In this interview, transformational coach Areej Khataybih offers a psychological perspective on women leaders and what contributes to their success and their challenges. She highlights the challenges that come from internal obstacles and beliefs of not being good enough and the battle of competing with male counterparts and, in the process, denying women’s full selves, the emotional and the logical.
Cutter Consortium: Tell us about your experience working with professionals in the business technology field.
Areej Khataybih (AK): My first job [in HR] was at an IT company, one of the pioneering IT companies in the Middle East that built platforms for kings, queens, and governments to help automate their systems. Upon meeting the CEO during the interview process, he asked me about my background, my studies, et cetera. At the time, I had my master’s degree [in psychology and educational counseling]. He wanted to hire me as a “therapist” who would work on the lack of soft skills among his “guru” employees. He told me, “When it comes to emotions and relationships, they need you. But we won’t call you a ‘therapist’; we will place you in that department and give you the title of ‘development officer.’ ” After four and a half years of developing the soft skills among the development team, I moved on as HR manager, then HR director, working with everyone from sales to operations. Using a psychological point of view, I helped build a new culture. A few years later, I went to the US and studied employee relations. Soon after, various companies in the UK recruited me to work in Jordan because they wanted me to bring the human factor into the IT world. Then I decided I wanted to meet and help more leaders around the world, so I quit my corporate job, studied executive coaching in the US, and established my own business.
Currently, I work as a leadership transformational coach and have a doctorate in psychology. I’m the founder of a company called The Spark Back, where I primarily work with high achievers, people with great track records of success. Some of my clients lack passion while others are truly impacting the world. They are all decision makers, with most being CEOs or directors who manage budgets/revenue. They are typically over the age of 40 and, most of the time, lack three things: (1) the energy to show their best selves, (2) the recognition from the significant people in their lives, and (3) the feeling of making a meaningful impact in a place that means a lot to them. This is where I step in. I help them “get the spark back” through a four-step method that will move these high achievers from where they are today to a place where they will have unbound energy. People around them start to appreciate them more, which in turn helps them flourish more, allowing them to feel that they are truly “making a difference.”
Cutter Consortium: Can you talk about the challenges women face in the corporate world?
AK: Usually, the women I work with face an internal obstacle, although it might look external, such as not being accepted as a woman when it comes to the board level. When a woman is on a board — and most boards in IT consist of men — she sometimes brings her own belief that she’s not going to be accepted. This is her number one obstacle: the feeling that she’s not good enough. She might think things like, “Because of my age, because I’m a woman, because I’m different,” and this will hold her back. With this internal viewpoint, she may then prepare herself in a way that does make her appear that she is somehow different than other board members. Her self-perceptions, ideas, and expectations about what might happen during her interactions with other board members may mistakenly set her up to meet those expectations.
Let me give you an example. I remember one woman who earned a nomination to be the general manager for one of the biggest telecom companies in the Middle East. She came to me and said, “I have been promoted, but I’m about to reject this promotion because during the interview they said to me, ‘You look like a petite woman, and you are going to work with very senior-level people, and they are all men. You will be the only woman there. How are you going to work with them and make your voice heard?’ ” Then, we “went deep” and she discovered that her size and appearance are actually internal issues that she focuses on about herself. So, when it came to that particular question, she was the one who was not convinced she could succeed. She thought, “I need to look different. I need to show up as a different person.” In the end, she couldn’t answer their question and instead started to push her old mindset of “they are rejecting me because of how I look.” Although this is generally not a very appropriate question, because it certainly brings about gender bias, this woman’s battle was really an internal issue.
Another challenge that comes up is the internal battle many women have with their emotional side. Women in the corporate world sometimes think, “I am too emotional. I need to show them that I am logical.” Consequently, some women try to hide their true personalities or alter their reactions. This may directly affect how they make decisions as well as how others perceive them. They may get too caught up in trying to impress their male counterparts. Women should instead focus on how they attained their position. What got them to that place is a set of different things and being female is one of them. Women need to keep in mind that all humans are emotional and that it’s not only logic that goes into decision making. We women should be true to ourselves and not feel that others are judging us about how we come to a decision.
There’s one more internal obstacle women in the workplace face: the expectations of the “many hats” that women wear, including mom, and the general expectations from community/society. Women sometimes get locked into what they think their role “should be.” So, if a woman really wants to be a high achiever in the workplace and can see herself in that position, she should leave the internal (and sometimes external) judgment behind. Women in the workplace should be proud of themselves and their achievements and not try to hide their authentic selves because they think the “female” role puts pressure on them.
Cutter Consortium: Aside from the internal issues that you’ve highlighted, are there any other challenges that maybe women can’t control?
