My daughter commented once that I define myself by my career. That surprised me. I grew up in a man’s world, had no concept of “career” and have always been primarily impassioned by my family and closest friends, followed by music and writing. My number one concern every day was the well-being of my daughters. As a divorced mom, I juggled a lot of roles. This is not to say that my daughter’s dad was absent in their lives. But in our day-to-day routines, I was both mother and father, the disciplinarian one minute and the comforter for the same child the next. Work was something I did – well, because I had to work to pay bills. In fact, I often think I didn’t choose my career. My career chose me.
I never really saw myself as a manager. My role model for work was more like my dad – a laborer who did the best he could every day in the beam yards of Bethlehem Steel. My work ethic, my curiosity, my yearning to solve and explain the incomprehensible to others – these are the things that drove me. My appointment to a leadership position was not expected. I had mentors (unknown to me at the time) who recognized my capabilities, helped me to groom my skills and who then sponsored me to management. I am eternally grateful to those men. (And – yes, they were men.)
And I have loved what I do every day at work as a manager – because I enjoy engaging with a team; I love hearing their viewpoints, listening to their ideas, learning what they know that I don’t know and piecing together disparate and new concepts into solutions. I love the collaboration. And because I care about my team, about my clients, I worked long hours while my daughters were growing up; I was available 24×7 if needed, and I have had the (unexpectedly) best work experience – one I could never have imagined as a young girl growing up the daughter of an immigrant mother and 1st generation father.
And, so, in some ways, yes my career did come to define me. The difference is this: I don’t define myself by my career. I am more than what anyone sees when they see me thru their lens. I can’t be put into a box all nicely, neatly categorized and fitting tidily into one file folder – either by my children, my friends, my colleagues, or my managers. And there’s the conundrum. When my children look at me, they evaluate me by the actions and words they see in their isolated interactions with me. They don’t understand what shaped those words and actions – where my values came from – how I grew up or what motivates me.
The problem is no different in the workplace – except that in the workplace we have a responsibility to understand and accept these nuances between each other. How difficult is that when we don’t have the same kinds of experiences or the ability to know what someone else went through on their journey to today?
When I look around at leaders who came before me, they are mostly – not all – white males that had different parents, different experiences, different education, different opportunities than I did. They have different home life experiences today than I have today. And their paths to success are paths I could not follow. (Pack up my family and move to a foreign country? Not in my realm of possibilities while raising two daughters.) And I think that’s where women and other minorities may have trouble crashing through the glass ceiling.
What I bring to the workplace is unique. And I think it’s incumbent upon me to help leaders understand – in somewhat the way I would help my children understand – what makes me different and why my differences make me stronger.
Let’s talk. You talk. I’ll listen. I’ll talk. You listen.
Don’t judge me by what you expect. And I promise the same to you.
We have come so far in this country in the spirit of diversity. But it really is time to confront the final frontier — that is, not just an acceptance of, but an appreciation for diversity of thought, character, leadership styles and work styles. There’s more than one way to create a fine bottle of wine. And there’s more than one path to leadership. Make a change. Let it start with us.
To my daughters: Hey, for all the things I have done in life, you are the best whine (er, that is, WINE) I have created.