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Podcast Transcript

Mavens In The Middle

Marsha Clark  0:00  
This episode is being sponsored by Amazech, which is a women's business enterprise that has a proven track record of driving business transformation through technology and talent. Amazech's culture is defined by two key values, making a positive impact at every step and giving back to the community. Visit to learn more about them.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  0:25  
Welcome to "Your Authentic Path to Powerful Leadership" with Marsha Clark. Join us on this journey where we're uncovering what it takes to be a powerful woman leader. Well, Marsha, we're back with another fun episode today exploring systems and life in the middle with two wonderful women who describe themselves as "Mavens in the Middle".

Marsha Clark  1:02  
Well, yes, we are, Wendi. And I love both of our guests. And I love that one of our guests is the person who actually pitched this idea for this episode a few months ago, and it was, of course, we latched right on to it.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  1:15  
Well, I love that. And I want you to share that story because we need to hear it. But before you do, I have to confess that I wasn't really sure what that word "maven" meant. I mean, I've heard it before. And if you had asked me to define it on a multiple choice test, I probably would have guessed. But you know, maybe I'm not the only one who isn't really 100% confident of what that means.

Marsha Clark  1:15  
So, let me guess, Wendi. You looked it up!

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  1:41  
Well, of course I did. I mean, you know, and I love alliteration, so mavens, middle, you know, titles of things. So, yes, and and it's perfect for our discussion today. So, this definition comes from And I'm going to read it as they have it specifically stated: "Whether it's in fashion, or food or forensic science, someone who really knows his or her stuff about a topic is a maven, or a person particularly skilled in the field." The word 'maven' comes from the Yiddish meyvn, which I'm not even going to try to pronounce. I mean, okay, so the spelling is weird - meyvn, I'm just guessing at that, meaning one who understands. But to be a maven, you have to be more than just understand a topic. You have to know its ins and outs. And often, mavens are the people that you turn to as experts in a field. And you don't become a maven overnight. That kind of expertise comes with an accumulation of knowledge over the years. Now I have to admit, very quickly, that I thought that 'maven' applied specifically to women. So, this definition is saying that it's a his or her description.

Marsha Clark  3:01  
Well,  the women are gonna own it today. And I love when you do this research, because you know, it's like most of us, we have this lay and you know, vague interpretation of what it is we're really talking about. But this gives us the certain definitions. And I think we have two women who have accumulated knowledge over the years who are experts in their field with us today. So, they qualify most truly for the mavens title. And I'm curious, Michelle, did you know what "The Mavens in the Middle" meant, or the word "mavens" meant?

Michelle George  3:34  
Well, I didn't know all of that. But when I think of a maven, I think of poised expertise with a sense of style.

Marsha Clark  3:45  
I like that. I think that should be the definition.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  3:49  
Well, you know, I think that that is a perfect description of all of our guests today. And before we introduce them properly, why don't, Marsha, you set our context for today.

Marsha Clark  4:00  
I'm happy to do that. So, if any of our listeners are joining us for the first time today, or if you haven't been with us for the past three episodes, we've been exploring organizational system dynamics, and the work that we've shared is based on the work of Barry and Karen Oshry. And so in the first episode of the mini series, and that one was titled "Seeing Systems", we unpacked how all systems are made up of spaces or roles - and it's the top space, the middle space, the bottom space and customer space. And every one of those spaces comes with unique expectations and challenges as well as possible opportunities to create power in the system and our listeners know power is in almost everything that I do. So, the next week, we took a deeper dive into the life of a system by interviewing three women who participated in an immersive 24 by 7 societal system and the roles in that system were either elite, middle manager, or an immigrant in the society. And that episode was titled "A Real TOOT", which stands for a time out of time. And it explored the impact of how easily the dynamics and conditions of a system can absolutely take over and direct our beliefs and behaviors.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  5:21  
Yes, and let me just add that it was an intense walk down memory lane to say the least for everyone on that episode as well. I think even 10 years later there was some still some powerful residue, if you will, from how that experience affected all of them.

Marsha Clark  5:36  
Well, you know, based on the conversations we had, I think you're right, Wendi. And I know even in my own power lab experience, which was more than 20 years ago, it still informed some of my thoughts and actions. And so, we followed that up with a focused look at life in the middle space, digging into some of the unique challenges and opportunities of middleness, if you will, and which then brings us to today in our episode called "Mavens in the Middle", and it was indeed inspired by one of our guests, Michelle George. And Michelle and I met when she was a participant in our WLI or Women's Leadership Institute Program that was sponsored through the Texas Women's Foundation. And how long ago was that, Michelle?

Michelle George  6:18  
So we graduated in September 2022. So, it was almost exactly a year ago, right?

Marsha Clark  6:24  
Yeah, it was, that was the COVID pandemic class because it was right smack dab in the middle of all of that. And so last August, this past August, I received an email from Michelle. And I already knew we'd be covering some content around life in the middle. So, it was, you know, a matter of the stars lining up and working the idea in. So, Michelle, would you read the email for everyone to get the benefit of what your thinking was that generated this episode?

