It is undeniably tough for many women to assume leadership positions in male-dominated industries. Women find it especially hard to move forward, thinking that they need to be perfect before stepping up. This episode’s guest reminds us to let go of this thinking and instead start embracing our humanity. Jen Coken, the author of Embrace the Ridiculousness: A Pocket Guide To Being A Better You, casts her wisdom on how women can claim their P.O.W.E.R. and lead with more authority, impact, and influence. She identifies the top three challenges women face and the four questions that help women make a big difference. Plus, she cracks the P.O.W.E.R. code, what it stands for, and how it can change your life. Tune in as Jen empowers women in male-dominated industries to thrive and grow.
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Claiming Your P.O.W.E.R By Embracing Your Humanity With Jen Coken
This is the show where we talk about leadership, presentation skills, communication, and how to be a better human or the best human you can be in your organization, in your life, in the world, and all of that. Before I get to my great guest for this episode, I’d like to invite you to see where your presentation skills are strong by taking our free four-minute assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where you can see where you are strong and where perhaps a little bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition that you deserve.
My guest is my wonderful friend, Jen Coken, who is one of the sages that I turn to whenever I’m looking for advice on things. I thought it was time to get her back on the show to talk about inspiration and how you can be an inspiring leader. The official bio is recognized by ABC, MSNBC, and TEDx, Jen Coken is an internationally acclaimed comedian, coach, speaker, and Imposter syndrome expert. Jen has coached nearly 10,000 leaders in the public and private sectors.
She has a vision of a world where people are at home with themselves, a world where each and every human being is recognized, appreciated, and known for their unique contributions. She’s made it her mission to empower mission-driven women executives in male-dominated industries to lead with more authority, impact, and influence. Fortune 1,000 CEOs to 7-figure founders trust Jen to shake things up with no apologies, no limits, and all the laughs. In this episode, we had a fairly serious conversation seeing the depths of Jen Coken as well as the spirit that she’s with. I know you’ll enjoy the episode. Onto the interview.
Jen Coken, welcome back to the show.
I’m so happy to be here, and I’m happy to be back with you.
You’re somebody I consult all the time. I said, “I’m going to consult you for the sake of my audience and talk about all this good stuff.” First of all, let’s start with the dream interview. If you were to interview someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be, what would you ask them, and who should be listening?
It would be 1 of 2 people, for sure. Madam Curie or Mary Cassatt. Why? It is because both were women in male-dominated industries. They lived at the same time. Mary Cassatt was in the late 1800s.
That’s Mary Cassatt, the painter.
Exactly. She was an impressionist painter who was surrounded by men. What was it like to have to break through that boys’ network back then? Are we dealing with the same things? It is the same with Madam Curie, the discoverer of plutonium, who was around in the early 1900s. It’s the same. Are we facing the same things? If so, how do we break those historical patterns? Have we broken those historical patterns? I’m always interested in how the past has shaped who we are now and how we view the future. I’m always interested in that for people as individuals that I coach but also from a historical perspective of this genre of the women that I coach in male-dominated industries. It’d have to be 1 of those 2 women.
I love that because indeed, we have centuries of history of men being in charge of business or men being in charge of society and women staying home. In some ways, the difference came in the 1960s when the birth control pill came along. It was because women were able to control whether they got pregnant or not when they got pregnant. Therefore, you weren’t relegated to the motherhood role at all times.
Most people don’t realize this, but it wasn’t until 1974 that a woman was able to get a credit card without a man’s signature.
I was part of the National Association of Women Business Owners. I was part of the group that made that possible to make that possible. It wasn’t until 1978 that women could get a business loan.
I did not know that.
The League of Women’s Voters and the National Association of Women Business Owners, NABO, were instrumental in making that possible. I was part of the board of the San Francisco NABO chapter for four years. That was one of the things that we were very proud of. It has been within living memory that this was not possible.
Going back to your historical comment, I think about historical patterns partly because having seen that we’ve survived some of these historical crises before or what humankind has gone on, maybe we’ll survive this one. It helps me not be so depressed when I watch the news. I think in historical cycles a lot. It is also recognizing that women’s control over their own reproductive systems and women being in business all came along more or less the same time, changing a pattern that was otherwise for centuries.
I grew up in the ‘70s. I saw the women’s liberals, but we didn’t really have models to follow or examples. What’s great about now is that there are women taking equal positions in business and in leadership, and the world is benefiting from it. That’s what keeps me going. I see the improvement. I see the benefit to the world as women are taking their place in leadership. We have centuries of history and conditioning that gets in the way.
