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Navigating the swamp of professional identity — insights from a female practitioner

by Rebecca Hill

Professional identity has been one of the central questions in my career for as long as I can remember — putting myself in a box and sticking a label on it has been something with which I struggle. As I rapidly came to realise, I am most definitely not alone in this insight. Experience as a change professional, recently turned coach and independent consultant, has taught me that so many of us struggle with our identity. Finding a professional identity — how we choose to be and show up in the world when it comes to our work — is for many of us a lifelong conversation and quest.

As a professional woman, it struck me fairly late on in my career that part of the issue is role models. I was surrounded by many competent and even inspiring professionals but most of them were called Peter, John, Rich, Ken, Dave, and very few were called Julie or Yasmin, and most had very clear-cut professional roles and identities — no room for messiness. So, I took it upon myself to find some female role models who would help me work on my professional identity by inspiring me to the art of the possible — they weren’t obvious and many were hard to find but to a large extent, I did succeed in my quest over the years.

Now, as I work through another major career transition, from corporate practitioner to independent consultant, I have found myself once again in search of “thought leader practitioner” role models whose thinking and approach resonates and whose work I may integrate into mine. But unlike their male peers, they are not that easy to find and so my quest has been a long one and I feel the need to share what I’ve found.

What these women have in common is that they have all worked across different disciplines integrating their lives and their work in their own unique ways to become powerful examples of female thought leader practitioners doing purposeful work. I attempt to encapsulate in this series of brief essays one or two key elements of their work and by extension, their approach as practitioner thought leaders. By doing this, I hope to highlight and reflect on often asked and explored questions that sit at the heart of the quest around professional identity as well as articulate what I have learnt from them. Some of these women I know personally, some of them I know very well, several of them I have never met yet I am still inspired by them and their work, and I hope that you will be too.

Based on this approach, I have set out to write five brief essays on the following key issues:

1) Why the power of purpose is a guiding light?

2) Why a growth mindset is your single biggest asset?

3) Why acting your way into a new way of thinking really can be the catalyst to the change you’re looking to make?

4) Why targeted, well-nurtured relationships and networks have the power to unlock opportunity for you?

5) Why self-compassion and healthy boundaries are vital to sustain yourself and to thrive?

Interestingly, these wise women have much to contribute that may help when it comes to leadership. I have deliberately chosen not to write about feminine leadership in this series of essays. However, you can see from the different essays that female leadership traits/behaviours (yes, I do believe there is such a thing — check out John Gerzema and the Athena Doctrine as a starter,) come through in their insights and are integral to how they show up in the world. In a time of unprecedented change and upheaval, these insights are more powerful and relevant than ever before. I believe now more than ever that the voices, work, and lives of these wise women are relevant to help us reflect, understand, and navigate. If you are interested in exploring them further, please find links at the end.

Finally, if you are interested in discussing any of the thoughts in these blogs, please do contact me as I would love to hear from you and carry on the conversation.

Rebecca Hill, Founder, Wise Sherpa (

Why the power of purpose is a guiding light?

Two years ago, I decided to embark on a new adventure building a different life leaving behind my 25-year City career which led to some big changes including founding Wise Sherpa. A business dedicated to coaching, mentoring and consulting to purpose-led and impact-focused leaders looking to create sustainable change.

In the run-up to my decision to embark on this new adventure, I talked to many people, read quite a few books and articles, and listened to a bucketful of podcasts. One book in particular which provoked my thinking was The 100-Year Life by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott.

The research is clear, our lives are longer than those of our ancestors and increasing with every generation for many of us. However, we cannot assume that just because our lives are extending in duration that their quality will be better than those of our parents.

Here are some of the things we do know about our lives as we go headlong into the twenty-first century:

– How our lives evolve depends to a large extent on our socio-economic circumstances and access to education and opportunities, as well as gender, ethnicity, cultural background, sexual orientation, and health.

– How these factors play out and impact our professional life will influence how we may view and approach the idea of a 100-year life.