Michelle George  6:53  
Sure. "Hi, Marsha. I hope you're doing well. I am really enjoying your podcast and your newsletter. Highly recommend. Shameless plug. I have an idea for a podcast episode I wanted to pitch you, "Mavens in the Middle". There is so much content produced around women at the top and women and early career but very little for the middle, which I'm guessing is the biggest swath of women in the workplace. And part of why I joined WLI was for that reason. I needed something geared for women leaders who are rising, but not quite at the top yet. But even with so many women in this stage of life for so long in our careers, there are so little content around it. One of the most impactful exercises we did at WLI was the top/middle/bottom and I was assigned a middle, which honestly felt very similar to my everyday life. And I would like to pitch a "Mavens in the Middle" panel featuring two women, a woman who's currently in the middle and a woman who has been in the middle and risen to the top." And then I offered some specific topics to cover in depth.

Marsha Clark  7:51  
You know, I loved it. And now here we are. This is the great ideas can come from anywhere and I invite them all. So, thank you for taking that initiative and offering the topic that we're going to go into further detail and discuss today.

Michelle George  8:05  
Well, thank you for being receptive to it. And I'm really excited to be here.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  8:09  
Well, whenever we have guests on the show, we like to have them introduce themselves and then share how they are connected to the podcast and you, Marsha. So Michelle, in your case, we already know your connection is through the WLI Program. But will you go ahead and share with our listeners a little bit about yourself including where you work, your role, and where else in your life that you feel like you are in that middle space?

Michelle George  8:31  
Yes, I'm happy to. So, my most important title in life is 'Mom'. I have an amazing little boy who's in first grade, he's about to be seven. A lot of people might think that's a top space, but the moms are gonna know that it's really not. And my other title is Community Relations Director for Texas Capital. And in that role I manage our corporate philanthropies. So I serve as a senior grant officer on our newly launched Foundation, which we're very excited about. Also manage sponsorships and just a variety of special projects and events, marketing and PR and so forth. So, I really find myself in the middle a lot. I've got a really wonderful team that I work with every day that works really hard and does phenomenal work. And I report up to the head of our department, who's the Director of Community Development, who more people know her name than know mine, I'll just say that.

Marsha Clark  9:32  
Well, that's for now. Right. All right, so, thank you for that, Michelle, and I find it fascinating that you recommended our second panelist who I already knew from her Power of Self experience and participation. So, welcome, Bianca.

Bianca Davis  9:50  
Thank you so much. It's a joy to be here today.

Marsha Clark  9:52  
And I just want to say Bianca is the CEO of New Friends New Life, and that's an organization that Texas Capitol, where Michelle works, has supported for many years. And I first met Bianca when she was the chief development officer. And she's a perfect woman to offer some connective tissues between the middle and the top. And as we asked her to join us today, that's when Michelle found out that she had also been a part of Power of Self, and I just love it when my circles overlap. But it's so exciting. And so again, Bianca, thank you for being here today and tell our listeners a little bit about yourself, because the organization that you now lead is an amazing organization in support of women.

Bianca Davis  10:35  
I'm so happy to share. As you mentioned, my name is Bianca Davis, and I'm the CEO of New Friends New Life. We are a Dallas based nonprofit that serves women and girls who've experienced the horrors of sex trafficking. We help to bring restoration and empowerment back to their lives so that they can live the lives that they truly deserve. We have a team of about 25 people that I lead and we are celebrating our 25th anniversary this year.

Marsha Clark  11:05  
Congratulations. I did not know that.  That's amazing. Awesome, awesome, awesome.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  11:09  
Well, Michelle, you mentioned in your email to Marsha that your experience in the organization workshop was powerful. So, will you share what it was about that exercise that had such an impact on you?

Michelle George  11:20  
Yes. So, it was our last activity, I think of the entire program and we got assigned just at random what our roles were. So, I got assigned middle. So, when I got it, I thought 'Oh, piece of cake. I do this every day'. And then the clock starts. Let's just say it's not a piece of cake. It was sheer chaos just from all the things coming at us, just from the tops and the bottoms and the roles of the organization and all the problems that arose. And so we did two simulated days like that. And then we paused and did a timeout of time, or the TOOT, which feels funny to say. But it was such an 'aha' moment for me, getting that time out of time and sharing the candid feedback, and it really contextualized all of the chaos that was going on. And so, it created that light bulb moment for me within the simulation but also in my everyday life of how do we create that connective tissue that helps us be well organized as a team and all rowing in the same direction?

Marsha Clark  12:35  
Yes, I always smile because when I say we're going to do five 12 minute days, everybody's like, Oh, gosh, this is not, you know, this is just a crazy simulation. And within seconds, it seems you're in it, right, because it does simulate our organizational life in that regard. So, I want to break down the process of these times out of time as part of the organization workshop for our listeners today. And if you listened to the "A Real TOOT" episode, we were talking about a 24 by 7 societal simulation where people take on the roles in the spaces for several days. In the organization workshop, you're assigned to space in an organization and you're basically a creative advertising agency. You are either customer with real money to pay in the system for real products that you need to take back to your company, or you're a top, a middle manager or a bottom. And the bottoms are assigned the task of coming up with advertising ideas. And the tops have the responsibility of managing the entire enterprise. And the precious middles are assigned a specific bottom team and are told to quote unquote, "manage them". And then the simulation is set up in days and they're about 12 minutes per day. And as Michelle said, after day two, we kind of stop everything and we do some reflection for the entire system. And that's where Michelle references the chaos of the system. And so, we hold that first time out of time and this is where we get a chance to hear what's going on in all parts of the system.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  14:20  
Now I'm having flashbacks and sweats because I remember. . .yes, yes, yes.

