You don’t build creative businesses without, at some point (or many points), having a crisis of confidence
Older, wiser, more experienced women warned us:
Speak up. Don’t speak up. Be assertive. Raise your hand. Calm down. Interrupt. Be nice. Don’t be intimidating. Don’t be angry. Stop shouting. Dress respectably. Be confident. Above all, don’t ever, ever, ever be vulnerable.
All we wanted was to be ourselves and to let our work speak for itself. But too often the topic of conversation demanded an accounting of our clothes, our tone, our age, our lipstick.
Women are continually critiqued and advised on how we present ourselves as leaders. Sometimes it feels like the world is pushing us to be anything but who we actually are. Moving beyond the overused clichés of how women should act and instead celebrating all intersections of confidence — confidence across cultures, the gender spectrum and our unique lived experiences — is the future of work. A future where our individualized presentation as leaders is seen as an asset.
The barriers to accessing the projection of strength and the embodiment of confidence to command a room are very, very real. The male patriarchy has worked to keep women silent since the beginning of time. The system is built for men, but we are inspired to use our own leadership to reimagine the workplace for women and those ripple effects will be better for everyone.
For us, confidence is not just about speaking up, demanding what we want, or doing power poses before hard meetings. Instead, it’s asking questions like, “How I can better bring my own humanity into the workplace bravely? How can we be reminded of our most vulnerable, exposed moments and use that darkness and beauty to fuel our fire? How can we start to shift the goal of confidence from a narrative that demands a white-male projection of confidence toward a culture that values the leadership qualities rooted in human connection like empathy, emotion and kindness?
Vulnerability in the workplace
In 2013, Pollen transformed from an all-volunteer organization to a fully staffed, fully funded nonprofit. We found ourselves at the helm of an organization that required the attention and rhythms of a startup: wake up, work, go to sleep; wake up, work, go to sleep; wake up, work, go to sleep. We squeezed all the work we could out of our lives, and in turn, work squeezed the life out of us. When you work that much, and care that much, the tectonic plates of the personal and the professional identity collide and a volcano of vulnerability erupts. That vulnerability is now a core value to us and the Pollen staff. It helps create a space where everyone feels like they can be themselves. Conversation around what shapes our moods and our days beyond the office walls — death, birth, reality television, vet visits, divorce — is crucial to our culture because it is crucial to our confidence, our creativity and our humanity.
Trust us, everyone cries in their car. It is when we are not confident, when we sit in the car and let the tears flow, that we need allies at work most. We hope the projection of utter confidence will be a footnote of the patriarchal past. As more and more women come into positions of power, we hope they will do so bravely, and allow for real human emotion, make space for difficult conversation, and seek a deepened acknowledgement of the pain and joy that surrounds the periphery of our work lives.
Deep layers of support
We are realizing that as you come into a place of leadership, it really helps to have an intimate and deep layer of support. It can be a shield to the world.
We would not have reached this point at Pollen if it were not for our deep friendship. We show up first and foremost as best friends (we can’t help ourselves!), and as our best friend-ness lava leaks out all over the place, we hope to model a more empathetic, inclusive, kind and curious workplace.
Cheryl Sandberg tells us to lean in. Ann Marie Slaughter tells us to get married, have kids, but have a spouse at home to raise your child. Kate Bollick tells us to stay single. Roxanne Gay tells us it is okay to be a bad feminist. What we are telling you, is that you need help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. Don’t be afraid to offer it.
For the past ten years Jamie Millard (left) and Meghan Murphy (right) have been working in partnership as “Work Wives,” building creative enterprises like Pollen Midwest, a Minnesota nonprofit that invests in human connection, and Paper Darts, a national literary arts magazine that weaves together short fiction and art.