By Alizah Salario
Pre-pandemic, the culture of corporate leadership seemed frozen in amber. Sad desk lunches eaten hurriedly between meetings, caffeine-fueled late nights at the office, and zero work-life balance were par for the course in many sectors. The underlying assumption was that making it to the C-Suite meant extreme sacrifice. But when Covid-19 upended work as we once knew it, more women started saying the quiet part out loud.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Apparently, female leaders got the group text. Now, women are leaving leadership positions at companies in record numbers, and at a far higher rate than men, according to McKinsey & Lean In’s 2022 Women in the Workplace report. A desire for greater flexibility, a lack of company commitment to employee well-being and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and being overworked and under-recognized were cited as top reasons respondents switched jobs.
Though women are no less ambitious than men, greater headwinds on the path to advancement make it harder for women to excel, according to the McKinsey report, which dubbed the trend the “Great Breakup.”
Landing a role in the C-Suite has long been the pinnacle of success in corporate culture, but climbing a corporate ladder to reach a singular “dream job” isn’t the only way to the top. Multiple pathways, even those involving time off for caretaking, have an upward trajectory. There’s also growing recognition that these career detours aren't deficits — and in fact they may actually bolster the ability to lead. By carving out more personalized career paths and reimagining new forms of leadership, women are striving for leadership roles on their own terms — and manifesting a different sort of dream.
“While the American capitalist model is really about productivity first, after a pandemic where people are exhausted and overwhelmed, we need to be thinking about seeing the people behind the work and leading with empathy, not just metrics,” says Amy Harbison, a certified transition coach who has worked with women in the C-Suite. “Many people are wanting to reclaim their lives, and not see themselves as just productivity robots. This is a moment for that kind of reset.”
Seeking Alignment and Authenticity
For many years, the immense pressure to conform to expectations of corporate America led women to downplay attributes like empathy typically associated with a female approach. But in the wake of the pandemic, which proved that a typically male model of leadership isn’t necessarily more effective, all that is changing.
Arwa Mahdawi, a writer, brand strategist and author of, Strong Female Lead: Lessons From Women in Power, says it’s time to “flip the script” on the long history of women leaning in to be more like men. “How many articles have you read about ‘don’t say sorry in the workplace, be more aggressive?’Actually, it would be good if people were more polite and empathetic,” says Mahdawi.
Finding a new dream job isn’t necessarily about stepping down from a leadership position. Maybe it’s pitching a new leadership role that doesn’t yet exist but aligns with a company’s mission, taking an intensive leadership role for a shorter period of time, or pursuing a multi-faceted portfolio career. Sometimes, it’s merely a matter of reframing expectations about what skills and strengths are required for effective leadership.
Mahdawi cites two prominent U.S. Representatives, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Katie Porter (D-CA) who excel precisely because they’re leading on their own terms. “AOC is not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s fair, but she hasn’t tried to fit the traditional mold of a politician. Instead, by using social media and the way she communicates, she’s used her skills to get to the top. What makes Katie Porter so powerful as a politician is her authenticity,” explains Mahdawi, adding that “AOC and Porter rewrote the script of what a dream job should look like.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent decision to resign is another powerful example of reframing success and rewriting the dream job script. Ardern, who gave birth while in office and has a four-year-old daughter, was able to be honest with herself and her constituents by recognizing when a challenging leadership position no longer served her. “I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she said of her resignation.
The takeaway is that even after reaching the top, there’s no obligation to stay there. Ardern’s willingness to own both her accomplishments while in office, and the unsustainability of her role, reflects a shift toward making decisions in alignment with internal needs and values, rather than external metrics of success. This reframe can require taking an “aerial view” of your career to figure out who you are today versus who you were even two years ago, pre-pandemic, which in turn can guide you toward work aligned with your values, says Harbison.
“The dream is to live fully what you value. It’s where you’re working with all cylinders firing. You feel more in flow, more connected to the work you’re doing and the skills that you’re bringing. It’s a doable dream, but it requires knowing what your values and strengths are.”
Change From the Inside Out
There’s a broad spectrum of what working in values alignment might look like, but the new dream jobs tend to have a few things in common. For one, they’re flexible. Only one in ten women wants to work mostly on-site, and many women cite remote and hybrid work options as a top reason for joining or staying with an organization, according to the McKinsey report.
Employers who want to retain female leadership “can focus on work-life balance through programs like better maternity and paternity leave, re-entry programs, and flexible scheduling,” said Vicki Salemi, a career expert at Monster.
“A dream job can be more about flexibility than prestige,” adds Mahdawi.
Today’s dream jobs also tend to have opportunities for impact, says Harbison. “Most of the mid-career women I work with want to feel like they’re making their mark, and making things better in some way.”
For younger employees working their way up, a job with opportunities for mentorship is also key, says Harbison. That might include utilizing the strengths of older women in the workplace, as well as holding supervisors accountable in performance reviews for their efforts to mentor direct reports.
Careers have evolved beyond climbing a narrow ladder to the top. Today’s and tomorrow’s leaders in search of the next dream job should fix their gaze not on a single point, but rather the constellation of opportunities out there. “People assume there’s a perfect job out there, and I’d just like them to let go of that,” says Harbison. “Let go of the dream job and tap into what excites you, what plays to your strengths and your greater sense of purpose. That, to me, is going to create an alignment that feels closer to the dream.”
Have you listened to the Chief podcast? Tune into "The New Rules of Business" as Chief Co-Founders Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan unpack today's most challenging leadership questions. Be sure to leave a review and follow wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes drop every Tuesday.