We Know Why She Does It

Of all the issues about work-life balance, none stirs the pot more than the question: Can women really combine a high-powered career and a satisfying personal life? One camp is epitomized by the frazzled, sleep-deprived main character in Allison Pearson's novel, I Don't Know How She Does It. On the other side are the "life doesn't have to be a death march from dawn to midnight" successful moms described in Laura Vanderkam's recent rebuttal, I Know How She Does It.

We'd like to introduce a new perspective: We know why she does it.

The reason why is astonishingly simple: for the sheer joys of power. Recent research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that women who have achieved success have discovered a potent secret: that power and its accompanying perquisites can be both a source of personal fulfillment as well as professional achievement.

We're delighted that the secret is getting out. In just six weeks, our #JoysofPower social media campaign this past spring reached over 2.6 million people. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand endorsed it. Glamour magazine tweeted, "It's setting the record straight about the benefits of being women in power." We described the statistics behind our report "Women Want Five Things" in an earlier post. Now we'd like to share some of the stories real women told us about the rewards for amping up their career ambitions:

• "Oprah Winfrey's definition of power truly resonates with me," says Michelle Gadsden Williams, co-founder and chief operating officer of Ceiling Breakers. "She describes power as 'the ability to impact with purpose.' When we effect change, compete for resources, forge consensus, leverage relationships, strengthen positions, and further our team's reputation, we are engaging in acts of power and influence. The point of having power is to use it in a meaningful and authentic way."

• "I've worked hard to earn influence," says Susan Chapman-Hughes, senior vice president, Global Corporate Payments, American Express. "I've been able to build strong, broad sponsorship across the organization. If I need to get something done, there are a lot of people who are willing to help me. That's my brand. I stand up for my people, for my clients, and that resonates. It buys me the opportunity to have even greater power and influence."

• "Power gave me a voice, a platform, and the privilege to influence corporate behavior," says Shalini Mahtani, founder of the Zubin Foundation. "In my role as founder of Community Business, I have influence companies across Asia to put diversity and inclusion on their agenda. With my power, other women received power, too. And this power gives us freedom to not marry young, to choose our future and be who we want to be."

• "What is power? It is the ability to say something and have people listen," says Katherine Phillips, Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at the Columbia University Business School. "It is the ability to listen to others and make change happen for them. It is the ability to ask questions that challenge the status quo. It is the ability to mess up and have the chance to fix it. Power is not just defined by the position you are in, it is defined by your state of mind. If you don't like what you see, don't just sit back and complain about it -- change it! With power, you can shape the circumstances. I have enjoyed shaping my own circumstances, sharing my values with others, and empowering other people to grow. This, to me, is the joy of power!"

The sad fact is, too many women step off the fast track and throttle down their career ambitions because they perceive an executive role as delivering a hefty salary but little else that they value. Struggling to climb the career ladder, women transitioning from middle to upper management, from associate to partner, or from team contributor to industry expert have difficulty imagining the sense of fulfillment, intellectual excitement and sheer joy inherent in having the top job.

That's why it's so important to publicize the liberating aspects of a leadership role. Our research finds that women at the peak of their careers perceive that the burdens of a powerful position outweigh the benefits. As a result, less than a quarter of mid-career, college-educated professionals in the U.S. aspire to a powerful position. But when women perceive that an executive position will satisfy their value proposition, rather than subvert it, they are more likely to strive for top leadership roles (34 percent versus 12 percent in the U.S.) than those who do not.

"The higher you ascend, the more influence you have across the organization, and the more resources you have at your disposal to get things done," observes Valerie Grillo, chief diversity officer, American Express. With the official title to manifest their power, Grillo notes, women gain control over their personal lives as well as their professional relationships. "Power enables them to create the work/life fit they're seeking," she says.

That's why she does it and how she does it -- because power enables women to rediscover joy in their professional and personal lives, and joy has the power to make their lives immeasurably better.