Becoming Aunt Polly

Speech by Jane Perdue, CEO, The Braithwaite Innovation Group
Charleston Regional Business Journal
Influential Women in Business Luncheon
July 12, 2012

If you had asked me about my life and career ten years ago, I would have told you I was living my career dreams.

After 15 years as a vice president in Fortune 100 telecommunication companies, I had what I called my charm bracelet of success: the corner office, my own personal assistant, managing a $25 million budget, a department with 150 great people in it, a great income, and all the designer handbags I wanted.

The telecommunications industry was built on mergers and acquisitions, and my employer had been purchased a few months earlier by a scrappy little firm on its way to greatness.

As he typically did, Scott, my post-merger boss (and not his real name!), came into my office, sat down, grabbed the rake to my desktop sand garden, and began talking.

“Phil was in town last night. I had dinner with him.” Phil was the CEO of the eighty-billion dollar corporation that had acquired us.

“He wanted to know more about you and a few others on the team.”

“So what did you tell him?”

“I told him you were Aunt Polly.”

“What does that mean?”  You can only imagine what was going on in my head!

 “I told him you were a soft, round woman who everyone feels they can talk to and learn from.

You know, it’s like you’re both sitting down in rocking chairs on a porch and people pour their heart out to you. You get them all inspired and renewed.

I told him you were a big woman with big ideas and a big heart, in short, Aunt Polly.”

Scott went on to say he had described Lisa, the other woman on the senior leadership team, as a “butterfly” because she moved fast and was colorful.

I confess to not hearing much else after “butterfly” because a nuclear bomb of fury and disbelief had just gone off in my head.

I expected Scott to have told Phil about our rock solid performance metrics, 60-plus hour work weeks, or impossible assignments consistently delivered ahead of schedule and below budget, like the $450 million call center project Lisa and I had just completed.

Instead he described us by our appearance and attributes.

These kinds of comments weren’t new to me in my career. Normally I brushed them off and moved on.

I got the soft and round part of what he said, of course.

But for some reason I couldn’t figure out, the rest of Scott’s words were Velcro’d into my mind…and not in a good way.

In a business world where you’re only as good as your last set of numbers, I felt compelled to prove my abilities, to show the folks back east what I could deliver besides “rocking chair” conversations and inspiration, two results I’d never seen on any business scorecard.

Little did I know then that this discussion was going to change the direction of my career.

18 months after Aunt Polly entered my life, I was selected to participate in a prestigious national year-long leadership program for female telecommunication executives. In the program we would learn  increase our business prowess and create our vision of where we wanted our career to go.

Figuring out where I wanted my career to go was a no-brainer at the beginning of that year. I wanted to become an executive vice president at an even bigger company, maybe an international one. I wanted to handle bigger budgets, projects and departments.

But there was something about that Aunt Polly image of helping others grow that kept nipping at the corners of my consciousness as I thought about my future.

That year was a mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual roller coaster ride for me I as pondered success, power, my place in the business world, and why Scott’s assessment continued to provoke me.

I laughed. Cried. Scribbled notes in a red leather journal. Did research.

I made lists. Talked to friends and business women.  Read books and poetry, listened to music. Worked with a nutritionist, personal trainer, and executive coach.

I challenged myself, my boss and his boss.

I bought purses.

It was a sunny spring day in Boston, the last week of the leadership program. Our assignment for the afternoon was to list what we had learned during the year and what we were doing to do with that knowledge.

At the end of the day, my list wasn’t about how I was going to get that next big job assignment.

My list had three things on it:

1)   Think BIG

2)   Get power, and

3)   Be the water

Three leading yourself and others lessons that are the focal point of the second act of my life.

Lessons that led me to leave corporate America, move, start a new business, and now partner with the Center for Women to create their new Women’s Leadership Institute.

Let me share those lessons with you.

Aunt Polly Lesson #1:  Think BIG

        Throughout most of my life, parents, teachers and then bosses rewarded me for having the correct, logical answer.

        Having the single right answer does bring focus.

It helps make sense in a chaotic world where people shy away from ambiguity. (I hesitate to say shades of gray given all the publicity a certain trilogy of books has received lately.)

People box themselves in with either/or thinking – believing it’s either this way OR that way.

        Over the years, I’d adopted the prevailing mindset of defining leadership as taking charge – delegating, deciding, problem-solving, driving results – because that’s how my job performance had been evaluated and rewarded. It’s what I knew best.

        So that’s how I expected Scott to describe me and Lisa when Phil asked about us.

        Instead, Scott described me with taking care imagery – collaboration, inspiration, and helping people build resilience and flexibility.

        Later on, I asked Scott why he hadn’t talked about the call center project when describing us to the CEO.

His response was enlightening:  those results were expected, were a given, so why highlight them.

He said he talked about the ability to inspire because it was something he valued.


        I’d been thinking small. Thinking that it’s either take care or take charge.  When the broader view is believing and knowing you can do both.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that either/or thinking is wrong. It’s not. It has a very rightful place in solving problems that have a singular solution, things like:

  • Should we promote Angela or not?
  • Do we buy the new telephone system this year or wait until next?

Yet many things we face in life, love and leadership don’t lend themselves to either/or thinking.

Instead we have to think BIG – to think both/and because many times there’s more than one right answer or way…like taking care AND taking charge.

Gary Hamel, described by the Wall Street Journal as the world’s most influential business thinker, has this to say about thinking BIG:

“Organizational success in the years ahead will hinge on the ability of employees at all levels to manage seemingly irreconcilable trade-offs – between short-term earnings and long-term growth, competition and collaboration, structure and emergence, discipline and freedom, and individual and team success.”

