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Changing the Game Board:
Unorthodox Moves for Talented Women


Author: Marybeth Tahar
Contributed by: Interaction Associates, Inc.


Wisdom is having things right in your life - And knowing why.
If you do not have things right in your life - You will be overwhelmed:
You may be heroic, but you will not be wise.
If you have things right in your life - But do not know why,
You are just lucky, and you will not move
In the little ways that encourage good fortune.

William Stafford


What does it mean to have things “right in our lives”? How can we, as women, advance to the top in the workplace, while honoring our authentic visions and voices?

While it is heady and exciting to have so many choices available to us, there is pain associated with having so many choices, too. You know the painful parts: over-commitment, lack of boundaries, little sleep, weekends an abyss of soccer games, cleaning house, spreadsheets, project plans, while trying to fit in a quick trip to the gym.

Everyone on the fast track makes tremendous personal sacrifices, but men receive far greater professional rewards for their efforts than women. Many experts theorize that the discrepancy occurs because work environments place more value on the leadership qualities typically attributed to men than on those associated with women.

Some women will elect to participate in the scramble for the corner office; others will strike out on their own and build an organization from a blank slate. Women who don’t want to play the game by the current rules will challenge the traditional assumptions about leadership and redesign the game board.

Women’s preference for relationships over competition — an asset that has traditionally been seen as a liability — uniquely qualifies them to act as agents of change. To turn visions of success into action, women must change the game board using these three key competencies: collaborative skills, strategic thinking, and personal mastery.

The Case for Change

A recent article in Fast Company asked the question, “Where are the Women? Not in the Corner Office, Even after all these Years. Not Now, Maybe Not Ever.” (1) The article went on to cite some sobering statistics about the number of women holding the top jobs in major companies and the dim prospects of getting there in the first place.

Most women are familiar with the pattern. Across the professions — in business, law, medicine, academia, and elsewhere — the early-career hazing rituals are daunting. Working 60- to 70-hour weeks. Living out of suitcases while traveling across time zones. Juggling the demands of jobs and relationships. Living apart from significant others for extended periods of time. Personal life? A mirage.

In a recent book, Midlife Crisis at 30, by Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin, the authors noted that “The lives that women are living feel out of sync with the lives they thought they’d be living. Some women feel like their personal and professional lives are on a collision course.” (2)

Brenda Barnes, who famously walked away from the top job opportunity at PepsiCo, puts it this way: “When you talk about those big jobs, those CEO jobs, you just have to give them your life. You can’t alter them to make them accommodate women any better than men. It’s just the way it is.”

While both men and women in the professional fast lane face the challenge Barnes describes, there is one major difference: the payoff at the end of the rainbow. A study conducted in 2003 by Catalyst, the nonprofit research and advisory organization working to advance women in business, shows that women make up a mere 16% of corporate officers. (This is on par with the number of women who are partners in law firms, also 16%, despite the fact that women accounted for 50% of the students enrolled in top law schools in 2000.) Optimistic projections expect this number to increase to around 20% over the next 15 to 20 years. So while the path to success may be equally arduous for men and women, the payoff for women is not nearly so promising.

Theories of the Case

One school of thought on the reason the outcomes of the executive marathon are so lopsided focuses on the corporation as an arena of competition made of, by, and for men. Business culture is modeled on war, fashioned around machismo assumptions of how a company must function. Leaders are charismatic figures, standing alone, above the fray, with nerves of steel and raw courage. They command respect, inspire, shape, and direct their followers. In this scenario, leading a company is a man’s game that few men, let alone women, are up to playing. And the role of women? Those who can’t out-macho the men need not apply.

A second theory hypothesizes that women are simply not as competitive as men and therefore not prepared to make the sacrifices it takes to make it to the top. More often than not, the argument goes, women nearing the top usually conclude that the game isn’t worth the trophy. They drop out of the race. In what’s often dubbed the “little black dress” decision, women opt for the heat in their own kitchens, soccer games with the kids, and cocktail parties in support of their husband’s (or partner’s) career.

Mary Lou Quinlan, who stepped down as the CEO of ad agency N.W. Ayer, aptly explains a third theory: “The reason a lot of women are not shooting for the corner office is that they’ve seen it up close and it’s not a pretty scene. It’s not about talent, dedication, experience, or the ability to take the heat. Women simply say, ‘I just don’t like that kitchen.’” (3)

Reality is complex, and all three theories capture a good slice of it. But even if you assume, for the sake of argument, that none of these explanations is accurate, the data are still incontrovertible: women face four-to-one odds of making it to the corner office today and into the foreseeable future.

Three Choices for Women of Talent

Women who accept those data as reality have a few choices. First, they can ignore the data, jump on the fast track, and assume they’ll beat the odds. After all, 16% of their peers have already succeeded in doing so, and women are nothing if not optimistic and tenacious.

