A high-level report came out on the future of democracy a few weeks ago. My boss flagged it as important – this is Washington, after all. I carefully placed my copy on the only uncluttered corner of my desk, where it sits now. Have I read it? No. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Harvard Business Review highlighted a recent study on “The Secrets of Successful Female Networkers,” which observed that successful women know when to say no to collaboration and networking, and instead “set aside time for reflection and high-level thinking.”
It might seem counterintuitive, but this intellectual cloistering made them more valuable to their networks – because they could offer better strategic insights and were more able to calibrate their own careers. So, I need to read that report. But how does anyone squeeze in a little reading on top of intense Washington workloads, volunteer commitments and happy hour? “Build the confidence to say no,” advises Bunmi Akinnusotu, deputy director of the prestigious Rangel Graduate Fellowship at Howard University and host of the podcast What in the World?
“Sometimes insecurity drives our overcommitment – the fear that people won’t think you’re smart or important if you don’t step up,” she observes. “But that’s not true. Give yourself permission to engage with your priorities.” Schedule a meeting with yourself,” exclaims Bianca Hutton, an international communications expert and founder of My Mid-Career Life, a podcast launching this spring about professionals navigating hard choices. “Even if it’s just once a month, schedule an hour to read the articles you’ve bookmarked. Clear it with your boss if you have to but make it a business meeting with yourself.”
But Hutton warns against limiting yourself to just reading articles and reports during your high-level power hour.
“I was lucky to have a boss early in my career who made it mandatory once a month to take a half day to do something completely unrelated to work,” she tells me. “Go without an agenda and let your mind wander.”
This could mean visiting a museum or attending a noon performance at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage.
“The idea was to let your mind relax,” she explains. “Let it surface all the things it’s been working on in the background and come back to the office inspired.”
And setting aside time for high-level thinking doesn’t mean you have to spend it alone.
“I have a group of professional peers and we try to have lunch together once a month,” Sarah Bruno tells me.
Bruno is executive director of the Public Leadership Education Network (PLEN), the only national organization solely focused on preparing college women for public policy leadership.
“Doing that has helped me take a step back and talk through strategic developments and trends,” she adds. “That, and finding ways to collaborate with allies really leads to a high level of creativity because you are exposing yourself to other ways of thinking.”
When I ask Akinnusotu where she creates space for her intellectual development, she tells me, “My podcast feeds me in a way that gives me confidence in myself. I get to be curious and ask questions.”
When she was searching for a new place to record, she stumbled on the studio at Eaton Workshop.
“Now I’m in a completely different place in D.C. and I’m connected with folks I would never have met working in foreign policy,” she says. “It’s allowed me to step back and put my own experiences in perspective. I never intend to be a DJ but stepping into [a] creative space makes my work better.”
Soon after I first landed in D.C. and I was working on women’s issues, I was invited to meet with a respected leader in the field of women’s rights. I showed up with some ideas for events and a partnership, but that wasn’t why she was there. She wanted to understand trends and generational changes. She was carving out a space for herself to understand the big picture of women’s activism, and she was inviting me to be part of that space. At the time, I thought the meeting turned out to be pointless. It was a long time before I understood it wasn’t.
It’s easy to get caught up in logistics and paperwork and making things happen in the now. Innumerable studies, including the one Harvard Business Review highlighted, indicate that women take on more collaborative demands in the workplace than their male peers do. Without the counterweight of intellectual development and some deep thought, that’s the path to professional stagnation.
So go ahead – make that appointment with yourself to do a little reading, tell your brunch group about that podcast you’re listening to or visit one of D.C.’s amazing museums in the middle of the day. Maybe we’ll run into each other and I can tell you all about this democracy report I finally read.
Read the “The Secrets of Successful Female Networkers” study: www.hbr.org/2019/11/the-secrets-of-successful-female-networkers and check out the What in the World? podcast:
Jean Schindler came to the District for the 16-hour work days and stayed for the happy hours. She thinks a lot about the mysteries of Washington careers.