Break the bubble. Be uncomfortable in your comfort zone

Insights

Break the bubble. Be uncomfortable in your comfort zone

Noopur Julka, Senior Director at UST

To overcome leadership efficacy, women must break through expectation barriers that force them to act in certain ways.

Noopur Julka, Senior Director at UST

Noopur Julka, Senior Director at UST

The need for more female leaders is more critical than ever. Companies that boast a higher representation of women in leadership roles outperform others and have proven significantly more profitable. Yet, the numbers are not motivating.

Despite calls for closing the gender wage gap and greater gender equality, there is still a fundamental lack of women in leadership roles.

The new study from McKinsey and LeanIn, surveying over 40,000 women in leadership roles, states women are no longer patient and ready to break up – not with work but with companies that don’t allow them to reach their potential. The gender gap between leaders leaving is higher than ever. Compared to 9% for men, women leaders leave their jobs at the highest rate - 10.5%. 43% of women said they are much more likely to be burnt out than their male colleagues and have colleagues get credit for their work or to be mistaken for junior employees.

Some consider this the latest phase of the Great Resignation, while others think this was waiting to happen. Progress for women in the workplace has been frustratingly slow, and women leaders have had enough. Organizations have a responsibility to create better policies and opportunities for women. At the same time, women also need support to step forward and overcome the habits holding them back. They need to ‘Lean in.’

LEANING IN

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, was the first to name the phenomenon – 'hesitancy to lean in.' In her book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, she urges women to be more assertive and confident, believe in themselves, and reach higher. It is hard to juggle motherhood and career; it is hard to get a seat at the table where women are incredibly underrepresented as leaders, but don't hesitate to lean in.

The drive to lead as an example is one of the many life lessons that motivated me to push through all barriers and achieve my dreams. I think back to my executive MBA days at Harvard and how hard it was to juggle the program's rigor, keep up with the peer competition, excel at work, and maintain a work-life balance.

With 140 executives from around the world and 11 Indians, I was the only woman. It was a humbling experience learning from the peer group and understanding one's authentic values and how they align with what I do. One reason for my success is the incredible organization I work for that provides a strong foundation for success for all employees.

I have been a part of the UST family for 10 years. It has been an incredible journey, from being a technical consultant at Vanguard to becoming a sales leader in the financial services group. Looking back, the critical moment in my UST career was when I wanted to explore a career in corporate and didn't know what to do or how to do it. I called the executive leadership and made a sales pitch on getting invited to our corporate HQ and cracking a strategic role – "integrator" for the firm. With an open interview from 10 of my peers on a lunch table, I was given a chance! Since then, I have continued working hard to create a path for myself with UST's strong support.

Was that phone call easy? No. Did I need the courage to take that step? Yes, I had to muster up a lot of courage. But I made the right decision. That's why I want to focus on internal barriers.

While women are better at collaboration, communication, conflict resolution, and key leadership skills, there still lies a gap. The gap is leader efficacy. Ask yourself – how much do you believe in yourself? Do you see yourself as a leader in the first place?

THE GOLDILOCKS EFFECT

To overcome leadership efficacy, women must break through expectation barriers that force them to act in certain ways. To be accepted as leaders, they must constantly walk a fine line between two polar opposite sets of expectations.

Remember Goldilocks?

The little girl saw a house in the forest and went in. Inside, she saw three bowls of porridge. When she tried them, one was too hot, one was too cold, and the other just right. Same when she tried out three chairs- One was too soft, one was too hard, and the other just right. This simple children's story tells us about a powerful concept - what and how much is just right. Known as the Goldilocks Effect, it raises the question - What is "too much" or "too little" when it comes to the behavior of women in organizations?

A successful man is well-liked, unlike his female counterpart. Unfortunately, many people associate masculine traits like aggression and competitiveness with leadership behaviors. It's time to change that mindset where women are asked to think like a man and act like a woman or "have male traits like competitiveness, assertiveness but also female traits of being polite and poised. I have reached where I am by breaking through these barriers and I am comfortable in my skin.

MY JOURNEY TO WHERE I AM TODAY

From the beginning of my career, I have always learned to feel uncomfortable when I am too comfortable. When I was with Accenture, I was given the opportunity to become the lead consultant onsite. But that also meant mastering a content management system and putting in 12-hour workdays and more travel. I was the first in my family to study and work abroad, and it was scary. I lived with my parents until I was 25, and this opportunity was about stepping out of my comfort zone. But that very comfort made me uncomfortable, so I wanted to break the bubble. And I have done that time and again.

Living in different cities across the US, working in different companies and roles, continued learning from Harvard, INSEAD and several internal corporate trainings, moving to the UK during the pandemic, and getting even deeper global exposure have contributed to my learning. That and my constant focus on why I need to push myself further.

Taking your team with you is one of the greater aspects of growing your impact. Early in my career, I was advised that while I am great with clients, I need to put the same energy into understanding my teams. And I have, and it made the most difference. As we grow in our journey, we should not forget the people who work endlessly with us, and it is our obligation to support everyone in their journey. Growth, Aspiration and Leaders all have a space – the pie is large enough for all of us to realize our potential.