Marsha Clark  14:27  
So, Michelle, for you as a middle you were sitting there with other middles because there's multiples and the other people in the system were asked to talk about their experience in the system. And I love what you said about getting feedback from all sides because that describes life in the middle so perfectly. You basically have a target on your back and everyone on every side has something to say about you, and about the middles and so, I'm curious. What do you recall about that experience and what, if anything, did you do as a result of the feedback received?

Michelle George  15:01  
Yes. So, let me just say my boss and I have a joke that feedback is a gift and every day is Christmas. (Nice, nice. That's hilarious.) But yes, when we came in to the TOOT, and we did get feedback from all sides, including the clients. And it was tough. It was tough to hear. And it really did feel like a target on our backs. And as I started hearing from all the different sides, I thought, somebody has got to manage this chaos. We can't each be managing the separate teams and try to accomplish the goals we've been, you know, set out to accomplish. And so I thought, okay, how can we reorganize this in a way that helps everybody get what they need? Because that was another thing is everybody needed something in addition to the goals that we had to accomplish. And, I mean, the bottoms didn't have shoes. Got that, Marsha, they didn't have shoes. Um, but anyway, so I decided to take myself out of that managing a singular team role, and become the project manager. I could just identify, we needed someone. . .

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  16:16  
For all of the middles?

Michelle George  16:18  
Well, for everybody.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  16:19  
Okay, got it.

Michelle George  16:19  
So, we needed a hub of the wheel. For the wheel to turn, it needs a hub. And we didn't have that. And that's when you have a million different parts of the wheel and it's not rolling. And so if I became the hub of the wheel, then I could establish that channel of communication to all the interested parties and get these goals accomplished.

Marsha Clark  16:44  
Yeah. And what we do, we call that an empowerment strategy. So we, after we give you this microcosm, organizational simulation experience, we then stop and say, how do we make it better as we move forward and back into our everyday lives? And so, you know, the empowerment strategy that I think of is become a top when you can. And I mean, I go back to one of our foundational elements that, in the absence of a plan, create one and in the absence of a leader, be one, right, so stepping up - not in an autocratic or an arrogant way but rather in service to the community, so, a very serving way - to support that greater good and achieve the bigger outcomes. And it sounds like that's what you did.

Michelle George  17:28  
Well, thank you.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  17:30  
So, how did that experience in the organizational workshop and the timeout of time specifically impact you when you went back into the real world back at work?

Michelle George  17:40  
Yeah, so I took that light bulb moment, and really took it back to our team. Now, one of the interesting things about our team is we brought on several new folks, and they're all over the state of Texas. And so, I almost just decided to be the Chief of Staff of our team. I don't hold that role officially. It's not in my job title. But I could see, we have that need for the hub of the wheel here. So, when I decided to become the hub of the wheel, the goal was to get everybody aligned and to make sure that we have that connective tissue between all of our teammates, but also all of our internal and external stakeholders as well. So, then taking that time out of time concept to the real world, we all know that time keeps moving, right, that you don't actually get time out of time. It's difficult. But having that connective tissue piece has become so intrinsic to what I do, and to even my reputation at the bank where I work because now I've built that connective tissue where folks know that they can call me. They know that I'm a resource for them for information or connectivity. And that wheel is moving.

Marsha Clark  18:57  
That's right. You know, I love the analogy of that because when I think about the middle space, I always have this image of my arms are stretched out, my legs, and everybody's got a piece of me and they're pulling.. So, even when I think about I think of a wagon wheel when I think of the hub of the wheel, and you know, it's those spokes where people are pulling and tugging. And so the connective tissue because the middle space is the repository of the greatest amount of information, because you're getting it from the tops, you're getting it from the bottoms, you get it from your other middles, you're getting it from clients and various stakeholder groups. So, I love that. And so I'm curious, Michelle, what kind of feedback have you gotten since you brought that back to your organization, so, whether it be from your team or whether it be from your boss?

Michelle George  19:38  
Well, I hope it's positive feedback. I think it has been. I think that we have created a really good just culture on our team of communication. Now, you know, every team has moments of we're really busy and whatnot, but establishing that culture of connectivity, I think, has been really instrumental in us growing as a team together. I was just listening to your FIRO-B and you introduced that with the concept of the norming and the storming and performing. And so, kind of getting through those first two levels early I think is real key to the performance piece. And I hope that the feedback has been positive. I have heard positive things from the team and my boss and whatnot. But I think really, you know, the proof is in the pudding, in the performing.

Marsha Clark  20:34  
Yes, well, and y'all are doing amazing things in the community. So, I could point to evidence in that regard, too. Now, Bianca, you have a unique position of having been a middle in an organization and then getting promoted to a top, which I think is one of the toughest transitions around when you used to be my peer and we can all commiserate together, now I am it - the one that we've been commiserating about. So, tell me about that experience.

Bianca Davis  20:58  
Yes, so, on top of that, it also happened during COVID so, this was a bit of an unexpected transition. For me, it happened during COVID, where there was uncertainty everywhere. We were uncertain about our future, our health, we were thinking about our mortality just as human beings like what is this pandemic going to do to us. People were losing loved ones, people were sick. So, even outside of the work environment, there was so much uncertainty. Then you bring that into the workspace and here I am a new leader in this position trying to lead in the dark, trying to lead people who were formerly my peers. So, it was really, really challenging. Also shifting from being a doer to visionary, from being the one that executed the tasks to then setting the pace for where we go as an organization. And so, how I dealt with that was really deciding to lean into communicating, understanding how important that is that without answers, people fill in the blanks. And so, what can I tell my staff? What can I share with donors? What can I share to bring some stability and fill in the blanks during this time of transition? And that really helped my team to see me as the leader and not just a peer of theirs during that time.

