Character Cultivation Is Critical

An inner life success principle for women tech professionals

January 2019 – San Francisco, CA

It was my second month at the job, and we’ve all just returned from too short of a holiday break.

Psychological warfare and a battle of wills ignites 10 minutes into the first meeting of the year between two People/HR teammates. It makes my stomach turn. 

As a “sociable” introvert, having consistent, daily time alone to think and create helps me thoughtfully connect with others over meaningful work, conversations, and projects that push collective benefit forward. Being “sociable” means I’ve learned to appreciate and work with constructive conflict and difficult personalities. Finding common ground in the midst of communication and interpersonal struggle is a skill I’ve been forced to develop and refine.

This meeting was not a space where I carried enough authority or agency to disrupt through my budding passion for conflict resolution. 

Destructive conflict was manifesting – between two colleagues I barely knew. All I could “do” was witness and take note. I hold my seat, and stay planted as a mediator. We have to work together for the next two months, and we must succeed.

The hiring process for every People team role was being overhauled – right before the company went public, to be listed on the NASDAQ. Only three of us – all women – were assigned to this committee:

  1. Myself, the new Executive Assistant, African–American. I supported the VP of Talent and Inclusion – who initiated the project and placed me as the driver of it.

  2. An Executive Recruiting Manager, also new to the company, of South Asian Indian descent. She was slightly older than me, and was also a wife and mother.

  3. A Recruiting Operations contributor, Caucasian, who was the youngest of us. She was part of a tiny, overworked team within the larger People function who were owners of building Recruiter-specific hiring tools for the company about to double growth (from 2,500 to 5,000 employees) – that would jumpstart within 60 days.

Post-holiday stress and burnout was crackling through the air.

Being commissioned to design, coordinate, and craft a hiring review process felt daunting, but meaningful. 

The Chief People Officer and VP of Talent (also both women) counted on us. Growing the People function aggressively meant current People leaders would first focus on creating and filling key roles within our organization, uniquely tailored to assist the rest of the company’s executive leaders to begin meeting their organization’s hiring growth goals, pre-IPO.

Under this pressure, warmth, kindness, and patience was trashed between my two committee colleagues. Recruiting Ops was pissed at Recruiting Manager – and I didn’t know why. 

Recruiting Manager persistently, wearily deferred to the ideas of Recruiting Ops, as an indirect, circular attempt to dissolve the edgy vibes and make peace. Yet, I could sense – administratively, operationally, and time-wise – Recruiting Ops’ ideas would delay the hiring review launch. 

I chose to sit and observe, and offer neutral feedback when it felt “safe” to, regarding the need to stick to our timeline. I worked hard to ensure Recruiting Ops felt heard, nudging that her ideas were critically valuable and could be chunked out in stages (pre- and post-committee wrap-up), to honor launch time goals.

Recruiting Ops took advantage of being deferred to – by cranking up cold stares and icy silences directed at Recruiting Manager whenever she offered ideas in return. Those ideas were iterative, pre-chunked, within timeline, and could be executed with my full administrative support. All things I communicated gently – while witnessing defeated anxiety grow in Recruiting Manager’s body posture and voice, next to bold, hot resentment showing through Recruiting Op’s eyes, clenched jaws, and flushed cheeks.

Recruiting Ops wanted to fight and rebel. 

The signals Recruiting Ops presented – on first impression – revealed buried friction and layers of misunderstanding already brewing, before our work began together. She was wounded – but unable and unwilling to draw on courage to openly admit it.

Recruiting Manager wanted peace and rest. 

I wanted collective self-awareness to arise. 

The pendulum swung between sticky-sweet, evasive responses from Recruiting Ops, and nervous apologies from Recruiting Manager when I’d stop the meeting to diplomatically, cautiously source what the real problems and concerns were underneath the static.

I needed a time-out to reset and collaborate without energetic and social power-play drama. It was the most tiring 45 minutes I’d ever endured in my professional life, until then.

Immediately I realized I was never going to receive background context – or an open, honest answer. 

I was witnessing how explosive growth within a late-stage startup – evolving into a corporate, public tech company – can destroy civility, trust, and emotional accountability between women professionals. 

We had no collective set of values and boundaries/rules of engagement in this committee. Disrespect, evasiveness, and lack of empathy made our work tenuous – on the first bat. I didn’t like what I felt, saw, or heard. But I was clear that I had tons to learn. I was going to ride this out while contributing my best.


That first meeting taught me two lessons.


The depth of my character development determines how well I can withstand, overcome, and transform professional fallout/conflicts at work.

