Nancy Solomon is an executive coach, speaker and author who is committed to helping individuals remove the barriers keeping them from their potential, their success and their happiness. Her book, “Impact! What every Woman Needs to Go From Invisible to Invincible,” was published in 2009 by John Wiley & Sons. Her new 7-week audio course, “Do What You Love and Love What You Do,” is available from her website, www.nancydsolomon.com.
Tell me a little about how you came to be who you are, doing what you do today. That doesn’t seem to be at all where you started out.
Not at all. It’s a story I tell in every keynote I give. I had always wanted to do what I do now. But 30, 40 years ago, no one was doing human-potential work. My family vetoed it; they literally said, “No daughter of ours will be a psychotherapist.” I ended up becoming a teacher, at their suggestion, and lasted a year. I hated politics and paperwork and, really, that’s what teaching is all about. I ended up going into sales. My whole family was in retail so it was a natural default for me. When I was in high school, all my friends were flipping burgers and I was at Saks Fifth Avenue selling shoes.
In hindsight, I went into retail to get my father’s approval, which I never got. But I decided to work my way up since my whole family were vice presidents, presidents, general managers [in retail]; they were very successful. I spent 16 years going from retail into wholesale and from women’s clothing to men’s clothing. I achieved all the outward signs of success. I made an obscene amount of money for a person my age. I was traveling around the world and wearing designer suits and lots of jewelry and it all looked glamorous. I was spending money as fast as I made it because inside I was miserable.
What was the tipping point?
I literally woke up one day and asked myself how much money they would have to pay me to get me to forget how much I hated my life. I played a “Do Over Card” at age 37. A few months after I came to this decision, and I was fired from my position as vice president of sales for North America for a European clothing company. At the time, I was doing $25 million in sales, which in today’s dollars is several times that. The good news was that I had a great contract! They had to pay me for a year and I got to explore what I wanted to do.
I moved as far away from New York City as I could: I moved to Seattle. I went back to school and got my Master’s in Psychology. At the time, the field of “coaching” didn’t exist. I was probably one of the first, maybe, 50 coaches in the United States. The closest thing to that field was psychology. So I got my degree and began coaching.
Back then, when I said I was a coach, people thought I meant Little League or golf or something. Now you can’t turn a corner without bumping into a coach. I did therapy for about six years, although I never wanted to be a therapist per se because I wanted results. I didn’t just want to sit and listen to people talk about their problems; I wanted to resolve them. So I combined what I knew about running a business with what I know about people’s relationships with themselves, self-esteem, depression, all that.
And you decided to specialize in coaching women?
I felt that women were the ones who really needed the help. The white male is standard and anything that deviates from that is not “normal.” Still, about 30% of my business is with men. My business is “for women without being against men” is the way I like to say it.
To say that I love what I do is an understatement. Truly I wake up every day excited about what I do. I say that with the caveat that, of course, there are times I get bored or need to change things up. There are times I ask, “What the heck am I doing?” But that’s great because that’s what my clients often are thinking, so when I work it through for myself, I’m helping them, too!
What changes in your business have forced you to rethink it or readjust?
Well, I, like many others was deeply, deeply affected by the economic decline. The first thing that went in corporations was leadership. They didn’t feel like they needed leadership development when sales were down 45%. Of course, I disagree because I believe that’s when we most need leadership, when things are bad.
But I decided to broaden my base so that I wouldn’t be caught off-guard again. I had saved for a rainy day but not for a tsunami.
You saw that significant a change?
Oh my gosh. Overnight. I was busy for about 18 months to two years after everyone else’s business declined but then the spigot turned off for about three years. Now I’m doing major projects for Microsoft and others. Major training projects. I’m also in the process of putting up a website and putting out product for the first time.
Where did your confidence come from, initially, that you could help people solve their problems?
God, but I don’t mean that in a religious sense. That was my intuition. When I was in high school I wasn’t really popular but everyone came to me when they had a problem. Always. You know, I’ve heard from four people from high school in the last few months and with all of them, their recollection is that I was one who was there to support them then.
So it was intuitive. I believed I was put on this planet to help other people. And that belief has never waivered. I have had some very dark moments in my life. But I have never questioned why I was.
So the confidence came from being really excellent at something, but like most people, especially women, I devalued it. I thought, anything that comes that easily to me is not something people will want to pay me for, you know?
Why “especially for women”?
We’re taught not to get recognition; we’re taught not to exclude others; we’re taught not to take the spotlight or brag or discuss our accomplishments. What we’re socialized to do—and our physiology supports—is helping others.
The truth is that it’s only in maybe the last seven years that I’ve been consistently this confident. I’m 57 now, and to say that I don’t think I truly hit my stride until I was 50 would be accurate. Now you can say what you think and differ with whomever’s in the room and no one messes with you.
You mention the ways in which women have been socialized to hold back from their potential. But what do you see as women’s most problematic self-imposed restraints?
There are two big things. One is that women have a tendency to not trust themselves. Another is a tendency not to give themselves permission. I mean permission to do those things I mentioned: to seek recognition, talk about accomplishments and so on. You know that myth that in order to be spiritual you have to be poor? It just isn’t true. It’s the same thing with women in talking about things they’re great at. There’s a myth that once you talk about how great you are, you’re not great.
Women have to learn how to express their accomplishments confidently without sounding cocky or full of themselves while also being humble. That’s something that men don’t have to worry about.
