Why Less Can Be More for Women Execs

BusinesswomanBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

With Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead topping the bestseller chart, the “double-down” debate has been reignited once again. Whether you find yourself for or against the ideas that Sandberg proposes, one thing that’s clear is that her controversial book has gotten people talking about why women’s progress in leadership roles has stalled, and the choices that we each must confront as we try to make our lives and work make sense within our own unique circumstances.

If you haven’t read the book, you may expect from the title that Sandberg falls squarely in the corner of doing more in all arenas at all costs. That’s not the case, as she explains in her chapter “The Myth of Doing It All,” where she states:

“’Having it all.’ Perhaps the greatest trap ever set for women was the coining of this phrase. Bandied about in speeches, headlines, and articles, these three little words are intended to be aspirational but instead make all of us feel like we have fallen short.”

Can less be more for women execs, and if so, when and how? The Glass Hammer spoke with a panel of experts in diverse industries about how to back off as needed.

Realize, Don’t Idealize

The idea of doubling-down versus backing down is unique to women professionals, suggests Haydee Caldero, co-founder of financial advisory firm Dignitas, LLC, because women are more likely to actively talk about personal and career issues to friends and co-workers. While Caldero believes this can be an important outlet, she notes that it can also lead to a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality: how does Sara have a perfect career and family while I am barely getting by?

“It’s not about doubling down or backing down but about having realistic (not idealized) expectations about your role as a professional, wife, and mother,” says Caldero. “It’s easy to feel guilty when you are trying to idealize your role. Be realistic, don’t feel guilty when you fail, and ask for help when you need it. If you are trying to be perfect, you will never be fulfilled with your career or family.”

Build a Buffer

In her early years as CEO of her company, Dina Dwyer-Owens, chairwoman and CEO of The Dwyer Group, traveled too much, burning the proverbial candle at both ends. After private equity, franchise acquisitions, and trying to be mom, wife, CEO, and speaker at-large for a number of initiatives, her company now has more than 1,600 franchise locations across its service brands—and she now believes that less is more.

To that end, Dwyer-Owens believes goal-setting is key when it comes to structuring where you want to be in your work hours, duties, and obligations. She also recommends taking some extra steps to help maintain your perspective, which include restricting work-life balance to allow “buffer days” that don’t involve the day-to-day of the job. “I have better clarity and bigger vision because of it,” she says.

Ditch the List

Bouncing between working in her organization and on her organization has become par for the course for Tish Hill, CEO of and mom of a 10-year-old daughter. When working in her organization, Hill’s focus is very task-oriented, and often involves list-making. “There is some human nature aspect where you feel some sense of accomplishment and self-worth through your ability to move through the list and checkmark more boxes in a day, in a week,” says Hill. “But in my experience, the list doesn’t end. The notion of double down just burns you out and the quality goes down.”

As an antidote, Hill has found that when she switches to working on the organization, creativity can emerge. “The further I get from the organization, the clearer the ‘what it is’ becomes, as well as the potential of where it can go,” she says. “I almost feel like it is a zoom-in/zoom-out sensation. I find that I need to slow down (get away from the list ) in order to have this perspective.”

Hill notes that she personally has trouble with perspective unless she makes a conscious effort to decelerate in this way. “Regular intervals of slowing down are required,” she says. “The byproduct of this is better leadership and more innovation.” What’s more, Hill finds that the same process works with her daughter. “I need to get away from the list with her too,” she says. “Downtime works miracles!”

Start with the End in Mind

The question is not how to back off, but how to build a life based on your values and passions, according to Sharon Hadary and Laura Henderson, authors of How Women Lead: The 8 Essential Strategies Successful Women Know. Their research on executive women in finance and technology has shown that when you start with the end in mind by knowing your values, you can define success for yourself based on these priorities.

“Successful women define success holistically – establishing goals for their professional, family, personal, and community lives,” says Hadary. “Try to determine your priorities based on your values and goals. Do not let others define who you are or what you should do.” Henderson adds that at different times in your life, different parts of your life will have priority. “Recognize that it is a long life – and that over time, you can achieve your goals in all sectors of your life.”

The result, the authors say, is that you will find life more manageable, you’ll be more fulfilled, and those around you will enjoy being with you more. “This is not backing off,” says Hadary. “It’s being your own Chief Life Experience Officer.”