Letter to My Former Self... to That Up-and-Coming Female Leader

Hey girlfriend, I totally get how you feel. I have been there too. Your mascara is slightly smudged around the corner of your eye from rubbing it without realizing it. You are trying to catch up on emails before you have to leave for that customer dinner you really didn't want to attend in the first place. You'd rather be at [fill in as appropriate: your child's swim class, having dinner with your husband or just curled up on the couch with a good book] but you are still in the office and you won't get home until at least 11:00 p.m. Again.

I know that most days you are fine with this, I get it. And I also know that sometimes, just like tonight, you wonder why it feels so hard. Well, my former self, the truth is that it feels hard because it is hard. Change is in the air, but for now the cards are still stacked against us. So just remember that I understand all that you are up against.

It's lonely at the top. The more senior you are the more isolated you feel, and it is even more pronounced if you are a woman. You get less feedback, less support and less thought partnership. You are either managing up or down, but you don't have many peers who can truly support you. With the exception of a few industries and companies, you have very few female peers you trust who can understand what you are going through and truly have your back.

Women lead differently than men. Not better, not worse, just different. And because there are significantly more men out there in leadership positions, the masculine way is more common and accepted... so you are constantly walking the line between trying to be yourself vs. trying to be more like a man.

Your head hurts because you keep hitting it on the glass ceiling. You may have been turned down from leading another organization, a position for which you are supremely qualified for, or have been passed up for promotion again at your current company.

You are constantly being judged, both in your professional and personal life. You are either too tough, or too soft. Your voice is too high or too low. You are either too ambitious or not ambitious at all... and this doesn't stop after work either. Your kid is always the last one to be picked up from day care, and it's always your husband who gets there before you do. Or you are over 40 and the last one among your friends to find a partner. Or... the list goes on.

Work, family and life priorities are in constant conflict. Lean In or Lean Out... that is the question! You are ambitious but you also want a life and some days (most days) it's really hard to square the two.

You wear way too many hats on a daily basis, and it's exhausting. At work you are the boss, the peacemaker, the cheerleader... whatever. You bring home the bacon and when you get home you are still expected to be the perfect wife, perfect mother, lover, sister, daughter, housekeeper, cook, baker, gardener, best friend. That doesn't leave any room to be yourself and do the things you actually love to do... you gave up on dancing all night a long ago, but even reading a book feels indulgent now.

You don't feel fulfilled unless you can be yourself, but being yourself has been proven not to serve you well so you just end up playing the part that people seem to like and accept the most.

So yes, I get it. And I'm sorry that you won't have a chance to kiss your kid or your boyfriend or your dog good night tonight. But I can tell you that it will get better. It did for me, and since I'm your future self it will get better for you as well. I finally said "Enough." I finally made new choices. I finally created a life that allowed me to be myself without leaning in or out. And the icing on the cake is that now I wake up with a smile and can do the things I love on a daily basis.

But I need your help. I managed to break this cycle for you and me, but there are way too many girlfriends of ours who still feel trapped by all the expectations placed upon us. Helping other women figure out how to lead, without completely giving up on who they are, is not just nice -- unleashing their creative power could move mountains (or at least several points on the S&P). Their collective impact could shift the culture so that our daughters would not have to choose between career and motherhood, or between professional success and personal fulfillment. Because at some point, in the not-so-distant future, we will have it all.