Episode 59

Published on:

30th Jan 2024

How to Overcome Self-Doubt with Jennifer McCollum

Ever feel like there's a voice in your head doubting every decision you make as a leader? That's your inner critic, and it's holding you back. 

This voice can be a real pain, always second-guessing you and shaking your confidence. It can spill over into how you lead your team, affecting everyone's vibe and performance. So how do you face this self-doubt head on?

In this episode of the HAPPINESS SQUAD Podcast, Ashish and Jennifer McCollum, CEO of Linkage, discuss how to recognize your self-doubt, understand why it's there, and start turning that inner critic into constructive thoughts. 

As the CEO, Jennifer oversees the strategic direction and global operations of Linkage, a renowned leadership development firm. With the mission to change the face of leadership, Linkage has dedicated over 30 years to improving leadership effectiveness and equity in hundreds of organizations globally. Jennifer has recently released her own book, "In Her Own Voice: A Woman's Rise to CEO, Overcoming Hurdles to Change the Face of Leadership."

Here are some of the highlights in this episode:

  • The impact of relationships and personal fulfillment on happiness
  • The Role of the Inner Critic in Personal and Professional Growth
  • Balancing Masculine and Feminine Energies in Leadership
  • The concept of the “Become”Commitment
  • Advancing Women and Inclusion in the Workplace

Ready to kick that self-doubt to the curb and boost your leadership game? Tune in now and start leading with confidence! 🎧




Anil Ramjiani:

Hey friends, it's great to have you with Ashish and me as we host guests who are industry leaders and experts helping individuals and organizations increase their potential and flourishing at work.

Are you ready to learn about the power of limiting beliefs and how you can overcome them? Our next guest is a highly sought-after consultant and speaker with deep expertise in inclusive leadership and advancing women leaders.

I'd love for you to meet Jennifer McCollum, CEO of Linkage, where she oversees the strategic direction and global operations of this leadership development firm. With the mission to change the face of leadership, Linkage has dedicated over 30 years to improving leadership effectiveness and equity in hundreds of organizations globally.

Jennifer has recently released her own book, "In Her Own Voice: A Woman's Rise to CEO, Overcoming Hurdles to Change the Face of Leadership."

During this inspiring conversation, Ashish and Jennifer discussed several points.

First, learn about the importance of investing in yourself and upskilling in your leadership journey as a team leader, to a leader of leaders, and maybe even to a CEO.

Second, learn practical tips to quiet your inner critic and leverage their wisdom without ceding control and playing smaller. This area truly resonated for me.

And finally, the triple double bind that many women leaders find themselves in, which creates and exacts a huge toll on their flourishing and success.

As you consider our nine hardwired for happiness practices or our sunflower model, this episode delves into how you can both cultivate your self-awareness and fuel up with compassion to overcome and, at least, become in terms with your inner critic. We hope that these tips and practices that we share can help you as it was truly eye-opening for me.

So come, join Ashish as he welcomes Jennifer to the Happiness Squad podcast.

Ashish Kothari:

Hi Jennifer, it is so lovely to have you on our Happiness Squad podcast.

Jennifer McCollum:

So nice to see you, Ashish. I have been looking forward to this.

Ashish Kothari:

So look, we always start with this question. This is an episode just you and I will be doing because my co-host Anil couldn't join, but we're going to have a great conversation. But we always start with this first question and usually, it's Anil that asks the question. So I ask him, keeping him in mind. And the question is, what is your definition of happiness and how has that changed, Jennifer, from your younger years?

Jennifer McCollum:

Interestingly, given that you're a happiness expert, you've probably heard of the happiness project out of Harvard. I happen to know Bob Waldinger, and I love their research, which has been going on for 85 years. So I'm going to borrow that definition, but it's more important to bridge into how I apply it.

But I love their definition that they've surfaced after all this study around how good relationships, human connections really lead to the greatest happiness and health. So at the end of your life, looking back, if you have those strong relationships and you have health, physical, mental, emotional, that probably leads to happiness.

Now, what that means to me is when I have been the most happy in all aspects of my life. Sometimes we look at being happy in our relationships, but maybe not in our work. When I look at that, it’s when my strengths, whether as a mother, a CEO, or a friend, align with my deepest passion and purpose, and that's when I feel the most happy. But it has changed over the years, that definition of happiness.

Ashish Kothari:

Yeah, I love that. The consistent theme we keep coming back to is meaning is a big deal of it. You mentioned when I'm doing something of meaning, when I am in a deep relationship, relational health, which Waldinger's study clearly highlights, and physical well-being.

We also talk a lot around happiness, less as an emotion, because like all emotions, thoughts, and body sensations, those things rise and fall, they change. But more the beauty of what you're just describing, those three, to actually cultivate a state, a way of being, where we can live in joyfulness. Even if joy as an emotion might be fleeting and it's here today and it's not.

