Karen Jones and Sally Sambrook
Bennis (2009) suggests, ‘the process of becoming a leader is much the same as the process of becoming an integrated human being’. Watson (2012) posits this means working with the notion that people are ‘unfinished animals’. As such the ‘human animal’ is a creative being, never fully formed, but continuously in a state of emergence and working on who they are in their own eyes and the eyes of others. However, our research with owner-managers of SMEs suggests that for women there is increased complexity surrounding the process.
This article draws on autobiographical narrative research with eight women participating in the LEAD Wales programme, funded by the Welsh Government through the European Social Fund at Swansea and Bangor Universities. The programme aims to enhance and develop the leadership skills of owner-managers of SMEs, whilst also focusing on the functional knowledge required for business growth. The research is part of a wider study concerning the nature of leadership learning, both through lived experience and as a consequence of participation in the programme.
The women interviewed were at different stages of their entrepreneurial career, and from various industry sectors and businesses with different ownership structures. In summary, two were in business partnerships. One led a business founded by her mother. Another recently succeeded as sole owner of a business created with her sister. Four were copreneurs with their spouse. Despite these differences, the narratives concerning their leadership journeys provide insights into some common struggles and tensions. This article draws on themes of ambiguity, ambivalence and ambition!
Role ambiguity usually occurs due to a lack of specific role functions and responsibilities (Beehr, 1976). This was a particularly salient feature of interviews with those in the early stages of their entrepreneurial career and appeared magnified for some because of the circumstances under which they became leaders. Some entered into business partnerships and others into copreneurship because this appealed as a more flexible role to combine with child rearing responsibilities. This meant the women were often juggling a wider range of family activities and social identities.
Copreneurship involved a particularly high level of role ambiguity. In some cases this was intensified by the need to adapt to existing teams, organisational processes and business cultures.
For some women this was an overwhelming experience. One explained her thoughts when she acquired the ‘vague title’ of Managing Director upon agreeing to join her husband’s business after the birth of their child: ‘I thought well what does that mean? … I didn’t feel like I had any right to be there or that I’d earned the position at all.’ She focused on producing ‘tangible’ outputs and in doing so avoided ‘fluffy stuff around managing’ and ‘deciding what way the business should go.’ Struggling to make sense of leadership responsibilities she said ‘it’s all very - almost fluffy stuff, that isn’t tangible, completely non-tangible, which is quite hard to come to terms with.’ Providing insights into a personal struggle with leadership responsibilities she explained how she dealt with day-to-day problems in the business: ‘I put my head down and think I’ll hide here until they fix it.’
Providing another perspective one women explained tensions that arose when she employed more staff: ‘I felt lost actually, in my own business, because it was just like what am I supposed to be doing? What am I supposed to be? ... What’s my job now?’ Becoming increasingly anxious and isolated she said ‘I was at that point where I didn’t want to do this anymore because I didn’t know what I was doing ... didn’t know where I fitted in within the business at that point.’ Another woman in a similar situation found that after recruiting several highly qualified and experienced staff she ‘felt like a fraud on a daily basis.’
The notion of emergence arises in the narrative as a sense making process from which the women attempt to construct meaning from their contextual experience in order to create a new reality (Weick, 1995).
Ambivalence and Ambition
Nevertheless, elicited from the narrative is a sense of ambivalence. For instance, one woman expressed mixed feelings about intensifying leadership responsibilities that arose because her husband could no longer cope with the ‘pressure’ of the business. This was overwhelming and exhausting, not least because her evolving role involved preparing their sons for succession, yet her ambivalence is couched in terms of being the main ‘drive’ behind the business and on this point she added ‘I am ambitious.’
Learning from the LEAD Wales programme was prominent in the narratives. Some women explicitly attributed this to the business coaching element. One explored ‘the whole juggling act thing’ and worked on ‘chunking time’ for different roles and responsibilities with her coach.
Another woman who participated in the programme partly to ‘understand’ her role explained that she entered into copreneurship with her husband in more of a ‘supporting role’ to ‘reduce his stress levels’, however:
‘I’ve learnt now that that’s his business. His stress is his business and he controls his stress not me. I probably would have come to that conclusion eventually but the coach really helped me conceptualise that, and that’s been really interesting.’ She added, ‘I want to be understood for contributing the core.’
Finally, the woman previously avoiding ‘fluffy’ responsibilities said ‘the LEAD programme has given me the confidence in myself … now I believe I can do the job … now when I take charge, instead of feeling bossy I just feel in control … somebody has to be and that person’s me.’ Emerging from a growing sense of self belief she talked about ambitions to develop new services and products: ‘I’d like to see us diversifying more ... and that’s what my plan is.’
In conclusion, the narratives bring to life the notion of learning as a constant process of sense making, of evolving and reshaping identity, as the women learn to deal with the ambiguity, ambivalence and ambition of entrepreneurial leadership. Linstead and Thomas (2002) suggest the process of restructuring a sense of 'self' involves managing the tension between contradictory demands posed by unfolding answers to the questions ‘What do you [the organisation] want from me?’ and ‘What do I want to be in the future?’ This was certainly true for the women in this research, but for many, participation in a leadership development programme was instrumental in aiding the sense making process.
Karen Jones and Sally Sambrook, Bangor University