Meet "Beth", CEO of a global software business
From childhood, it was clear to all around her that Beth – with her extraordinary intelligence and work ethic – was destined for great things, in whatever field she entered. When, after college, a fascination with innovation propelled her into the business of computing, she was fast-tracked for leadership. “It was like she was born in a golden cradle,” recalls one colleague from her early days.
After landing a coveted job in a software company of global influence, she advanced steadily up the ranks. Colleagues admired her focus, her effectiveness and her guts. In a time of financial crisis, Beth shepherded various divisions of the business back to financial health. She was noted for her ability to “fix” crises, turn around poorly performing businesses, and push a team to outdo themselves.
She was, if anything, too successful: After some years as a high flyer in the rarefied world of strategy, she was transferred to a struggling regional division in need of rescue. “It felt like being moved from the corner office to the factory floor,” she recalls. “Humbling. It was also the toughest job I’d ever taken on: It involved addressing stagnant performance, implementing restructuring, and immersion in an institutional culture that was quite different to what I knew.”
The long-term engagement took every ounce of her energy and skill. On paper, it was a solid success. Beth increased revenue, quality of production, and organizational integrity. She maintained her fearsome work ethic, and expected the same from her colleagues.
But such a hard-driving attitude can come up against resistance – particularly for a woman in a male-dominated sector. The world of software development was virtually an all-boys club. Some colleagues felt threatened, and at times openly undermined her.
There were other issues related to organizational mores. In the regional office, personal and professional boundaries were indistinct, and openness and social connection were encouraged. Beth’s sense of herself as a manager, however, remained rigidly divided. While at times she could be enthusiastic and inspirational, when she clicked back into “business mode,” her uncompromising style could be perceived as cold or even antagonistic. She struggled to forge relationships with her new team.
When the time came to have children, burnout loomed. Maternal care and empathy became central aspects of her identity at home. Yet when she turned to work, she felt the imperative to leave that part of herself behind; to stay focused and aloof. And both parts of her divided life had to succeed – flawlessly. She experienced enormous anxiety about being ill-prepared, avoiding challenges that risked failure. The polarities in her life became starker, and her relationships suffered.
“I felt misunderstood,” she says. “I drove my staff hard, but I knew I was even harder on myself.” And if colleagues noted the gulf between “nice Beth” and “boss Beth,” it was she who felt it the most acutely.
At some point, the center could not hold. Eager to move on, she was considered for a number of top roles at other organizations – but was not appointed to any of them. Midway through her promised brilliant career, Beth was stuck.
The only way out is in
It was at this crisis point in Beth’s life that she turned to us. After assessing the situation, we proposed that the work she needed to do was developmental – and primarily on herself.
With her perfectionist nature, it was hard for “fixer” Beth to acknowledge that the problems to be repaired might lie within. “I told myself I’d lost out on positions because firms preferred to hire internally. But after it happened three, four times, I had to face up to the idea that perhaps I wasn’t the best applicant!”
She smiles when she remembers the moment in our discussions when this unpalatable possibility emerged. “I was outraged!” she laughs. “I went away in a huff. But after several weeks of self-examination, I came back with my tail between my legs: Okay, let’s do this.”
And so Egon Zehnder had the privilege of welcoming Beth to our program. We focused on going deeper into her unconscious motivations and the root causes of her difficulties, including her self-doubt and fear of failure. Our role was to coach her on a journey of self-discovery to become a better leader.
In our sessions together, we identified several blind spots: things that had been holding her back. Chief among these was a binary split in her public persona – what she started to call “Visionary Beth” and “Performance Beth.”
The performance persona was focused on achievement. Perfectionist, hard-driving and details-oriented, this Beth pressed people to complete their tasks, honing in on the minutiae of their actions in ways that could feel, to some, like distrustful interrogation. The visionary Beth was less immediately effective, but was warmer and more inspirational; concerned with strategy and motivation, this Beth was more “human,” able to enthuse those around her about their larger mission. Our task was to assist her to integrate these two modalities, and in doing so build connections with her people and inspire their trust, while still driving them to achieve.
Working with us, Beth was able to adapt and make three vital shifts in her mindset, which we sum up as “guilt to pride; fear to courage; insecurity to love of self.” Embracing these mental adjustments, she found her authentic voice and rediscovered her desire to lead.
These shifts produced other productive changes. Where before she’d been plagued by doubt, now she felt more able to take risks. Taking a step back, she eased up on trying to control every moving part of the organization, allowing herself to trust those around her with responsibility. “I realized what was important was that I create the right context for my people to act in.”
Weaving together authority with vulnerability
Beth’s insights have helped her overcome other harmful binary divisions, too. She no longer sharply splits her work persona from her empathic home life. By openly showing her emotions, she has gained access to her team’s support and insight. Furthermore, her embrace of a transformational journey gave permission to others to examine their own motivations and blocks, strengthening the whole team.
In time, she has been able to accept vulnerability – hers and others’ – as a strength. Indeed, being a woman can be an advantage in this arena: She can build relationships and tap into aspects of human experience in ways that many men do not allow themselves. “I can be mother and manager. It’s not a weakness; it’s a unique power,” she says.
This personal growth has brought Beth to the next stage of her professional development: her appointment as the CEO of her organization. She says now: “I wouldn’t be here without that transformational journey. It helped me stretch to my full capacity.”
It’s extremely important to her, as a woman, that she’s reached these heights “not by rejecting my ‘feminine’ side, but by embracing it” – and in doing so, has become a beacon for young women in the tech field globally.
CEOs need to steer away from “hero” leadership that provides top-down directives to others and is aloof from human interactions. Weaving together disparate characteristics – authority and confidence with vulnerability and openness – is challenging, but has become essential to creating a modern business environment where people communicate easily and comfortably.
Before this can happen, however, a healthy dose of self-examination, humility and self-awareness is required: Leaders like Beth demonstrate that even if you start out in a “golden cradle,” you sometimes need to take a long and difficult journey of transformation to circle back to a golden conclusion.