I am with you. I love seeing the increases as fractional as they are.
They are fractional.
We want to remember that. I remember a statistic from 2018. At that time, there were 25 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and 23 White men over 6 feet tall named John. In 2021, there were 41 women leading Fortune 500 companies. I don’t have the same stats on men named John, but what we have seen is that the majority of CEOs are White men over 6 feet tall, which is mind-blowing to me.
It is centuries of conditioning.
We have a lot more to go, but let’s also recognize the strides we’ve taken.
This show is for those leaders. I wanted to ask you because you do so much wonderful work with helping women step into their humanity, inspiration, and so forth. Let me ask you. For the women that you coach, what are the top three issues or the challenges that you see?
Number one, it’s lack of vision. It’s not that they don’t have a vision. It is that they aren’t thinking big enough. For many of these women, they’ve gotten to the place they thought they wanted to go, which is at the top of the C-Suite, but then what? For a majority of these women, they’re in their mid-40s, late 40s, mid-50s, or late 50s and they’re beginning to think, “What’s that next step? What’s that legacy I want to leave?”
When I work with women, part of the coaching is, “What’s your vision and impact on the world you want to leave? You’ve got a little bit of space and grace to think about that now that the family is raised. If you weren’t married and had kids or partnered and had kids, you’ve raised yourself. You’ve gotten to the place you want to go. What’s next?” That’s number one.
It’s interesting because it’s not that they don’t realize they don’t have a vision, but when I ask the question, “Are you continually providing that vision to the people around you?” the answer’s no, but they say yes that they have a vision. We connect the dots that they really don’t have a vision. The vision, you could say is your why, but people have turned why into a goal, and that’s not the way I approach it. I always say, “Your vision is how you’re going to impact the world.” That’s number one, lack of vision.
Number two is the lack of maintaining your own boundaries when it comes to your schedule. Every woman I’ve ever coached let people have access to their calendar. They’re available. They want to be there for their team. The thing I keep reminding them of is, “Where’s your strategic thinking and planning time in your calendar? When are you doing your self-care? When are you taking time for lunch?” That’s really simple. It could be half an hour a day for lunch.
I had one client. She would be in three meetings and would go from meeting to meeting. It would be 10 minutes or 15 minutes in each meeting. While she was doing that, she was on her phone answering emails. I said to her, “How present are you?” She was like, “I’m not.” I’m like, “We need to figure out how to protect your time because you are the most important person to you.” That also goes for family time. It is the time when you’re spending with your loved ones that you’re not checking back in with work. That’s number two, protecting your time.We need to figure out how to protect your time because you are the most important person to you. Click To Tweet
Number three is regular one-on-one meetings with their direct reports with specific questions that make a bigger difference than what we’re doing. Those four questions are, “What’s working?” You’re asking your employees to tell you, which is causing them to interrupt negative brain patterns and sit back and think, “What’s going well?” Mostly, we treat one-on-ones as a way to extract information so that we can report up, and that could be to the board if you’re a CEO, or the employee is coming to you wanting to make sure they have it all together and have covered their butt. We rarely give them space to think,
“What’s working? That’s good. Let’s do more of that.”
It is, “What’s working? What’s not working as well as you’d like it to?” It is interrupting those negative brain patterns. It is then, “What else do you need to get your job done? Do you have any questions for me?” If we use those four questions, employees begin to chart their own destinies and think these things through. You can integrate performance issues as well and check in with goals because that gives you a great opportunity to do that. Those would be the top three things. It is a lack of vision, not protecting your own time, and either never doing one-on-ones with your direct reports or not asking the right questions.
I love those four questions. That’s great. That was a great idea, those four questions. For the vision thing, the other thing that I find, and I fall into this one, too, is to focus on all the things that need to be done. That means that you’re only focusing on the projects in front of you. You’re solving problems rather than thinking what are the further consequences.
That’s why coaches like you and me are useful because one of the things I’m always asking my clients is, “Then what? What’s the consequence of that? What’s the benefit of that?” They’ll say, “I can help employees be happy.” I’ll be like, “If you help the employees, what happens then? If that happens, what happens then? From the CEO’s point of view,” and I was talking to a client about this, “How does that matter to the CEO?” She is so focused on keeping her team going rather than taking a step back and saying, “How does that fit in the greater context of the organization and then in the world?”
That speaks to something that I have started to introduce with my clients, this whole Eisenhower Matrix, which is urgent versus important. If people aren’t familiar with it, it’s four squares. I believe on the left side, it’s important and not important, and then urgent and not urgent. The urgent and important are all the fires you’re putting out consistently. The majority of people spend most of their time in that quadrant.