So, tell me more about what was the definition early in your life versus how you got here.

Jennifer McCollum:

I don't talk about this much on many podcasts, but if I think back even to my childhood, maybe I was born this way, maybe I was nurtured this way because of my family circumstances, but I was fiercely independent and fiercely ambitious, and fiercely responsible.

I grew up with this belief, maybe it was misguided, maybe it wasn't, that if I wanted to achieve something, I had to go after it myself. And for the most part, that worked really well to a certain point.

But I realize now looking back that my happiness was defined as, “I'll be happy when” or “I'll be happy if” I get that job, when I get through this difficult period. So happiness was always this elusive, “I needed to achieve something” or “I needed to get through or do something.”

And that has really, really changed. And I think you said it beautifully, if happiness is a state of being, it's really not dependent on a certain time or a certain achievement, it's that state of being regardless of what's happening.

Ashish Kothari:

Yeah, and it's beautiful. It is so much about our own mental models and through practices that we integrate. That's what we focus so much on with Happiness Squad and the work we're doing and the programs we're building. Your response just triggered a thought I picked up from Professor Shrikumar Rao. I love his work. Have you had a chance to meet him?

Jennifer McCollum:

I do. I know him personally. He's in the Marshall Goldsmith 100 coaches.

Ashish Kothari:

Right. So, we had him on our podcast, and I love it. He talks about this mental model of, you know, growing up with this thing around, if I wanted to do something first, if then else. And that “if” then “else” is a very faulty model of happiness. We all have it. In my younger years, if I get this, then I'll be happy.

So I think that's the first kind of pitfall that keeps us away from that state. Because once we get that, then we want the next thing, and we can't control ourselves because of the hedonic adaptation processes.

But what you brought up is also the second point, which is really interesting. We can experience, we can choose to see the world from one of three mindsets. Professor Rao talks about it. One, I can see the world and assume that the universe is just life is randomness.

Universe is not conscious. Things happen just because they do. And that's fine.

In that case, you can take a mindset of, if I need to get something done, I got to get it done. It's not going to just happen. In our coaching, I also work with a lot of other people who show up. One is that they actually say the universe is conscious. And you know what? Every time luck is involved, I lose. So it's actually against me.

I'm the one who misses the bus. Everybody else's things are okay, but mine are not okay. My team does deliver, everybody else seems to get it. And they never stop to think why that would be. So like the word universe is against me. And so they also kind of go with like, I'm going to make it happen.

Or the third mental model, we could live our life assuming and seeing the world from a place where the universe is conscious and positively inclined towards us. So it's giving us whatever we need right now, even if that's not what we want.

Jennifer McCollum:

I love what you're saying. May I interject for a moment? So you said two things. The first thought that popped into my mind when we talked about the happiness if or when, and I actually wrote about this in my book. I had to evolve my understanding and Srikumar, who you just referenced, and the Marshall Goldsmith 100 coaches help, and Marshall himself, who's a mentor and a coach of mine, had to help me see that happiness and achievement are completely independent variables. They are not dependent.

I could achieve, achieve, achieve, and never find happiness. Or I could find happiness without any achievement at all. And so that was a big awakening for me. And I continue to learn that as I gain life experience and age.

Secondly, universal mental models, as you described, are fascinating. I wasn't sure about Srikumar's work well enough to know those three different models, but as you walked through number one, I thought, no, the universe is definitely not random. I do not believe that. Number two, “the universe is out to get me and I need to make sure that I try and fight against that and achieve what I achieve.” I don't agree with that either.

The third mental model is beautifully aligned with what I talk about in the book around clarity. It's our job to help the universe help us. So if we set that intention about what we aspire to, what our dreams are, what our purpose is, without the expectation of how it's going to happen, and let it unfold because we have set that intention into the universe, the phrase I love to use is “the universe conspires to help us get exactly what we set our intentions at.”

Ashish Kothari:

And I couldn't agree more, especially as we are learning and doing something that is personally meaningful in the service of others.

So, Jennifer, talk to me a bit about your experience. You made history at Linkage as the first female CEO. Share with our listeners the two to three life events that really have shaped you into the leader you are and helped you reach that pinnacle.

Jennifer McCollum:

I love this question. I'm going to answer it with a few little stories about three different phases of my life.

First of all, even as a very young girl, around six, seven, eight years old, not necessarily consciously, but looking back, I can see that I came out of the womb as a leader. I loved to instigate, create vision, and drive change. It wasn't until I was a first-time formal leader of people in my twenties that I had to really learn how to engage others.