Marsha Clark  22:20  
Well, I just think about trying to establish your leadership role through a computer screen because everything was virtual, right? I mean, it's hard enough when you know people to do in my humble opinion. So, were there any surprises for you?, I love that you were very thoughtful and intentional and deliberate about leaning into the communication need. Any surprises with any of that?

Bianca Davis  22:43  
Yeah, it's still surprising to me that I'm the person that people are waiting for. So, being a senior director when I was at Genesis Women's Shelter or being chief development officer at a New Friends New Life, there was still someone else that I was preparing where I was working on remarks or developing relationships or planning a run of show it was always for the other person. And then I walk into rooms, and I'm like, 'Oh, wait, I'm the one that they're waiting for'. Or it's me that says, "Go" on this initiative. So, that still surprises me. I think that I'm doing fun things, like we took our teen girls to the fair, the State Fair the other day. And I'm like, oh, I want to go with the girls. And you know, it's so amazing to see these young girls, who have gone through unspeakable trauma, just being kids. They're playing games and going on rides. I had no idea that the staff was like, 'Oh, this, like Bianca's coming on the trip'. I sometimes don't understand my impact. And I still see myself as one of them and in some instances, it just, it's just very different. So, that's still surprising to me.

Marsha Clark  23:49  
You've had, you've had enormous personal power which is how you've gone and moved and taken on greater responsibility. But now you have to own that positional power as a top or a CEO. Yes, it's amazing.

Bianca Davis  24:00  
And I struggle with that word power.  A few years ago, I was so grateful to be recognized by DCEO Magazine as one of the top 500 most powerful and influential CEO's in Dallas. And I'm like, what are they even like, what are y'all even talking about? Right? And I found that I was okay with the word influential because that feels authentic and genuine and soft and kind. But I struggled with the word powerful. And it's because my previous experience a lot of times with leadership is that power I associated the word with cold, leading with an iron fist, you know, very transactional, and that's not my leadership style. So, I've had to re-evaluate and re-define what some of these words mean, so that I can step into those positions of power and not see that as something that's outside of my character. So that's been a struggle.

Marsha Clark  24:59  
I just have to say this. It comes full circle. When we were first developing and designing the Power of Self program, we leaned into that word power, we leaned back, we leaned in, we leaned back. And I said if it's got that much power, the word power, has that mantra, we've got to wrap our arms around it and own it. And, it's not natural for us in that regard.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  25:19  
Marsha, before you go I want to say something about, because we have this in our notes. And Bianca, I want you to talk about a recent event where a lot of people wanted to take pictures with you. Let's talk about that because I think this is so descriptive of so many women when they move from the middle to the top. So, go ahead.

Bianca Davis  25:39  
Right. Yes, definitely how you see yourself and how you view yourself in relation to what you think or what society teaches you that role means or what your experiences have said those roles mean. And so, we had our big annual luncheon, and it was just, you know, 1200 people, a huge success. We had a big superstar name. Kerry Washington was our key note speaker. So, the room, and there are, people have snuck in, the line's longer than it needs to be. We're like, what is going on? And someone walks up and says, 'Can I take a picture?' And so I said, 'Well, you know, you're already in the room. So, the line's over there, make your way over there. We're close on time but I think you can get in with her' assuming that she wanted a picture with Kerry Washington. And she said, 'I meant with you'. And I'm like, wait, what? Someone wants a photo with me? Those things, I still battle those things in my mind understanding that, yes, you represent the face of the organization. Yes, you are the one that's tied to this issue. And seeing people connect with that, it's still such a surprise to me. So, yeah, I was leading her to the back of the line. And she was like, I meant with you, silly girl.

Marsha Clark  26:51  
And I really want to say there's the organizational simulation that no matter what men, women, children, you know, whatever but what you're describing is such a woman, so much more of a woman thing about the challenge of taking on the mantle of the positional power and recognizing that you have it much less. And I my personal belief is that because it's so foreign to us, we spend a whole lot more time thinking about how we want to use it, how we want it to show up in us, and modeling what a different kind of positional power can look like. Because to me, that's why we need seats at the table. So, you know, we often say in the organization workshop that on any given day, a person can move from being in top space to bottom space simply based on who they're meeting with. So, I might be the CEO so I might be top if I'm meeting with my entire staff and team. But as soon as you enter a board meeting, for example, Bianca, you shift to middle or bottom, right, so everybody's got a top on top right, you know, that kind of thing. And so just thinking about that, how does your movement from one space to another change your perspective as you're working with people at different levels of the organization?

