There is a certain irony, nearly lost on me, about how I tried to begin writing this article. This morning, I spent an hour or two, researching for an “authority” to legitimate my opinion. Without this, I somehow felt my article would be weaker, or my thoughts would have less impact. I wanted to find someone to piggy back on, to be their number two.
This is what I call the Penfold Complex. The moniker originates from my very first communications role, where my boss asked me what I wanted to be in ten years, and whether I’d like his job. I replied that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in charge, I liked being a number two: a Penfold to his Dangermouse. Roll on nearly ten years, and another, different boss tells me in my leaving card, that though I think I am Piglet, today I am Christopher Robin.
Cartoon analogies aside, why, ten years later was I still positioning myself as a nervous, if effective, number two? When would I be ready to claim my inner Dangermouse?
Despite the fact that today I am clearly more experienced, and confident than I was over ten years ago, a big part of me whispers (or screams, depending on the day): never. Like many women I know, I love delivering good work, and value praise received in return, but I don’t really appreciate the limelight. And this works well for an agency communicator: my job is to make my clients, not myself, look good.
That is the worthy version of the answer. The one that shows my commitment, but not my fear and not my ego. A more honest response is that sometimes the limelight is wonderful. Public success and praise can make you shine, and grow. It can stroke your often fragile ego. But those in the limelight for public praise are also under the spotlight of public criticism. People notice their mistakes and failures, big or small. They are the ones often addressing the most challenging questions put to business leaders, and are sometimes called on to publically apologise for themselves, or others. On balance, I am not sure the positives outweigh the negatives.
And I can’t help but think that this is true of many (although not all) women. Among my outgoing, qualified network of female friends and acquaintances (mostly in their thirties and forties), only one has told me she would like to be a CEO one day. And only three have started their own businesses. When I talk to the rest about their aspirations they emphasise their commitment to doing a good job, and their belief in what they do. Many tell me they are perfectly happy where they are now, or maybe a level above, or that linear progress isn’t for them. I rarely hear the same from men.
When I ask myself why this is, I hear a favourite colleague’s voice in my ear: “see it, be it”. When my network and I were starting out, where were our fabulous female Dangermouse role models? My first boss, my original Dangermouse, was a man, and my second boss was a man, and my third boss was a man. Their bosses were men too. I was eight years into my career before I had a female boss, and ten years in before the head of my team was a woman. And the women I did come across in business were tough, and hardened. Most of them had progressed to senior roles while I was still a child. They had fought hard in a tough world and I was incredibly impressed by them. But they were nothing like me and I didn’t want to become like them.
Today, I think and hope, things are different. I see senior women in business who are “normal”. They dress like normal women, and talk openly about their failings, as well as their successes. It has been nearly ten years since someone has said to me “a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to get half as far” (and yes, I am counting). And working on the HER programme at H+K is a great opportunity to ensure that early career women today do see it, so they can believe they can be it. I want to furnish them with a wealth of examples of women who show different routes to success, and show them they don’t need to be anything but brilliant at what they do to be Dangermouse.