It wasn't enough for me to be a driver; it's how do I actually engage direct reports, peers, managers, versus trying to do it all myself. In my twenties and thirties, that was a tough lesson because it was so antithetical to how I was successful in the first 20 years of my life.

as acquired by Gartner around:

I realized it was in our collective best interest to hire people that were better than me at any one of those things and to ensure that they were leveraging their strength and passion and felt like they could thrive and had enough autonomy with enough challenge, but they had my support as their leader. That was another big shift in leadership because I wasn't the expert. They were better at those things than me, and instead of being humiliating, it was empowering.

Then I became a CEO in my fifties, and I am still a CEO. When I started at Linkage as the CEO nearly six years ago, it was a completely different experience. As the CEO, my only bosses are the board, and I don't engage with them day to day.

Suddenly I found myself looking around for peers, having none, and realizing that in this role, it can be lonely. You have friends, but friends that are direct reports, so it's a very different relationship. In that role, I had to realize that I don't get a lot of direct feedback. Even though I have an incredible team with incredible support, I knew I needed to build my own support team outside of the organization so that I could continue to grow and thrive.

So you should see my personal advisory board. I have a CEO coach, a speech coach, advisors who were in private equity, other fabulous leaders that I respect and admire, and Srikumar and the hundred coaches. I surrounded myself with people so I could become a better leader.

Ashish Kothari:

I love that. And I love those transitions. What is powerful for me is, one, you changed, you took charge, and you recognized, and you took charge to change and grow into the next role, to pick up the skills. Knowing what got you here wasn't going to get you there.

So you consciously recognized that you needed to operate differently to get the best out of what the organization, the leaders, or your particular team needs, and you really invested to elevate your model, your operating model, your skills, your way of being. I love that.

Jennifer McCollum:

And I loved your reference to Marshall Goldsmith's book, "What Got You Here Won't Get You There." It's very consistent with Whitney Johnson's work on the S-curve and disruption. When you're in that sweet spot, where you feel like you're operating on purpose, things are easy, you're challenged but not too challenged.

I'm in the sweet spot right now as the CEO, and there are several mini disruptions. Launching a book put me right back onto the launch curve where I felt very uncomfortable. Being a global keynote speaker was another challenge. But for me, happiness is not only a state of being. But also when I'm in a state of being, and this is what I try to do with my direct reports as well, where you can operate in your sweet spot, but also look at: if you’re achieving mastery, What is that next level of challenge, of growth, of learning? And I want to make sure that we don't stay in the sweet spot for too long, including myself.

Ashish Kothari:

Yeah. We atrophy when we don't grow. That's beautiful. When we are not growing, we're dying. That's the reality. There is no static because static results in atrophy, physically, mentally. All the research is clear. Adults who keep learning much later throughout their lives have much later onset of dementia, Alzheimer's. It's about keeping learning, growing, and finding meaning.

I had a conversation earlier today with someone who said they always wanted to retire at 60. Now at 63 and retiring, I said, don't retire, just re-tire. Retread, find your next thing because you're going to live another 20, 30 years. Why stop growing? Why stop serving? There is so much you can offer. So rethink the role.

Jennifer McCollum:

I love that you call it re-tire, just re-thread the tires. A dear friend of mine who also spoke on our Women in Leadership Institute stage a few weeks ago is Ann Chow. She's the former CEO of AT&T's business services, a multi-billion-dollar organization by itself as a Fortune 15 company.

She left last year and is now the “Rewired CEO”. Her rewirement now is keynote speaking, author, board work, and she just started as an adjunct professor at Kellogg. We text all the time, and she said, “Jennifer, this rewiring is so magical and it's giving me so much passion and fuel.” She's my age, maybe a few years older, and such an inspiration and role model for me as I look to my next 20 years.

Ashish Kothari:

I love that. Our core marquee program for individuals and for organizations on change, Jennifer, if you remember, is called Rewire. We called it Rewire because it really came from my insight while I was at McKinsey. I was researching this word that, at the heart of the deepening crisis we face out there, and at the heart of our own personal crises of stress, anxiety, and burnout, is a fundamental mismatch in the complexity of the world and our wiring for fear.

Our evolutionary wiring for fear puts us in fight, flight, freeze every time we find a threat, whether it's a physical threat or a psychological threat to our identity. It keeps us operating from a scarcity mindset, from a self, from here and now, versus the reality that we are more prosperous, living longer, more connected, and can do more things in this generation in much less time than any other generation. And yet, we operate as if we have less.

We create our own illnesses, we are busier than ever. It's crazy when you look at it, and that's why we were like, listen, if we have to help leaders change, we have to help them rewire their brains. It's inner work, not outer work.

Jennifer McCollum:

I'm glad you raised that. There are two things you mentioned: the scarcity principle and fear, and the other is busyness. This is especially true of women and women leaders. In terms of the scarcity mindset, I find people in my life operate this way very frequently.