Bianca Davis  28:12  
Yes. So, I'm very clear that when I walk into a boardroom, I am not the top because you basically, especially in the nonprofit structure, the CEO oversees the agency but the Board oversees the CEO role. So, I am the board's employee. I have 20 board members, which means I have 20 bosses. So, when I'm in front of my 25 staff members, I am thinking vision and process and removing barriers so that they can be successful. I am trying to be the one that has the answers or builds a team that can help me find the answers. When I step into the boardroom of some of the most brilliant, experienced minds who have decided to donate their time and expertise to this cause, I am so much more of a learner. I am asking the questions, I am bringing my challenges to the table and saying "Help me." And that took time. I remember my very first annual review. The board chair said, you know, the board has said we don't want to just hear good news because I spent so much time proving you know, like, I have to have it all together, and I have to let them know why this was a great choice. And everything's fine, everything's fine. And I've learned over the few years that I've been in this role that that's the role of the board is to help you through the challenging things, that you are not perfect. As a human being there are going to be missteps and they're going to be things I can't see and blind spots, and that's their role to help me through that. And so, when I step into the boardroom or I interact with my board, I'm very much a middle who is a learner, who is open, who is helping to connect the dots. And that's very different from how I show up to my team.

Marsha Clark  29:56  
Right. I just think about, you know, it is the board's responsibility to manage that CEO in that role because they each bring their expertise. But what I also love about that is you're teaching them and they're supporting you. I mean, that to me, is the best of the top space situation when you're top most days but then you move into that subordinate to the board, if I can say it that way. So, thank you for sharing that. And I will also say I think you really have grasped your personal power by recognizing that you need to ask for help or that you don't know everything. And so oftentimes, and I say this often, many see asking for help as a sign of weakness. I see it as a sign of strength, confidence and perspective. I'd much rather know somebody needs help on the front end than trying to clean up the mess on the back end. And so to me, the foresight of that, the clarity of that, because it's not about me protecting my ego, it's about me being in service to, and so we're focused on getting to the best solution. And that takes more than any one of us to do that. I love that, Bianca. So, you know, a couple of questions for both of you, as you think about being in each of these spaces. So, first, Michelle, what do you find particularly challenging about working in the middle, and I know you describe the chaos and all that kind of stuff in the simulation and that it felt very familiar. So, say more about that.

Michelle George  31:23  
Yeah, I will say, as a middle, I am pulled in a lot of different directions constantly during the day. So, it ends up being pretty fast paced because you're receiving information from all sides, but you're also on the hook for distributing information to all sides and in the way that is appropriate for whatever side you're dealing with. And so, it does create just a really busy workday. And I loved your analogy of being on that wagon wheel, which by the way, was a medieval torture device.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  31:56  
Oh, I think about that, too.

Marsha Clark  31:58  
Oh my gosh. I didn't even think about that.

Michelle George  32:05  
Oh, that's great. We're comparing the middle to being on the rack. Yeah, but I really don't see it as torture. I really do feel like I'm in my sweet spot very much so even though I am being pulled in a lot of different directions, just for a variety of reasons but because I've kind of embraced that hub of the wheel role. And I love it, I love and you asked me for my challenges, it is challenging, but I also just love being the person that everybody goes to as a resource or as the connective person. Now, because of that, it's very easy to miss something. And so, it's just the challenge of keeping information organized and making sure that all the follow ups are done. It just, it creates a really busy day.

Marsha Clark  32:55  
Yeah, you know, I often think about the middle space and I describe it sometimes in programs, the middle is like the air traffic control. Instead of flights coming in and going out and you don't want anybody to crash, right, you've got information and requests coming in, and you've got assignments and information going out. And you want to make sure that they do stay aligned, and everybody's up in the air and safe and all of those kinds of things. So, I love that.

Michelle George  32:57  
I love that metaphor a lot better.

Marsha Clark  33:00  
Than the rack, as they say. So, Bianca, what about you? What do you find particularly challenging about, you know, being a top?

Bianca Davis  33:32  
Oh, I think the biggest challenge and particularly in the nonprofit space is the responsibility that you bear at all times to make sure that the organization has a positive reputation, to make sure that we have the funding that literally pays people's paychecks, to make sure that we are moving our mission forward. That responsibility lies and sits with the CEO. When things go well, everyone can take individual responsibility or the team takes responsibility for that. We achieved our goal. But when something goes wrong, the board is looking at this role for the answer. What did you miss? Why did this not work? Why did this happen? And that responsibility is really isolating. It's not something that you can share within your team. So, I always, when I heard that phrase, it's lonely at the top I'm like, is it really lonely until you get there then you're like, 'Oh, this is what they meant.' Yes, this is what they meant. So, that is by far the biggest challenge. The second challenge that I found is not having the same frequency of the feedback loop or the recognition. I didn't realize how much I missed that pat on the back from my peers. Because once again, I think I learned from a business coach, she said, because I had this question, I'm like, "I don't feel like, do people know what it took? Do people know the effort that I put into this project? Like, does anyone know that or is it just like a group thing? Like, where's my atta girl?" And her response to that was, "If you hear good job, Mary, that is good job, Bianca." So, learning as a leader that the recognition or the feedback comes in different ways that if the organization succeeds, if someone on the program side has a success, that is your recognition. You can say that was good job, me too. So, that was a challenge learning to find the recognition from different sources and to find that to help me build my confidence as a leader. So, that's been hard. I didn't know how much I missed just that standard "Thank you. Great job." that comes from someone above you, because there's no person that's right above you in the organization to give you that.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  35:56  
That's really interesting to think about the fact that you spend most of your career, if not all of it, trying to rise up and reach that top job and you're getting those atta girls all along the way. And then once you get to the top, everybody assumes, okay, she knows she's fantastic. She's in the photo, we don't have to tell her anymore. And that's so true. You get used to it and you take comfort from it. It helps bolster you. It's armor for you. So, that's a really interesting point.

