After 5 years of moderating a monthly Lean In Circle, I’ve made the decision to “lean out” at the end of the month.
For the record, I’m not leaning out because of Michelle Obama, or as part of the pushback on Sheryl Sandberg and her role at Facebook. I’m leaning out because I want to focus on other things (Integrating Ikigai, Points of You), other communities (running club, Spartan Race). Like any leadership role, I feel like I’ve learned what I can learn and I’m ready to transition into something new – a new level of Leaning In, shall we say?
So what did I learn in the 5 years?
1. Are you still learning? If not, move on
I’ve written in detail about my own Lean In journey and reading it now that the decision is made, it is all crystal clear. I was starting not to look forward to every meeting. Sometimes, I felt like I was starting to just dial it in and that was not respectful to others. As soon as I announced I was leaning out, it was like a weight had been lifted. There is also a sense of grief – to give up something that I did love so much and was so tied into my identity.
But sometimes you need to realize that you have graduated from the role, the relationship or the situation. And then, move on.
2. Women do help women
I’ve heard a lot of discussion about women holding other women back, being catty (urgh! What a gendered word!) and competitive with each other. I feel I have been fortunate in my career to only have support from the women around me. (Now I am thinking that maybe it is because I was the bitchy one… I hope not!)
In Lean In Circles, I had an amazing group of peers who only wanted me to achieve my goals. Was it because we all came from different organizations? There was certainly no zero-sum mindset in the room.
It could be because as an all female space, we did not need to resort to association or advocacy based covering. This is where minority groups downplay stigmatized parts of their identity in this case – avoiding contact with or not sticking up for other women. We see it when a female leader does not want to be involved in companies D&I programs. It is not because she does not think they are helpful (although that may be part of it!) but, by drawing attention to herself as a woman, she may increase the potential for negative bias.
Women do help women. A female only space can be a useful place for women to develop confidence and speak openly about their goals and challenges.
3. Fixing the women doesn’t get more women in leadership roles – fixing your succession planning does
The women who join Lean In Circles are talented and passionate. Each month they share their successes and I see each one of them is growing personally and professionally. And yet, when I announced that I would be leaning out, I wasn’t exactly bombarded with offers to take on moderation of the group. This despite the fact that every regular member contacts me to say thank you and how much the meeting means to them.
This was a failure of my leadership. I did not develop a pipeline of successors. I didn’t earmark people and give them time to get involved.
I thought that I was making it easier for people by taking everything on myself. If I do it all, I reduce the barrier to entry for people to attend. But what I created was a black box – what does it take to run this thing? how does she do it? I became an accidental diminisher of the people in the group.
Fixing the women doesn’t fix the problem of getting more women into leadership roles. You have to fix the leaders to make sure they are taking action about succession and casting the net across all the talent available.
4. Saying “No” to leadership is not always about saying no to leadership
However, on the other side of the coin about Leaning In, I saw a number of women who are strongly creating boundaries, not feeling the pressure to take on extra roles in their already full lives. So instead of assuming that women don’t want to take on leadership roles, how about we look at what they prioritize instead?
In your organization this can be about looking at the other roles that women are expected to take on in the home. Make no mistake these gender-defined roles are alive and well in Japan. And the stereotypes come both from women and men’s expectations of what should be done and by whom. Even as a feminist, I find myself taking on without questioning the roles of being the first port of call for the school. I say it is because as an entrepreneur I have more flexibility in my calendar but I believe there is something deeper going on from a place of bias.
Women are not always saying no to leadership roles because they lack confidence in their competence. Sometimes its just a feeling of overwhelm of the mental burden of wearing so many hats and having so many responsibilities.
Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to our venue sponsors who enabled us to keep the meetings free with no barrier to entry. It is very tough to find free meeting space in Tokyo but these organizations supported monthly meetings en world Japan, Michael Page, Dale Carnegie Japan and Smart Partners K.K
Want to find out more about where you can Lean In?
If you would like to get involved with Lean In activities in Japan, you can connect with the following groups
Lean In Tokyo – Active Japanese language group and the Country Chapter Leader for Lean In in Japan
Lean In Tokyo Girls on Fire – taking a hiatus until late summer/ early autumn but you can request to join the group.