Life transitions: A collective inquiry for women system leaders

by Tatiana Fraser and Rachel Sinha

Life transitions are important moments.

They can be both powerfully creative and challenging at the same time. They are times of amazing vulnerability when we are tested to walk in the dark and embrace the unknown.

As system leaders, we know from our professional work, that there is something very special about transitions. We revel in the exploration of creative destruction and possible emergence, where old systems die and the possibility to do things differently awaits. But taking this learning from our work and applying it to our personal life is often easier said than done.

We have both walked through transitions recently; Tatiana stepped down from her leadership role as Founder and Director of the Girls ActionFoundation in Canada, at which she had grown and scaled her work and felt called to write a book and take on new challenges. Rachel left the systems change project she co-founded (The Finance Innovation Lab), moved from London to New York to San Francisco and grew her family from one child to three. In these journeys, we have reflected about how we’ve experienced these transitions as women and as changemakers.

Through conversation with women, we discovered many other incredible stories that have been contextualized and dealt with on a personal basis, often internalized and rarely shared. We have also learned that a community of support is so important — to help us collectively make sense of our experiences, to connect with others, to realize that we are not alone, and to help us hold all the challenges and unknown with strength and wisdom. These conversations if held with the right people, also serve as rich learning about what it takes to host ourselves and others through systems change.

Here are some other things we have observed and questions we share:

Family and community

Life transitions for women systems leaders mean some combination of negotiating family, children, work and passion, while trying to find the impossible balance. Whether it’s choosing not to have children, having children, raising teenagers, taking care of our parents, or dealing with disruptive family dynamics, this question of family and community weaves through our decision making, prioritizing and ultimately our visions for systems change. This can be tough.

This theme shines a light on our ambitions and our limits and brings into question our values and dreams. This journey can feel lonely and isolating, particularly when there is no forum for open dialogue about how women navigate, survive and thrive. The stories we’ve heard tell us about the ways we take risks and are open to innovating and doing things differently and they illuminate the painful moments that we confront along the way.

Our Questions here: How can we support women through these transitions in ways that empower us and build community?and What are we learning in these moments to become more powerful in our systems change efforts?

Power

When we connect the dots and link our personal experiences to the larger systems, the question of power arrives front and center. Transitions are often moments that lead us to our next big idea or iteration of who we want to be or how and what we want to contribute to society. Questions of resources — both personal and financial — and our position amid it all, emerge. We work in a world where women represent less than 20% of leaders in decision making and power. We confront glass ceilings, build collaborations and launch businesses in a world where typically senior white men shape agendas and lead decision making. We find that this reality is a tension that rarely gets named, connected or discussed.

Our Questions here: How can we begin to explore power and connect it to the systems change work we do in our day to day? How can we redefine power and wisdom in our systems work to leverage and access it in ways not yet imagined?

Different leadership styles

Systems leadership is characterized by leadership traits that resonate and align with feminine skills and ways of knowing: leveraging and building networks; valuing and nurturing deep relationships; working in decentralized teams; listening to intuition; scaling deep and scaling up; working at the cultural levels — are all skills required for working in complex systems and towards systems change. At this pivot moment for our society:

Our Questions here: What are emerging trends in our leadership for systems change and how can we centre and celebrate these together? How might we leverage and strengthen our leadership capacities when our skills are so badly needed? How can we purposefully pass wisdom up and down the generations, valuing both those women who’ve come before us and those who are coming after us? How can we bring more awareness and value to our leadership styles?

Wisdom

We know that systems change work requires wisdom and reflection in our processes and decision making. We also know that women have a very important contribution to make as leaders and wise council. This is a space that challenges cultural norms and stereotypes and requires a collective inquiry to emerge new knowledge, practice and supportive community.

Inquiry: How do women emerge their wisdom collectively in service to systems and change? In the true spirit of inquiry, what are questions around wisdom and how do we create the spaces for the known and the unknown? How can we draw on and be inspired by female archetypes to inform transitions into elder-hood? Beyond mentorship, how can we best harness the life experiences of women to contribute to change?

Questioning the status quo

Working in systems change forces us to confront big questions about our choices in life. This is disruptive both at home and at work. Our connection to and engagement in issues of racism, colonization, sexism, the way we treat the environment and animals emerge and challenge our life choices and identity in our society. The women we are encountering are looking for deep, and sometimes unconventionalunderstanding of some of the following broad questions:

Our Questions here: ‘do I really want to have children?’, ‘what is my contribution to the breakdown of this collaboration?’, ‘do I really want to stay in this relationship?’, ‘what is my connection to spirituality?’, ‘how am I part of the systemic problem I’m trying to solve?’ and, ‘what do I need to let go of?’

As we walk through our journeys, we notice that other system leaders are asking similar questions and are keen to have conversations and to take deeper dives into some of these themes.

We also believe that our systems change leadership is inherently connected to these realities and questions and we are excited to create a space to explore them intentionally.

Women are key to co-creating the world. We have unique insights into the process and learning in the field of systems change. We want to create a space for a collective inquiry into what this might look like; to hold each other up, to listen deeply to the wise voices inside and to make space for these voices in the world, while building connections to like-minded women, to help us be better in everything we do….and even maybe be a fierce force for powerful change.

That’s why we’re launching The Systems Sisterhood.

What is the Sisterhood?

The Systems Sisterhood is a new program developed by The Systems Sanctuary, a platform for peer to peer learning for systems leaders.

It is a place to find camaraderie and support for women working in systems change who are in the middle of a ‘life transition’.

Transitions might include stepping down from a leadership role, becoming a leader for the first time, taking time out to look after children, or relatives, going through change at home, shifting into eldership, or simply feeling called to dig deeper into your sense of purpose.

This will be a place for a collective inquiry about the challenges and opportunities that emerge for women system leaders. We will share new frames, dig into questions about life priorities and reflect on navigating big change, sharing practices to support embracing the unknown and the emergence of something new.

This will be an inter-generational program that allows for mentoring from those at different stages of life and you will leave with an international network of amazing women working in your field to lean on, for whatever comes next. We will dedicate one group of the cohort to explore women and wisdom.

Applications open on April 25 and close on May 25 2018.

What will it involve?

  • Commitment to a total of 7 peer sessions and individual reflective practice

  • Connection to responsive and personalized coaching

  • We will convene peer learning circles virtually via Zoom

  • The cohort will begin in June 2018 through to December 2018

  • Each peer session will be 1.5 hours long

You can find out full details here.