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Change the “The Juggling Act”​: Making Better Strategic Choices to Lead Yourself and Others During COVID & Beyond

Tiffany Dufu and Her Message to "Drop the Ball"

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Like others with challenging professions and busy family lives, I am a master at the art of juggling…

I excel at planning ahead, and I work hard to “avoid the avoidable crises” – whether it is helping clients avert problems, preparing in advance for leadership or regulator questions, or making sure school medical forms are submitted on time.

Early in my career, I remember a senior woman executive explaining to me that the Blackberry would change everything.  “Think about it,” she said, “You can work full-time and make your kid’s soccer game or take a vacation. You can work from anywhere and no one needs to know….” In her mind, this device would allow her to stay connected to clients, continue to rise in her organization at warp speed and be a mom without being harmed professionally. She could “have it all.” I admired this woman, her success, and the grit she showed in managing work and family. I took her advice to heart.

Over time, however, I began to question this strategy. While it is one way to go, it has serious limitations and does not necessarily lead to success or happiness. In fact, it adds to the number of balls one is forced to juggle and it intensifies both the pace of life and the passage of time. And once you are seen as an expert juggler, people come to expect it – at work, home and school. They develop the perception that you can do it all, you can handle anything, and you don’t need help – even when, in reality, you do. 

Excessive juggling can present other bigger hurdles too, each of which we’ll need to confront as we transform the way we work and live in a mid- and post-COVID world.

  • It can negatively affect your ability to stay at peak performance mentally and physically, and it’s virtually impossible to stay connected to your purpose if you don’t create space for it.
  • You can miss opportunities if you are too focused juggling or too tired to see them.
  • There is no time for reflection or the development of creative, innovative or resilient muscles that allow for evolution, innovation and transformation.

Enter Tiffany Dufu and “Drop the Ball”

Tiffany is an entrepreneur and a champion of women and girls. She is the author of “Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less,” a book Gloria Steinem described as being “important, path-breaking, intimate and brave.” Tiffany was the poster gal for “doing it all.” But, after having kids, she struggled to accomplish everything she thought she needed to succeed. She hit the wall. I can relate to a number of her pivotal stories about juggling a newborn and career, and the indignities of your body not cooperating with your decision to go back to work on time and at full speed.

Tiffany’s solution? Stop Juggling, Drop the Balls and Let Some of Them Go.

In her book, Tiffany explains how she learned to re-evaluate her own expectations, shrink her to-do list, and more meaningfully engage. This included getting clear on her goals and asking for help to create the space that she needed to thrive at work and home.

Her philosophy of “dropping balls” (instead of juggling more), finding time to reflect, and being more intentional about which precious balls to keep is invaluable.

In her view, “the key to achieving more, in motherhood and our careers, is making strategic choices about what you can drop.”

In doing so, Tiffany has achieved success beyond what she imagined, and she’s paying it forward in spades. 

A Conversation with Tiffany and Some Sage Wisdom

I had the good fortune to talk with Tiffany in early June 2020. I had met her a little over a year ago and was looking for material for my book. It was a day filled with bad news, sadness, turmoil and violence following the murder of George Floyd. I knew she had a lot on her plate, but she wrote back almost immediately and made time for me the same day.

Tiffany is just as warm, engaging and thoughtful in an unplanned phone call as she is on stage or in a podcast. Although she seemed tired, her voice sparked with enthusiasm as she talked about finding purpose for herself in helping others.

Here are some of my takeaways.

1.   More people are craving connection than you think. Whether it’s a tribe or a Cru or a cohort, there is strength in numbers.

  • As part of her journey, Tiffany realized that there are amazing women in the world who want to engage and help each other – they just don’t always have the time to find each other. (Sound familiar?) Her most recent venture aims to solve that problem. “The Cru” connects groups of women to help accelerate their life goals through friendship, mentorship and sponsorship with a focus on accountability and progress. In the beginning, Tiffany focused on in-person groups in certain cities. With COVID, she took a bigger leap and used the opportunity to connect many more people virtually. According to Tiffany, The Cru “is about showing up for each other, empowering each other, and holding each other accountable when it’s needed most.” Being virtual will allow her to reach more people.
  • During COVID, as we’re feeling more isolated, innovation and the paths to leadership, leadership development and promotional opportunities will look different. To promote and advance diverse leaders and future leaders, it is our responsibility to find more effective and impactful ways to connect with and champion each other. Leaving it to chance is too big of a risk to take. We’ll need to build even stronger, more intentional relationships. We’ll need to be vulnerable, authentic, and purposeful in leading, supporting leaders, and sponsoring the next generation. Tiffany’s experience also shows that if you make room for strategic, “out of the box” thinking, you might find opportunities to maintain and grow your business – even now.