Other women may opt for the second choice: refusing to play the odds from the get-go and pioneering their own venture alone. Oprah and Mrs. Fields come to mind. This path has its attractions and its challenges. The third, and perhaps most viable, choice for women is to join the game but change the board on which it’s played.

Macko and Rubin interviewed more than 100 women and came to a number of conclusions. They saw that, rather than advocating for wholesale changes such as flexible workweeks, more telecommuting, institutionalized leaves of absence, women continued to struggle by themselves, sitting in self doubt about why they weren’t even better at multi-tasking. Macko said, “This is such a lucky generation of women. We grew up in such a privileged time.

We were able to be president of the student council, captains of our soccer teams, and more. But, we don’t think to ever question corporate or political systems. We question ourselves.”

The game change is for us to stop questioning ourselves and accept the challenges of changing the game board. Women can leverage their unique capabilities to create a corporate culture based on servant leadership, moral purpose, and collaboration. This is a vision of business with an ethical compass, with not just one but multiple bottom lines accountable to all the interests of all the stakeholders, including women themselves.

To backtrack slightly, “unique capabilities” refer to those that have been clearly and consistently identified in gender differences research. (4) (5) They include a preference for cooperation over competition in play, the choice of relationships over individual conquests, and the willingness to be team players over claiming sole credit for success.

There are exceptions to these general attributes, and women can choose to override “natural” tendencies. Indeed, women are often encouraged to see these assets as liabilities, and to be as competitive, individualistic, and egocentric as the most macho man. The business section of any newspaper is full of famous (or, more accurately, infamous) examples of women who have chosen this route.

But, if we are to be authentic, to be true to ourselves, we cannot accept the notion that our only choice is to jump on the track and play by the rules as currently constructed. What have been the limitations of this choice? We’ve all worked too hard, and come too far, to settle for such an untenable prospect. So if the alternative to playing by the current rules or establishing new rules altogether is to change the game board, the question, of course, is “how?”

A Framework for Action

Any student of strategy knows it’s always a sound idea to leverage your competitive advantage. If you use what Charles Handy refers to as “up-side-down thinking,” women’s competitive advantage is quickly apparent: their natural strong suit is their capacity for building relationships and fostering collaboration. 6 Far from being a liability, this leadership quality flows from a distinct competency — not an innate drive to be the isolated genius at the center of command.

Women’s visions of success typically encompass not only professional achievement, but also the service they provide to society and the lives they’ve improved. It is our experience that a particular combination of skills powerfully equips women (and men) leaders for multi-dimensional success in the increasingly competitive global environment (See Figure 1). If developed fully, these three domains can ensure the transition from the workplace we now live in to the one we want to create.


Figure 1. The Three Domains.

A recent and heartening convergence of theory and practice indicates that the vision of a new workplace is not simply some utopian ideal. (7)  It does, however, insist that the vision is three-dimensional: women cannot just “think” their way out of the maze together. It will require application of collaborative skills and a passionate commitment as well as the willingness to look within and self-correct.

Collaborative Mindset and Skills

There is a particular mindset required for leaders to allow collaboration to flourish in the workplace. That mindset is built on several key assumptions:

  • Assume that leaders don’t need to be heroic; they don’t need to have all the answers, or make hard problems simple and painless for everyone else in father-knows-best fashion. Instead, leaders must model an adaptive style that Ron Heifitz, the authority on this topic, defines as one “that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions — problems that require us to learn new ways.”  (8)

  • Assume that information can be stored in databases but knowledge can only reside in people, and it can only add value when shared in a social context. It follows that knowledge-creation is dependent on the quality of relationships and commitment in an organization.

  • Assume that the most valuable knowledge is not explicit or codified, but tacit and discovered in a context that respects the complexities of learning, expression, judgment, and commitment.

  • Assume the best about human motives and expect the same from colleagues and others who look to you for leadership.

  • Assume an asset-based mindset instead of a deficit-based mindset.

Picture the glass half full and build on what’s there instead of imagining what’s missing, and assigning blame for its absence. (9)  The core of this mindset is optimism, hope, and possibility.

As Gandhi suggested, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. The only way is your footsteps. There is a particular set of skills to be practiced to enable collaboration to grab a secure footing in the workplace.

We recommend practicing the Seven Practices of a Facilitative Leader , which form the foundation of our leadership development workshop, Facilitative Leadership . Figure 2 shows the Seven Practices in brief.


Figure 2. Seven Practices of a Facilitative Leader

What are the threshold skills for collaborative leadership? We believe the following six skills are important to master.

  • Reflective listening and feedback — the basis of all relationships.

  • Building alignment on direction and vision.

  • Facilitating agreements in high stakes conversations.