A specific example is the dramatic onset of generative AI and ChatGPT. There's an enormous amount of fear about what this will do to organizations, teams, and our individual jobs. Some people don't want to face it, while others have fully embraced it.

We were discussing as an executive team at SHRM yesterday about generative AI. We've been playing with it in many of our functions, like our editorial function. As of yesterday, we thought, what if we enabled everyone and just licensed it for everyone? This is here, and we need to get smarter individually and collectively as an organization. So let's all jump in and learn together. Instead of a fear mindset, let's look at it as an abundance and a curiosity to see what we can learn.

Ashish Kothari:

It's beautiful. It's about embracing change. You're connecting it back to not staying in our sweet spot. Here's an opportunity to lean into it, knowing it's going to be uncomfortable at first and knowing there is fear associated with it. But if we lean into it with the right mindset and intent, not leaning too far to the edge of terror but enough for discomfort, the growth that becomes possible is amazing. It is going to happen whether we lean in or not.

Jennifer McCollum:

That's exactly right. Leading with fear, self-awareness is right at the heart of your model. Many of us lead with fear or a scarcity mindset without being aware of it. One of the things we do at Linkage is focus on the center of our purposeful leadership model called “become”.

The “become” is the commitment to the inner path to leadership, the commitment to become a better leader every day. That takes courage, curiosity, and evolving self-awareness. Ideally, it would be through feedback, but it could also be informally through engaging with people like you, with coaches, with friends, to become more aware.

I am committed to becoming better and open to the possibility that I might be leading with fear or a scarcity mindset without even realizing it. We can also talk about the inner critic.

Ashish Kothari:

I want to go there next. In your book, you talk about the inner critic and have powerful tips for working with your inner critic. Share with our listeners a bit about the inner critic, how it plays up, and specifically tips and advice you have for leaders to work more effectively with it.

Jennifer McCollum:

Perfect. The reason I started with the “become” commitment as part of our purposeful leadership model is that what makes effective leaders is the same across the entire spectrum of gender.

Similarly, the inner critic is alive and well across the entire spectrum of gender. We just know from our data, research, and experience that it is louder for women and prevents women from taking action on their aspirations and dreams, perhaps more significantly than for men.

The inner critic is that voice in our heads, a relentless, critical, judging voice often pointed at ourselves. It might sound like "I'm not worth it," "I'm not good enough," "I'm not ready," "I shouldn't ask for that raise, that promotion, that flexibility, those resources."

This inner critic can be so loud that it prevents us from achieving our dreams. I tell the story in the book about me personally, right before I agreed to interview for the CEO of Linkage job. When the headhunter called, my inner critic spiked intensely. It sounded like "You can't be a CEO until you are properly groomed," "You can't be a CEO until you have a better understanding of the P&L all the way down to the net income line," "You have not managed the operating expenses at a publicly traded company," "You don't know enough," or my favorite, "What kind of mother are you? You've got elementary school, middle school, high school children, and they need you. And you're going to take a job where you have to commute from D.C. to Boston every week or two. You can't be the kind of mother you want to be."

That's what my inner critic sounded like. To answer your question, although everyone has one, we teach, especially women leaders, how to become aware of that inner critic and how to quiet it. You don't silence it. The inner critic is alive and well for all of us every single day, but if you can become aware of it and pause and reflect long enough to see it for what it is, that's step one and two.

The third step is to become compassionate with yourself if it's pointed at you or with others if it's pointed at them. The inner critic can also be equally judgmental and critical of other people, which impacts your relationships. People notice when you're quietly judging them. It can prevent relationships and the type of outcomes you want.

The fourth step is to become curious. I was fortunate that at the moment I was considering putting my hat in the ring to be the CEO, I had a few allies who were men. They were peers of mine at the publicly traded company that is now Gartner, and we had all been running business units there. They sat me down at a cafe in Georgetown on the river here in Washington and said, "Jennifer, if we believe we're ready to be private equity-backed CEOs in portfolio companies, why don't you think you're ready? If not now, when?"

That was the wake-up call I needed to become aware. I'm not sure I was able to be aware on my own. Somebody else helped me, and it caused me to pause and become more compassionate.

I'm scared. That's why I'm not putting my hat in the ring. Then I had to become curious. "Am I able to be the kind of mom I want to be in a publicly traded company? Mostly, yes. So why do I think it's going to be different in a private equity-backed company?" So let me stop there and get your feedback.

Ashish Kothari:

So look, I love it. It is a topic we circle around a lot. In my own work, I see it show up all over. There are a couple of things I want to invite our listeners to pick up from what you're saying.