You have the urgent but not important. Those are all the interruptions you get. You then have the not urgent and not important. If you’re like me, back in the day when I used to have an assistant, about 2:00, she would send me some cat video or baby laughing video because she knew I needed a break. Prior to that, she would hear me doing it because I was so burnt out from responding to everything.
The one quadrant you miss is the important and not urgent. That’s the thinking and planning time. What I say to people is, “What are you going to do today for impact?” Often, how do you know if it’s important or urgent or not urgent or not important? That’s why we’re left responding to things I want them to start thinking about, and I’m sure you do this with your clients. I’m like, “What’s the impact? What’s the biggest impact? If you’re looking at your list of to-dos, what’s going to have the biggest impact today? What’s the one thing that’s going to have the biggest impact?”
I’m going to write that one down because that’s not the biggest task but the biggest impact.
Your questions of, “What would that provide? What about that?” are great questions to follow up with. They’ll be like, “I don’t know which would have the biggest impact.” I’ll be like, “Let’s play this out. You say you want to hold an all-hands meeting to announce something. Is that going to have the biggest impact? Is it meeting with your leaders and having them meet with their teams in case there are questions rather than having this big decision be in front of 500 people where you never know what questions people are going to have? What’s the impact of each of those strategies? Let’s play them out.”
I love that. I think about our mutual friend, Dorie Clark, who says in her Ted Talk about the survey where they interviewed thousands of CEOs. They all said, “Long-term thinking is the most important thing.” They said, “How often do you do it?” 97% said, “Long-term thinking is the most important.” 94% said, “I don’t have time to do it.”
That’s exactly what you’re pointing to.
For a while, I had a get-it-done group that would meet every other Friday to do our long-term thinking plan. I know me. I won’t do it without accountability. I need someone who will say, “This is the time we reserve. Turn off the email. Put your phone on airplane mode so that you can focus on one thing.” I am so easily distracted. I always think, “Get help.” If you have a hard time making time for yourself, get a buddy who will hold each other accountable.
That’s really important. What you said is also important. Whenever I’m on the road speaking, I always ask the question, “How many of you love helping others if you can or if you’re able?” Every hand in the room goes up. I’m like, “How many of you love asking for help?” One hand on average will go up. For some reason, we think asking for help makes us look weak.
I also have a blog about those four questions that people can grab off my website, but I did a blog post about why it’s important to use the phrases, “I need your help. I don’t know. I’m sorry. I was wrong.” It shows you’re embracing your vulnerability and your humanity at the same time. I wish we would get better at asking for help.
I love what you’re saying about embracing humanity. You’ve talked about embracing your humanity in terms of being a real person. You don’t have to be perfect. Talk more about that.
We think as leaders, we’re supposed to have our you-know-what together all the time or that we should always have it together. We should always know what we want. I have interviewed some of the top CEOs and they would tell you that’s not the case. There’s a great book called The Challenge Culture written by Nigel Travis who was head of Papa John’s and Dunkin’. I had the privilege of interviewing him for one of many books I’ve been working on for a long time.
We talked about his philosophy of having what he calls a challenge culture or a pushback culture. I said, “Explain this to me. Tell me what that looks like.” He said when he was working at Dunkin’ or Papa John’s, he’d go into a franchise. He’d have some of his other people with him, but he would plant one of his top people in the room to ask a question that challenged him or that put him on the spot to let the other owners and employees know it was okay to do that.
We don’t need to have every answer. We can say, “I don’t know right now. I need to think about that.” You could be like, “That’s an interesting question. I will make sure to get back to you,” and then do the thinking and get back to them. People asking you questions are not to trip you up or make you look bad. It’s because humans have questions.
The other piece is to let go of perfectionism because perfectionism is an ideal. You can’t achieve it. It’s set up not to be achieved. It’s this ideal state, which is a fantasy. It’s important for your employees to know you’re human so that they can be human. I’m getting into Suits. I’m on season nine. I’ve been watching it for a couple of months.
For the international audience, that’s a TV show.
