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Men As True Partners

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

In my 52 years of work experience, I have seen progress with women joining the workforce in bigger numbers and being given promotions and opportunities to advance. We still struggle to be paid fairly and we often must work harder to contribute our best thinking and our best work. I often refer to women as having ‘head winds.’ Think about it. When an airplane is flying with head winds, it requires more time to reach its destination and uses more fuel to get there. This is in contrast to tail winds, where you get there faster and use less fuel to arrive. All of us experience turbulence throughout our professional journey. If you choose to adopt the principle of Men as True Partners, we can all benefit from more tail winds and achieve more together!

As many of you reading this know, I have been designing, developing, and delivering leadership programs (as an entrepreneur) for almost twenty-five years. My signature programs are focused on supporting women. My goal is to help women define success on their own terms and to provide tools to help them achieve their best authentic lives. It has been a very fulfilling journey. And in those twenty-five years, there are some themes that have emerged.

· Within the first 24 to 48 hours of a longer-term program, a woman inevitably asks, “When are men going to have a program that teaches them about these gender differences?”

· Women begin to appreciate that learning about gender differences enables them to be successful because they now “know better to do better” and it is confidence building and empowering.

· Women learn that they are not alone and that they are not crazy. They laughingly say, “if it has a name – e.g. impostor phenomenon, accumulation of disadvantage, disclaimers – it must be a real thing.

· Women have learned that they are stronger together.

These are wonderful themes. It makes me smile as I write this as I am reminded of those “a-ha” moments that have occurred over the years. In this Insights paper, I want to dive a little deeper on that first bullet about men learning about gender differences.

Back around 2003, I brought together a group of men that I would describe as enlightened men. I knew them and experienced them as good men who tried to live a good life and who strove to be good leaders. I shared with them my work, specifically, the Power of Self Program purpose, objectives, and curriculum. I was immensely disappointed with their reactions and responses. In summary, they questioned (1) the need for such a program, and (2) the importance of prioritizing such a program. I walked away from those meetings with a resolve to figure out how to present the need for understanding gender differences as a business advantage.

Now, fast forward to five years later. I took a different approach. I partnered with a male colleague who was a very successful businessman to help me design and deliver a workshop that taught gender differences – a more action-oriented learning experience. I invited male and female colleagues paired up from the same organizations to participate together. I wanted the men to hear from their female partner what her experience was like in their respective organizations. At the end of two days, every participant declared it was a valuable learning experience. In contrast, the women were “all in.” They were ready to fund and deliver similar programs inside their organizations. The men, on the other hand, didn’t give such a program a priority that would provide a budget or resource allocation to make it happen. Well, sigh! We still didn’t break through the inability to see the value of learning about gender differences.

Running parallel to my efforts, research was being done by various organizations that spoke first to the need for male mentors for women. Later research revealed that male mentorship was not enough. Women needed male sponsors and champions. Now let me be very transparent, the language of male mentorship and male sponsorship both rubbed me the wrong way. It felt as though women were not enough and somehow needed men to achieve the breakthrough to be seen as smart, competent, effective leaders. It reminded me of the early Disney movies that reflected women needing to be rescued by a knight in shining armor. So, were male mentors and sponsors the current versions of those knights in shinning armor?!? If so, yuk!!!

And then, along came the evolution of the concept of “men as allies.” Don’t get me wrong, I believe that having men as allies is great. At least now there is some aspect of peer support versus a one-up (mentor or sponsor) relationship.

Now, to the heart of this Insights paper, I invite all of us to move to the next level concept, which I propose to be “Men as True Partners.” I long for the acknowledgement and understanding that learning about each other’s gender styles, strengths, and preferences makes everyone more effective as leaders and as human beings. The basic human need for most of us is to be seen, heard, and valued. That requires us to understand one another. To understand one another requires us to be curious and open to different ways of being and doing. We need to hear and respect each other’s stories. Barry Oshry has a definition of partnership that he uses in his organizational systems work. Partnership is “being mutually committed to whatever process we’re in…and to each other.” I think that definition applies very well to doing gender work. It focuses on achieving results together, and it emphasizes that we are in it together. I want you to be successful and you want me to be successful. And I want to work in an organization that reflects a culture of true partnerships and that expects leaders to operate as true partners. Yes!!

One more reminiscent story. During the financial challenges of 2008, someone sent me an article with a headline that said something along the lines of, “If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Brothers and Sisters, they might have fared better.” This is not a slam on Lehman Brothers. My point in sharing this is to highlight that we need both men and women playing to their strengths and allowing and inviting the other to play to their strengths as well. It isn’t about right or wrong. It is being open to different – different life experiences, different perspectives, different thinking, different approaches, and so on.

My invitation, my ask of everyone reading this paper: share it with your peers, colleagues, friends, and anyone else you think would benefit from considering men as true partners. I’ll leave you with one last thought. One of my favorite books is “Cassandra Speaks” by Elizabeth Lesser. It is the byline that drew me to the book: “When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes.” Our stories need to be shared. Our contributions need to be given weight and consideration. Men, are you ready to be true partners?!

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