First, we all have it. Jennifer, as a CEO, you had it. You had all the successes and yet you're like, "Am I enough? Am I worth it? Do I belong? Will they find out?" I have it. I've always had it. It always comes around. I haven't found a single person who doesn't have it. So if you have that voice of not enough, know that you are not alone.

The second is, if you have it, also recognize that it is not the truth. That voice comes from a place to keep us safe, not to keep us happy. It's much harsher than any voice we use with others. And it's constantly on.

My invitation is, over the next two weeks, just notice the following three things. Jennifer talks about becoming aware. Notice how often it is there, what is the tone of it, and what is the effect of that on you?

Just write it down. Just notice it. Because once you become aware, you recognize the need to change, and how it's mostly negative, not positive, and often deprecating and defeating. If something's not helping us, we can then say, "Hey, I need to do something with it." So that was really powerful.

And I also love your point around, you cannot ignore it. You cannot silence it, because if you silence it, it only gets stronger. But what you can do, as you mentioned, is quiet it. And the way I quiet it is to invite it to just sit in the passenger seat next to you, and take its hand off the driver's seat.

I respect you're trying to make a difference, you're trying to help me. But let me drive because there are other people, not just your voice, that are also here that's telling me all that's possible. So let me take the wisdom without the admonishment, if you will.

Jennifer McCollum:

I love what you're saying. And look, some of these things are easier to talk about than to actually practice. And so I also want to encourage people. And I have mostly women because a lot of our work at Linkage is advancing women leaders. But I love the fact that you're bringing your own experience into this. And I will acknowledge that you, in some contexts, are also an underrepresented population.

And so I think the question is, as I engage across the entire spectrum of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, I find that I can learn a lot from either white men, who have been in the leadership majority forever, at least in this country in the United States. I can learn a lot because while they have an inner critic, it doesn't tend to paralyze them or stop them as quickly as it will for a woman leader.

I invite you to read the book that I wrote, "In Her Own Voice: A Woman's Rise to CEO," but I think the lessons equally apply to all leaders. Chapter three is on the inner critic. We tell a lot of stories about how the inner critic manifests and what to do to quiet it. What I've gotten better at, Ashish, over the years is to shorten the time period when the inner critic is so loud that it's clouding my own vision of what's possible, or it's paralyzing me, as I mentioned in my story about becoming a CEO.

I'm aware of it much faster, so I can almost see it as a friend. "Oh, I see what's happening. That's my inner critic." And I'm going to just detach it from myself. Put it in the passenger seat, reflect for a moment, become compassionate to it and me and then become curious.

And if I can fast cycle that from hours or days to minutes or seconds, then I can return more quickly to the core of who I am with that underlying principle of happiness that you talked so beautifully about.

Ashish Kothari:

I love that. It's about creating space and the more space we create, the more ability we have to respond the way we want, versus our habits out of our conditioned ways of being.

Jennifer McCollum:

I would just add to that. It's creating space for sure, but it's creating space in a reduced time period. Instead of floundering or spiraling for days, weeks, or months, which many people, including myself, perhaps do, it's about acknowledging it much more quickly so that you can return to the core of who you really are.

Ashish Kothari:

I love that. So staying on awareness, the other topic you cover in your book, by the way, I read the book cover to cover. I found it incredibly helpful. I highly encourage our listeners to get a copy of it, "In Her Own Voice." It is applicable to strategies for men as much as women.

What Jennifer does talk about, and I want to draw this differentiation, is that we think about men and women, that's gender, right? But that is very different from masculine and feminine energies.

The wisdom in Jennifer's book comes from the feminine energies that we need so much more of, rather than power control. It's a different way for us to be successful and achieve more versus the old ways. There is so much wisdom there.

When I work with leadership teams, I want to know where we are operating. What's the mix of masculine and feminine energy? Are we all about let's crush it, let's drive it, or are we about nurturing and inspiring and bringing people along in bigger service? There are so many of those that you talk about.

So I want to go on the second topic that you covered in your book. You talk about internal biases and how big of a role they play. You mentioned there were many deeply held beliefs that you had to let go of in your journey and some ways in which you did that. So I would love to hear a bit about that.

Jennifer McCollum:

I love that we have so many connections as you talk. I want to focus on the one or two points that I think your listeners would most benefit from. First, you talked about masculine and feminine energy as opposed to gender identity. In the book, it starts with the story of the articulation of the double bind for women. This is having to fulfill the expectations of both the masculine stereotypes of what we perceive to be as a leader and the feminine stereotypes.

Harvard's implicit bias study has shown that we often picture a leader as an ambitious, competitive, aggressive, handsome, athletic white man. As a woman leader, we are supposed to fulfill the stereotype of a leader while at the same time fulfilling the stereotype of a woman, being kind, compassionate, and cooperative.

