The year 2020 showed me the illusion of the hyper-achiever mindset and reminded me that people won’t follow me because of the job title I hold, but they will listen when I speak with humility straight from the heart. They will listen even if my voice is not perfect, my accent is not posh or my pitch is not eloquent. They will listen because the message of ‘Mothers as Leaders’ unites across geographies and social classes.
I started 2020 thinking that I am going to have a weird year, it was supposed to be my transition year after a 20-year corporate life. I decided to use my package to finance a year in which I will do what my heart desires, and that wasn’t per se lying on a beach in Bahamas. On the contrary, it was about getting myself ready for the new stage in my life.
Still I was starting this new life operating in the old way – I was careful, moderated and taking calculated- risks. I thought that being ambitious is a good thing, the hyper achiever streak it’s what got me from the girl who grew up on a farm in South East Romania to my current comfortable life. It must have been a good thing, right?
However at the end of 2019 I couldn’t explain the emptiness I felt inside and the shame I felt for leading a life without a higher purpose than earning a good salary and being better than my peers. I decided that 2020 would be the year for making some drastic changes, but little did I know that the whole planet would go through some drastic changes.
On January 1st 2020, I felt on top of the world and at the same time I was so much out of touch with reality, that it was painful to admit it. I was letting go of the safety net of a highly paid job for the uncertain life of an independent executive coach and writer and it was scary. I witnessed with my own eyes and ears how my father, my hero, was losing his mind and his body functions to a an extremely progressive parkinsonian disease. I didn’t want to accept that he might die, I was busy looking for options and solutions to fix this temporary situation I felt he was in. I couldn’t admit it. The hyper-achiever in me, the one who pushed me towards success in my career was becoming damaging to my ability to deal with this enormous emotional struggle.
Steliana of January 2020, sabotaged by the hyper-achiever was competitive, image and status conscious, good at covering up insecurities and showing up positive image. I would adapt my personality to fit what would be more impressive to the other and I was certainly goal oriented with a workaholic streak. Even my idea around good parenting was influenced by this mindset and I struggled admitting my vulnerabilities to my kids and because of that my ability to laugh, play with them was impacted. If I look back at the time when I was picking up the kids at the after-school at 6.30 pm every day, I remember feeling like as if I was on an automatic pilot mode. I drove them places and, in the evening offered a healthy meal but that was all – I didn’t have energy for more.
The tipping point became the month of February, few weeks before the March lockdown started. I booked a last-minute flight to visit my parents because my dad was taken into the hospital and the prognosis wasn’t good. When I saw him, I couldn’t believe my eyes, but still the ‘hyper-achiever’ in me was holding me back.
I kept telling myself that emotions get in the way of performance and I need it to the one in the family who deals with the doctors, with the hospital and making sure the problem is fixed. I thought I need it to focus on thinking and action. That’s what my sisters and my parents always expected of me.
Breaking down in tears wasn’t the way I saw myself reacting to the situation. Instead, I camouflaged my feelings for more than a month, starting with the time I was told by the doctors that there was no hope and all the way after the funeral. I was feeling sick in my body and loosing weight, but somehow I could keep pretending.
The news of the ‘lockdown’ found me in this state of numbness. When all travel stopped, when all social interactions stopped, I could finally slow down and listen to my inner emotions.
Losing my father in the ICU ward weeks before the pandemic , gave me a sense of perspective but at the same time it allowed me to grow a sense of deep empathy for all the people losing their elderly parents due to COVID. I could feel their pain because I still had a ‘open wound’ myself.
I noticed that if I let go of targets and goals and the need to be successful I can enjoy the time I had with the kids at home, I can enjoy reviewing the home-working assignments and the adrenaline I was feeling when I had to ‘sell’ myself, my story and my book to companies and strangers. I didn’t have behind me the credentials and the well-known brand of the huge company I worked for before, but to my surprise – ‘Just being ME, seemed to be enough’.
The more I spoke to strangers via webinars, talks and in-house company presentations the more I saw that so many people struggle with similar issues. I wanted so deeply for them to also feel that ‘they are enough, and that they are awesome’ that I shared my most vulnerable emotions, because ‘how else can you talk about Empathy if you can’t empathize with yourself’.
It wasn’t a smooth journey and, as the year progressed, I have seen the hyper-achiever in me emerge many times, especially when I got rejected, refused or simply not accepted in a certain circle. Because as we all know, starting up a company is never easy and COVID didn’t make it easier. I could hear the hyper-achiever voice whisper in my ear: ‘If you can’t be outstanding, why bother. You must be efficient and effective. See what others do’.
