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How a Fortune 500 digital executive learned her own way of leading
By Gurmeet Kaur, Director of Digital Strategy and Product Development, AARP
As women, we are often told – by our families, by our friends or co-workers, by society – that you can’t do A and B. You can either be a good mom or you can be a successful performer in the workplace – but you cannot be both. If you try to be both, one or the other will suffer. You are told this so often that you may come to believe it. At least I did.
It took me a long time to reconcile these two roles, but over time and through experience, I have succeeded in doing so. That, however, hasn’t been my only career challenge.
Like many women, I have also struggled to find a leadership style that is both authentic and effective. This effort, too, took time and a number of career detours. But I’ve now arrived at a way of being a leader that works for me.
Has my journey been a smooth one? No, but it has been gratifying in the long run. Here, then, is my story.
A Difficult Pregnancy
I came to the U.S. with two degrees in computer science and began working in technical jobs. When I had my first child, I started a technical consulting business focused on nonprofits. My first priority was my family and, although my husband was supportive, I didn’t have extended family in the U.S. and I felt this would give me some flexibility. I ran that company for about two years, until my second child, and I had to compromise some more.
I had a very rough pregnancy. I was put on bed rest for the entire nine months and when my daughter was born she wasn’t in the best of health, so I stopped working for over a year. I subcontracted my consulting work, and my entire focus was on my second daughter. During that time, I realized that I was not full-time mom material, and once my daughter was stable, I went back to work.
The time I took off during my second daughter’s first year was an extreme situation, one in which I had no choice but to stop working. But after I went back to work, I continued to feel the pull of maternal responsibilities. It would be years before I realized that in most cases you can be ambitious in your career while also being a good mother. Although there is never a perfect balance, you can do more than one thing well. You can do A and B.
A Lukewarm Assessment
Trying to figure out how to have a successful career while raising a family coincided with questions about the kind of career I would have and, as my responsibilities increased, the kind of leader I would be.
About five years ago, after I had been working at Marriott hotels for a while, I applied for another position within the company. My interviews went well and the hiring team called my references.
One of them was a colleague of mine, who came to be laughing one day and said, “The one question that I got about you was, ‘She’s so soft-spoken and her demeanor is kind of soft, how would she be able to manage this huge team?’”
I smiled to myself. Really, I thought, is that what they took away from my interview? I think that is when it hit me for the first time that when we think of leadership, we often think of someone loud and big coming in and commanding a room.
In the end, I didn’t pursue the position. I decided I did not want to fight preconceived notions of leadership and try to prove myself as a leader. But I started feeling very dissatisfied. I had spent my life chasing titles and paychecks and going up the career ladder, but now the excitement that I had earlier in my career was no longer there.
My best friend at Marriott noticed the change in me and said, “Gurmeet, you haven’t been happy in a while.” I realized that I agreed, and I started seeing a life coach to see if I could do something about it.
A Dip in Morale
The biggest lesson that came out of that was the realization that I had been holding myself back – not the world, not the men, not my family. In my 30s, I had tried to do maintain the balance that I thought was required, and I had stifled myself. I had great offers – calls from Amazon and eBay – but I told the recruiters I didn’t even want to talk. Because I had kids, because I had a family, I couldn’t even consider such offers. After those three months of working with a coach I realized that I had been limiting myself.
Driving my girls – who were now teenagers – someplace, I would listen to them chatter in the car, talking about things they wanted to do, about summer internships, about what made them excited, And I started to wonder, why is it that when we start off as kids we are so clear on what we want but as we get older we lose our sense of direction?
I decided to take a six-week sabbatical from Marriott to form an organization that tries to bridge the gap between students and the workplace, in order to better understand how to keep young people’s early excitement intact.
One thing led to another, and I ended up getting certified as a Gallup Strengths Coach. I worked with students trying to help them figure out who they were and what they wanted, before their dreams were blurred into gray by what their parents wanted them to do, what their teachers and other were telling them to be.
When I came back to work, I was re-energized, and I talked to my co-workers about my experiences as a coach. Someone in my unit who was a new manager reached out to me after my talk and said, “I’m new and I’m finding it really hard to break through my team because the other members have worked together for so long. Can you come coach my team?” I thought about it and said, “Clara, I’ve never coached teams. I coach individuals.”
And she said, “My team is a bunch of individuals.” I said, “It’s a challenge, let me try.”
I enjoyed that a lot. And with it came a big realization. I don’t have to be loud to be influential. I can command a room without being obnoxious. I can be a leader on my own terms. Never in my life had I felt happier and more confident.
When AARP reached out to me, I said to myself, “Marriott is huge and I have a huge team. So why would I go to work in a small division of AARP, a for-profit part of a non-profit organization that was really just a start-up?” But then I thought, “What the heck, let me try it. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”
A New View of Leadership
The truth is that I had changed a lot.
The old me, when I walked into the big corporate environment, always left the real me outside. I walked a different way, I spoke a different way, because it fit the perception of how leaders should behave.
If I disagreed with someone in the room, I often wouldn’t speak up. If the rest of the team was gravitating towards a particular solution, I went along with the others. I was successful, but I felt like I wasn’t really being me.
These days, I lead from my heart. When I show up at work, I’m the same person wherever you see me. If I do not agree, I speak up. I may be overruled, and that’s fine. But I make sure I’m heard, I make sure I explain why I disagree.
In the traditional leadership paradigm, the leader is the authority; she tells people what to do. These days, although I know what I want from the business end, I know how it should scale, I know how we should operate, I listen to what my team has to say.
Because their opinions are heard, my teams are much more involved. They’re not order-takers. They are thinkers. They are doers. They are believers. When I say something, they push back. It’s not that I don’t have an opinion; I do. But it’s not the opinion. I want to be challenged – and I am.
We recently created a mobile app for our business, and the conversations during its development were amazing. We increased user engagement by 50%, and it was because we were all so passionate about the project.
I think being able to be authentic to who you are is very important for women, particularly as leaders. We are often told, “Walk like that, talk like that.” But I’m finding you have to ignore those voices. Be yourself as a leader. It doesn’t matter what people think. The energized performance of your teams will be what matters.