Leadership and change: Motherhood, at 40, taught me what both really are

23 Aug 2017

Dr Anita Sands speaking at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Having accomplished just about everything in business, Dr Anita Sands thought herself a fearless changemaker – until her baby girl showed her what one really looks like.

I’m currently a board director at three publicly traded, Silicon Valley-based, technology companies. Each is incredibly innovative and disruptive in its respective space. Each is providing me with countless opportunities to learn about the rapidly evolving environment of enterprise IT.

Before that, as an operating executive in global behemoth banks and wealth management firms, I held titles such as head of innovation, head of transformation and head of change leadership. Change, you could say, was the name of my game. I specialised in it. And you know what? I thought I was pretty good at it.

The greatest disrupter 

That is, until seven months ago, when I came across the greatest disrupter of my career to date. No enterprise-wide transformation agenda or disruptive start-up could rival its impact. This emerging, fast-growth entity came in the form of a 6.9-pound baby girl who was intent on conquering her target market and radically upending its incumbent players (AKA myself and my husband).

After 37 weeks in not-so-stealth development, Baby Rosie arrived after an 80-hour launch – which, I can assure you, was a whole lot more fun for her than for me. Her arrival was heralded like many radically disruptive start-ups, with admiration from her backers, plenty of advice from seasoned vets of the parenting sector and many inputs into her strategy for growth.

Six-month-old Rosie Brown visits the Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond, California. Image: Dr Anita Sands

Six-month-old Rosie Brown visits the Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond, California. Image: Dr Anita Sands

Now, I will confess that, at times, her go-to-market approach was less than pleasing. Particularly, the 10 weeks I spent suffering from ‘all-day morning sickness’ – that felt like a hostile takeover. But now, we’ve come to consider it more a friendly merger of the old and the new.

As those of us in business know only too well, however, mergers rarely go smoothly. Integration is often a lot easier planned than executed. And, as you’d expect for a couple of C-suite parents, well, suffice to say, it has required a massive ‘reorg’. Now in our 40s and 50s, we are what you might call ‘legacy operators’. I joke that if my husband actually were an operating system, he’d be written in COBOL! But here we are, disruption has arrived, and we now find ourselves in a whole new line of business.

The arrival of Baby Rosie has put a new term sheet on the table, and, as a 41-year-old professional woman and also a mother, one of the most unsuspecting and challenging parts of this venture has been the personal ‘rebranding’ it required. After living 20 years as a successful professional, this change in identity is profound. For starters, my attention, time and resources – which were once split two ways, between my professional and personal life – is now a three-way reallocation. I’m often left feeling that I’m short-changing all three.

Change: The only guaranteed constant

When I returned to the boardroom four weeks after Rosie was born, in some ways nothing had changed. The quarterly results were in. The presentations were the same. The questions were thoughtful. But, in another way, everything had changed. From Q4 2016 to Q1 2017, my prior strategic plan and operating model had been permanently disrupted and redesigned.

What I’ve come to understand, throughout this whole experience and my career to date, is that life and leadership are ultimately all about change. Change is the only guaranteed constant in today’s world.

‘Learning how to cultivate the resilience, optimism, vision and courage that change requires is what helps make a leader’

Looking back, I’m now glad change has been a hallmark of my professional life. Some of those changes were planned, others not. Some resulted in big wins, others brought hard-learned lessons. My career pivots have taken me from physics into public policy, from academia to financial services, from banking into tech, from Ireland to Canada, from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, and from an operating role into my current life as an independent board director, adviser and, of course, mother.

I used to be concerned about the impact of all those metamorphoses on my personal brand. Had those moves tarnished my value proposition? Had I come off as a chameleon of convenience, oscillating with the winds of opportunity?

Then, it hit me. What I feared could be potentially interpreted as a liability was, in fact, an asset, and a source of differentiation and strength. I realised change was my value proposition. Being good at change – learning how to cultivate the resilience, optimism, vision and courage it requires – is what helps make a leader, what drives success and even survival in the disruptive times in which we live.

3 lessons I’ve learned about change

1. Know what you’re solving for

What’s important to you will differ greatly at different times in your life. This is especially true for women, because, like an equation with too many variables, the complexity of our lives, the many titles we have and the many hats we wear, means that we inherently cannot solve for everything at once.

