Forget About Leaning in -- More Than 40 Percent of Women Are Hanging on by a Thread

How do women get career plans in place, look forward with energy and excitement and better manage their well-being and resiliency?
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We hear all the time about the struggle women face in getting to the top in their careers. We know it can be a hard push, with long hours, the double shift, competing demands and the bias that can exist in workplaces. And we know that many women are saying that it's just all too hard, so they are sidelining themselves, starting their own businesses or opting out all together. We need more women in leadership roles -- but we also need specific strategies to help them get there other than telling them to lean in when all many women want to do is lean out (or to be more precise perhaps, to lie down).

New research sheds some much needed light on what can seem at times like a dark and never ending tunnel filled to the brim with career sludge. For the "Getting Real About Women at Work" survey, I polled 1,000 American women and found some startling results when it comes to women, work, career management, and well-being -- and although concerning, the results are illuminating as to why we still see such a lack of women in leadership roles.

Sixty-six percent of women surveyed said they wanted a better career, with 60 percent acknowledging that if they had just one career wish, it would be for better opportunities. Yet only a small percentage of women actually have a career plan in place, with more than 70 percent of women operating without one, and nearly 40 percent saying they are just "winging it."

We look to the senior ranks of our organizations and wonder, "Where are the women?" And we relentlessly tell women to lean in to opportunities and push through the pipeline barriers to get to the top. But it appears there is still a translation gap between what the experts say is needed and what is actually resonating with the women who are trying to breakthrough.

Women need real strategies and support mechanisms that enable them to create robust career plans, tangible help to seek out the opportunities they crave but can't seem to identify, and the support to make real inroads in how to manage the never ending work and life struggle.

A really surprising result in the research was regarding work-life balance. It was predicted that working mothers would show up in the findings as struggling to manage their work and home demands. The prediction was spot on, with 64 percent of women with kids believing that they can't have it all. No real shock there.

But 72 percent of women without kids believe that they can't balance work and home life either, and a staggering 70 percent of women overall are struggling with their well-being. In fact, 65 percent of women say they are "just trying to get by," and more than 40 percent of women surveyed say they are "hanging on by a thread."

A large majority of the women polled reflect what I see in my work with thousands of professional women each year: They are exhausted, barely keeping up with the demands of work and life, which leaves the strategies required to get ahead and address the pipeline issues in our organizations as merely a passing after thought as they concern themselves with their reality: Just getting by.

So what can we do? How do women get career plans in place, look forward with energy and excitement and better manage their well-being and resiliency? Here are three strategies to start with:

1. Realize you do need a plan.

One of the issues with not having a career plan is that you are at the whim of whomever you are working for. If you are good at your job, there will always be someone who wants you. That's great and a good position to be in. But unless that role is going to leverage your strengths, your passion, what makes you feel purposeful at work and what energizes you, you can quickly become one of the eight out of 10 people who don't get to do what they do best every day, and slide into the 70 percent of people who just show up for work, disengaged, waiting on the paycheck.
Start somewhere and start small if you need to. Look at your next six to 12 months. Where are you at, what is energizing about your work, where could you see your next role and why? These are good questions to discuss with your mentor or sponsor. It doesn't really matter where you start with a plan; just start one.

2. Get the balance right.

A small minority of people have a rigorous, linear career plan that's focused on the exact role they want and when they want it. The problem with a plan that is too stringent is that it doesn't leave any room for the magic moments.

These opportunities that come up -- special projects, off shore appointments, sideways steps that may not look good on paper but are career making in reality and development opportunities that can add a new layer to your skill set -- can literally make your career. When you are too focused on your plan, you can miss these opportunities to the detriment of your career. Get the right balance between knowing where you're going and leaving space for the right opportunities.

3. Prioritize your well-being.

As a working woman, with or without children, it is clear that things aren't working optimally. You need to make your well-being a non-negotiable. Taking care of you first, as the natural nurturers, is not the first response for most women. Think about what you need to truly thrive and plan for it. Build it in to your days.

That could include going for a run in the morning, meditating for five minutes twice a day, drinking a green smoothie for breakfast, or making sure you get those seven to eight hours of sleep that are so critical.

Factor it in. Make it the most important thing you do. And then hopefully some of those statistics will start to trend in a more positive direction.

This article first appeared in Fast Company.

To get real strategies for building a successful career without sacrificing your wellbeing, get a copy of Getting Real About Having It All.