if she could move and work remotely.
I was frustrated. I had personally hired and mentored her, I saw a lot of potential and believed she would be a leader at our company in the years ahead. I was concerned for her career – how could she rise through the ranks from 900 miles away? I was concerned for our work – could I manage her effectively from afar? To be frank, I felt she was unwisely putting this move ahead of her career. But I reluctantly agreed. After all, she was extremely talented and hard-working, and I knew I could trust her.
Over the next couple of years, she showed that she could, in fact, rise through the ranks. Although I’ve since left the company, she has stayed and has been promoted three times since her move. She was even awarded employee of the year! I was glad that I agreed to the move – not to mention defended the decision to my boss. Looking back on it, my decision was right, but my attitude was all wrong.
Reading the passage above, I realized something about my motives – I truly wanted her to succeed, but I wanted her to do it the way I had! Long nights, always available, physically present. I was confident that I was a good boss providing sound advice, but when someone veered from the path I had walked down, I judged that decision as career-limiting without realizing I was really upset that they didn’t follow me.
As managers we need to recognize that younger women aren’t just looking to us to provide guidance on navigating the system as it is, they’re also looking to us to CHANGE the system.
To those of you who aspire to progress from an intern, to a manager of interns, and eventually a manager of many, remember that your guidance and mentorship are of great value. Continue to encourage young women to lean in and guide them through challenging obstacles along the way. But remember that some obstacles are not character building moments for them, but rather opportunities for you to clear the way, so they can continue their journey unburdened.
The reality of life doesn’t allow me the opportunity to sit around with my girlfriends reminiscing on our days as interns as much as I’d like. But the next time we’re together, I’ll be sure to spend some time remembering the women who mentored us along the way, and no matter their mistakes, be grateful for the many trails they made.