The double bind is when we're expected to do both but are only seen as one or the other. This constant tension affects how we show up. If too masculine, seen as too aggressive; if too feminine, seen as too soft. When you add other aspects of underrepresentation, whether it’s race, ethnicity, LGBTQ, or disability, then it becomes a triple bind, and you’re also expected to fulfill those stereotypes.

27 years ago, I was once described to my boss as a cupcake with a razor blade inside, which I think is a perfect example of the double bind. You know, I'm seen on the exterior as soft, lovely, collaborative, kind, and charming. But then on the inside, I'm this biting, aggressive, ambitious, competitive, wanting-to-win person. We are all a combination of these traits, and at Linkage, we work to dispel the notion that we can't operate with a combination of masculine and feminine energy.

In our purposeful leadership work, we've discovered that inclusive leadership and purposeful leadership are inextricably linked. Inclusive leadership behaviors, which often align with feminine energy like transparency, openness, vulnerability, authenticity, and inclusion, are what's expected of leaders today.

So bringing in that feminine, not just literally bringing in more women leaders at all levels, but bringing in that energy and capability is something we do a lot at Linkage. But your question was about internal bias. Let me pause there because I just wanted to make those points based on what you said.

Ashish Kothari:

No, I love that. Let's talk a little bit and then we go to the internal bias. But this is important. It's not just about bringing in more women, but truly cultivating that feminine energy and making sure we have it, which means it's a journey.

Going back to what you said, some of your mentors and some of the people you turned to when you were interviewing for the CEO role were men, right? And so there is also this polar, one is good, others bad. We need more of this. We need less of this.

No, this invitation to cultivate the feminine energy is an invitation for everyone to grow. And that is something that I think is so beautiful in your book, in your journey, in the work. I love this notion that effective leadership is purposeful leadership and purposeful leadership is inclusive leadership. These are all parts and parcels of the same.

Jennifer McCollum:

You articulated that so beautifully that I have nothing to add.

Ashish Kothari:

So let's talk a little bit about this question of internal bias, because we all have it. Nobody's unbiased, right? Like that thing of, "Oh, I'm completely unbiased." I don't think you can ever be unbiased.

Jennifer McCollum:

I don't think we should be biased. Biases form to protect us. It's whether the biases are serving us. At Linkage, we have stopped trying to pound unconscious bias training into individuals. We know from our research that it not only does not work, but it actually has an adverse effect. It can more deeply seed your own biases, especially for the leadership majority who may just walk away feeling shamed or blamed, and that doesn't help anybody.

Instead, we say it's really important to become aware of external bias. It's also important to become aware of your own beliefs. Not to beat you out of those beliefs, but to help you see how that external bias is forming what we call internal bias. Now, for women, the two men that came to me as my allies did not have the same depth or paralyzing inner critic that I did. That's why they said, "Why are you saying you're not ready for this? I'm not saying that."

But I had to get in touch with not only the awareness of my inner critic but was there a deep-seated belief? That's what an internal bias is. What have I internalized based on my experience of external bias in the world? This is where women and underrepresented populations really have to reckon with this inside in a way that a lot of white men have not had to. That just is. It's not bad, but it is.

We can control our own internal beliefs if we can become aware of them. To fast forward the example of the mom, that inner critic, "You can't be the kind of mom you want to be. What are you thinking?" It was deeply seated in this misguided belief that I couldn't be the kind of mom I wanted to be if I were a CEO. I had to hold that belief up, create a lot of curiosity around it, talk to my kids and my spouse and say, "Listen. I'm holding this belief, but it scares me. I have a picture of the kind of mom I want to be, but I also am interested in aspiring to be a CEO."

So we processed it individually and collectively. The inner critic still reared its head after I took the job. I write in the book about missing my son's 14th birthday. I was on a train to New York to give a keynote and was beating myself up by the inner critic, "See, you can't be the kind of mom you want to be. What kind of mother misses her kid's birthday?"

But when I actually overcompensated out of guilt and was texting, snapchatting, and emailing him all day, calling my husband and him at Benihana, it was my son who actually said, "Mom, I'm all good. I know you love me. You've contacted me like 10 times today. You can back down a little. I'm okay." And so those types of experiences helped me realize that this is my belief. It's not the belief of others. And I can get over that.

Ashish Kothari:

I love that story. It reminds me of this beautiful quote by Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of Pepsi, when she said, "You can have it all. You just can't have it all at the same time." And it's okay. If I'm not there right now for this moment, and I'm doing that, it's showing I don't love him and I'm taking something away. Your son's affirmation to say, "Hey, mom, chill out. It's all good."