Marsha Clark  36:28  
And I also think about that when I teach about high performing teams. It says, great performers need feedback, too. And that's where so much of that it is like you're doing great and if anything's different, I'll let you know. So, they'll always point out the things right, but they do almost assume or take for granted that you're here and that's your job, you know. But we have to find, as you said, Bianca, we have to find our own sources of continued inspiration to keep serving this community that you care so much about in the mission of your organization.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  37:03  
So, let's talk about rewarding now. And, Michelle, I'm going to go to you first. What do you find particularly rewarding about working in that middle space?

Michelle George  37:11  
Yes, I think I kind of said some of this a minute ago, I think I read ahead on the script. Sorry about that. Um, but I do love being that connection piece. I like being a resource to others. And I like it when something comes together. You know, when you see that wheel moving, when you see a project to completion and it's not usually me in the photo op. But preparing the person for that moment is great reward for me just knowing what went behind that and knowing that I had a hand in it. It's really interesting to me, Bianca, what you were saying about the atta girls and the good feedback and whatnot, because my experience in the middle is I'm looking at the person with the photo op thinking, that's gonna be me one day, right? And not even thinking about, well, that is the reward, but no one actually came and said to you, great job. And my experience where I'm at is, I'm getting the "great job", you know, but being really behind the scenes, being like the stage manager of the play, you know. It's just an interesting dynamic.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  38:30  
Bianca, what about you? Rewarding.

Bianca Davis  38:32  
Oh, my goodness, this is such an easy part and this is why I love this. But at New Friends New Life we literally work alongside the women and girls we serve. We serve 350 women/girls a year. And I literally get to see them, walk by them in the hallways. And when a member comes in and says I got the job today, or hey, let's go to the State Fair, understanding what it took for them to get to that point and seeing them on the other side of that is the biggest reward. It makes every thing worth it when a young girl moves from one phase to another or a woman graduates from our program and reclaims her life. So, that's a huge reward. And the other reward is, I literally get to do what I love to do every day. I don't have to turn on and off a switch to come to work. I get to be me. I was working on my purpose statement with a coach. And what we came up with is that I tell stories that illuminate human connection so that we can more deeply care for each other. Like that's what I do and that's what I get to do at work every day. So, that's that's the reward for me.

Marsha Clark  39:47  
And I also think about just in that top space one of the things I talk about purpose is it in sort of the professional journey continuum, job career calling purpose. That's when we get to combine our strength and our passion. And to me your purpose statement speaks volumes. And I think what both of you said the reward for y'all is about being in service and being of value. And that's what I hear in what you're describing. And I hear that from a lot of the women that we work with. You know, the titles and the money and all of those kinds of things are great. And we want those because it's how it helps us continue with our service and mission, you know, desires. But it's really clear and strong from both of you that service to something larger than yourself is, is really clear.

Michelle George  40:32  
Absolutely. And can I interject just real quick. I love, Bianca, how you talked about the impact. So, you know, I've been speaking mostly kind of from the corporate lens. But we have that in common, that we do impact work. And yeah, you're right. That is really the biggest reward is, because when I'm talking about a project together, I'm talking about something that is serving a community in need. And really, that's the end goal of all of this, of everything we do. It's we're working toward a higher calling in service to someone else that may not have a level of access to resources as we do. But through our work, we are opening doors to that access. And I will move heaven and earth, I will do whatever needs to do during the day to make sure that those things come to fruition because that's really what this is all about.

Marsha Clark  41:30  
Yes. Love it. Love it. Love it. Love it. All right. So, I know, Michelle, you've talked about what the hub of the wheel means and being that connective tissue and all of that. And Bianca, when you think of the imagery of the hub of the wheel, how does that, how do you relate to that from both the middle space and the top space?

Bianca Davis  41:51  
Yes, I remember when I started my career I was in healthcare communications, I worked at Medical City and started as a patient advocate. And I found myself in the middle of that hub. I mean, I was 22 years old, fresh out of college. But I noticed a need. I recognize that out of 1,200 physicians and 2,500 nurses, we weren't talking to each other. So, I go to the CEO and I said, 'Hey, how about an internal communications plan of some sort? I can do newsletters, I can do this, I can do that.' And he said, you know, if you can do it, go for it. And so, I was able to create an entire roll that turned into an entire department, and really sit in that hub. And so, I understand what Michelle talks about, about being that connective tissue, about bringing different people together and getting different mindsets together so that you can accelerate your vision. And so, I had that experience, mostly there. I think I see it a little differently now as someone in a top role, that I'm not necessarily the one that's in the hub, but I relate it more to like a potter, like a potter's wheel. So, there is this, you know, he puts, or he or she puts her foot on the pedal and it starts the spinning. So, the hub is happening but it's my job to shape it, redirect, kind of guide and give people that opportunity to be the ones that are driving that forward. So, I kind of pull myself out of the hub vision and put it into more of kind of shaping and outside and looking more above what's happening. And kind of yeah, kind of seeing it that way.

Marsha Clark  43:37  
I love we are Analogies R Us today. We're a wagon wheel. We're a potter's wheel, we're air traffic controllers. I love it. So, Michelle, ever since the OW, you know, I think about these questions, you know, a lot as decisions are being made in the organization. And so, what do you think when you think about all those strategies about being in the middle? What does that mean to you?

