"Mita needs to be more strategic. She needs to showcase more of her strategic thinking capabilities. She has yet to develop strategy. Mita needs to be strategic."
Please. Not again. Please don't tell me to be more strategic.
In those early years out of business school. In review after review, this word strategic kept coming up. It was like a SAT word that I had never mastered. It was a word I couldn't use correctly in a sentence. It was a word that I also misspelled on one occasion.
What the heck did strategic mean anyway?
I asked some of my managers. The ones who had given me the feedback. I needed to understand what this feedback around being strategic meant.
"Can you help me understand how I could be more strategic?"
They said. Be more strategic. Think big picture (apparently when you say this phrase, you should also extend your arms up into the air.) Take a step back. Think about the overall goal. Showcase your strategic thinking skills. Make sure everything you do ties back to the overall strategy.
Not very helpful.
I then asked the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them. Carefully designed or planned to serve a particular purpose or advantage. Necessary or important in the initiation, conduct or completion of a strategic plan.
Also, lots of reference to war planning. Strategy was used to provide military forces with an advantage. Relating to a general plan that is created to achieve a goal in war, politics. Required for the conduct of war and not available in adequate quantities domestically strategic materials.
What the heck did military forces have to do with selling body wash?
And finally. I asked my husband. He shrugged his shoulders, downing a Chobani yogurt in one bite.
"Did you ask your boss?"
Again. Not very helpful.
So I tried to observe others in their strategic mastery. In their strategic prowess. Basking in their strategy and strategic ways. Who was strategic and how could I be more like them?
"Before we think about the next step, we need to take a step back and think about the overall strategy."
"The long-term strategy should be the focus of this discussion."
"I like this idea. Ties back to our strategy."
"Yes, we should think strategically about this."
"I believe our strategy should be focused."
These individuals had mastered strategic thinking. They always seemed to have a lot to contribute in meetings. They peppered in the word strategy, strategic and strategic thinking into their monologues.
"Here's the deal," my assigned buddy sat me down one day. In the middle of the afternoon in the dark corner of a cafeteria. "Let me tell you what my buddy once told me."
"Being more strategic. It's about what you choose to work on when and how much time you devote to initiatives."
I was writing everything down. Word for word. Scribbling as fast as I could.
"Being more strategic is about how you work. Send less emails and go talk to people. Go find them in person.
"Being more strategic is about how you show up in meetings. You don't need to sit there writing everything down word for word. Be present, absorb what's being said, and engage. And when you do engage make sure you sound strategic."
How do I sound strategic? Do I start just using the word strategic and I would magically become more strategic? If only it were that easy.
The truth was, that conversation with my buddy that afternoon was another turning point in my career. I wasn't being strategic at all.
I wasn't strategic about the use of my email. I sent way too many emails all the time- checking them off as items on my to do list. I sent emails as a way of getting stuff done, moving it off my to do list. I didn't think about how my colleagues felt about me bombarding their inboxes.
Instead of setting up 30 minutes with individuals to review a list of actions we needed to do together.
I wasn't strategic in my thought process. I would show up to meetings with my boss and cross functionals. Outlining an understanding of problems at hand, and early on never really providing any concrete solutions. I was ready to do whatever they wanted me to do. And not what I thought we should do.
Instead of coming up with three clear options. And putting my name behind one of the options as the recommended solution.
I wasn't strategic about my project list. I worked on whatever people gave me. Sometimes work from those who were not even my boss. Because I was building a brand around getting shit done.
Instead of asking. Should I be working on this and is this driving the overall business? Or raising my hand to work on projects aligned with the business priority and my passions. Or offering to work on an idea I had.
I wasn't strategic on how I approached the work. I just dove right in, doing what I was assigned and not asking too many questions. And doing it as fast as possible- showcasing that bias for action. And kept my head down. And just worked.
Instead of taking a moment. To understand what I was being asked to do and why. To ask clarifying questions instead of spinning my wheels. And creating work that was not value add.
I wasn't using the word strategic when I was indeed being strategic. To reinforce with others that I was being strategic. Because it finally occurred to me what strategic could mean.