AK: I often see both men and women facing the same challenges, many of which revolve around desire and expectations. Sometimes we expect less from ourselves but desire more. We may have the desire to play a big, critical role but think we can’t achieve it. And we sometimes think that our environment, or the people around us, should support us more so perhaps we put in less effort due to that expectation.
Expectations come from a lot of sources. The most critical one for women is probably the perceived expectations from the significant others in their lives. It starts with parents; the way they raised her, the way they look at her, how they judge her, how they expect her to support herself, what kinds of things they praise her for, and so on. I once had a client who thought she just needed half a million dollars to “secure” herself and after that she would stop working. Although she was successful, she told me, “I just need this job for financial security; once I have that, I will not work.”
Other times, the reason women work is not a very healthy one. They may work in high positions just to prove that they can. It’s like a source of revenge deep down. They want to prove it to the significant people in their lives; they’re not necessarily doing it because it makes them happy or content. Sometimes women may have issues when it comes to internal security and feel that if they don’t work, no one will take care of them (financially). These obstacles come from society or from the way a woman was raised. As a result, the drivers for taking on leadership positions may be unhealthy, and those drivers will bring on more challenges. In general, both internal and external challenges may be somewhat exaggerated (or elevated) in a woman’s mind, causing her to push herself into a place that doesn’t fit her.
On the other hand, there are plenty of women who just want to move ahead and be the true leaders they can be. They have great vision, they have the right drivers, and they want to create an impact in the world … they want to prove themselves in a way that shows and inspires others, not just prove to others that they can do it or do it to counter their internal shame. It’s exactly the opposite. These women are enlightened. They want to inspire others and go into their position with the mindset of “I am here to collaborate. I am here to play.”
Yet, sometimes, even these go-getter female leaders still face some difficulties when dealing with senior-level colleagues because they think they shouldn’t give orders or be perceived as the final decision maker. As a result, they show up “in the room” as if they are “consulting” with everyone, rather than being the primary decision maker, just to make sure that their colleagues are happy with the “group” decision. On the other end of the spectrum, some women come off as overly bossy because they want to prove they are a formidable component of the team.
Another interesting thing that comes into play is fear of success. I’ve worked with women leading big organizations who earned nominations as ministers, but who used to be afraid of that step because they thought that they would lose the significant people in their lives. They would think, “Maybe my partner will start to have fears. Maybe he will start to feel that he’s not competent to my level.” So they shrink themselves. They “play small” because they don’t want people to see them through their skills. This becomes problematic because they are already shining, they are already getting attention; people are trusting them, trusting their abilities, capabilities, experience, and decisions. But they will try to minimize and show less of that because they might be afraid of “what’s next.” When it comes to fear of success, I always tell my clients that inside every fear, there is a desire. And the desire is exactly the opposite of the fear. So, when you are feeling successful, then you crave more success. And if there is someone in your life who will leave you due to that success, then that is the wrong person to be beside you. You may need to reassess your relationships.
Sometimes fear of success comes from not yet having or experiencing success. You might think of this as “imposter syndrome”: “I’m not equivalent or competent, or I’m a fake or a fraud.” Once you experience success, confidence will come, because confidence is a consequence of your wins. Your quick wins are the things that you will succeed at — and the failures that you will learn from, too. The way you look at these quick wins, the way you see yourself there … this is the main driver toward power and influence.
Cutter Consortium: You contributed to the book A Woman’s Work. Can you tell us about what you offered to your readers?
AK: I wrote about having a vision and about the mindset of a business — what’s behind the business. There’s a mindset when it comes to anything. There are three aspects to mindset: emotions, behaviors/actions, and thoughts or thinking process. This is my specialty area. I believe that when people reach a certain level in their career, they don’t need more skills to learn. Instead, they need someone who can understand their perspective — and even help them change that perspective. Just a 2% change in perspective will have a great impact on a person’s actions. I wrote about having a vision as a leader, where that vision comes from, and how to formalize it.
Prior to that contribution, I met with 200 leaders and, among that group, saw people who are achieving from a place they love. When passion is high, achievements are high. I refer to this group as “thriving.” They are doing great stuff, impacting the world in different aspects. Then there are people who have fewer achievements but still have a lot of passion; I refer to them as “mounting.” These people are just on their way; they need time to bring in more achievements from the place they love. And then there are people who don’t have passion or haven’t yet explored their passion (they didn’t achieve more, in comparison to others). I refer to this group as “sailing.” They are just discovering the world around them and are people who are doing a lot of great things. They are role models, for example, but are not aligned with their achievements. They have something I call “low-wattage syndrome” — they need the extra voltage in their lives. These are the people I work with as my niche. I work with them to “get the spark back” in their lives and to help them align their passion with their achievements.