        The world is incredibly complex and multi-faceted as we deal with people with different backgrounds, ideologies, cultures, races, religions,  professions, and of multiple generations.

This means we have to think BIG and do things like:

  • Know when to speak with candor and when to use diplomacy
  • Know how to achieve equilibrium between stability and stimulating change
  • Celebrate similarities and differences

Being an influential leader of ourselves and others requires envisioning possibility.

Which is seeing there’s either/or AND both/and options available to us.

BIG thinking allows us to do just that.

Now on to Aunt Polly Lesson #2: Get Power

        Like love, power is one of those words rarely spoken in the workplace.

        As I looked back over my career and education, I realized no one had ever taught me about power – what it was or how to use it effectively.

        No college class curriculum or leadership workshop addressed it. Bosses didn’t bring it up in performance reviews or staff meetings.

        And, if power ever was discussed, it happened in hushed tones after meetings or in the hallway following a glaring example of power gone wrong.

Power gets a bad rap from both genders, in the press and in the media.

        It’s misunderstood or used improperly. Some say it corrupts. Others believe it to be malicious or narcissistic.

        Rosabeth Moss Kanter, author and Harvard business professor says power is America’s last dirty word.

        So, as with many things that exist in the shadows, incorrect assumptions and myths loom large. Italian philosopher Umberto Galimberti says:

        “…myths are ideas that own and govern us by means that are not logical but psychological and therefore are rooted in the depths of our soul. Myths prevent us from deeply understanding the world…we must therefore put our myths under scrutiny.”

        Scott’s description was unsettling because I truly didn’t get power then. To my way of thinking, he made me sound weak and powerless.

        Leaders didn’t sit in rocking chairs.

        Today I know differently.

Power is more than knowing your place or having power over someone or something.  It’s power with and power to.

        I want to share two definitions of power.

Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, describes power as a person’s “present means to obtain some future apparent good.”

        Political theorist Hanna Pitkin offers another compelling definition:  “…power is a something — anything — which makes or renders somebody able to do, capable of doing something. Power is capacity, potential, ability, or wherewithal.”

Power in and of itself is neutral. It’s only in how one chooses to use power that it becomes positive or negative.

Power is readily available to us from a multitude of sources – one’s job, what information and expertise you have, your connections, your charisma and may other sources.

We just have to put aside the bad stereotypes and our fears, and decide to step into our power and use it for the collective good.

Being personally and positively powerful can move mountains and make a positive difference.

And it doesn’t matter what kind of chair you sit in.

And for now the last Aunt Polly Lesson: Be the water

I recently participated in a webinar about ebooks.

About halfway through the session, the facilitator interrupted the teaching to ask us a series of simple questions:

  • Are you participating in a webinar to learn about ebooks?
  • Did Joan help you get enrolled?
  • Is today Tuesday?

The correct response to each question was “Yes.”

He then went on to ask:

  • Are you going to sign-up for my 6-week course on ebooks that’s available to you today for only $597?

Psychology tells us that once people are used to saying “yes” that they’ll be more likely to be influenced to say yes when you ask them to do or buy something.

This is hard selling at its best, or perhaps its worst, depending on your point of view.

In the world of work, we think in terms of hard and soft skills.

Hard skills are technical or administrative abilities and knowledge related to an organization’s core business.  Things like computer protocols, financial procedures and closing a sale. These skills are typically easy to observe, quantify and measure.

The rules for hard skills typically remain the same regardless of where you work and can be learned in school and from books.

“Soft skills deal with how people relate to each other: listening, engaging in dialogue, giving feedback, cooperating as a team member, solving problems, resolving conflict, encouraging and motivating.”  Scott described me by my soft skills.

Soft skills are self-management and people skills where the rules may change depending on the company culture and people you work with. They’re usually learned by trial and error.

And while they are really the hard stuff in my view, these skills are typically under-valued.

Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, wrote:

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”

“Studies of close to 500 organizations worldwide indicate that people who score highest on emotional intelligence rise to the top of corporations because among other things, these individuals possess more confidence than other people.

One of the first things I did in my second act of life was to partner with Dr. Anne Perschel, a psychologist in Boston, to study executive women in business and their relationship with power.

81% of our study participants were either members of the most senior leadership team in their organization or worked at the director level and up within their company. Some earned more than a half million dollars a year.

One area Anne and I studied was understanding what internal and/or external barriers to achieving power held these executives back.

52% told us that it was a lack of confidence that held them back.

Which was surprising and yet not surprising at the same time.

In a world where we chase perfection, the ideal seems to be the rock.

Steady. Dependable. Strong. Unchanging.

It’s easy to start thinking you don’t measure up and to let your inner critic take over, telling you you’re not smart enough, not thin enough, not good enough, and on and on.

That’s when we have think like the water rather than the rock.

Quit doubting our abilities. Stop holding ourselves back because we think we don’t measure up to some unobtainable goal. Believe that we bring value and can get the job done.

Because confidence is the best accessory a woman or a man can wear.

Scott and Aunt Polly gave me a gift. One that took me awhile to unwrap and appreciate.  One that I want to share with leaders everywhere and hope that they, too, in turn, will share with others.

Remember to think BIG, get power and be the water.


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One Response to “Becoming Aunt Polly”

  1. Tori Walters Says:

    Excellent! Valuable advice for anyone, especially me right now. Thank you.

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