  • Coaching, mentoring and bringing out the best.

  • Celebrating success and inspiring hope in the face of challenges.

It is often assumed that leaders are born, not made -- that they don’t need skills. While some certainly have greater talent than others, anyone willing to put in the work can become competent in these skill sets. But they’re not enough. Even the most skillful leader will never enroll, inspire or motivate others unless they tap into their own motivation and inspiration.

Strategic Thinking

If you are going to change the game board, it is necessary to tool up your ability to take in complex, ambiguous data and make sound, shared decisions. As business increases exponentially in speed (cycle time, information dispersion) and complexity (globalization, complex organizational structures, and interdependencies), strategic thinking skills are increasingly essential for successful leadership.

Lack of strategic thinking leads to a number of leadership pitfalls.

  • Poor choices - bad decisions (that could have been avoided)
    Great losses of money, energy, morale, market

  • Churn --- individuals, teams and organizations don’t make choices or make choices that don’t stick.

  • Slow reaction time - don’t make a timely choice or don’t figure out that you have made a poor choice for a long time

  • Greatly increased decision making cycle time.

If you find yourself in increasingly frustrating and confusing situations, reach out and tool up your thinking skills. Figure 3 illustrates the top nine strategic thinking skills for leaders at all levels.

Figure 3

Personal Mastery

Current business literature points to the increasing importance of leaders to  develop personal mastery. Some call this: “self awareness”, “emotional intelligence”, “leadership mastery”, or “personal growth.” We know that employees are motivated to follow leaders who understand the impact of their behavior and are willing to change it.

We believe that when their decisions produce unintended results, successful leaders draw upon personal awareness, courage, and skill to engage in behavior transformation. This then fosters:

  • more accurate and productive problem-solving, more tolerance for ambiguity, more capacity to innovate

  • more sophisticated collaborative abilities

  • greater abilities to see and recognize the value of others in relationship to themselves and the organizational system they work in

  • more mature emotional well-being.

We define personal mastery as the art and practice of identifying internal cognitive and emotional structures that govern our actions so that we can change the meanings we make of a particular situation, change our behavior and improve results.

Successful women leaders:

  • explore existing beliefs and assumptions and reframe them in the face of new information.

  • embrace emerging innovation and creativity; are open to shifting underlying beliefs, certainties, paradigms in order to see new possibilities.

  • sustain direction and focus in the face of change.

  • see failures as opportunities to grow, rather than being self-critics who can inhibit their own growth.

  • accept feedback more readily in difficult situations.

  • take bold steps that appear to be paradoxical to an existing system; hold the tensions of opposites; balance many diverse perspectives.

  • don’t dwell upon thinking about unimportant details and drama, do not get pulled into unimportant details and drama.

  • communicate a clear sense of who they are and what they care about at a deep level.

  • imagine that others have a different and equally valuable experience of what is so that others make different meaning of what they experience and that that meaning is not threatening, wrong, or limiting just because it’s different than yours.

  • make decisions based on principles and values in addition to critical standard business metrics.

  • take moral leadership without moral judgment.

  • seek personal growth opportunities and tend to leave if they are not given those opportunities.

Moving Forward - with a Bigger Purpose

In our bias toward intellectual and competency-based solutions, we often neglect the spiritual/passionate side. But this would be a big mistake, since we are uniquely spiritual beings.

What passion drives our leadership? What kinds of beliefs, moral convictions, or values inform our leadership practices? Let’s look at two ways we can begin to move forward with purpose.

I. Clarify our personal values which make it Job #1 to practice what we preach.

  • Set high standards of performance for ourselves and our organizations in all areas of performance that matter. Hold everyone accountable for living up to them.

  • Close the integrity gap and show others how to practice the discipline of taking responsibility for breakdowns (with courage, and without rationalizations), reaffirming right intention and moving on.

  • Accept that an employment contract is a sacred covenant and that we owe people more than a paycheck. We owe people a place to grow as individuals — what we want for ourselves and our children — to learn how to contribute and feel a sense of self-worth as human beings who go home to a family at night and live in a community and act as citizens of a democracy as full-fledged members.

II. Clarify our moral purpose and “brand it” as a hallmark of our leadership.

  • Must be larger than self interest.

  • Cannot be in pursuit of money or power.

  • Does not have to be Mother Theresa (pure altruism), but must be values-driven and authentic.


  • As women are facing a global marketplace we face some difficult choices, ones calling for unusual courage and creativity.

  • If we don’t want to play the game as given, we need to challenge the traditional assumptions about leadership and redesign the game board.

  • As women, we are uniquely qualified to do this in an area that heretofore has been seen as a liability: our preference for relationships over competition.

