live lessons aunt polly



I’d grown up seeing my dad work hard. He was a man’s man, a successful manager, and no stranger to long hours. As a small child, I remember balmy summer evenings when my mom, little sis and I would sit in chairs on the front lawn, watching the stars and waiting for Dad’s car to pull into the driveway.

As the oldest of three daughters, I’d become the de facto son and opted for a career in management to follow in his beloved footsteps. Dad prized my early achievements, telling me, “If you put your heart and mind to it, you can do anything a man can do – and do it even better.” I took his advice to heart and got to live my dream of being a vice president for 15 years.

Getting the Aunt Polly label

Then, one day after years in corporate America and experiencing yet another merger, a new boss unwittingly set the wheels in motion for changing my life when he described me as “Aunt Polly” to the new firm’s CEO. My boss didn’t mention all the impossible assignments and projects I’d delivered ahead of time and below budget,  just “Aunt Polly.”

Astonished, I asked him what he meant. His answer? I was a soft, round woman.  He later added that I also inspired people. That add-on felt a little like having been tossed a bone.


Feeling compelled to prove my abilities, I worked more hours and made sure the work of my department was brilliant, on point, and above reproach.

Let’s show those fellas what ole Aunt Polly can do!

Making a difference. Really?

Aunt Polly was like a cosmic two-by-four. She forced me to re-evaluate my thoughts on power, success, and making a difference.

By corporate standards I had made a difference. However, in terms of making a meaningful impact on someone’s life, rather than just making the bottom line better, had I really made a difference?

That was the question Aunt Polly kept whispering.

To my delight, I was selected to participate in a prestigious national leadership program for female telecommunication executives. I was one of twenty-four powerhouse women participating in a year-long curriculum where we would learn how to increase our business prowess, build workplace political savvy, and deal with paradigms.

We would also create a personal vision for our long-term accomplishments by taking the business elements of strategy and process improvement and applying them to our personal and professional development.

Wearing my business woman hat, I approved this logical and results-oriented approach to mapping out where we wanted our lives and careers to go.

However, when I put on the Aunt Polly hat and viewed the vision work from the perspective of someone who had wanted to make a positive difference, the process wasn’t quite so straight forward.  

Finally getting it

Several years after his remark, I finally understood why my boss’s Aunt Polly description had been so unsettling. Because I didn’t fully understand power at the time of his remark, his portrayal upset me because I believed it made me sound weak and powerless.

And, by the standards of that company where you-were-only-as-good-as-your-last-numbers, it did.

He had described me as feminine, someone who takes care of others, when I had thought of myself as one of the guys – a bold over-achiever who took charge and made results happen. But what mattered more was the unconscious bias in my boss’s head about nurturing.

That’s when I realized I had misinterpreted Dad’s words. He had said I could be better than a man, he didn’t say I had to act and think like one. He had wanted me to feel confident I could do my best.

Instead, I thought power was beating the guys at their own game, and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

What lessons can you share about learning to be the bigger person? 


Image credit before quote added: Pixabay