Female leadership takes courage. Here is one reason why.


On a sunny afternoon last month, I shared lunch with a woman I have known for over a decade. She was part of my hiring team at Williams Sonoma in the years that I worked as a supply chain analyst. Once hired, we shared an office. With our backs facing each other, she was consistently available to turn her chair around to help me. I learned a lot from her. She made herself available to review a piece of SQL that wasn’t working. Or to give me her perspective — to help me see the problem behind the problem. She was the first person who suggested that I understand any audience before meeting them. To think through their knowledge and motivations. This was not her job. She was not my manager — she simply had more years under her belt — at Williams Sonoma and in her professional years altogether. She was accessible.

When I left that job in early 2009, we disconnected for a couple of years (to be fair, I disconnected from corporate completely). She reached out to me a few years later when work found her passing through Boulder, where I lived at the time. I felt as though I had nothing to offer her — I was only beginning to regain my corporate sea legs. Embarrassed, I proceeded anyway. It turned out that she and her team wanted a local’s night out in Boulder — something I was able to provide with ease. After dinner, we walked along the pedestrian mall that is central to downtown Boulder. The moon lit the well-laid bricks. She planted a seed that allowed our relationship to feel more personal. She shared a story that is otherwise normal to leave outside as we enter our offices. I reciprocated. I imagine that because I could no longer relate to her about work, we needed another common thread. It came surprisingly naturally.

A few years later, our lives overlapped at Google. I had found my way back to corporate and into a job at a technology company that guided me back to the Bay Area. I took on a role running my company’s partnership with Google. Google had hired for her expertise in e-commerce retail. The team she inherited included people who had been my clients for a couple of years. We started a tradition of meeting regularly on Google’s campus. Again, she was willing to help me. My success in managing a partnership with Google depended on my ability to understand their culture. She was open to painting a picture of what it was like to operate on the inside of their organization. She patiently answered my detailed questions. Again, I felt like I had nothing to offer, but I was now more willing to receive her gifts.

Years later, when I left that job, our final lunch didn’t feel final. Our lives would cross again. And they did.

I moved on to build my coaching business and found my way back to Google. This time as a management coach for emerging product leaders. She stayed at Google, growing her scope and rising as a leader. Last month, after 9 months of coaching weekly at Google, our schedules finally aligned. We again met for lunch in one of Google’s many cafeterias.

Our conversation expanded from Google’s culture to corporate culture more broadly. We meandered our way to discussing the unique challenges of being a woman. This time, I prompted the dialog. As a founder of Inside Out, I am often steering conversations in this direction. I gather information to sharpen my saw and to pass knowledge along to the women who find their way to Inside Out.

I asked her about the training she had received particular to gender dynamics. In response, she shared her experience at a recent offsite for female directors at Google. As part of the day, the women reflected on the messages they received as young woman. To think about what it meant to be a woman and to unpack the “shoulds” given to us by others. Once done, they shifted their focus to the messages they held about what it means to be a leader.

After hearing her description, the delta between those two roles — being a female and being a leader — was obvious. Even before I did the reflection myself.

Don’t boast. It is unlady like.
Be a good girl. Don’t ruffle any feathers.
Don’t ask people for things. It is rude.
Don’t take up a lot of space.
Keep smiling.
Leave other people alone. You don’t want to be a bother.
Keep your head down and do your work. Don’t ask questions.

My list is the polar opposite of the skills my clients strive to develop in their coaching with me.

Understand your accomplishments and get used to telling others.
Get comfortable rising and resolving conflict.
Ask for what you want.
Develop your presence so people notice you.
Get familiar with your emotional reality.
Shift your focus away from doing the work given to you by others to creating the work. Think strategically.
Challenge assumptions productively.
Have an opinion and build the courage to voice that opinion.

The women I meet in my work with Inside Out frequently ask “why is this so uncomfortable?” Stepping into your identity as a leader requires you to go against the programming you received in the formative years of your life. It is going to be uncomfortable. It requires creating updated perspectives about appropriate behavior. It requires developing a relationship with your own wisdom that is stronger than our society’s messages. It requires learning from others and accepting that learning as gifts.

Join us for our weekend intensive and you will walk away with these skills. You will strengthen your own self-identity as a leader.

If you are wondering why I included the story of a decade-long female connection that still provides value. You will get that too.

Alicia Jabbar