But somehow this year was so extraordinarily different, I could fight that voice. I took up an extensive training on Positive Intelligence taught online by Stanford Lecturer Shirzad Chamine, and for the past 8 months, I introduced the habit of daily-practice of mindfulness through 2 minutes exercise and reflections. It helped me intercept my inner-saboteurs and to re-discover my inner strengths and qualities.
So, as I am leaving 2020 behind I am saying good-bye to the hyper-achiever Steliana and I am welcoming the power of empathy and the ability to navigate smoother through the unpredictable tides of life.
- Have the challenges of this year allowed you to exercise more self-compassion or shifted your inner dialogue?
This article was first published in Thrive Global , Arianna Huffington online magazine on December 28th, 2020. It is a wonderful community for well-being resources and community tips.
Friday is again here. Hurray! I can see that smile emerging on your face😊
There is hope on the horizon that the weekend will liberate us. It will liberate us from our screens, the zoom calls and the invisible chain to our desk chair. Welcome outdoor activities, sports, family and friends time or …Netflix movies, new dates and adventures.
This week was a rainy one here in The Netherlands and I knew about it last Sunday. Now, as most of you who know me will tell, I have quite a strong inclination towards extroversion, if I don’t get to see the sun or other people for too long, I end up walking around the house like this pale-faced, moody working mum cursing the kids for being messy.
Desperate moments call for drastic measures. So, in fighting autumn rain depression and home-working cabin fever I did, take some proactive actions. With the help of my dear family, I did 3 things (Tips for fighting misery!)
1. I remodeled my Home office to get maximum sun and color
I decided I need it my new office in a happy corner of the living room, with my beloved brainstorm whiteboard and post its next to it. My dear husband, who never ceases to impress me, managed to surprise me and he did all the set up on Sunday afternoon while I was at the gym.
2. I adapted my meeting agenda to make it more interactive and ALIVE😊
Like most of you, my Monday was packed with back -to back meetings: client calls in the morning, onboarding meeting with a new team member, a workshop design brainstorm and administration filing. Sunday evening, I had the idea to invite my team mate for a brainstorm at my home so that we can brainstorm at a social safe distance and also tackle the admin. She assured me that she is healthy, but out of paranoia, I suggested we wear face masks.
(Ok, I know that in the current COVID situation face -to-face meetings are banned but if we learn to wear masks during our work meetings our life will become easier. The entire Europe, wear mask, I don’t know why, we Dutch are resisting it still.)
3. I stopped fighting the inner MISERY and low energy when the rain poured down my face while dropping the kids at school on Tuesday morning.
Since April I started a new digital coaching program on positive intelligence and while I learned a lot while doing the 6-weeks practice exercises, I am learning even more now that I teach it myself. Anyways, one of the best 4 min recordings is on… how to accept misery. It felt counterintuitive to me, but apparently the neuroscience proves that:
‘the more our brain tries to fight the misery, the worse it gets. The pain in itself is less than our effort to fight it.’
If you didn’t come across positive intelligence yet, check out their free saboteurs’ assessment.
Now, if you think, that this is just another letter telling you how great Steliana is and all the things she does, then you must have guessed two of my inner saboteurs, the Hyper-Achiever and the Restless. However, I must tell you in full confidence that the idea of writing Friday TGIF letters comes from the Sage version of me, the one that knows that only through being courageous and vulnerable and you can dream big and help others take action on their dreams. So, my dear friend, this is an invitation for you to sharpen your pencils and to start writing.
I am convinced that there is a book in all of us, or at least a letter or… a blog article.
Don’t postpone it, the world is waiting.
I hope you are as excited as I am to begin the weekend.
Career is only one part of one’s beautiful career.
I am sure you all heard the famous jokes, made mostly by men, about the perfect woman. I can’t stop thinking that there is a self-inflicted pain a woman experiences when aiming to become the ideal woman. It all starts in the teenage years when you discover you like a particular boy and suddenly everything that boy appreciates (or doesn’t) becomes the centre of the universe. ‘Ah… the first love. How romantic!’ most people would say. Years pass and, after being disappointed by several boys and men from your youth, you are less likely to be as naïve as in your teenage time but you still fall for the same type of men.
