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Work and Leadership: Going It Alone

This spring, I was asked to participate on a leadership panel sponsored by European Women Payments Network (EWPN) in Amsterdam. While honored to receive the invitation, I soon realized that I had nothing to say on the topic. So I politely declined and explained that I had never been in a serious corporate leadership position. By choice!

Early in my career, I decided to take another path. After some bad formative experiences with horrible and ineffective bosses, I came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that I would have to behave like a jerk to get ahead in a traditional organization. I made a decision to “lead myself.” As a result, I’ve always chosen pay-for-performance rather than salaried positions.

This strategy has worked out very well for me, especially since the leadership style in finance organizations tends to epitomize the traditional form that I found so unappealing early in my professional life. Due to the types of jobs I chose, in institutional sales and portfolio management, I avoided dealing with these kinds of old-school leaders on a daily basis. And I have always advised other women in the financial industry to work for themselves or in commission-paying roles so that they can enjoy full independence and feel their own power and identity.

Is it okay to opt out of leadership?

I explained all this in turning down EPWN’s invitation. But in a return email, I was surprised to learn the panel organizers considered my “opt out of leadership track” stance a useful one for the discussion. As London-based leadership consultant and EWPN executive board member Stanley Skoglund explained:

“What you say is very relevant to any discussion on leadership and power and identity. Many women and men chose to bypass the traditional contract with an employer because it comes with a hierarchy and asymmetry with respect to leadership and power relations. And if there are attributes or labels that can be attached to your identity (self-ascribed or ascribed by others) these will be far more pronounced in such a relationship. I particularly like your thoughts around ‘pay for performance’ rather than being ‘salaried’ as a means of staying out of politics and bad leadership. A strategy that has worked for you. Looking at the relative success of the gig economy (there are gigs and there are gigs!), it seems reasonable to assume that the way we relate to work and leadership is changing.”

Is every job a gig economy job?

When I started out, full-time workers who aspired to stay with the same company throughout their career dominated the economy. That approach had its appeal: one employer, full benefits, and a pension. But today’s gig economy is something much different: It is “based on flexible, temporary, or freelance jobs, often involving connecting with clients or customers through an online platform.”

To state the obvious, working life has dramatically changed in the 20 years since the internet became a widespread business platform. Today, there is no single dominant future of work: Going forward, there will be a mix of people working in offices, from home, from the road, offshore, onshore, and nearshore, and a growing category of employees who aren’t even employees — the gig folks.

Organizations will continue to evolve alongside these developments. And it won’t be easy. Creativity may prove the most important skill for navigating this mixed-work environment. For her research paper, “Women at Work: Designing a Company Fit for the Future,” Deborah Hargreaves, a journalist fellow at Friends Provident Foundation, interviewed innovative job-sharers. Their unique arrangements were fascinating: There was a three-person job-share, a husband-and-wife job-share, and two senior women who took their shared role to a different organization.

“My view now is that all jobs can be done part-time or in a job-share,” Hargreaves said. “You have to think creatively — take some things out [of the job description]. All jobs could be done in different ways.”

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Yes, but this requires creative leadership, according to Jane Horan in Singapore. A renowned leadership expert and author, Horan recently shared her thoughts with Creative Sparq:

“The broad challenges facing companies today include the inability to embrace leadership differences and using outdated frameworks of selecting leaders, rethinking talent and career development and ways of retaining female talent. The organisation’s inability to retain and engage women comes down to ‘not seeing the individual’ and the strengths this individual brings to the organisation. Creativity means doing things differently. Hence a creative leader is one who has the ability to take a different approach, focus on innovative problem solving, consider and welcome new ideas.”

Skoglund offered his own perspective:

“I think the only way we can change the conversation around leadership is to offer up alternatives that are not anchored in masculinities (and the ranking thereof) and qualities that draw their examples from religion; sports; military conquest and use of power (coercive and/or as a threat to exclude others). I also think we need to evaluate critically (inquire into) our own identities; the stories we tell ourselves and others and how we sustain identities. For instance, sometimes we conform to expectations, which suits our identity, when, on balance, we would have achieved a better outcome for ourselves and others by not conforming and calling out aspects/assumptions/power-relations present in a professional context/encounter. Not risk free but surely a choice we can make?”

During the EWPN leadership panel discussion, I realized I wasn’t the only one who chose to bypass a traditional model of leadership that was out of sync with my values and lifestyle. Estelle Brack shared her experience working for a major bank in Paris for almost 20 years. She changed roles many times and then decided to switch to international advocacy within a professional association. When she could no longer stay with the association due to legal constraints, she returned to the bank. But a position that aligned with her qualifications and skills was difficult to find.

Brack was practical about dealing with her situation:

“My first strategy was to adapt and do my best to find some activity within the bank . . . sometimes developing it myself. As an economist, I also kept writing books and articles, sharing knowledge and gathering stakeholders. My second strategy was to better observe my environment within the bank: I tried to understand local strategies in order to create opportunities for myself. Thanks to reorganizations, I got recognized as an expert leader and pushed to create an office for the chief economist within the company, where I naturally would support the job of the chief economist. But after six months acting as the chief economist and getting appreciation from my colleagues, the position disappeared after another reorganization. The possibility to fully express economic and intelligence leadership then vanished behind egos, and visibility within and outside the company was not welcome.”

Investment Professional of the Future report graphic

Be your own leader.

Brack’s next step was to move to a third strategy: fully exert and express her qualifications and competencies and follow her objective to contribute to the global community. She decided to leave the bank and created her own structure of work that would allow her to, as she said, “be fully in a capacity to express my talents and fully contribute to the market’s evolutions, research, and knowledge in banking and financial services at a global level, thereby freeing the leadership capacity from administrative and big structures’ burdens.”

Unless you are fortunate enough to work with one of the all-too-rare creative leaders, directing your own career is the best way to determine your future. As Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him . . . We need not wait to see what others do.”

Going it alone means that you work and live by a personal leadership plan. And in a 21st-century, gig-economy world, self-leadership may become the most important kind of leadership of all.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: ©Getty Images/Westend61

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Barbara Stewart, CFA

Barbara Stewart, CFA, is a researcher and author on the issue of women and finance. She will release the 12th annual installment of her “Rich Thinking” series of monographs on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2022. Stewart uses her proprietary research skills to work as an Executive Interviewer on a project basis for global financial institutions seeking to gain a deeper understanding of their key stakeholders, both women and men. She is a frequent interview guest on TV, radio, and print, , and she is a columnist for Canadian Money Saver and Golden Girl Finance. Stewart is on the Advisory Board for Kensington Capital Partners Limited in Toronto. All of Stewart’s research is available on Barbara Stewart.

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