– We will need or choose to work longer. Traditionally, where we would have retired in our mid-60s or even earlier, we now anticipate many individuals, especially professionals like me, may choose or have to work into our 70s and 80s.

– We will increase the integration of our work and life starting with remote and virtual working being much more the norm.

– Career “gaps” with individuals on-ramping and off-ramping whether that’s due to caring responsibilities or the need to take time out to retrain/upskill will be increasingly common as individuals prioritise their relationships, health and wellbeing, and skills in order to stay fit and relevant.

– The range of jobs on offer will increase in variety but shift from a permanent employee model to a gig economy model where many of us will be expected to have a much broader and evolving set of skills (such as digital marketing and business development) as well as the ability to deal with change and uncertainty.

– Our relationship with money vs agency will evolve and shift. When we start in our careers, frequently financial rewards and positional advancement act as strong motivators. Often for good reason in the desire to create security for us and our families. As we advance in our lives, those motivators often recede in importance, as we look towards motivators linked to autonomy and legacy.

– Ultimately, we will be expecting to live out our lives with purpose and impact.

In particular, I have become fascinated by the link between purpose and longevity. There is a growing body of research on the power of purpose and its role in longevity. In a recent study undertaken by the University of Michigan School of Public Health researchers analysed the data of 7,000 individuals 50+ years in age. The results showed that “stronger purpose in life was associated with decreased mortality.” Strikingly, they found that individuals whose questionnaires reflected a lack of purpose were more likely to die than those who had “self-organising life aims that stimulate goals.” Indeed, individuals without a purpose were more than twice as likely to die than those with a purpose. Critically, purpose proved to be more indicative of longevity than gender, race, or education levels, and more important for decreasing risk of death than drinking, smoking, or exercising regularly. The research also indicates that any purpose is better than none. The important thing is simply having something that makes us excited about life and drives us. We are increasingly aware of the need to look after our health as we age, but we are less aware of the need to ensure we have meaning or purpose in our lives as we mature.

The ideas in the book, help to anchor and provide a strong context from which to work and evaluate where and how you may want to focus your energy to approach your present and build your future. When working with clients and also in my own approach, I have come to realise that if we are to truly manage our energy with all the different requirements on our time, having a clear purpose against which to evaluate our activity enables us to deliver and feel more vitalised through this process rather than drained.

Though I am writing this blog in a period of uncertainty unparalleled in most of our lifetimes, it provides a powerful catalyst for change for many of us. It is creating a break from the norm, an opportunity to explore new ways of being, working, thinking, and communicating. I would propose putting purpose at the centre of all this could help steer us into exciting new places that are well worth the exploration.

Why a growth mindset is your single biggest asset?

During a recent break, I decided to re-read Carol Dwek’s seminal work on Mindset — how you can fulfil your potential. This was partly because I was reflecting upon my work as a coach, mentor, and advisor at Wise Sherpa and my learnings and partly because I wanted to support my daughter more effectively as a parent in her development.

For those less familiar with Carol Dwek’s work, her research on mindset identifies that people with a growth mindset tend to focus on improving, learning and effort as individuals, while people with a fixed mindset tend to assume their abilities are based largely on inborn talent and traits and therefore believe it is unlikely for them to change.

Critically, individuals with a growth mindset tend to seek out challenging situations and welcome feedback — positive or constructive — whilst those with fixed mindsets tend to set out to prove themselves to others based on their existing skills, avoiding feedback and have a tendency to select tasks at which they can look good and succeed. To be fair, society often values and rewards fixed mindset behaviour and for many of us, it is still the basis of our educations systems.

Upon reflection in my work, the issue of mindset is really what makes the biggest difference as to how an individual can progress. It is the way they see themselves and approach the outside world and their work through a fixed or growth mindset that really does influence whether they achieve the objectives they set themselves.

Take for example a collaboration I was fortunate to have with an entrepreneur. She had some pretty tough issues to work through and decisions to make when it came to taking forward her business. But she persisted with a truly open mind to seek out answers to tricky questions and stayed alert to different options. When she had the answers she needed, she made the difficult decision to sell her business because it was the right thing for her. I was so impressed by her ability to stay open and receptive in the face of tough feedback which was in stark contrast to many other experiences I have had in my career. A growth mindset really was her greatest asset.