There still seems to be something biologically coded in all heterosexual women that makes them define success through the ability to find a father for their future children. I don’t even understand why we women follow the man we love into the riskiest and most adventurous career and life changes but, when it comes to our dreams, become cautious and risk-averse.
The ‘Work – Life – You’ balance
When you are a working mother with two small children and no additional household help, you know that the idea of work-life balance is a myth or a catchy title the human resources department in corporations tend to use. You have your good days when things are relatively in control and you can still play with the kids in the evening but you also have the chaotic days when one of your children gets sick while at school or nursery. The fragile balance is immediately broken and you have to get back into crisis planning mode.
Some are lucky and manage to navigate the choppy waters of the mid to late thirties but still for many working mothers the personal sacrifices required to keep that well-paid job that covers the expensive nursery costs stops making sense when the health of one of your children is at risk.
Being raised in a spartan Eastern European regime by a mother who kept her full-time employment despite receiving no help with the house chores from my father, I guess I am somehow naturally wired towards being a working mother. One of my core beliefs is that educated women should not abandon their professional jobs for which they trained for years, to become overqualified housewives and class mothers at school.
However, in the past years, I became more understanding and less judgmental towards the women who do just that. There is always a story behind that decision. The added bonus of writing the book Mothers as leaders was that I got to hear the life story of some amazing women and I could gain insight into their decision process.
The life-story that made me humble and respectful towards the courage it takes to give up a hard-built career and completely change your lifestyle so that you can be there for your family is the story of Katja, a thirty-eight years old Dutch woman and mother of two who took a career break of two years by resigning from a prestigious Marketing Director job. She did that so that she can focus on her family and on her health. The stressful life-style of combining a high-profile role and two children below 3 years old at home was significantly damaging her health.
On the other side of the spectrum, it was the life-story of Catherine, a mother and now a grand-mother who had a working life of 42 years. She became the first woman in Europe to become partner at a prestigious consulting firm. She raised two boys into successful young men and, not to be underestimated, she managed to keep her first marriage. She did decide early on to use most of her salary for outsourcing the household work and the school duties. She valued her work identity so much, that after she retired at 65, she went back to a reduced working week and she is still doing executive coaching.
I could relate to the story of both women, but at the same time I knew that I am not a Katja or a Catherine, I guess I am a hybrid, or simply Steliana:)
I worked for twenty-years in a competitive environment while guided by clear career goals, but as I saw that I could easily reach goals, success stopped being motivating.
Going back to the: ‘Can you have it all?’ in my title, I must confess that this was question that tormented in the early thirties in the first years of motherhood, but somehow as I managed to break my own imaginary career glass ceiling, I realized that having it all was quite tiring. It created a sort of pressure for being successful that ended up sabotaging your own inner peace and happiness.
On my 40th birthday while I was driving to a whole day team development event, it occurred me that although I felt I was getting old I had 27 years before pension and that there are so many things I could do in all those years.
‘Career is only one part of ones beautiful life’
I decided to change my profession and my life-styles so that I can prioritize time for my family, while doing something that it is in line with my values and purpose in life. It might take a while before I can reach, if ever, the same income I was earning when I was on the corporate career scheme, but I know that this is not my key motivator.
There is no silver bullet to solving the ‘work-life-you’ dilemma. The choices women make to stay employed after having children are rooted back in their beliefs about the idea of family, the role of parents and their working identity. Personality traits such as perfectionism and the inner drive to please others, can negatively impact the ability of some women to manage the work-life-you balance.
What is the story behind your choice?
What does that ‘All’ mean to you?
‘In good times, but especially in bad times we discover over and over again how powerful language can be. Words can heal or they can hurt, they can unite or they can divide nations.’
No matter where you are in the world, you have probably been watching daily briefings from the leaders of your country as they try to navigate us through the current pandemic. You may have also noticed the reports / headlines / social media posts highlighting the success of women leaders during this time.
Plenty of countries with male leaders have also done well. But when you consider the fact that women make up only 7% of heads of state, we can safely say women have disproportionately passed this test with flying colours. But why?
Traditionally, women leaders have been criticised as being over emotional, too empathetic, not focused enough on the business side of things…. These women leaders have shown they are committed to the business of saving lives and saving their country’s economy. They are literally making life and death decisions that require the support of millions of people to be effective and they are gaining that support because they are emotional and empathetic. So can we once and for all agree that these traits are not a weakness?
