Almost daily from the time I was three or four until I was thirteen I watched my mother and her very good friend, Mrs. Wade, have coffee and cigarettes at a tiny table in the kitchen of our three-bedroom apartment.
Of course, back then in the 1960s, coffee and drinks throughout the day were common for many housewives. It was their bonding time, and later I came to realize, their time for strategizing and planning. Mama had six children staggered less than eleven months apart and two of them had serious medical needs requiring her daily attention. She was in and out of hospitals on a regular basis. We were poor and struggling most of the time and my mom’s marriage to my dad was extremely stressful and exhausting, both mentally and physically.
But when I saw mama with Mrs. Wade at that table in the corner she looked happy, full of power and energy, and sometimes I would hear them whisper and laugh loudly and high-five each other. Sometimes I would see mama stand up and say something like, “Oh yeah girl! It’s coming!”
Mama’s meetings with Mrs. Wade were crucial to her wellbeing and grew her confidence to boldly live her life more fully. When I was 13 my mom left my dad, took her six children, and started a new life. It was a struggle at first as she was working in a hospital cafeteria- making very little money. But despite her challenges, I watched mama evolve into a happy and confident lady who loved people, God, and life with great intensity. All who met her, even for the first time, would remark, “Your mom gives me peace. I feel settled in her presence. There’s a calming power about her. I feel I can talk to her about anything going on in my life. I feel empowered by her.”
Fast forward 25 years and it was me sitting at a kitchen table.
I was divorced after having gone through a difficult marriage and my self-esteem was at an all-time low. I didn’t believe any good could come to me. But I had a good friend, Barbara, who would visit to encourage me and give me direction. One time she brought me the newspaper with three jobs highlighted and pushed me to apply. Having such low self-confidence and existing in such a severe state of depression I told her, “I can’t do that. I’m not qualified and I’m not interested.” Barbara wasn’t having it. She told me, “You are more than qualified and you WILL apply for these jobs today, woman!” So she dialed the number, put it to my ear… and I got the job as operations manager.
This is what we do.
As women we listen, we encourage, we empathize, and we develop one another. Sometimes we carry another’s potential until she is ready to carry it for herself.
Two of the most powerful natural abilities we women bring to the table is our natural inclinations to empathize and to rally behind our fellow sisters.
Why is it then that in my 10+ years of coaching and training, I rarely see women use these skills for one another in the workplace as much as they do in their personal lives?
Perhaps we feel the need to project a different persona, not allowing empathy, compassion, and forgiveness to show up at work. We fear we may be viewed as too feminine, too fragile, too weak, or emotional. Perhaps we feel that expressing this softer side puts us in a vulnerable position to be taken advantage of, or worse, may come back to bite us.
But what we’ve learned in the study of leadership and what I’ve seen firsthand is that when a woman puts these predisposed mindsets aside and instead, approaches her colleagues from the natural place at the core of her being, that place of compassion and empathy and reasoning, her success follows quickly after. Of course, she must connect this approach with her professional insight, leadership commitment, and accountability – and in so doing she can become an inspirational leader wherever she goes.
You see, Mrs. Wade and Barbara were the uplifting wind that my mother and I needed at our lowest points.
They saw the potential in us when we were not ready.
They held that potential until we could carry it forward.
And mama did. She soared. When she left this world she was powerful, strong, and humble. And when she spoke to me before she passed away she told me, “Liz, I admire you and respect you for all you have done with your life.” There is not one person, in any aspect of my business or personal world who could have made me smile more. I know that my mother knew my journey.
Due to Mrs. Wade’s influence, Mama began to rise. As a result, she then spent the rest of her life encouraging, enlightening, uplifting and promoting other people.
Her intentional elevating of those around her had a mutual result – they became powerful, and so did she.
So, I want to challenge each of you today to take one action to do the same for your colleagues, especially your female colleagues. When we put our personal agendas aside and begin to lift one another up, as Mrs. Wade did for Mama, and as Barbara did for me, we will rise as well. We will create the very wind up under our wings—then, the possibility to soar is made easier!
Let’s focus less on the external circumstances we may perceive as blockades to our leadership growth- things like business structure, institutions, men, laws, etc. Let’s focus more on the personal choices we can make to impact change for all women in business.
As Arthur Ashe so brilliantly said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
What do better leverage we have than one another?
Question: Who will you lift up now?