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Waiting to Exhale

I was talking to a friend recently, making plans to get together in person (finally) and comparing notes on our year, when she said something I can’t get out of my head: “Quitting is the new self-care.”

Her phrase was more plea than plan; few of us can just walk off our jobs. But that sentiment — some version of “I’m sick of this and I’m out of here ASAP” — is one I’ve heard echoed in dozens of conversations with burned-out professional women in the last month. Given that we’re at a 33-year-low in female employment, we should all be worried.

I hit my own wall a couple of weeks ago and felt blindsided by my feelings. There was nothing “wrong” in the big sense. Our family has lost jobs, but no loved ones during the pandemic, and my calendar is filled with joyful, hug-filled reunions. Unlike my friend who felt unsafe expressing her vulnerability at work, I am surrounded by supportive colleagues. So why was I feeling so utterly depleted? And if I felt this way, what about those of us dealing with racism, outright attacks, and devastating loss?

In a recent Atlantic piece called, “What Happens When Americans Can Finally Exhale: The pandemic’s mental wounds are still wide open” science journalist Ed Yong described the long tail of pandemic stress. I found the perspective helpful for understanding my own feelings. It’s also a blinking danger signal for any company or manager tempted to treat the pandemic as a mere “pause” in the action.

Cami Anderson, the founder of Third Way Solutions and a 5-time CEO with deep experience in dismantling inequities in schools and government institutions, spoke to Watermark in May as part of our inclusion programming. We talked a lot about the importance of psychological safety, not just to create an equitable culture but a high-performing one. “I would have said this pre-pandemic,” she says. “If you don’t have a relationship with [your teams] where they feel emotionally and physically safe, it’s awfully hard to motivate and coach them to the next level.”

And now, when so many traumas have been “put on blast” as she puts it, attention really must be paid.

“I’m going to make a prediction,” Anderson told us. “I think we’re going to see companies that make big investments in recruiting individuals as much for their values as for their skills, that place a high premium on managers who understand how to build culture, trust and relationships, that align their mission and values to equity and justice, and that really take good care and make big investments in people’s well being, those companies are going to be the ones that don’t just survive this moment but thrive.”

As Anderson also reminded us, there is nothing “soft” about this style of leadership. It takes patience, fortitude and courage to make room for people’s vulnerability — and there’s nothing more important right now than to be kind to one another.

Here’s to leading with love.

Peggy Northrop

Peggy Northrop is CEO of Watermark, a nonprofit membership organization focused on redefining leadership. Peggy joined Watermark in February 2020. A media consultant, communications expert, advisor and entrepreneur, Peggy spent the first two decades of her career as an award-winning editor in New York City, where she held senior editorial positions at some of the most iconic names in women’s media, including Vogue, Glamour and Real Simple, before becoming Editor-in-Chief of More and Global Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest. She returned to the Bay Area in 2013 to serve as Editor-in-Chief of Sunset Publishing, and in the same year co-founded Shebooks, an e-book company devoted to publishing stories by and for women. Peggy is an advisor and investor with Portfolia, which creates investment funds designed for women to back the companies they want to see in the world. She is also a mentor with SHE-CAN, the educational organization that trains the next generation of female leaders in post-genocide countries. She currently serves on the board of directors of Washington & Jefferson College.

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