Broadcaster Soledad O'Brien tells ASUG that the current crisis will be a leveller for women in the workplace

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett April 17, 2020
Ex-CNN anchor offers her advice to companies on dealing with the new reality and how it will be a leveller for women in the workplace

(via YouTube)

Soledad O’Brien is used to dealing with a crisis. The former CNN anchor and host of weekly talk show Matter of Fact has covered everything from Hurricane Katrina, to the Haiti earthquake and Japanese tsunami – and has found that people always rise to the challenge:

Every single time, certain people emerge - and it's not always the ones who you think it's going to be - but certain people navigate their way through challenges. Whenever I get stressed or freaked out, I try to remember this is an opportunity to lead and to figure out how to navigate something and then that gives you a bigger perspective on it, as opposed to, 'Oh my god, the sky’s falling!'.

O’Brien was talking on a Zoom call hosted by SAP user group ASUG Women Connect, where she was offering her advice on navigating our new reality and overcoming the challenges posed by the COVID-19 breakout. 

We may now be several weeks into this new reality, but many organizations are still re-evaluating their business processes, and analyzing what skill sets are lacking or rising to the top. One of the core skills that has emerged as a frontrunner is the ability to work from home effectively:

A lot of companies really have to think about their work from home strategies, and what makes people efficient. The things to look for are people who are good in a crisis. People who need a lot of coddling and help, they really have to learn how to deal with that - it's not going to be perfect, it's just going to be as good as it can be. And that's going to ok for now. 

At the same time, I also realized - certainly with my staff - because we're communicating remotely, we spent a lot of time saying what are you wearing or just people talking about their workspace. We have to share what's going on in our lives. I think all of us have a day of struggle, and to let people know today is not my day, that's OK.

Setting agendas and parameters for video calls is crucial to make sure they’re effective, O’Brien advised. Using them as a way to replace colleagues catching up in the corridor about their weekends is good for morale, but having a time limit for this works best. The first 10 minutes of your Zoom work call is a good time to check in with everybody about their weekend or their day, but then it’s time to start the meeting.:

It’s really important to have that time, but you do need parameters around it. We had one project that every morning, we'd start with it, and it was kind of de-railing the conversation. And I thought, we're going to control the environment. Everybody's not on this project, so it doesn't need to be the one thing we start with all the time and drag people through the minutiae of it. We're going to go through the office stuff and then that one project, everybody can step off except for the people involved in that. That’s just an easy, structural, tonal, hugely important thing.


O'Brien offered reassurance to those pondering the issue of getting the right balance between work, family, mental health, staying safe along with fitting in all the other activities on the 'to do' list during this lockdown – spring cleaning the house, reading all those books on the bookshelf, baking banana bread, all those things everyone on social media seems to be finding the time to do:

Your life is plates and some of them are glass and some of them are rubber. The goal is not to let the glass ones fall. You have to keep the really important ones - your family, your health, making sure people have dinner - spinning. And then some other stuff like laundry not going to get done - some of those things are going to have to slide. 

For me that's more of a sense of balance. What's balanced to me, it's probably completely different than balanced to you. I try to work out every day. I try to go for a walk every day and try to have a glass of wine or Prosecco every day. I pick one room in my house to clean, not even well, just organize it. And that to me is again feeling like, okay, we're going to control this environment.

Now is a good time to reassess what your priorities are and just focus on those – if you say your priority is working out, but when you actually break down your schedule and find you're doing 30 minutes every fifth day, it clearly isn’t your priority. O’Brien admitted to hating cooking, so she normally just relies on the abundant takeaways in her home city of New York (which she’s looking forward to using again, once the lockdown is over): 

I don't enjoy cooking. It's not relaxing. For other people, it's the most amazing thing but it's not for me. So figuring that out and letting it go was a real relief. You either have to change your narrative about it, or you have to change your schedule. That was very helpful to me. If there were things that I kept saying, I really want to do this, I really wanted to do this, I either had to do them, or I had to stop talking about it and stop doing them.

O’Brien encouraged women to see this new landscape as an opportunity to get time with the executives who they might not normally get in front of. The beauty of meetings transferring from the office to video-calling platforms means you can participate even when you’re at home with the kids or in a different location from everyone else:

Now everyone's around doing conference calls. It's not just about who the boss is having lunch with, or who's on someone's calendar. In a lot of ways, there's great opportunity in having these conversations because it has kind of levelled the playing field for people. 

You can be on the call, and that means you have to show up and be there and look the part. I'm going to have stuff to contribute, and try to figure out how to keep the kids quiet. It's being present and continuing to do the work that you need to do. And if there are any issues, making sure you’re solving them.

For those women who already had a seat at the table, they have a responsibility to use that position to promote and support other women. 

I don't think we have the luxury as women to just dial it in, because you have the next woman who's coming behind you. I've never heard someone say, ‘Well listen, the last guy we had was like this, so we're never going to hire a guy’. I have been in conversation where it's, ‘The last mom we had was like this or the last 20-year-old woman we had was like this, and so we're never going to do that again’. That's a real conversation. 

“It is very important to show up and do your work well, because it's not just about you. It's about other people's success, ultimately. And that's why I try with the things that I can't do well, I have gotten much better at saying I cannot help you, not with this one, or I can help you exactly this much for exactly this much time. But if I can't do something well, I don't want to say yes.

My take

I’ve read a lot and listened a lot and talked a lot about how we can all best get through this pandemic, and I found O’Brien’s take refreshing in its honesty mixed with some very useful and practical tips. From doing the Zoom call with a glass of red wine in hand (Apothic Red, for those wondering – delicious, a little sweet, a blend and not expensive, according to O’Brien), to admitting that once the crisis is all over, the first thing she’ll do – after giving her friends who need it a hug – is go and get her hair and nails done. With all the other stresses we’re dealing with, O’Brien is a voice of reason reminding us of the small and easy steps we can take to improve our own situation and not be too hard on ourselves. 

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