Often the downfall of women in business; the desire to be liked and matching need not to be hated, writes Terry Prone

THIS country is held together by strong women. Always has been. But sometimes, especially with so few women on private sector boards, it’s easy to forget it, because that, at least, is a location and a prestigious achievement point that is highly visible.

Less visible are the women who cope with what they never signed up for. Like the woman who walked behind the coffin of her dead husband last week in what everybody ended up calling the “sea of blue” of his colleagues within An Garda Síochána. Nicola Golden never signed up to see her husband’s cap and gloves neatly placed on the Tricolour covering his coffin. She never signed up for the pomp and ceremony of his funeral. But she behaved with a wholly admirable strength, holding the hands of her children and presenting a silent dignity nobody could have demanded of so young and so new a widow.

We saw her and admired her. We don’t always see the other strong women who hold this country together by tackling challenges they never signed up for. Like the women at work trying to fight a cluster of corporate razor-wire that makes going to work an act of courage every day. Like the women with the courage to love other women, and who, as a result, have to be permanently watchful for slurs hurting their children. Like the middle-aged women coping with parents sunk by strokes or dementia and who have to do it on their own because all of their siblings are in Ohio, Australia or Aberdeen. And like the women in their later years who are still the resource, the Red Cross, the first line of counsel and boosterism for their adult children.

Image magazine ran a breakfast seminar last week for executive women on the theme of what makes a strong woman, and some of the inputs were fascinating. Lynda McQuaid, the phenomenally successful TV producer who is now in charge of content in TV3, talked of the pivotal importance of being rooted in a family where the ethos was “Get your education. What you do with it afterwards is your business. We have no input or control of that choice. Just get your education.” Her father went to great lengths to ensure his children understood just how separate were the love of parents and the adult choices of their offspring, going so far as to tell Lynda on one occasion that even if she killed someone, he would still love her. He wasn’t actively soliciting homicide, you understand, just illustrating the point that the unconditional love of good parents is without limit.

The end result of her parenting and her education was a sense of where she was going so profound that, when, in the precarious freelance world in which she o perated, post-university, she was simultaneously offered a six-month contract to tour the US with a show and a six-week contract in England, she chose the latter without hesitation, going for direction (that is, into the TV world) rather than security (albeit short-term).

Just before kickoff, the second speaker at the event, Vicki O’Toole, was checking up on where the 40 container loads of packaging for a particular client was at that particular moment. This woman runs J.J. O’Toole, the biggest packaging company in Ireland, making elegant carrier bags for people like Avoca, here at home, and for the most prestigious department stores in Britain — a job she never signed up for when she married one of the latest generation of family owners of the business. She showed the audience a black and white photograph of the horse-and-cart used for delivery in the early days. The horse, named Bronco, had a particular aversion to a clock which chimed on the hour and so deliveries had to be scheduled around that time, lest he became a bucking Bronco and wrecked the merchandise.

What Vicki signed up for, when she married, was raising five children at home, while her husband developed their business, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. She was happy at that, and good at it. Then fate meddled, delivering to her husband the dire depression which contributed to his death, and Vicki had to leave her home, step up to the plate, and learn to run a business having never in her life run anything before. Not only that, but she was stepping in at the top of a company where many of the employees were older than she was, with decades in the business under their belt. It was hard, horribly hard. But the company, today, is an object-lesson in excellence. A strong woman who had never signed up for top management, nailed it.

Those present represented an interesting mix of career starters and top managers, many of whom made copious notes, clearly relishing the honesty of the speakers. But honesty was only the start of it. Both McQuaid and O’Toole, in response to a perceptive audience question, talked of how they manage the trait which is often the downfall of women in business; the desire to be liked and the matching need not to be hated. Whereas men who are promoted move seamlessly on, de-focussing previous relationships with people who are now their subordinates, women rarely do the same. They want to stay friends with former peers. Which is akin to those unfortunates who, when their relationship breaks up, want to “stay friends” with their former girlfriend or boyfriend. Two chances.

Lynda McQuaid provided a worthwhile analogy on this theme. Likening her job as a TV producer to driving a bus, she sketched out a situation where the producer/bus driver sits down in advance and works out the best route by which to reach the target location, computes the time to be taken on the journey, the estimated time of arrival, the number of passengers to be carried and the requisite amount of fuel, before getting into the front seat of the bus and turning the key.

In that situation, the bus will contain lots of passengers who think they should be driving the bus, and — because they’re looking out the side windows — develop a conviction that other routes would be better than the one taken. But the main issue for the woman at the front of the bus, she suggested, was to concentrate on where she was taking the vehicle without being distracted by the two back rows of moany discontented passengers. That double row is going to be there in any production, just as it’s going to be there in any sizeable business, and getting depressed over their failure to love you isn’t going to do anybody any good. It doesn’t mean that you are an uncaring bitch: you’re going to get a bus full of varied folk to the right destination, safely and at the right time. It might be more enjoyable if all of them loved you. But it’s not pivotal to the task, and a strong woman in management needs to get a small bit of a grip on that fact.

Often the downfall of women in business; the desire to be liked and matching need not to be hated


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