There’s that “assertive woman” problem: They’re viewed differently than assertive men.
Exactly. If there’s a word that’s occasionally used to describe me that offends me, it’s “formidable.” What offends me is that it makes me feel like I’m a steel door that people have to get through. The truth is that anyone who works with me—clients, groups, in lecture—they always say, “You have such a big, warm, open heart.” But with a confident woman that’s not the first thing people assume about her.
You mentioned trust, too, as a barrier?
Yes. Here’s how I learned about this. If I have an audience of, say, 1,000 women when I’m keynoting, I’ll say, “Raise your hand if you are divorced,” and inevitably half the hands go up in the room. And then I’ll say, “Before you put your hands down, how many of you knew before you married him that he was not the right one for you?” Most of the hands stay up. I use that as an example. I say, “You can beat yourself up for having made a ‘mistake’ or you can congratulate yourself that you knew better, but you just didn’t trust it.”
With my coaching clients, because I trust them so much and because I believe so strongly that within them they do have the answers if they’re given the tools to get out of their own way, they begin to trust themselves more. That’s where the greatness comes from.
Is that true as well in your work with leadership development?
Absolutely. The face of leadership is changing: I don’t think the leaders are necessarily the heads of companies. An admin can be a leader. But what characterizes leaders is that they own what they know. That’s one of the “Solomonisms” in my book: Own what you know.
When a woman says, “I’m not sure, but I think that…” she is positive she’s right. But we’re been taught to equivocate. So when push comes to shove, when I say to a female leader, “Tell me: what’s the truth?” She’ll say “He is never going to make it in that job.” Well, if you already know that, you’ve got to make your decision based on what you know.
You’ve written that, “You get in life only what you have the courage to ask for.” I think it’s a great insight. But how did that courage develop in you, and how do you help others develop it as well?
Some of it I learned that from my grandmother. She never told me that, but I learned it from watching her live her life. She went from being incredibly wealthy to, in the Depression, being on a soup line.
And I learned it, too, when I had a moment on a bridge. I’ll say that. Courage is the ability to do something different in our lives. We have knowledge, wisdom and courage. Knowledge is data; wisdom is the learning that comes from that; courage is making a different decision based on the wisdom that you now have.
Most of us have our lives led by someone else. The internal voices belong to our parents, our teacher, someone else. Positive and negative. Good feedback and not-good feedback. What I help leaders—and people who want to become leaders—do is to figure out what they want. “What do you want?” is one of the most valuable questions you can ask yourself. Right after, “Am I loving enough?” and those kinds of questions.
I just took five days away and I asked myself that question: What do I want?
So it’s not a question you ask yourself once at age 21?
Good point because no, certainly not once. It’s an ongoing question. And you don’t always know the answer. But if you don’t ask you’ll surely never know the answer.
Do you think people don’t ask that question because they’re afraid to or because they just don’t know to ask it?
Both. Men are better at asking that question. Often when I ask a man that question, his answer is likely be, “What should I want?” Because a successful man looks like X.
With women there’s that whole thing that we’re relieved to go to work because it’s the easiest part of our lives. I think I read that 85% of stereotypical female roles are still handled by women. Plus we do our executive jobs. We’re so caught up in the argument about careers, and about women and the glass ceiling. Plus being moms and sisters and partners that we don’t take the time to ask, “Well, what is it that I want?”
Part of what makes the work I do at the corporate level is that these people get three days to sit and ask themselves that question. I’d like to think I’m a genius and that my work is brilliant, but the fact is that a good part of their success with these conferences is that they have a timeout.
How important is developing a network of people of whom you can ask questions?
It’s everything. Those people who are most successful but are not the necessarily the most skilled or with the highest IQ or whatever have learned to create a support network of people who pull them up.
I have an informal advisory board of four people. When I’m stuck, they’re the people I call, because you can’t be objective. There’s no way you can look at your business, or your life, and know all the answers.
A lot of discussion is given to the issue of “work/life balance”…
I think that’s a joke. I have never met—yet—a person who’s successfully balancing them. The goal, as I tell the people I work with, is “Off balance on purpose.” You’re going to be off balance. There’s not going to be a week where work is perfectly balanced with home life and social life. That exists in movies only.
I just moved my home, my family and my office all at once. I knew that for two months at least—and probably three or four—I was going to be way out of balance. It was important for me to get my family situated and children registered for school and all. I told my clients that they weren’t going to bee seeing that great customer service they were used to for two or three months. Things are going to fall through the cracks, I’m going to forget to get back to you, so bear with me.
I knew there was no way I could take care of them and my family. There’s only 24 hours in a day and I’m using up most of them.
You think many women make themselves crazy trying to achieve that balance?
Everyone does. But 40 years ago Helen Gurley Brown told women they could have it all, and it was the biggest disservice she could have done. We can’t have it all. Or put it this way: You can have it all, just not all at the same time.
Pick up a magazine or read online and there’s an article about work/life balance for women every week. Men just don’t worry about it. I’m generalizing, but men aren’t as concerned about it as women. They let go of things easier.
My job is to help women decide how much of this they’re holding on to because they’re supposed to or because they fear their mother-in-law will say, “You’re not staying home with the children!” It goes back to the “What do you want?” question. Are you having this work/life-balance debate because you think you’re supposed to have it and because people will think badly of you if you don’t? Or is this really a concern of yours? Ask the questions.