FOCUS ON THE WHY

The why is an important question for me.

Handling a full-time job and studying at the same time requires a good level of planning and prioritization. For me, the path lies in the word WHY. Why am I putting myself through this? Why is this so important to me?

My childhood and the powerful influence of a matriarch like my grandmother shaped me. She single-handedly raised four children after being widowed young. Her sons grew up to be hard workers; one of them was my father. I grew up watching him start his career as a foreman and retire as a general manager, always working hard and constantly evolving by learning new things. He taught me that the combination of talent and hard work creates opportunities for us.

When I went to college, being able to afford an engineering degree required a great deal of financial planning and discipline from my parents, who worked very hard. I topped almost every semester and earned a scholarship throughout my college years. I aspired for an MBA and got into one of the prestigious IIMs. But the fees were too high, and I decided to work instead for a few years. The MBA remained unfulfilled, but I was hopeful. My mother completed her master's with two young kids, and I could too. It was just a matter of time. Then I learned about Harvard's program for executive leadership – I was excited, hopeful and determined.

Why Harvard, and why then?

I wanted to sponsor my education, not ask my parents or anyone else for help. I wanted to learn from the finest of universities, get a well-rounded business education, and bring back learnings to UST, which promoted learning at work and supported me. My WHY was strong as this would make me stronger, wiser and smarter, so I went for it.

JUGGLING WORK, LIFE, STUDY AND MOTHERHOOD

I am a new mother; my son is soon becoming one. Let me be honest; juggling motherhood and career is hard. But it's not impossible.

You can feel demotivated when you read stats like women over 35 suffer more from stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation than men. Another study says that more young mothers consider leaving their job within a year due to work-life balance conflicts. These conflicts are also discouraging more women from embracing motherhood.

We must stop and reflect on why we lose this sense of work-life balance. We must ask ourselves, are we approaching this need for balance in a balanced way? It is important to remember that only you can solve your problems, so you need to take control of your life.

We need to create a work-life integration. I balance structuring my day to get my job done, feeling intellectually and emotionally fulfilled. I juggle the demands of motherhood and my career with some simple rules.

Women should not be made to feel like they must choose between having a baby and choosing their career. The choice is theirs, as is the timing of their choices. Remember, if the prime minister of New Zealand can do both, why can't we?

team-discussing-ideas

THE MANTRA FOR SUCCESS - KEEP A LASER FOCUS ON YOUR STRENGTHS AND GOALS

Make your presence felt - Women have an inherent issue of holding themselves back and watching from the sidelines. Feeling confident, voicing opinions, and being assertive are all part of getting a seat at the table. Advocating for oneself is an art! Go beyond the "Tiara Syndrome" - don't wait for people to notice you and shower you with accolades.

When I am at the table – I speak up. I have worked hard on not being the person who takes notes. I make noteworthy points.

Plan well - Other than focusing on the WHY, which laid the foundation of putting in 100% of sincerity, I also focus on planning. If you don't know where you are going – you will land elsewhere. I have a "Goals" folder with two personal and two professionals for every calendar year. Every month I take concrete steps to achieve them. Ask yourself, what is your top goal for this year? Do you have it written down?

One tip is to follow the 80-20 rule. Divide your work into 20% of the most important things in life, work, and daily to-do lists. I always complete the 20% during the first half of my day, which lays a solid foundation for the weekly, monthly, and yearly goals. Another tip is to make yourself replaceable to scale up. During my stint at Harvard, my team won one of the largest deals for the organization. It was a proud moment, and we could only do it as a team that planned right and executed flawlessly.

Choose your sacrifice - No success is easy and without challenge. I had to forego not visiting my parents for years, spending countless long days working on deals, and studying over weekends for months simultaneously. It was hard, but these sacrifices laid the foundation for my success.

Honestly, this felt like a breeze when I think about my parents and their sacrifices. I have seen how working hard can truly change lives and generate opportunities. So not giving my 100% to all I do never came to my mind, which helped me navigate my studies and work.

Focus on your strengths- Strengths are our resources for increasing energy and making us feel dynamic.

It's common to lose track of time when focusing on an area where our strengths shine. So, why do we accept the loss of joy? The answer is simple. We live in a "fixing" environment where we focus on weaknesses we need to fix instead of the strengths we need to cultivate more. This mindset causes a feeling of insufficiencies, and negative emotions, like anger, fear and anxiety. As a result, we feel demotivated.

A significant step in transforming from a weakness-focused mindset to a strength-based approach is to double down on your strengths and build a team who can complement your blind spots. Another key step is taking anonymous 360-degree feedback surveys. At times, others see more potential in us than we think we do, and we must listen to what they say.

THE UST DIFFERENCES

Working for a company that helps me challenge my mindset has helped shape my career. I have focused on finding mentors I believe in and co-learning with my team. My manager Arun once told me he is not a big fan of the word mentor, as it puts one person on a pedestal. Instead, he likes the word co-learning, as both parties learn in every interaction with fellow associates. And I try to make those connections to learn more consciously, understand perspectives, get brutal feedback and be my authentic self – be “just right” (remember Goldilocks?) for my values and leadership style.

My advice to you - Don’t be afraid to break the bubble.