Michelle George  44:02  
Yeah, I think, you know, I can't unsee after being a part of that simulation that we did. And so, I think what it means to me personally, is continuing to take those times out of time with the team. And, you know, when we think about connective tissue, what does that really mean? And that means relationships. You know, it means I'm not just here to get a task done, that we're all here as human beings. And I think that's what really reinforces that time out of time more than anything to me is that even though time keeps moving and we are so busy during the day, that forging and maintaining those relationships becomes key to maintaining the organization, the projects, the  impact, you name it.

Marsha Clark  44:53  
The order. From chaos to order. Yes. I also want to say that the idea of what happens in the times out of time Suzie Vaughn, who was on here in a previous, was talking about experiential learning. You don't learn just from the experience itself. It's the times that you can step back and reflect on what just happened in that experience. And to me, that's what times out of time give us the opportunity to do. And it's not a status update, it's not a what are all the problems we're dealing with. It's what's life like for you in the system, that's the key questions around the time out of time and so getting a chance, as we often talk about, to look behind the brick wall that each of these spaces have in front of it. So, there's a top space behind a brick wall, a middle space behind a brick wall, and being able to just pull yourself up from that, and take that, you know, 35,000 foot, 50,000 foot view of things and pulling back from all that day to day to be the visionary, and yet middles, because so much information resides in them, you're just taking in more information so that you can operate from that middle space more effectively. And tops because people don't come to you like they used to, because you're the boss, right? But you're still in those times out of time giving people that opportunity to see behind your wall.

Michelle George  46:17  
For sure. And I'll say I have a great role model and mentor in that in my boss as well, that she is masterful at taking those times. And, you know, we didn't have a label for it before but she's absolutely masterful at saying, you know, let's pull aside, let's talk about how things are going and contextualizing some experiences that we're having. I'm really lucky in that way.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  46:41  
So, Michelle, or Bianca, do you have any other observations about life in the middle organizationally? And I'm asking because I'm about to shift gears and I want to be sure that we get all of your Mavenly words of wisdom out here on the table before we move on. So, Michelle, you want to go first, or Bianca - whoever has a first thought here.

Bianca Davis  47:01  
I'm happy to share I was just thinking, as we were talking about the different labels in positions, I made this note that I would advise or just remind readers or listeners to remember is that labels give context, but they don't give definition. Right. So yes, we need to know where we are positionally because that gives context for how we operate. But using Michelle as an example, everything she has said is someone who operates as a leader, as a top, you know, in that space. And so, not being so caught up in the labels. That's just context of where you are but that's not the defining word for you.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  47:48  
Exactly. Because that top middle bottom, it shifts constantly depending on what room you're in.

Bianca Davis  47:54  
Yes. And there are leaders who are the bottom or leaders with the middle or you know, so that's something I just wanted to share.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  48:00  
Well, Michelle, another really interesting twist that you added in your original email to Marsha was the idea that many working women who are in middle roles professionally are also juggling different roles at home shifting from top to middle to bottom and back, you know, constantly, probably many times throughout even a day. So, I'm guessing many of our listeners can completely relate to that idea.

Michelle George  48:26  
Yes, I think it's an interesting phenomenon, actually, that most women in the workplace, especially in the middle, are also raising families. And so then, you know, we take off our corporate hat and we put on our mom hat and I shared that at the top of the episode on purpose, actually, because, you know, job number two starts when you get home. Yeah, exactly. And then navigating that space where, you know, I've got communications from teachers and coaches, from principals and projects are due and the uniforms are fill in the blank, right? So, then I'm finding myself in the middle at home because I am taking the information I'm getting from those teachers, coaches and other people in authority, you know, over my son and trying to execute that with my almost seven year old with getting to the school pictures on time and to the game and you know, you name it. And the haircut before the school pictures, yes and then emotional labor that comes with that, too, because you don't just arrive at picture day or at a game. And we all know that.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  49:37  
And so, what about for you, Bianca? Do you find that you fill multiple roles once you leave work and if you do, what spaces do you primarily fall in?

Bianca Davis  49:45  
It's so funny because I cannot relate to anything ya'll just shared. At the time of this recording, I do not have a partner or children and so I find that in my personal life, I'm still in this role, just me and it's so funny because I'm also the eldest of three, and I'm the only girl. So, my dad literally calls me, the boss, like, no decision is made in the family without my input or guidance. So, I still kind of hold that top position. But amongst my friends, I find that I'm able to shift gears a little bit. And in my social organizations that I'm connected to, like, I'm not in a leadership role. I am a worker. Yes, I just do what someone else says. My girlfriends, they plan our trips, I just pay and show up. So, I do get a little bit of a shift in the roles when I'm amongst girlfriends and in my social organizations.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  50:41  
Yeah, Michelle, didn't I hear an example of when you're in that bottom space at home? Let's talk about that just a bit.

Michelle George  50:47  
Well, it does a little bit. You know, my son has a very strong personality, and he's very articulate. So, sometimes I feel like he's the boss. I know that's not the, you know, right thing to say. But yeah, it's real, it's real, you know, that I'm the one that is preparing his dinner and then cleaning it up and doing his laundry so it does feel a little bit like the bottom space a lot. Um, but then also in my immediate family dynamics, that I'm, I'm also the oldest, but I'm not the boss of the family. And I think that's, you know, I just, I just don't have that in my family. You know, we very much work as a team, but my youngest sister actually tends to be the boss. And so she's, you know, making the spreadsheets for all of our plans for holidays and designing the shirt that we're all going to wear that matches. I kind of like I kind of just go along to get along, like, okay, I'm gonna stay smart so here's my money.

