• Sarah E. Brown

Burnout From Trying to Do the Right Thing For Other Women


I had coffee not long ago with a senior female business leader who had almost burnt out. She said that she was working twice as hard as her male colleagues, and she was bone tired.

We explored why this was so. Part of it was that she “felt” she had to do a better job just to be seen as being equally as good as her male colleagues. Part of it was that she felt it was on her shoulders to figure things out on her own, while it appeared to her that her male peers were getting more mentoring and support from male superiors.

But you know what the biggest part of her burnout was? It was the time she was spending trying to coach and mentor more junior female professionals in the organization. She was trying to make up for what she did not get. She was trying to make a difference to the women coming after her. She was the lone wolf on this calling because there were no female colleagues to share the load.

This is one of the challenges of women at the top who are the “only” females. I hear it all the time. These women want to make a difference. They want to provide their female direct reports and the other women in the organization what they did not get themselves. And it is burning them out.

I see so much of this in my work, and it is one of the biggest reasons I am advocating for teaching mid-career professional women to self-coach. With this approach, they can share responsibility for development, as well as culture change, with the “only” females at the top and lighten the load on them at the same time. If we are to create more opportunities for all women in the workforce to pursue their dreams and define success their own way, it cannot be solely up to the organization to make all the changes. Similarly, it cannot be about “fixing” women. And it certainly cannot be on the shoulders of the few women at the top to figure all this out. We need a much more balanced approach.

There is a principle in my programs: “You have to do it yourself AND you cannot do it alone.” With a well-crafted approach based on this principle, each women can take 100% responsibility for her satisfaction and success at work, and ask specifically and respectfully, for what she needs to achieve those goals.

Women can learn to get much of the “coaching” from peers. “Coaching,” as I define it, is supporting an individual to come up with answers herself. The “coach” provides a very needed outside perspective and also encourages and supports the “coachee” to reach inside for answers to questions only she can answer anyway. Examples of questions like this are: “What do I want?” “How might others see this situation differently than do I?” “What are the natural approaches I have to address this challenge and what would be a good next step?”

If the “coachee” is taking 100% responsibility, she can identify where she thinks she is in the process with a peer “coach” who can provide that needed outside perspective and also be the needed sounding board as the individual explores her own thoughts and perspectives. It does not require a trained “coach” to perform this function—just an aware “coachee” and very good TOOLS she can give to her peer coach.

Mentoring, what we often call “sharing and sparing,” is a bit different. A mentor shares her experience as a way to help the mentee learn something without all the trial and error. Peer Coaches may not have the needed experiences to “share” with others as a way to “spare” them from making the same mistakes. But with a well-crafted approach and a mentee who is taking 100% responsibility for her own experiences, she can interact with a potential mentor in a much more time- and energy-efficient process. She can learn to ask the specific, targeted questions needed to get the feedback and direction required.

I was one of those lone wolfs (or the “only” female in a role or team) for most of my career. I know the pressures on these women. And I know how desperately they want to make it easier for those that follow. If we equip those that follow with tools to take on more of the responsibility and effort, we may make faster progress in changing corporate cultures and in advancing each woman’s own dreams.

If you would like to explore how you can use this approach in your own organization, feel free to book a chat with me by going to bookachatwithsarahebrown.com.

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Sarah E. Brown 2019