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The 60 second phonecall which turned me into a great leader

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I never work on 23rd July; it's a date I book off every year without fail, and I'd like to share with the everywomanNetwork the reason why.

It was a typical day of back-to-back meetings at the office, where I oversaw a team of 60 UK-based project managers for a global corporation. But before the day started I needed to make a personal phone call.

As I slipped into a private room I chastised myself for not having taken the day off.

 

This call was going to be difficult; I should have given myself time at home to recover.

I trembled as I dialled the number, feeling sick to my stomach. I was about to call the fertility clinic to inform them that the latest round of IVF had been a failure; the test I did that morning showing beyond all doubt that I am not pregnant.

The call was over in less than a minute. A cursory apology, a "call us in three months for another try", all delivered with the familiar sound of a kettle boiling in the background. Clinical, matter-of-fact, devastating.

I could have fled the room in tears, I could have made my excuses and gone home. But I had one hour until a day of meetings kicked off, and I'm not someone who cancels a meeting at the last minute. And so I used what time I had and went into business mode; when a project fails I complete a review, analyse what went wrong and figure out how to avoid it going wrong next time. So that's what I did.

Fifteen minutes later the wall was covered in post-it notes: an attempt at a process map of the entire IVF cycle complete with my key stakeholders (my husband and I, family, friends, work colleagues in whom I'd confided - a necessity given that I was having to manage a diary of meetings, dozens of critical projects and the usual two hour roundtrip between home and work, alongside emotionally exhausting trips to the clinic and painful daily injections - not to mention entire teams of doctors and nurses, some of whose names I didn't even know).

I mapped out a complete overview of the project from anxious start to devastating finish, a roller-coaster of emotions in between. And then I had it. What had gone wrong - what had left me in this state of emotional turmoil - was not simply that I wasn't pregnant, but the way I'd behaved throughout the process.

 

And there was one profound learning of which my wall of post-it notes suddenly gave me a deep understanding: I needed to chill out.

The thing with IVF - as is often the case with business - is that you simply cannot process manage every aspect. There are too many variables, stakeholders and unknowns; it's trial and error, there is no long term plan, only a 'wait and see'. That's why I'd found it  so frustrating; at each appointment I'd wanted to know what happens next; whereas the nurses could only tell me what was happening now. So there it was, in a nutshell. I needed to chill out.

 

This realisation was as simplistic to me as it was profound.

Relinquishing control over IVF wouldn't be easy, but I had to accept that I had no influence over the outcome - no amount of brazil nuts, abstinence from caffeine or alcohol or hot baths was going to change that in reality.

I'd have to wait three months before I could put my 'chill out' plan into action, but in the meantime I began to wonder - what does this new understanding I have about my approach to projects mean for my work? If I was going to let these doctors and nurses - the experts in their field, doing what they did for me every day of their lives for hundreds of other women, and in between boiling kettles and make tea just like the rest of us - just get on with it, shouldn't I be doing the same for my direct reports, my team of experts in their own fields - all great, hardworking managers with their own struggles, trials and tribulations? After all, my success at work wasn't due to the fact I could manage every aspect of a project myself, but that I had amazing experts who, together, could achieve remarkable things.

And so, once I'd picked myself up, I began to delegate more, to give my team the freedom to do their jobs, to make mistakes, to learn and to grow. Very quickly they began to come to me for support rather than approval, to fight their own battles, tackle their objectives more exposed and vulnerable but all the more empowered for it.

It had taken the "my test was negative" call for me to realise that I needed to let go in order to stop being a manager and to emerge as a strong leader. In reality it could just as easily have been a fleeting thought or a throwaway comment, and so I have also learned that I must always listen to that internal voice. What that voice is saying could lead to a pivotal career moment.

 

I had stopped working at a million miles an hour, stopped trying to do everything myself, and the approach was working.

The 'satisfaction' score my team achieved soon after was not only way ahead of the company average but way up on the scores I'd been achieving consistently as a manager for the duration of my time at the company. Chilling out had worked.

And so to my original point, there are three reasons really why I take off 23rd July every year. One is to reflect on that powerful lesson I learned in that meeting room on that awful morning. The other is that the following year, exactly 12 months later to the day, the most amazing thing happened: I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, whose birthday must be honoured and celebrated. The third reason is much simpler - I take off the 23rd July to have a lie in, take breakfast in bed - and simply chill out!

 

The everywomanIncognito series allows women to discuss personal aspects of their career development in complete anonymity. We welcome submissions from everywomanNetwork members on a range of topics. Get in touch if you'd like to find out more about Incognito or would like to suggest a story.