Award-winning writer, producer and NYT best-selling author Shonda Rhimes, CEO of the global media company Shondaland, shares her insights on her journey and tips for today's women at work.
Few people have as fascinating a perspective on leading meaningful change as Shonda Rhimes, the powerhouse who transformed the entertainment industry with her diverse and engrossing narratives.
As part of Women@Work 2022: Redefining the Workforce of Tomorrow, a virtual summit hosted by ADP, the award-winning television producer and New York Times best-selling author sat down for a conversation with Debbie Dyson, ADP's President of National Account Services. During their discussion, Rhimes and Dyson explored Rhimes' path to success and highlighted strategies for creating a workplace where women can show up authentically and thrive.
Above, Shonda Rhimes, award-winning television producer and New York Times best-selling author.
Here are nine insights from the engaging and informative session, all of which can help produce meaningful change for women at work.
1. To succeed, always be learning
Reflecting on her success, Rhimes notes that mindset is crucial. It can make the difference between moving forward and becoming stagnant. She views herself as someone who is constantly learning and growing, rather than someone who thinks they know everything about their work already.
"I don't believe I have mastered it," says Rhimes. "There's still more to accomplish. There's still more to learn. That keeps you hungry and wary of making mistakes, but it also keeps you driven."
2. Work/life balance is a myth, so make concessions
Rhimes believes the idea of work/life balance is a myth: "We tell ourselves that we can achieve this work/life balance — that there is a magical formula. It's a myth, and it makes us feel less successful when we don't achieve it."
Accordingly, Rhimes advises women to accept that achieving balance is almost impossible and encourages them to make strategic concessions. With the aim of better supporting employees, Shondaland — Rhimes' global media organization — transitioned to a hybrid workplace and created a culture that encourages parents to bring children to work.
It's crucial to eliminate the barriers that prevent women from doing their best, both at home and at work. "People will work harder for you when they feel appreciated and when you recognize they're supposed to have a life outside the office," said Rhimes.
3. Cultivate your self-belief
When women are preparing to take a leap in the workplace, it's important that they develop their sense of self-belief. Having that perspective is vital to weathering the difficulties and obstacles encountered when taking risks. "The difference between seeing an obstacle as an obstacle and an obstacle as an opportunity is how much you believe in your own abilities," notes Rhimes.
It's natural to face self-doubt, and it's important to take time to determine whether a risk is right for you. "If you're not sure of yourself yet, you're probably not ready to take it on," Rhimes explains. "Get sure of yourself first. Line up your reasons why this is a great idea — why you're doing what you're doing. Make sure you're making a leap that makes sense to you. Not all leaps are the right leaps, but when you find the one that is, go for it."
4. Don't be afraid of labels
Women in the workplace often face challenges in advocating for themselves and may hold back out of fear of being labeled as difficult or aggressive. When asked how to approach this situation, Rhimes responded, "I think we have to stop being afraid of labels."
Rhimes notes that this can be challenging when others hold power over your career. She advises considering whether a desire to be likeable is driving the fear, adding "I do think you need a little bit of boldness. You can't be likeable all the time. I say this about my characters. I don't want to watch a bunch of people who are always likeable. They're not interesting, and they don't accomplish much."
5. Find your voice by saying "yes" to the right things
Rhimes wrote a book called "The Year of Yes," which discusses how critical it is to find your voice. "The theory behind 'The Year of Yes' was to say 'yes' to anything that scared me, to anything I didn't think I could accomplish or that I was afraid of doing," explains Rhimes. "And in that doing, I undid that fear."
If saying "yes" feels scary, remember what's at stake. "When it comes to things like equal pay, or working to get a job accomplished, or hoping to get a specific project, you have to think about what you're saying 'yes' to," Rhimes notes. "Generally, you're saying 'yes' to the optimism, to the belief in yourself, that the status quo doesn't work for you — and sometimes all those things are scary."
6. Questioning the value of inclusion is a luxury
As someone who has not always been included, Rhimes says that her personal experiences have given her a firsthand understanding of the value of diversity and inclusion. "Inclusion and diversity are only theories — conversations or debates on whether they work or not — if you're someone who has always historically been included," she notes.
Having diverse teams allows you to surround yourself with people who can offer fresh takes and challenge your thinking. "Being surrounded by people who look exactly like I do, think exactly like I do, believe exactly like I do, would be detrimental to the creative process or to any business process," Rhimes explains. "You want to be surrounded by people who bring something to the table that you don't."
7. Ask the right questions to attract inclusive hires
Asking the right questions can help you find employees with inclusive perspectives. "Part of that is asking people where they think the best talent comes from, who they like to work with, what kinds of things they're interested in," says Rhimes. "You don't want to set people up to fail in these interviews, but you do want to make sure alarm bells are not ringing in your head."
Rhimes doesn't believe there's just one definition of inclusion, however. "I want to know they have a view of the world that feels inclusive, expansive and exciting without forcing them to pigeonhole themselves," she explains. "Sometimes that view of inclusive can be very different from my view of inclusive, but again, it's about bringing in people with different mindsets that are going to force me to think in bigger and broader ways."
8. Be open to mentorship in unconventional forms
As someone who is always learning, Rhimes recommends redefining the way working women think of mentorship. "The key to that is to not go with the traditional idea that you need a person who is your mentor or your coach," she advises. "I took mentorship from where I could find it. I would read books, watch TedTalks and take what I could from that."
Rhimes notes that mentors can be found in many forms, so it's important not to get hung up on needing a certain mentorship structure. "If you can open a book, you can find mentorship," she says.
9. Always be evolving
It's important to keep growing and looking forward. Rhimes discusses how she's seen important progress over the course of her career and remains excited about what's to come. "No matter how far we've come, there's still so much more to go, areas to explore, unseen areas to mine," she says.
In conversation about where to focus next, Rhimes provides a strategic recommendation: "Look to people with different abilities," she advises. "The differently abled community offers a significant amount of capital and talent, and often these individuals don't get a chance because of their abilities. I think that's where we should be going next."
The Rhimes keynote is no longer available, but you can replay other sessions from the Women@Work 2022 summit here.
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