  • This calls for a new kind of leverage, some outside-the-box thinking, involving not just bottom-line success (we will clearly have to deliver on that) but radical restructuring relying on the power that comes from leveraging three key dimensions: collaborative mindset and skills, strategic thinking, and personal mastery.

  • We detailed what the content of these dimensions needs to be and suggested a strategy for launching this new leadership direction, whether in reshaping our current leadership roles, as criteria for accepting a new one, or for striking out on our own and building an organization from tabula rasa (a blank slate).

Leadership in Action

Finally, I think I would be remiss if I did not say something about what it really takes to be effective on change of this magnitude. It is one thing to aspire to please and play by the rules. It is another thing altogether to aspire to “shake things up” and be a change agent. The ultimate leverage is our own resolve, our own internal wisdom, our own truth. And that calls for a discipline, indeed a Credo of Self Leadership.

After decades of doing this work, I can state with considerable confidence these truisms:

  • All change is self-change; the most difficult challenge is changing the (socialized) habit of doubting our own truth — our authentic voice. There’s no painless, tidy way to do this. After their research, Macko and Rubin believe that women can have it all, but only after they’ve prioritized and decided what “having enough” means. We need to block out the cultural noise that tells us what we should do and discover what we WANT to do. There is story after story of women have led the path in throwing out the “career stopwatch” and letting their lives play out according to their own inner map.

  • All change involves risk, ridicule and a discipline of personal mastery (see Goleman et. al., 2000). There’s no free lunch. Embrace risk and get used to making decisions out of courage and commitment, not out of fear, anxiety, or panic. Commit to your own development and renewal. Make it a point to consistently increase your ability with collaborative skill, strategic thinking and personal mastery.

Learn and model the Seven Practices of Facilitative Leadership.

Develop your Strategic Leadership Skills.

  • The quality and depth of our leadership is a reflection of the relationships we have with our colleagues and the esteem we accord ourselves and others.

  • The legacy we leave is the life we led and how we practiced our values. People learn who you are from what you do, not from what you say. So do what you say you will do.

  • Take control of your own life and design it consistent with your own values and purpose. Do not play victim to external forces; select your priorities and take responsibility for the trade-offs that go with them. There’s no such thing as “having it all”.

  • Establish the support system you need to live the life you’ve chosen.  Appoint your own personal board of directors: friends with the wisdom, insight and character to tell you the truth (whether you like it or not) and have your best interests at heart.

I leave you with a poem by Mary Oliver.

The Journey

One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice -- though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles.

"Mend my life!" each voice cried.

But you didn't stop. You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations, though their melancholy was terrible.

It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones.

But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do -- determined to save the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver

About the Author:

Marybeth Tahar is Chair of the Board and a senior Consultant for Interaction Associates, Inc. She designs and implements training, consulting, and facilitation projects that support large-scale collaborative change initiatives. Marybeth has worked in the organizational development field for more than 20 years.

Since joining Interaction Associates in 1986, Ms. Tahar has facilitated strategic planning sessions for many Fortune 500 companies, and has developed and delivered leadership development initiatives to thousands of individuals. Her primary client groups are executives, middle managers, intact work teams, leadership councils, and planning committees.

Prior to joining Interaction Associates, Ms. Tahar worked for Intel Corporation as a Production Supervisor and Manager of Management Development.

Interaction Associates, Inc.

Interaction Associates has more than 30 years’ experience developing people in the areas of process consulting, leadership and teamwork, helping organizations maximize their strategic advantage and generate sustained business results. Those who participate in our development programs emerge with an extraordinary set of practical models, tools and skills that significantly increase their probability of success.


1 Linda Tischler. “Where are the Women? Not in the Corner Office, Even after all These Years. Not Now, Maybe Not Ever.” Fast Company, Feb. 2004 issue.

2 Macko and Rubin, Midlife Crisis at 30. Rodale Books, 2004.

3 Linda Tischler, “Where are the Women? Not in the Corner Office, Even after all These Years. Not Now, Maybe Not Ever.” Fast Company, Feb. 2004 issue.

4 Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

5 Wheatley, Margaret . “Why Work is a Spiritual Endeavor.” Online conference, March 24, 2003.

6 Handy, Charles. Age of Unreason. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1990.

7 Wheatley, Margaret . “Why Work is a Spiritual Endeavor.” Online conference, March 24, 2003.

8 Heifitz, Ronald A. and Linsky,Marty, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

9 David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, Collaborating for Change: Appreciative Inquiry, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2000.

10 Daniel Goleman,Working with Emotional Intelligence, New York: Bantham Books, 1998.


Hesselbein, F., Goldsmith, M., Becker, R. The Leader of the Future. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Quinn, R.E. Change the World: How Ordinary People Can Accomplish Extraordinary Results. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Fullan, M. Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

De Gues, A. The Living Company. Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1997.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.

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