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It’s up to us! Women leaders, know your value: A Q&A with Susan MacKenty Brady, author of “Mastering Your Inner Critic”

February 13, 2019 Deana LaFauci

60% of women leaders we surveyed say that the number one hurdle preventing them from being compassionate with themselves is their Inner Critic*—that nagging voice that holds us back in more ways than one.

Susan MacKenty Brady, Linkage EVP, co-chair of The Women in Leadership Institute, and author of Mastering Your Inner Critic and 7 Other High Hurdles to Advancement (McGraw-Hill 2018), isn’t surprised by that. “We women are hard on ourselves,” said Brady.

In fact, Brady calls the Inner Critic an epidemic among women leaders, one that has wide-reaching effects on their own advancement–and happiness.

As Brady worked with women leaders around the world, she was struck by something: “I have worked with women in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, China, India, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, Canada, the USA, Mexico, South Africa–and they all seemed to connect on one thing: They are very hard on themselves—and sometimes others.”

We sat down with Brady to discuss her new book, hear her expert insight into how to advance women leaders, and about a recent time when her own Inner Critic needed coaching.

Tell us about the journey that led to your new book, Mastering Your Inner Critic and 7 Other High Hurdles to Advancement.

I love this question because writing this book was a labor of love for me. I have a lot of things on my “bucket list,” like walking the Great Wall of China with my family and taking a life sabbatical to live in Italy, but one thing has always been noticeably absent from my list: Writing a book! What convinced me to write was the women who asked me to. Countless women who have heard me speak about my own Inner Critic and the hurdles to advancement asked for more.

Many of them said to me “Oh, I wish you were in my head” or “I need you in my pocket”. I was always humbled, yet curious, about these comments. I knew that I had to get this insight into written form, so women had access to it and could work with it in a way they could make it all their own.

How long did it take to come together?

I wrote my first proposal for this book in 2016, my second in May of 2017, and by January of 2018 McGraw-Hill had made an offer. By then, I had to get it out of me–like being ready to get a baby out after months of carrying it! It was that visceral for me. I knew women needed it and that it would be helpful and additive to amazing work done to date by so many inspiring thought leaders in the field of women’s leadership.

In your work, you acknowledge the organizational barriers holding women back from consistently reaching the highest levels of leadership—but you also give women actionable tactics to evolve their own abilities. Why is this balance so important?

Ah–one without the other simply doesn’t work. Our research is clear: Organizations looking to see more women rise into positions of leadership need to focus on four key areas. The first is executive action, which is the engagement of executives in the advancement of women. Then, they must build a culture of inclusion by shaping the mindset of leaders at all levels, so bias awareness is valued and practiced–making inclusion possible. They also need to focus on talent systems, by removing barriers and creating enablers to any policy, process, procedure or benefit that impacts a woman’s ability to lead. Finally, organizations must make a differential investment in the woman leader herself, to help her learn about and navigate the specific hurdles to advancement that may be in her way.

One story we hear repeatedly from women leaders is that they feel the need to continually prove themselves—and as you explain in your book, that can be exhausting! How can women leaders start to let go of the notion that they have to “do it all”?

[Laughs] Read the chapter! Look–there is no easy answer for this, but a great start is to believe in this statement: All your hard work and “doing-doing-doing” may not get you promoted, but it will inevitably exhaust you. And, it may even be a turn off to the people around you. Instead, we need to make space to connect with others–to build and leverage our network.

How can we avoid doing too much, so we can have time to network?

Start with taking a quick mental audit. When was the last time you asked for help or let yourself do a “good enough but not perfect” job? There is so much more to it, so seriously…read the chapter!

Let’s talk about doubt for a minute. When women step into positions of leadership, many report feeling that they don’t belong there—some feel they don’t know enough to fill the role or don’t have the right experience, while others just don’t feel ready for the responsibility. How can we face and overcome “imposter syndrome”?

I have been thinking about this a good bit recently, given my work with executive-level women. Their outward appearance of confidence and their competence is very strong, yet many (not all) have an accompanying quiet voice telling them that they might be faking it just a little. That somehow, they are a fraud–or somehow deficient in something the job requires, and thus not an ideal fit for their role.

What does “imposter syndrome” do to women leaders?

It’s an awful feeling and one that keeps us hustling for our worthiness, instead of striving for further opportunities. My friend, and super-awesome neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author, and medical doctor Tara Swart (talk about a super star!) suggests that connection to others is the way out of “imposter syndrome”.

What do you say to women leaders experiencing these feelings?

I want to tell everyone to “be gentle and embrace your value,” but it sounds funny to say that in hard-core and competitive working environments. I just think women work so hard and really–deeply–don’t understand their value. That’s why I keep doing this work. It’s about standing in your own value as a woman leader and owning your unique contributions and gifts.

Tell us about the most recent time your own Inner Critic showed her true colors. Were you one up? One down? How did you return to center?

I just spoke about this in a recent webinar with my colleague Kerry Seitz this week. I tend to go one-up more than one-down now that I’m older and frankly don’t care as much about impressing others or proving myself. The example I shared happened at home! I was bananas about how my children loaded the dishwasher. I had a full-on nutty, including raising my voice (not yelling—I’m not really a yeller—but speaking with anger) about how they should know how to pack a (expletive) dishwasher at 13 and 16 years old. I was so mad!

When did you realize what was happening?

In the moment! As I was ranting, I realized that I was totally hijacked in the moment and would be apologizing to them later… Frankly, I think what was going on for me was feeling like I am a “bad mom”. In that moment, I was thinking way beyond the situation in front of me. If I had been around more and working less over the years, they would know how to load and maximize space in a dishwasher.

Been there! What did you do?

Alas, I am human, and thus imperfect. I lost it, then cooled down, and told them I over-reacted. I don’t typically shame others (it’s against my “compassion code”!) and I was shaming them. In these instances—when we get triggered and skip over that ever-important pause button available to us whenever we need it—we are simply human.

What did you learn from that?

Making amends when I say or do something I regret is very important to me. I must own my impact and ask for forgiveness.

What is the number one idea or lesson from your book that you would like women leaders to carry with them?

You are far more powerful than you think you are. You can make change—even in a system where you feel stuck. You can put the locus of control back in the palm of your hands and create a life you wantand you can do all of this from a place of compassion for yourself and for others. Oh yes. This is the new power. And women are poised to embrace it and celebrate others as we do.

*Linkage Leader for Life Survey of 2018 Women in Leadership Institute attendees (2019)

We’re asking women leaders: How are you working to scale the hurdles to advancement—including the Inner Critic—and become the best leader you can be? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

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Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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