Marsha Clark  51:50  
Right. That's right. You know, what I think about though, is the condition of the bottom space is one of vulnerability. And so you're at the kind of the end of the food chain, right. You're waiting for someone else to decide. So, I think about, you know, having children and sports and all that because you're a vulnerable bottom because you don't know when they're going to schedule games and what else you might have going on at that time or that you're, you know, you can, you'll want to sign up and go on those vacations but what if it's in the middle of some time when you have a top responsibility to your agency? And so, there's some vulnerability that I think we all feel when others control schedules and dates and times and those kinds of things as well.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  52:33  
Well, as we start to wrap up here, I want to ask both of you last questions about self care, suggestions for our listeners, as a middle and a top, whoever wants to go first.

Bianca Davis  52:46  
I can share my biggest suggestion for self care for me is learning how to say no. There are so many expectations around whether it's a speaking engagement or an event or an activity or just something. And so I ask myself, does this have to be me? There are some things that I have to do or that it's my responsibility, it's the biggest opportunity, it needs to be the CEO that does that. But if it's something that someone else on my team can do, it not only gives them an opportunity to grow, but it gives me my time back, it opens up my schedule. So, I'm just learning when to say no. That's been huge for myself there.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  53:27  
That's big. Michelle?

Michelle George  53:29  
Yeah, I mean, just like that, knowing when to delegate. It's so easy to burn out with just everything going on at a given moment. And knowing how to set those boundaries for sure. Marsha, you really talked a lot about that in our program. And that was an eye opener to me, too, is, you know, you can be kind, you can be nice and also have a boundary and those two things coexist really well if you do it right.

Marsha Clark  53:55  
Well, for the benefit of you two younger women who are at your point in your career, I will tell you at 71 years old, it's still I'm still working on saying no. And I have found though with every time I say it, something comes around to say that was exactly the right decision, because now you have room for something you really want to do or that you think can really move the needle. That to me is a never ending story, especially with people who have service hearts, right, which both of you we talked about, y'all are, and I have one as well. Wendi, you have one. And so, I just think about that makes it doubly hard or extra hard to say no or set a boundary when you'd love to do it all.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  54:32  
Right. Exactly. Well, ladies, this has been a fantastic discussion. And I'm feeling very hopeful that anyone listening who finds themselves shifting in and out of the middle space, either organizationally or personally, has really gathered some helpful insights today.

Marsha Clark  54:49  
Yeah, I agree with that, Wendi. Thank you to both of our guests here. Your personal experiences and examples I think, bring middleness to life and shifting from that middle to top and I do appreciate you taking time out not only just to think about how this could be valuable for others, but then being willing to share your stories and examples with us. And, you know, I look at the challenges that women face no matter what, and I kind of want to come back to the empowerment strategies because there are different empowerment strategies for each of these spaces - top, middle, bottom, and customer. And I want to take an empowerment strategy from the top, because I heard it in both of you all's comments. The empowerment strategy is share quality information. So, whether you're the connective tissue doing that or whether you leaned into that, and still practice that today is a part of it. There's a middle strategy we talked about - be a top when you can, be a bottom when you should - because sometimes you've gotta roll up your sleeves and get in there and do it right there with them. And then, in the bottom space, it's shifting from victim to co creator. So, how do I take whatever is happening in the world or my world and how do I become part of the solution and not just in that vulnerable, you know, end of the food chain kind of space? How can I step up? It goes back to in absence of a leader be one, in absence of a plan, create one. And then my favorite one on the customer side, which I also think applies to every single space, is get in early as a partner, not late as a judge. And that is my favorite one on the whole page anyway, because it's so easy to commiserate and complain and, you know, have those BMW sessions, those bitch, moan and whine sessions, and how do we get ourselves out of that to truly say, how can we work together to solve for or serve our constituencies, our stakeholders, you know, fulfilling the mission that each of the organizations that you work in, have, and even beyond? So, those are the things that I think I've been wrapping up.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  57:07  
Exactly. Well, and I want to thank Bianca and Michelle for well, both of you for being here today and Michelle for stepping up and reaching out to suggest this episode. This is a perfect wrap up on our four part miniseries that we've been doing on leading and seeing systems. Next week we will be joined by Dr. Renee Moorefield as we dig more into the topic of creating a culture of thriving. So, we're still exploring the leader's role in organizations. But that episode is going to be through a different lens.

Marsha Clark  57:40  
And, you know, just as a teaser, Renee uses the word thriving, she also uses the word well being. And it's closely related to resourcefulness and resiliency. So, anyone as part of an organization knows you need all of those on any given day. So, I think it's a great build and add on to what we're talking about today. And again, ladies, I want to thank you so much for being here and for being so authentic and sincere and genuine and all the things I love about you and your powerfulness at every level, personal and positional and relational, right? I mean, that's a part of it as well. And I want to thank our listeners. I hope you've gotten some value out of today's content. I can't imagine how you couldn't have, and think about their stories and how they relate to your stories so that you can begin to make your own connections and recognize how you can bring order to chaos, be connective tissue, lean into the high quality information learning from each other on a constant basis. And I think based on the work that our two guests today do, I want to just emphasize yet again as we close, "Here's to women supporting women!"

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