2.   Challenge yourself to find purpose and your strategy for getting there.

  • Over her career, Tiffany put a lot of time and sweat equity into other people’s ideas, but she wanted to use her own power and influence to help propel people forward, while creating her own independence. She wanted to have a sustainable impact. She realized she could create more opportunities if she engaged with the market directly.
  • Tiffany tried different plans – some worked and some didn’t. The point is that she never gave up. She also never allowed herself to live in a “box” that someone else created. She knew her purpose, and she had the courage to do things differently. We can learn from her. Doing things differently – regardless of your profession or passion – can change the world or create a product, value or service that may never have existed if you had never been brave. Tell fear to take a seat and step out of your comfort zone. Your clients and customers might just embrace seeing a product or service that is new, different or improved.

3.   Create space and time to recognize pivotal moments to propel you forward.

  • I asked Tiffany about a pivotal moment in her journey. I was curious about how she honed her message, connected so well with her audience and hit her stride. She told me a story about her father, a preacher by profession. He gave her advice she took to heart and carries with her. He told her to “speak from her heart” and use her gift of connecting with people in the way they need her – don’t ever read words from a page or lose that emotional, authentic connection. Tiffany believes there is great power and responsibility in speaking. Her father’s advice helped her focus and hone her message and transformed the way she delivered it.
  • Creating space for reflection and listening to the wisdom from others can be a game changer. We are often too afraid or put-off by “feedback” that we forget to appreciate and proactively seek out wisdom, advice, constructive criticism and true sponsorship from those who could help us most. Leaders, in particular, need to seek out feedback – both good and bad. And, people need to feel free to give it. One of Tiffany’s many strengths is that she creates space for two-way conversations, she listens and she is authentic in how she responds.

4.   Transform failure and challenges into opportunities.

  • As incredibly successful as Tiffany is, she is open about challenges, failures, and opportunities for growth. Her setbacks have allowed her to be more innovative, which has paid off not only for her but for the women and girls she has inspired. It’s no wonder she serves on the Board of Directors of “Girls Who Code,” an organization founded by Reshma Saujani author of “Brave, Not Perfect”. It’s easy to see the connection in mission, beliefs and leadership philosophy.
  • Tiffany is the “epiphany of brave” in her fearless approach to helping others. She also has no illusions about perfection. We all know the stories of Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey, right? Actual or perceived “failure” can create huge opportunity – if you are brave enough to learn from it. Perfection is a myth. If you “fail,” try again.

5.   Don’t be afraid to drop balls – either by accident or intent.

  • Tiffany is the first to admit that she still drops balls and needs to reassess. After contributing to the New York Times “Working Women’s Handbook” and outlining strategies for achieving more by doing less, Tiffany shared that she became overwhelmed with the demands on her time, and even she needed to take a step back follow her own advice.
  • As a professional lawyer who is expected to be unflappable, unbreakable and always “on,” I am the first to admit that I hate dropping balls or not meeting expectations. I bristle at missing client deadlines or being the only mom who forgot to bring snacks for class. The problem is that many of us have too many balls in the air and we’ve suffered for it somewhere (or everywhere). Given the pace of change in our world, it’s just not possible to sustain “the juggling act” and function at the highest levels. And, if we are honest, we’re all probably tired of the “busy contest” – you know that silly exchange when someone asks how you are doing? We talk about how busy we are as if it’s a sign of success or a badge of honor.

It’s okay to give ourselves permission to change what we juggle, re-assess priorities and reset strategies. While we are at it, maybe the culture of trying to “do it all” can take a back seat too so we can allow our creative minds to wander a bit and allow game-changing opportunities and ideas to emerge.

Leaders, champions, sponsors and mentors can all learn something from Tiffany’s message – and pay it forward.

* * *

I am grateful to Tiffany for sharing her purpose and fitting me into her day to help me in my book writing journey. I was inspired by her clarity, her courage to strike out on her own, her belief in her own gifts, her kindness and her commitment to help so many others. She lives what she speaks —

“I want all of us to wake up to our own power and create the change we seek. I’ve experienced firsthand that power comes from having a clear purpose and the passion to pursue it. Brave authenticity, uncompromising integrity, and graceful resilience along the way don’t hurt either.” Tiffany Dufu

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