Jennifer McCollum:

Well, Indra Nooyi is such an amazing icon as a woman, as a CEO, as a champion for diversity and inclusion. She's fabulous. When women, including Indra, say "You can have it all, just not at the same time," a lot of us, especially women, would define that in terms of life stages.

If you're staying at home for a period of time to raise your children, then you're choosing to be a full-time mother. Then if you go into the work, you're choosing your work. I would say it's actually almost a moment by moment choice. You can have it all, not all at the same time. Right now, at this moment I'm choosing to be with you. It's a commitment I made, and I'm loving it. And because I'm loving it, I'm not at the PTA meeting or at the staff party because I am choosing to be present with you, which means there are trade-offs in every moment and every day and every week, month, year.

I launched a book. I was choosing over a 90-day period to really focus on everything required to do that. And you know what? There were repercussions with the family. I did miss things. I missed my college-aged kid's first dive meet of the season of his junior year. But it was a conscious choice. And I talked to him about it and said, "I'm going to miss your first one. But you know what, I'm going to be at the second one," and then I made other choices. So I like to tell women, especially, you can have it all, not at the same time, but it's a moment by moment choice, not a--

Ashish Kothari:

It absolutely is. All we have is the present moment, every moment to moment, and that is it. We could choose at that moment to commit and be where we are, but it's so hard for people. At that moment they're thinking, "Well, I'm not there. I'm letting them down." Once you choose, you commit, you are here and know that in the grand scheme, as long as you have your clear North star and what matters, you will optimize it and you will get there. And it's not about stages. I think that does less good than harm.

Jennifer McCollum:

Let me finish that story because it gets back to the universe conspiring. I missed that first meet, and my husband made it and he came back and said, "Whew, that was a tough one. Will missed 1st place for the Duke dive team by less than 1 point." And I know he was disappointed because a freshman beat him and that was a really tough one.

I went to that second meeting. He won every single board. It was the best score he had ever made. And I just went, "Thank you universe for allowing me to be here and witness this exceptional family moment, this exceptional athletic moment." I got that one. I missed the bad one.

Ashish Kothari:

I love that. So amazing. So I have one last question before we go to a bit of a rapid fire. My question is, you talked so much, your book, your life, the company that you're at, you're doing so much work around the advancement of women and the acceleration of inclusion in the workplace. Talk to us a little bit about the nature of that work, some tips, and how folks can learn more. Because it's such an important topic right now in a world that is becoming more polarized than ever.

Jennifer McCollum:

Thank you for opening that. The way Linkage approaches our work in the world is really two sides of a coin, and they are equally important. The first is something we've already talked a little bit about. We know that women and other underrepresented populations face unique challenges. We call them hurdles. The book is designed to help build awareness of those hurdles, both for women who aspire to advance in their career and for organizations made up of leaders and executives who can really create the culture and the systems and the commitment to support them.

Now, when I say women, women are the largest underrepresented population, representing 50 percent of the workforce going in, but only 30 percent of the leaders going up. We focus there knowing that if we focus on women, it helps all other underrepresented populations rise. So the first part of our work is ensuring that we are supporting those populations themselves by helping them become aware of the hurdles and accelerating their ability to overcome them.

The inner critic is the foundational one. Another one is internalized bias and another one is proving your value, which is that busyness piece. There are seven more, and they're all in the book. That's the first part of our work. It's coaching, learning and development, assessments, our Women in Leadership Institute, consulting.

But the second part of our work, which you asked about, is the organizational piece. This is what allows sustainability and amplification to happen. We have to help organizations walk alongside the women and other underrepresented populations on their path to excel in their leadership ranks. How do we do that? We do that through measurement assessments, organizational assessments, individual assessments at the leadership level, regardless of gender, helping create purposeful, inclusive leaders.

We've got development and coaching and consulting for all leaders. But we have to help those leaders shift the culture of their organization, help them create a culture where all of us feel like we belong and can contribute. We have to ensure equity in the talent systems, whether it's talent acquisition, succession, high potential pay. The hardest one, honestly, is the executive action and commitment. This is the work I love in the world that we do. It's called executive sponsorship.

How do we develop the leaders and the executives themselves to be more effective sponsors, mentors, coaches, and allies? With sponsorship being the most important because it's leveraging political capital and influence to help lift women leaders into positions of more seniority and ensure that they're successful.

And then the last one is leadership development. How do you ensure the appropriate stretch assignments, coaching, formal and informal development for women specifically? So I'll pause there.

Ashish Kothari:

Beautiful. And listen, we'll have all of this in the show notes for people to connect with, because the work you personally are doing and the company is doing is really amazing. We need so much more of that to create a kinder, connected, caring, inclusive, purpose-driven world. The outcomes would be better.

