Thanks, Coach, but No Thanks
By Lisa Bergson
Aggressive -- it's not a nice word, especially for women. It's not far from the "b" word, and I don't mean bold, a term I like. That and other matters came up this week when a longtime acquaintance gave me a free "coaching" session. These days, coaching is all the rage among fast-track executive women, and I was intrigued. A well-regarded psychologist, my friend -- call her Pat -- is often quoted in women's magazines on relationship issues and all sorts of personal problems. She has just begun diversifying her practice into coaching and is prospecting for clients.
We speak over the phone from our respective offices, her in a landmark building on Manhattan's Upper East Side, me from my old one-story factory in Warrington, Pa. From the beginning, our discussion was, well, free-floating. "Describe your business," Pat says. "Just use a string of adjectives."
"Innovative, ethical, focused, feisty, and aggressive," I reply, wondering where she's going.
"Who does that sound like?" she asks, being a psychologist after all.
"Me!" I blurt and suddenly feel embarrassed. "I don't know about aggressive, though."
"It's too strong. Men can be aggressive. But, even in business, if a woman is going to be aggressive, she has to temper it with humor or charm." I'm glad I closed my usually open door as I stare through the crooked Venetian blinds across our grassy front lawn, with its solitary magnolia tree. "You can't just be outright aggressive," I add. "It scares people. I'd rather be thought of as strong or bold, which, more and more, I am."
"That's interesting." It's the shrink's cue to continue. After close to 40 years of therapy, my response is positively Pavlovian.
"I am finding that age has its advantages," I muse. "The older I get, the more credibility I have and the less threatening I am to men. I can act a lot stronger, and still be accepted."
"That's great. For you, age is a positive."
"When I was younger and sort of attractive, being accepted as strong and powerful was very difficult," I recall, leaning back and putting my feet up on a short file cabinet to the side of my desk.
"I had that, too," she responds. "Even though I had a PhD, it was very hard to get men to take me seriously."
Aside from being super intelligent, Pat was an adorable young woman -- we go back to our twenties. Contrary to popular opinion, which holds that older women (and men) are professional pariahs, my friends and I find it more socially acceptable to be powerful as older women. In Europe, women of a certain age have long been seen as glamorous and in their prime -- a perception I endorse. This belief appears to be catching on elsewhere.
"That's really changing now that I'm in my fifties," I tell Pat. "I was just in Asia, and it was great, my best business trip ever. Now, I really feel like I've been in this business for so long and my company has been so innovative that I'm finally treated with respect."
ADVICE AND DISSENT.
Pat sounds like she's taking notes. I'm enjoying our conversation, but a part of me resists the notion that I must pay for this kind of support. As a voluntary member, until recently, of a long-running group for professional women, I still expect friends to help each other for free. Indeed, mutual encouragement and problem-solving is something I share with those I see or talk to routinely. It's what we do for each other.
"What do you like best and least about travel?" Pat asks.
"Hotels best, airports least," I answer. Pat suggests toting a diverting novel and listening to music on a headset to buffer the airport ordeal. After discussing some of my challenges at work, Pat says the session has given her insight into my issues and how she could help me.
I hesitate, however, to bring in yet another coach. I already have nightly downloads with my helpful hubby, weekly sessions with my hypno-therapist, and regular meetings with various board members. If anything, I could use some help from proven specialists with access to funding sources, market research, and potential strategic partners. Otherwise, I don't need more time on the bench. I want to get out on the field and play.
Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org