My own professional journey has also taught me that whilst embracing a growth mindset, I also critically need to recognise if the environment I find myself in is supporting my growth mindset. The periods in my career where I truly embraced a growth mindset have been some of my most productive but only upon reflection when these have also coincided with an environment that allowed or even encouraged exploration and a tolerance of failure. As leaders and managers, it is therefore our responsibility to not only encourage growth mindsets in ourselves and those around us but to crucially ensure the environments we create truly nurture and support this.

Finally, having a growth mindset requires application. It is a conscious choice. In my experience of working with clients (as well as on myself) helping individuals to recognise and start accessing a growth mindset takes focus but it does really play a critical role in whether they do or don’t start to unlock the door to a fulfilling career and life and reap the rewards.

Why acting your way into a new way of thinking really can be the catalyst to the change you’re looking to make?

When it comes to our careers, so many of us face challenges in actually making a move. We tend to plan (read dream), maybe take just another training course, talk to just a few more people to get their views, and then sit with the information for a long time. In reality, what is happening to us when we take this (frequently textbook advocated) approach is that we stay stuck in indecision, analysis paralysis infobesity, overwhelm, and fear. As a result, the easiest thing is to do nothing.

I have faced this issue with many of my executive coaching and business mentoring clients as well as recognising this pattern in my own thinking and behaviour at different stages of my career. None of us are immune. Clients oftentimes feel stuck. They know they want a change — this could be a new role, a promotion, a switch in career, or a change in lifestyle. Intellectually, they understand the issues involved, but they still find it impossible to make the change. This can be for many good reasons such as fear of losing more than they might gain, the need for certainty that the change will work, or hope that things will “settle down” with their current situation.

In my work, as well as with my own situation, I have found that it is very difficult to think our way out of such situations. Prof Herminia Ibarra articulates this extremely well in her book Working Identities based on her research and consulting practice. Ultimately and particularly for those of us who are knowledge workers, it can be almost impossible to think and plan our way out these situations. Ibarra’s premise is that what we should be doing instead is starting to act our way out by experimenting with different concepts and ideas that interest us and where we think we might want to take things forward.

In the book, she shares many case studies. I wanted to elaborate on two here. Case study one is of a male professional who was unhappy with his career but after much deliberating was still unsure what to do, although he knew he wanted a change. What ultimately transpired was that after trying several unrelated roles, he used the skill set that he had honed over many years to change context and role. Choosing to work for and with an organisation and leadership that inspired him and enabled him to bring his best self to work. The role that he ultimately ended up doing was not that different from what he had been doing previously but the context in which he was doing it was very different. Had he not tried on many of the different roles to explore the fit, he would not have transitioned into his current role where he found a great fit.

In case study two, Ibarra shares the story of a female professional who gradually moved roles and sectors. Ultimately ending up in a very different context and doing a fundamentally different role — feeling and acting her way into the new role. Notably though in the process, she draws heavily upon her skill set as well as her network of contacts that she has built up over her career to make this successful change.

These two case studies resonated for me because both individuals had started acting their way out of their current unfulfilling, unhappy work environments through gradually and instinctively trying on new situations and opportunities and then testing what worked for them on many different levels. Both approaches worked.

I frequently observe people who lack fulfilment in their careers, uncertainty about the next steps but fear of acting and overthinking paralysing their progress. I see it arising particularly in my work with mid-career professionals. The challenge as well as the opportunity is to work with individuals, so they see the benefit of small steps without over intellectualising the why or the how or the outcome. That they see the value in the experiment for the sake of it. This allows them to start having some fun exploring what their new self might be like. Taking small steps to figure out what might work for them, dispelling myths and dreams and exploring the art of the possible.