And, as I was sharing with you, Jennifer, when we chatted, my shift out of McKinsey into this work truly came from a desire to do this at scale and help a billion people rewire because otherwise, at the place where we're living and we're moving, we might not have a planet inhabitable for our kids. It's a really personal call to action for every leader to look into that and start the journey themselves and with their organizations.

Jennifer McCollum:

I love the work you're doing in the world. It aligns so beautifully with the work that I'm doing in the world with Linkage, now a SHRM company. So thank you. And thank you so much for having me. I know that you've got a final rapid round you alluded to.

Ashish Kothari:

Yes. So look, three or four questions. Super fast. One, what is your favorite exercise to de-stress? What's the way you de-stress?

Jennifer McCollum:

It depends on how much time I have. If I have time, I like to de-stress by physically engaging in tennis, gym, skiing. I love to ski. If I have less time and often it's just seconds in between meetings, especially when I'm back to back, it is the deepest breath three times. If I have five minutes, it's a mini meditation to recenter. So yeah, that's what I do.

Ashish Kothari:

Beautiful physical and breath is one of my favorites too. So simple. We have it, we don't need a lot of time and we don't use it. Second, what's a book that has really, you know, if there was one book that you could take and you were going to be on an island for a long while, what's that book you would take?

Jennifer McCollum:

I guess I can't call out my own book. This is a little bit irreverent, but I love this book. It's called "The Hard Thing About Hard Things." It was written by Ben Horowitz, a CEO who ended up in private equity. It's a hilarious book about a first-time CEO realizing how hard it is. I have gone back to that book again and again to get tips, but also it's just such a moment of comic relief. I don't know if it would help me on an island, to be honest.

Ashish Kothari:

But it's helped you. No, I love that book. I have that book. And I found it absolutely amazing. And the last one is, what's one of your favorite activities? What's one of the things you do that fills you with joy?

Jennifer McCollum:

This is such a perfect ending to how we started with how do you define happiness with that human connection and relationship being so important. So for me, there are a few things that, during the pandemic, my favorite day of the week was family fire pit Friday. We all went to the fire pit and there was a meal on the green egg and we sat outside around the fire pit.

We still do that. It's not every week. I have kids in college now. The second way I do that, and I did it last night, is through really close girlfriend time. So we had our post Women in Leadership group from D.C. who goes every year to the Institute. We have regular times in the year where we come together, we reflect, we help each other with our own aspirations.

And then the last is one-on-one husband time. I am so lucky to have been married for 25 years to my wonderful partner, Chip McCollum. And we sat in the hot tub last night, no phones, no technology in the water where we just get to reflect on our day and our life.

Ashish Kothari:

That is amazing. I think we're going to, my wife and I have a date tomorrow night and I think we're going to come back and sit in our hot tub. That's a really great inspiration here. Jennifer, thank you. Thank you. I know you've been on a whirlwind book tour in addition to running the company and everything else. So we appreciate you taking the time to join me on this podcast. Thank you.

Jennifer McCollum:

Thank you so much. I appreciate you and the work you're doing in the world, Ashish.

Ashish Kothari:

Take care.

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About the Podcast

The Happiness Squad
Welcome to Happiness Squad.

This is the podcast dedicated to helping you unlock your full potential by mastering the art and science of happiness.

We bring on the best leading experts on these topics to help you unlock your true potential and live with more joy, health, love, and meaning in your life.

Your host is no other than Ashish Kothari who is on a mission to provide you with an unfair advantage to be the masters of your experience and leaders in your industry.

Get ready to be moved, challenged, and enlightened on this podcast. It may change your life.

Thanks for being here and joining the squad!
Learn more: https://happinesssquad.com/

About your hosts

Ashish Kothari

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Ashish Kothari is the founder and CEO of Happiness Squad, a company focused on democratizing happiness and touching a billion+ lives over the next 20 years and helping them live with more joy, health, love, and meaning.

Prior to founding Happiness Squad and writing his best-selling book “Hardwired for happiness”, Ashish spent 25 years in consulting, including the last 17 at McKinsey and Co, a premier management consulting firm, helping thousands of clients and their organizations achieve breakthrough performance by building new mindsets and capabilities.

Ashish is a trained ontological coach and a lifelong student of human thriving.

Anil Ramjiani

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Anil Ramjiani is an experienced senior leader at Nike, Inc., most recently as the Commercial Director managing key athlete partnerships and business with Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe, and Marcus Rashford.

Anil's passion is grounded in empowering people, unlocking potential, and driving performance. He has worked in consulting and corporate across the US, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia acquiring over 20 years of experience in strategy, brand, and general management at IBM, Adidas, and Nike.

He created the podcast and platform Live. Breathe. Believe., to enable reflection, motivation, and inspiration for his peers. #Knowyoutobeyou!