Many many years ago, 15 to be exact, I worked in the financial services industry. It was a job I loved tremendously until fate deigned it fit that I would be spat out quite unceremoniously.
I took four months to just exhale and hit my control+alt+delete mental button to reboot my burnt-out system.
It was a fulfilling time of self-reflection, ruminating through the 10 years of my career at the time. While commiserating with me, a number of friends took the view that my problems arose because I was a woman.
I really struggled with this gender-based bias conclusion as I sincerely had never experienced exclusion per se and chose not to view any issues I had had through a gendered lens.
One afternoon, as I sat reflecting under the shade of a tree, I had the proverbial Isaac Newton Eureka moment. In my decade of working, I had served various bosses that were primarily male.
The good bosses were excellent, ensuring that all my achievements were well rewarded with bonuses, career promotions or both simultaneously.
The bad bosses, of which there were very few, kicked me the individual down, stomped on my prostrate form with their industrial boots, ran over my battled and bruised body with a 10-ton truck and then gleefully reversed over my career-dead body to make sure the job was done satisfactorily.
My Eureka moment was this: My good bosses often spoke of their wives in a positive light: some in unabashed admiration, some with grudging respect and a few in mortal but loving fear of their long-suffering partner. We knew the names of their wives even if we never met them.
The common thread amongst the bad bosses was that they either never ever mentioned their wives conversationally or when they did, it was in an indignant, battle-weary and sometimes derogatory fashion.
In reflective retrospection, I think in some shape or form I reminded my bad bosses of their wives. Our interactions would lead the boss to conflate my resistance to an issue with that of their unnamed or untamed significant other, causing me to suffer the consequence of a non-domestic situation that the boss was finally wholly in control of.
That revelation stands true to this day in my observation of many leaders in the political and corporate space.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day this week, we take note of the theme “embracing equity”. I had to read up on what the term equity means in the workplace.
Equality means that each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities.
Equality is therefore sought for age, race, tribe, gender or persons living with disability to be given access to the same opportunities in the workplace, for instance.
Equity on the other hand acknowledges that everyone has different circumstances and thus the objective is to allocate the same resources and opportunities that are required to arrive at an equal outcome.
Therefore equity requires organisations to provide tools and physical infrastructure that enables persons with disability to function optimally.
Or it requires that lactating mothers who have returned to work get a private space within which they can express and store their breast milk for their suckling infants.
It could mean that provision is made for recognition of mental health issues for employees suffering from work burn-out and including this critical illness in the medical cover provided.
But those different circumstances in the definition of equity are not only for subordinate employees. My experience drew me to the conclusion that bosses also have different personal circumstances that come to bear in the way they lead at work.
As executive coaches, we are trained to recognise that an individual has a multiplicity of personas. They are simultaneously parents, siblings, children, spouses and friends and all these personas are inextricably intertwined.
In helping a coaching client reflect on a work-related problem, we are required to encourage the client to reflect on where else that problem could be showing up in their non-working life and, in so doing, recognise behavioural patterns that could be impacting the professional human vis a vis the family human.
Self-awareness borne of coaching or self-led introspection makes a good leader aware of their foibles and biases. It allows them to step back from a situation and ask themselves why they are reacting in a certain way.
It behoves organisations to consider that executive coaching is a critical tool in the journey of promoting a person to lead other humans or else they will be promoted to their level of incompetence and set up to fail.
As we are exhorted to embrace equity this week, let us recognise that bosses, be they male or female, need equity too.