By mid-career, many professionals have become used to being seen and seeing themselves as experts in their professional space even if they are deeply dissatisfied with the work they are doing. They turn to their intellectual abilities to try to work and reason through their situation. There is great comfort in this as it is a known approach. However, for the majority, it does not move them towards the new future they desire.

As previously referenced in my own situation, I stepped away from my career as a change professional to explore and experiment with new concepts by applying Ibarra’s research and approach. It has been a deeply iterative process taking much longer than I had imagined. Some things I have tried have led to great breakthroughs on my journey, others have proved to be damp squids (to be polite and sometimes expensive at that) but all have provided valuable insight. Critically, I have tried to rely heavily on how things feel at each step and resist the trap of overthinking them. I act my way into a new way of thinking and being as Ibarra advocates through her research and work. I have become a proponent of this approach through the work I do and my own experiences. To be truly embodied in our approach to our careers and work and not just use the mind to think our way forward but instead to use our sense of play and experiment to help us move forward is key.

Some of you reading this insight may believe that this is a privileged approach available to only those who can afford it. I have certainly been challenged on this before. To some extent this is true. Many of us have very real financial and caring pressures that keep us rooted in work and careers that may be less fulfilling. However, I have to ask what is the cost of not at least trying to do this? We spend a large part of our life working too long to be dissatisfied, unfulfilled, and wondering “what if?” If we can at least take some steps towards acting on the art of the possible, then it has to be worth the cost. It is also never too late; another challenged that has been levied at me. If we are to be working into our 70s and 80s through choice or necessity which is the case for many of us and especially women, then there is all the more reason to be taking this approach in your 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Why targeted, well-nurtured relationships and networks have the power to unlock opportunity for you

I was fortunate enough several years ago to be introduced to three interesting women in a very short time. It was just at the point the Women on Boards discussion in the UK was hotting up with the publication of the Davies Review into the status of women on boards in the UK and to the concept of The Board You Cannot Afford and why having one is critical in business and life.

My work at the time meant I had very few relatable female role models due to working in a male leadership team. I realised that something wasn’t quite right. I was struggling to raise my visibility and progress in my career at the same rate as many of my male peers. I gradually realised that like many women in the workplace, my networks were few, they were limited in depth and breadth focus. None of which was helped by having very little time. I had just given birth to our daughter.

Around this time, I came across the work of Julia Hobsbawm that she was initiating at Cass Business School on relationships, networks, and social health. Her thinking influenced me then and continues to influence how I approach, build, and manage relationships and networks. Her focus on connectedness in the Age of Overload that we inhabit and particularly how to identify, approach, and manage networks effectively has been transformational for me.

Unlike most of the “thinking” out there which is either too academic to be practically applied or focuses predominantly on how to work a room, Julia gives you the theory and practical application. She focuses on the why, the how, and the what of relationships and networks in a hugely relatable and manageable way. I am now much more conscious of why, who, and how I connect with both within my existing networks and also outside of my networks. The latter is equally important as the former because it feeds the ongoing need for diversity of thought within my network and avoids inhabiting my own bubble and echo chamber. Julia’s theory has helped me commit sufficient time and consistency to planning and connecting with intent and care.

Julia was also instrumental in bringing together Zella King and me through an event she hosted. Zella’s work on Who is in your personal boardroom?helped me to understand the need to have a personal board room made up of individuals who could help me navigate my career and next steps as I took them. Having a strong and focused network was important to help me deliver value to my employer and added to my social capital. Having a personal board room helped me to navigate my career moves and difficult situations far more effectively. Critically, these individuals are not necessarily friends although they often do become ones. Their role is to support, champion, and challenge. There are no age or experience boundaries. They are as likely to be an octogenarian professional as a 20 something-year-old tech-savvy entrepreneurs. Trust and reciprocity are the foundations of these relationships. My network and personal boardroom have come into their own even more now that I am running my own business.

These key concepts of relationships and networks in a career context are not taught to women. I’m not sure many men are taught either, but they do oftentimes have more readily available access by default as I witnessed again only recently. Attending a dinner for investment bankers, I observed a relatively large number of young men; sons, godsons, mentees, employees, etc, who had been brought along by the predominantly male attendees compared to the small number of young women invited (albeit in a similar way). The opportunity provided to them to network and create powerful connections was a strong reminder of how this works in subtle but important ways in their favour. Hence, why I believe there is a need to educate through awareness.