There’s this character, Louis Litt, who is one of the most human people who constantly sticks his foot in his mouth. He is getting things wrong but always doing better, always fixing things, and always in the moment when he’s on a tirade. When someone says, “You’re all wrong,” he’ll stop and go, “You’re right. I’m sorry.” I love that about him because he embraces it in the moment. He doesn’t take things personally and he moves on. That makes him a better leader. That makes him somebody that you want to put your trust in because he’s so relatable as a human being. Most of us have the shield up. We have these thoughts in our heads about things that are going wrong that we never want to let anyone see. Be human. Your employees will like you better for it.Be human. Your employees will like you better for it. Click To Tweet
That’s also part of this need for perfection. Little girls are taught to be careful. Little boys, if they fall over or they fall down, some adult says, “Get up. Keep going. Try it again.” Little girls fall down and the adult says, “Did you hurt yourself? Be careful. Did you get dirty?” There are two things. We have to be 150% ready before we try for something or before we volunteer. Not being willing to answer questions or ask questions because you’ve got to be perfect or if one woman makes a mistake, all women make mistakes. That is the holdover when there were only 1 or 2 women in positions of authority. One woman represents all of them. Now, it’s not so much the case because there are more women out there. Some of us are brilliant and some of us are not, but we are all human. Try for it.
I find that with speakers. I work a lot with speakers and leaders who are out there speaking. I talk to people who lead workshops and lead conferences and podcast hosts all the time. I say, “Why don’t you have any more women speakers?” Usually, they say, “We’d love to have more women, but I can’t get anybody to say yes.” The men will raise their hands if they know 20% about the topic. The women say, “I don’t think I know enough,” so they don’t volunteer. It’s one of the reasons why I have a business and why I work to get more women’s voices heard in places of power.
No more manels or all-male panels.
The thing is women have to step up, take a risk, and be human.
Even if there are many people who are like you, which women at the top, there still aren’t very many and there are fewer women of color, it can be very confrontational for yourself. It can feel like your life is at stake if you speak up or take a stand for something. I was fired from a job because I spoke up and took a stand for something. It was the one job I was ever fired from and I’m happy about that. It wasn’t all that long ago when it happened. It was several years ago when it happened. I couldn’t be happier that it happened.
The people who say, “Women do this. Women do that. That woman made a mistake. You shouldn’t ever trust a woman,” that’s their problem. It’s also their holdover from centuries of socialization. It doesn’t have to define you.
What other people think about you is none of your business.
I want to ask you about the phrase, “Be an inspiring leader.” Sometimes, asking people to be inspiring can be scary. They’re like, “Do I have to be famous to inspire people? Do I have to be Brené Brown to inspire people?” How does that fit with being human?
The only difference between you and Brené Brown is famous. She had a good PR person and what have you. Anybody can be inspiring. The difference between good and great leaders is good leaders think they have to do certain things in order to be a certain way and in order to have happy employees. Great leaders recognize that it all starts with who they are. We are human beings. What’s a way of being? Being inspiring is a way of being. Being inclusive is a way of being. Being direct is a way of being.
The way that I think about inspiration because it’s so left up to interpretation is I look at the root word of inspirare, which is breathing life into something or someone. If your eye is on breathing life into the human in front of you, and that also requires being present, you are breathing life into this person in front of you or breathing life into the team.
You’re like, “What do you mean breathing life?” I don’t know. It could be listening to an employee who’s coming to you with something they’re upset about. This one’s happened to me. I was in a meeting with a variety of people from across teams. There was one young woman in that meeting who was a media person. She had a different supervisor. She happened to sit near me. I would hear her on the phone and hear her talking to her supervisor. I would ask her questions because I felt like she was so smart and she had so much to contribute but she wasn’t saying a word. I looked at her and said, “Andrea, what do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.” This redness blush started coming up and she spoke.
Afterward, I pulled her aside and said, “I apologize. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.” She said, “It was perfect. I have avoided speaking because I always get red.” She blushes. She was like, “I’ve got to learn to stop doing that.” I said, “You’re so smart and your voice is so important. What can I do to support you?” She said, “Keep asking me because will break me out of this.” She felt frozen. She couldn’t raise her hand. Long story short, she came to work for me because the boss she had was tamping her voice down and wasn’t allowing her to speak. At that moment, sometimes, breathing life into somebody is being tuned into their mood or, “What’s going on?”
When the pandemic hit and since we’re still in hybrid mode or some people are still remote, I say to my leader, “I want you to do one thing.” I stole this from a dear friend, Alicia Huck, who you may or may not know. She works a lot in the engineering industry. She gave me a tip that she began to implement with her engineering firms, and employee engagement went through the roof. I’ve started passing it on. It’s really simple.
At the beginning of every meeting, we do a simple thumbs up, thumbs down, um thumbs sideways. For thumbs up, all systems are a go personally and professionally. For thumbs down, all systems are not. For thumbs sideways, it could go either way. There is nothing more for you to do, but it gives you an insight into who to reach out to.