I discovered a lot of challenges and mistakes that people make to get to “that place.” I learned that having a vision has to start with your dreams — the image/desire that you want, the way you see yourself in the future, and how you see yourself (and your capabilities) today. Vision is a combination of these three things. When we see organizations that are not moving, it’s because the leader can’t clearly see what’s next. But with more clarity comes more smoothness; with more clarity comes more decisive decisions, more assertiveness; and with that comes a lot of engagement, enlightenment, and impact. The exact opposite happens when people don’t align with their vision. They can’t see clearly what’s next.
In my contribution to A Woman’s Work, I also wrote about my journey and the challenges I have faced. My recommendation in that book: keep moving regardless of who believes in you. Trust your inner voice. You might not see things very clearly just yet. It might be foggy, where you just see what’s two meters in front of you, but just move ahead and you will see the next two meters when you move, then you will see the next two.
And the other thing I say is trust that your inner voice is a true thing, like your intuition. When it comes to management, people sometimes might ignore that “voice” and, in the end, will regret it. Or sometimes our conscious can’t comprehend everything that’s happening around us at the moment, but we feel it. But because it’s too much, too quick, we can’t speak about it. So we need to slow down when making decisions. We need to slow down trying to impress ourselves and others. We just need to listen to what that inner voice is telling us — and move from there.
Cutter Consortium: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add about leadership and women?
AK: When it comes to leadership and women, there are three phases: the first phase is when women are about to get a promotion; the second is when they are moving things along well — when things are working for them; and the third is when they are actively looking for what’s next. And with each one comes new challenges.
In the first phase, it’s about the anxiety that will come if they are willing to accept the fear of success: “Will I succeed? Will my peers accept me? Will my colleagues reject me? Will I lose significant people in my life?” I always tell women to stop and think about what their problems were yesterday, and what kinds of problems they have today. And let’s celebrate those problems. Then in the second phase, women think more about the tools of success: “How can I maintain this position? How can I trust myself? Am I being assertive enough when working on projects?” At this point, they may even start to feel bored, or envious. I love enviousness because when you are envious of someone, it’s the opposite of being jealous. You want what someone else has and you want that person to have it. Envy is a great indicator for what we want next. If a woman is envious seeing another woman lead a great organization and be an influencer in her field, it indicates that she needs to be in that position, too. She’s eager to be such an influencer. So just listen to your drivers.
When women are about to move to the third stage, some will start to “play small” just because they are afraid of what’s next. This is really important. I work with a woman who is leading in the banking sector; she’s phenomenal, but her true dream is to live as a housewife. She’s really great at what she does, but her skills and the way she “shows up” started to play out like a curse for her. People started to look to her for more and more things. So, when you speak to her, she will say, “Enough, already, 30 years of working.” But what she is really doing is pushing people away so that they can’t make judgments about her wanting to be a housewife. Sometimes women judge themselves; they judge their desires. Sometimes the desire is exactly opposite of the woman I just described: the desire is to be CEO. And a woman might self-judge that desire because she thinks she’s not supposed to do that.
Some women will say to me, “Now that I am in a new position, a very high one, what’s next? How can I overcome challenges that I have today?” I tell them that they have everything they need. Any experience in life counts, even outside the workplace, because you get to that new position carrying everything you have brought along the way. You carry with you the positive, the negative, the unique things — you bring all kinds of experiences into that role. You just need some time to settle down into your new position before worrying about the challenges ahead. Life events are similar to challenges faced in the workplace, so we just need to bring in the parts of our life where we have faced something similar — and handle it in a similar way.
To build on your strengths, don’t focus on increasing your weaknesses; overcome those weaknesses. I see this often with great leaders: they focus on the thing that makes them great. If it’s business development, they focus on that aspect of the business and then bring in other people who are great at operations — and they work together. So, know your skills and know your strengths and then collaborate with others who are in love with other areas. Having such a collaboration and mindset is awesome and will give you incredible results. This will get leaders to new places. They don’t have to be experts in their field, they need to be the experts who lead experts. They don’t have to put pressure on themselves to learn more stuff to prove that they know everything and are therefore capable of leading. They just need to appreciate what others have and identify the talent. They should focus on their core skill (the thing they can do like no one else) and bring to their team others who are great at their specialty. Leaders must help their colleagues shine. When helping others shine, they will also shine.
Women sometimes think that they need to be everyone, they need to play all the roles; they need to be successful, and they need to impress. I tell my clients that you can never be everyone, so just be yourself. You will never be excellent at all the roles: motherhood, hosting guests, leading teams, and managing the bottom line. So just know who you are. Accept that you will be great in one area but may need help in others.
Finally, if you are someone who’s leading from a place of “caring” (because you care for children at home, for example), then use that caring everywhere. This is your secret weapon. We all have something unique within ourselves. Once we realize what that is and start using it, we will win hearts and achieve our goals.