The 39 year-old Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden has been praised for her leadership style. She spoke to the country about Covid-19 with empathy, respect, clarity and responsibility. These are the key communication ingredients required in a period of uncertainty and stress as COVID19. Whilst she has addressed the big issues of job security and quarantine measures, she’s also addressed the logistical issues the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy may face. Similarly Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen and Norway’s prime minster Erna Solberg have both taken the unusual step of directly addressing the country’s children. These women are demonstrating their awareness that they are responsible for leading everyone in their country and they are able to adapt their communication styles appropriately.
As mothers we are also faced with the need to adapt our communication style depending on the age of our children for example. Whilst these examples highlight the maternal nurturing instincts of these leaders, which again are often seen as weaknesses in women leaders, these women are successful because they have an arsenal of weapons in their communication toolbox. Not everyone is born a skilled communicator. You can learn through communication and media training how to improve the clarity of your message but you can’t learn empathy in a course, it comes with life experience.
What I picked up while listening to Jacinda is that she is not preaching to me, but she stands next to me as she is talking. Her tone is calm and reassuring and I almost felt that she cared about me personally, and I am not even from New Zealand! When I compare this speech with the one of a variety of male leaders what I find striking is their choice of language. Even Mark Rutte, the prime minister of The Netherlands, who is seen as a charismatic communicator falls in the trap of preaching when he wants to show care and empathy.
Seven years ago I was invited to join a structural dynamics certification training delivered by David Kantor institute and since than I used David Kantor’s model and assessment tool to help many teams and leaders with improving their interpersonal communication. Let me give you a short snippet of how we can use this approach to communicate in a way that touches people and to use a language that resonates with most.
David Kantor is an American sociologist who developed a model for interpersonal communication called Structural dynamics, This model was developed through an empirical study of family communication over 35 years ago and has evolved and expanded over time an application to families, couples, teams and whole organizations.
Kantor discovered that next to the stances or positions people take in a dialogue, to move or oppose an idea, there is another ingredient that makes the difference for impact interpersonal communication and this is the Language or the Communication domain. When I use the word language, I don’t mean English or French. Kantor talks about 3 key languages people understand and use: the language of Power (Action), the language of Meaning (Rational thinking) and the language of Affect (Feelings).
We are all born with a preference and fluency in one of the languages but we are all able to learn the other languages too. People who are fluent in the language of power use words as ‘decide, steps, plan of attack’ etc. A good example of this is the prime minister of Sint Maarten, Silveria Jacobs address: “Simply. Stop. Moving,” she said. “If you don’t have the bread you like in your house, eat crackers. Eat cereal. Eat oats. Eat … sardines.” An action based approach for a country with a population of 41,500 people and 2 ICU beds.
Those who are fluent in the language of meaning they will use words like ‘ thinking, reasoning, concept, relevance, etc’. In Germany, Angela Merkel has been hailed for direct but uncharacteristically personal public interventions, warning that up to 70% of people would contract the virus – With a doctorate in quantum chemistry. Merkel’s clear, calm expositions – a clip of her explaining the scientific basis behind the government’s lockdown exit strategy was shared thousands of times online – have also helped propel public approval of the fourth-term chancellor’s handling of the crisis above 70%.
Finally people and leaders who are strong in the language of affect will tend to use word such as ‘passion, caring, feeling, attention, etc. Whilst Arden’s speeches are primarily constructed through the language of affect, she is also using the language of power and action to bring clarity and a call to action.
In short these women leaders are successful because they are building trust and respect rather than fear and control.
I know as a parent to young children there are times when I feel the need to control, currently this is focused on washing hands and understanding the concept of social distancing!
If we are to hold a mirror to our own power/meaning/affect language combination at home or at work, what would we observe? What is effective and what is not? What can we learn from these women leaders to help us communicate more effectively at home? On that note we’d like to leave you with the following quote and invite you to continue this conversation with us during our next zoom call. On that note we’d like to leave you with the following quote and invite you to continue this conversation with us during our next zoom call. Enroll for free here: Linkedin event
When: May 14th 2020 Time: 20:00-21:00 Central European Time Via: Zoom Meeting ID: 795 803 0752 Password: 1234
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” ( Lao Tzu)
Authors: Steliana van de Rijt-Economu(leadership executive coach) and Donna de Haan (Associate Professor of Applied Sciences). If we captured your interest join the conversation in our LinkedIn group: Mothers as Leaders learning across borders.