Thumbs up is, “Tell me. I love seeing that thumbs are up and all systems are a go. What’s been something you want to celebrate? I want to celebrate you.” You could be like, “I saw a thumbs down. Is everything okay? Is there anything I can do for you?” They don’t have to reveal personal details or private details, but they can let you know, “I’m going through a hard time at home.” You could be like, “Do you need any extra time right now?” They’re like, “I do. I could use to leave early, but I’ve got this project.” You’re then like, “Let’s look at it. Let’s see what we can do together. Maybe we can put off the deadline.”
That is breathing life. It doesn’t mean you are on stage at a TED Talk giving this amazing speech that people share and you have a million views. It is one moment at a time. Good leaders can be great leaders when they anchor themselves in ways of being that empower and enable people around them to chart their own course. When we’re focused on ways of being, the actions we see to take will become natural. The doing becomes natural inside this context of being. We have the inspired teams, empowered teams, or more collaborative teams that we want. Good leaders lead backward. Great leaders lead forward.
I love that. Say that one more time. Define leaning backward.
Most leaders think about what to do.
That is backward.
They do things in order to be successful, in order to be great, or in order to be well thought of. They have accolades, prestige, and awards. Great leaders recognize their humanity and start with, “Who am I going to be today?” That’s something I do with my clients.
That’s the forwards.
Being leads to seeing the tasks to do, which, ultimately, I can’t guarantee would give you what you want in life or give you the kind of teams you want or the accolades you want. We start with who you’re being as a human being which leads to the actions to take that then lead to the results rather than focusing on actions to get the results. We’ll be happy one day.
I love that. Someday, we’ll be happy.
It’s not a day of the week. Someday.
I have one more question for you. I know you talk about the P.O.W.E.R. code. I probably need to do a whole entire episode about that, but can you give us a quick review of how you have put all these wonderful ideas into an easy-to-remember acronym?
Let me start with, quickly, the context behind it. COVID was the great equalizer in recognizing how uncertain life is. Buddha has always said, “Life is incredibly uncertain.” We’re usually only reminded of it when something bad happens or when something bad happens to us personally. Hawaii is on fire. I immediately reached out to someone to say, “How are you doing?” It shook me of how fragile life is. Life is uncertain.
Post-COVID, life is far more unpredictable. There are supply chain issues, employee hiring retention, etc. The one and only thing we have any control over any time and anywhere, pre or post-COVID, is ourselves and how we respond to situations or our ability to respond. Viktor Frankl, the great philosopher, talks about stimulus and response and that being a great human is being able to elongate that space between something happening and how we react.
For the P.O.W.E.R. code, I’ll say what it stands for and then talk about it briefly. P stands for Pursue the facts. O stands for Own your stories. W stands for Witness your thoughts. E stands for Embrace a new choice. R stands for Reflect and Repeat. The first two things are Pursue your stories and Own the facts. Anytime you’re upset, take a moment, write down what you’re upset about, and then circle only the facts. That one thing leads people to recognize there are probably 1 or 2 facts. In that moment, you’re present.
When you’re present, you can start to be an observer or a witness of these negative thoughts and disempowering thoughts. It is almost like seeing thought bubbles above your head. You can start to witness your mood and your emotions and realize that is you being human. When you can recognize that, then you have a moment or that space between action and reaction where you can choose who you’re going to be. Be inspiring. Be empowering. You then wash, rinse, and repeat because as far as I can tell, I’ve been practicing this for 45 years and I’m going to be practicing it for the rest of my life.
I love that. Thank you so much for having been my guest again here on the show. Remember to pursue the facts and embrace your humanity. I love that. If you enjoyed this conversation, please share the episode and subscribe to us. Subscribe to us wherever you’re tuning in. Subscribe on YouTube. Tell your friends. The most important is to do us a favor by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts. That’s the one that the gurus track. That’s the one that matters. Thank you so much, Jen, for joining us. This has been the show. I’ll see you on the next one.
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About Jen Coken
Recognized by ABC, MSNBC, and TEDx, Jen Coken is an internationally acclaimed comedian, coach, speaker, and Imposter Syndrome expert. Jen has coached nearly 10,000 leaders in the last 30 years in the public and private sectors. She has a vision of a world of people at home with themselves — a world where each and every human being is recognized, appreciated, and known for their unique contribution. She has made it her mission to empower mission-driven women executives in male-dominated industries to lead with more authority, impact, and influence.
Fortune 1000 CEOs to seven-figure Founders trust Jen to shake things up with no apologies, no limits, and all the laughs.