Over the past three years, I not only got married and became a mother, but I also became an instant stepmother to five wonderful young adults. I went through a process where I had to come to terms with the fact that the variables that mattered to me, at this moment in my life and career, were very different to what had mattered before.

I’ve now declared to myself that on any given day – as a mother, as a wife and as a professional – at best, I can do well at two of those three things, but not all three. At least, not at the same time. As professional women, to achieve the elusive ‘work-life balance’ on any single day is impossible, but it is achievable over a given week or month or year. And I’ve come to total peace with that.

2. Be motivated by something new

Change is far more empowering and effective when you’re motivated and compelled by the opportunity of something new versus allowing yourself to be constrained by the fear of leaving behind what you know.

Change and fear are conjoined twins that share vital organs. One cannot exist without the other. Fear loves a costume and shows up in our lives in every imaginable form, with an infinite supply of excuses as to why we just ‘can’t’.

You have to have the courage to take risks, not being sure of where you’ll land, or how things will work out. You need to have the confidence that you’ll figure out how to deploy your parachute before you hit the ground – and to surround yourself with people who can help you do that.

3. Evict the roommate in your mind

You know the one I’m talking about. Moving your life forward requires you telling the roommate in your mind to, frankly, shut up.

My roommate moved in sometime in my teens and, boy, is she a piece of work. She’s what you might call a ‘mean girl’. She wallows in negativity, specialises in criticism and trades in fear. Sometimes she’s quiet, or I manage to drown her out. But, much of the time, she’s up there, having a party in my brain, relentlessly sharing her opinion on absolutely everything.

It’s the one secret we don’t discuss enough. Every successful woman has this nagging, non-stop chattering voice in her head constantly trying to convince her that she’s not enough, that she shouldn’t try, that she won’t succeed. Her favourite word is ‘can’t’.

It took me a long time to realise, and even longer to internalise, that she is not me. By developing a mindfulness practice, I’ve learned to be aware that she’s there, and to ignore her. It’s an ongoing journey, a lifelong skill I’ll have to work on. But shushing your roommate’s shrill voice is the only way to successfully navigate change and move your life forward.

When I grow up, I want to #belikerosie

The most incredible and life-altering part of my journey into motherhood so far isn’t what I’ve learned but, rather, what Rosie continues to teach me. Each day, I look at her and marvel because she’s absolutely fearless. Six months old and she isn’t afraid to ask for what she wants. In fact, she yells for it. She wants food, she insists on it. She wants her nappy changed? Well, let’s just say my current role as ‘change agent’ has a whole new scope of responsibilities!

And, better yet, she has a voice. There’s no domineering internal roommate there. Just a fearless, vocal little girl, who’s not afraid to ask for what she wants, not afraid to speak up. In every interaction, she ‘leans in’, engages with you and definitely won’t be ignored.

‘When do we as little girls stop being fearless, stop asking for what we want, stop speaking up?’

So, I look at my baby girl, fearless and vocal, and then I look at myself. And I wonder, when did that change? When do we as little girls stop being fearless, stop asking for what we want, stop speaking up? When does that happen? How does that happen?

When I work with CEOs and executive teams, I tell them that their job as leaders is to pry open the window of change, because, inherently, the inertia within organisations means they just want to come to rest. So, when I think about Rosie and all the little girls out there, I know my job is to pry open that window of change and to hold open the space where she can grow up – never losing that sense of fearlessness, never being afraid to speak up. And I know I need to keep that window open against all the societal and cultural forces that want it closed.

Can I do it? Can I really help change the world and create an environment for Rosie better than the one I encountered? My doubting roommate sometimes questions. And then I look at my baby girl and it’s, ‘Roommate, be damned’. Because I can swear that Rosie’s saying with her big blue eyes, ‘You’ve got this, mom’.

A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse following a keynote on the topic at Inspirefest 2017.

Dr Anita Sands is a US-based board director, author and speaker. She has a background in the financial services and technology industries, and has served on the boards of companies such as Symantec, ServiceNow and Pure Storage.