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Why it’s lonely being a woman in business, and what I did about it

They say it’s lonely at the top.

I didn’t really understand this statement until I started my first business. Up until then, I’d always had a boss. Someone I could go to for advice when I was stuck or feeling like I was failing. I also had peers, people I could complain to when things weren’t going my way. People I could confide in.

Once my business and team started to grow, having no higher power to lean on and no peer network to talk to was probably my biggest challenge.

At first, I made the mistake of treating everyone as my peer, but pretty quickly figured out that, while being vulnerable is important, you can’t talk to your team about your every fear and worry – especially not the fear that you’re in over your head and you have no idea what to do next. 

You also can’t let every creative idea and “what if” that springs into your consciousness distract the team from the mission. The fact is there are so many conversations you want to have with someone, anyone, that just aren’t appropriate to have with your team.

This, as I discovered, is extremely isolating. And for me, being a woman made this even harder. At the time, I could count on one hand the women I knew with their own businesses and for some reason that made me feel even more alone.

It’s not that I couldn’t speak to the men in my life about my challenges – I did and still do. It’s that I didn’t have anyone I could really relate to, or that could really relate to me as a 20-something woman managing an (at the time) all female team.

Of course, this is a broad generalisation but in my experience, the way a man approaches things doesn’t always work for a woman. The dynamic is different.

I was afraid of being too firm with my team because I didn’t want to come off as a ‘bitch’ and I needed advice on how to deal with that from women who’d had the same challenges.

When I started working in TV, I needed help fine-tuning my message, which was targeted at women’s health. I even needed help with what to wear! I needed women in my life who’d already walked the path and could guide me along the way. 

I knew I should find a mentor, but where to start? And to be honest the thought of asking someone more senior than me to spend their own spare time helping me when I couldn’t reciprocate just didn’t feel right.

What I did about it

Of course I’d chat to my girlfriends, but while for me business is part of my life, most of my friends don’t want to chat about ‘work’ when they’re not at work. 

I needed a community of people who had the same challenges and interests. People who could really relate and genuinely enjoyed talking and brainstorming about business.

My starting point was actually my good friend and now business partner, Sarah Roocroft. Sarah and I used to have coffee (well actually, back then it was hot chocolate more often than not!) on a regular basis to brainstorm our way through life and business challenges. It was a friendship that really inspired me and helped drive innovation and creativity in both our businesses.

When Sarah moved to Melbourne, we missed that time together so much, that we decided to have our own little ‘bizcation’ together in Fiji, which was such an incredibly productive and inspiring few days it was the catalyst for Nurture Her (more on this below)!

- Sarah and I with her little ladies in Fiji

Since then I’ve been very conscious about building the right community of fellow business nerds who have the same challenges and genuinely love a good creative brainstorm around what to do about them.

What I look for in my community I haven’t written these down until now so this is the formalisation of something that was very intuitive but here’s what I look for in my community: 

1.    Not too close to home

I love a good intra-industry chat, but when it’s time to really think deeply and consider change, I often avoid talking to people who are too close to my business, my team and sometimes even my industry. This helps me feel more comfortable about opening up, but it also means I’m chatting with people who have a completely fresh perspective on my business and vice versa. People outside your industry tend to think of your business in a really different way, and I love that.

2.    Someone I aspire to be like

I love being around passionate people who have achieved a lot in life, have grand aspirations or who have qualities that I really admire. I find it inspiring and uplifting, and I really do believe in the saying you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, so I like to choose wisely. 

3.    Energy builders

I want both of us to walk away feeling energised from our conversations, so I avoid those people who tend to be energy vampires. It’s a simple test, if I walk away feeling more energetic than I arrived, then they’re an energy builder. I’m also very conscious of the energy I bring to make sure this is a two-way street! 

4.    Honesty

The one thing I value above all others is people who can be really honest with me. A sympathetic ear is great, but you also need someone who tells you how it is and challenges your thinking. This can be confronting and even emotional at times, but it’s where my biggest breakthroughs and ah-ha moments have come from. 

Do you need to find your own community? 

Off the back of our own Fiji 'bizcation', Sarah and I created Nurture Her because we know how lonely business can be, especially so as a woman. Join us October 2018 in Fiji!

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