That I was being thoughtful about how I use my time and what I asked of others. That I was thinking of, anticipating problems before they occurred. And could then recommend on how we course correct. That I was working on projects and activities that aligned with what we said our business priorities were.
Please. Not again. Please don't tell me to be more strategic.
Feedback is a gift. You can keep it, toss it, maybe even re-gift it. When you repeatedly here the same feedback, from different sources, it's time to sit up listen. Accept the feedback and do the work to course correct.
The work has paid off. Because it has been awhile since anyone has told me I wasn't strategic.
And that's the beginning of the story. Of how I became more strategic. I showed up strategic. I engaged strategically. I spoke strategic. I became strategic. And yes, I even started spelling the word correctly.
"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." -Willa Cather
A logical fallacy called bifurcation (yes, it sounds like a disease) is used to make people believe that they can only choose between two extreme choices: love me or leave me, put up or shut up, etc. In relation to my career and my love life, I was once stricken by this crazy malady.
I spent over a decade in and out of love relationships that undermined my career and drained my creative energy along with my finances. The key problem was that I was convinced that I had two options: be a kickass, and powerful professional who scares off any prospective mate or surrender to that deep and profound love such that my ambitions blow away in the wind. For years, my psyche ping-ponged between these two choices like that was the only game in town. But why?
Turns out we women are often programmed into thinking that we can't have love (at least that good, juicy heated kind) and any sort of real career. This is not actually that surprising given the troubled history that America has with women in the workplace. Post WWII, women were supposed to quit their jobs and scurry back home and leave the careers for the returning men. And if you think we've come a long way from making women feel they don't belong in the workplace, consider Alisha Coleman. In 2016, she was fired because her period leaked onto a chair!
But try to keep a good woman down, and well, you can't (Alisha sued her former employer). Given enough information we will always find a way to overcome our situation. As we teach in my practice, Lotus Lantern Healing Arts, we are all our own gurus. The light in the lotus just offers a way to illuminate your path.
So what was I missing so many years ago when I kept struggling between two suboptimal choices? The answer is the understanding that if I wanted to have it all, I had to start living right now as if I could. For me to be with someone who supported me having a fantastic career, I had to believe that that was actually one of my choices and start living that way.
Of course that is easier said than done (like most life lessons). So once I made that realization, here are the three key changes I made (and no they didn't happen all at once):
First, I stopped apologizing. Why the hell do women always feel the need to apologize for everything! (Sorry for swearing! Jk.) In particular, why do we have to feel bad about time away from the homefront? Remember Don Draper stopping off at the bar before heading home? I took a Madman lesson from him and stopped apologizing for my free time and let go of my usual rush to get back. Instead I focused on enjoying the transition, which was often needed to release the stress of work. Whether I was slow-driving listening to my jams and singing at the top of my lungs or stopping off for a pedicure, a little ritual went a long way to making me feel like a real human when I walked through the door.
Second, I let go of perfection in order to be present. I stopped stressing over a work deadline and instead rescheduled it to tend to my love life or postponed a romantic dinner because a juicy work opportunity appeared. In this way, I did not force an unnatural choice or one I did not want but really paid attention to what felt right. Instead of feeling subpar in each realm, I end up getting the most out of my time in both places.
Third (and perhaps most significantly) I began to welcome and expect encouragement from the most significant person in my life. I made it clear to my partner that I wanted insight and not criticism. And since I knew I needed understanding and not saving, I said, "Please help me look at my career woes from a different angle instead of offering me advice." Ultimately, I only accepted partners that truly supported my dreams and didn't let me play small.
Today, some of the most exquisite pleasure I feel comes simply from my partner witnessing me. Having a cohort who really appreciates my struggles, helps me integrate work and life, and enjoys the wins together can be mind-blowing. Likewise, when the shit hits the fan (again, not sorry!), it's really important to have a partner that can hold space for you and help you remember those wins.
It's a constant battle. Our culture still perpetuates the myth by pitting love and career against each other (ever see Fatal Attraction?). Men don't always get this message, but then we don't need to wait for them to get it. All we have to do it start living right now in the way we truly deserve and bring others along with us. When my friends see me and my partner together separately killing it in the career department and fiercely loving each other they say, "Your relationship gives me hope."