Critically, I was introduced to Joanne Hession. We had a long conversation in a Sainsburys’ car park of all places and was one of those conversations you remember. Joanne was introduced to me by a member of my personal boardroom. She is based in Ireland and has a setup LIFT Ireland to improve the quality of leadership in public and private institutions in that country. She very generously shared with me the concept of The Board You Cannot Afford. For many years, Joanne has had such a board made up of other inspirational business professionals who spend quality time together away on retreats working through their challenges, both work and personal. It has been transformational for them.

I feel strongly that every leader needs to aspire to such a The Board You Cannot Afford. In my executive coaching and business mentoring work with business founders and owners, in particular, I often challenge them to build such a board by identifying and approaching truly inspirational individuals. Seek people who will stretch their beliefs and build The Board You Cannot Afford. I often find that aspiration can be very low with clients and by opening minds and entertaining the art of the possible — amazing things can happen! It really is possible to establish a mind-bogglingly amazing The Board You Cannot Afford through clarity of purpose and impact!

Building targeted, well-nurtured relationships and networks are such essential skillsets. I spend a great deal of my time when working with coachees and mentees on the issue of networks and networking, especially women, who once they grasp the framework mentioned above and requirements, frequently prove very effective at taking forward their networks and building successful careers and businesses.

Why self-compassion and healthy boundaries are vital to sustain yourself and to thrive

In this series of brief essays, I’ve attempted to highlight some thinking and work of a small number of female thought leaders who have influenced my work greatly. All in the spirit of sharing, collaboration, and support in uncertain times.

Out of the insights I have produced, this is my most personal and really the hardest of all to write and publish. It feels self-indulgent and quite exposing. As I mentioned in my insight on purpose, I took the bold step to explore life as a freelance coach, mentor, and consultant and left a full-on, full-time City career summer 2018.

I had been feeling increasingly burnt out. I drove myself and those around me incredibly hard and frequently the standards to which I was held and held myself and the team were simply too much. On the journey in my transition to a new way of being, I was introduced to mindful self-compassion. I am very grateful to the person who helped me to find this light through the work of Kristin Neff and her colleague Chris Germer in what was a very turbulent time.

Mindful self-compassion is a practice that has really helped me to identify, name, and manage the emotional rollercoaster I am on: setting up and running a business whilst juggling all the demands of life and caring responsibilities and a husband who is also self-employed. It gives me the space and insight I need to manage myself and my emotions. It is a very powerful experience: learning to be kind to yourself.

As part of my practice, I am learning increasingly how to set healthy boundaries and stick to them. Most of the time. In the past, I understood the concept but found it impossible to put it into action as I simply felt overwhelmed. Now, I have a practice that gives me the tools I need to manage myself and I am therefore better able to take the steps needed to re-centre when I’m wobbling. I am not perfect. I am a work in progress, but I now have a powerful tool.

In my coaching and mentoring work with clients, I have also found it a powerful tool. Encouraging them to explore self-compassion and kindness in themselves. We are used to showing it to others but find it hard to apply to ourselves.

Recently, with all that is going on in these turbulent times, I have felt the wheels coming off again but rather than battling through, I used my practice to create the time and space I needed. In this case, it meant postponing several commitments and pushing back on a few deadlines and demands on my time. Whereas before I would have battled through relying on sleep deprivation, caffeine, and my family’s patience. This time I was able to rest, get out into nature, switch off from my smartphone, and find breathing space.

Using a compassionate mindfulness approach can help especially in these difficult and uncertain times we find ourselves. It takes patience and staying power but is well worth it.

Appendix — Useful links

Carol Dweck

Herminia Ibarra

Kristin Neff

Joanne Hession

Julia Hobsbawm

Prof Lynda Gratton

Zella King

Copyright © 2020 Wise Sherpa

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