How I treat others in high-pressure situations deeply matters.

Each collaborative situation required me to move beyond just “getting it done(“it” being surface, administrative and operational tasks/projects). I began to source how I could personally help remove an emotional, mental or social obstacle that I sensed (and often correctly intuited) was enabling bottlenecks to block the work from being accomplished. 

I learned to increase my professional maturity by being curious about, and empathetically responsive, to:

  • how my teammates were feeling

  • what they were thinking about

  • where they were struggling 

My private, unspoken quest became an obsessive inquiry:

  • How can I infuse more ease/flow/efficiency – and, lessen emotional and mental stress for others – while working with them? 


I learned that many of us as women are afraid of – or dismiss – the value of intentionally cultivating our character.

I define "character" as the collective of inner life, hidden resources we have access to. These resources are forged from our soul – mind, will, and emotions – that consciously create negative or positive outcomes in our immediate world – through what we say, do, and intend toward others.

Character has additionally been defined as “the courage to meet the demands of reality.”
Dr. Henry Cloud]

I was also taught growing up that my character reflects what we truly (default to) think, do, and say – when no one else is looking, or aware of us.

You could also look at character being the collection of private emotions, mental models, spiritual and emotional driver-incentives we place value and depend on to keep us “successful” in navigating our daily realities.

As a young woman, I used to confuse the distinctions between reputation and character

I thought having “good character” was just about acting "good" (or, whatever trait-descriptor of power you value) and looking "good" – in front of others. It was a performance – not a way of being.

In reality: I learned our reputation is more rooted to our ability to "perform and act". Our reputation is not controlled, or truly owned by us. Reputation is an externally-owned and driven narrative others create, dissolve, control, and can redirect, at any moment.

No one needs to know us, or even to have met us in order to form an opinion that informs how our reputation is defined. Reputation is a limited, surface reflection of, and a hinting at the nature of our character. 

We can try to direct how and what people focus on regarding our reputation, but it’s based on outside validators that always shift because we’re unpredictable as humans. Our reputation is created by someone else’s perceptions as they observe our actions, listen to our words, experience our emotional expressions in how we engage the world. 

Value-judgements are then made about our “level of worth” to them – based on what we have presented, or what they have “discovered and overheard” about us, at any given moment. 

Reputation carries a set of standards and expectations that are always changing, never stable. This instability of external perception feeds uncertainty, which is at the root of our unspoken, lingering questions regarding whether we are of benefit, or not, to others.

As I matured and grew older, I learned that character development is fully within our control. We can choose to intentionally assess, cultivate and transform it, or not.

To really know someone – to accurately “judge” their character – requires spending dedicated time in their physical presence, in the midst of their life. Seeing someone deal with challenging and beautiful situations regularly destroys our assumptions of who we think that person is.

Reviews – as opinion wrapped in short-burst, distanced observation and hearsay – create reputation. 

Challenges engaged through intimate, direct experience and close witnesses – over longer stretches of time – define character.

Sometimes I learned painful lessons that my character development didn’t give me a “good" reputation with others. 

This was due to what I call a “character misfire" – low (or absent) character development within a particular area of my personality, that obstructed understanding, curiosity, respect, and kindness to grow between myself and the collective to build trust and unlock awesome solutions. 

This was what I experienced in the meeting with my two colleagues – tons of character misfires. 

I was unprepared, Recruiting Manager was not equipped, and Recruiting Ops did not care to resolve the conflict happening. Reacting from stress, overwhelm, fear of being constructively challenged, and a need to just “get the work done” – was prioritized.


A general work culture character misfire I’ve noticed within tech is that leading and engaging with genuine warmth, kindness, and patience – between women colleagues – is not trusted. 

The silent perception being communicated – and, often openly expressed through uninvited “feedback” – is that those who do operate with a soft hand and an open-heart presence are naive…a pushover…incompetent.

So we veer toward focusing on “personal self-care” practices as one way to mitigate workplace stress. But self-care practices don’t address the subtle and blatant character drops we all engage, and are at risk of repeating.

Extreme focus on self-care can be used as a “blanket” –  a temporary, self-soothing mechanism to address difficult work relations. Relying on our blankets bypasses the value to be experienced in learning to become masterful at gently, firmly holding each other accountable to correct poor behavior in our treatment of each other within high-stakes, high-pressure workplaces. 

American public discourse presents a "politically-correct" perception that displays women being in “solidarity” together – across all cultural identities – as a gender “united” against “patriarchal oppression”. 

But behind the scenes, the average woman professional/unique contributor, manager, or executive leader is only looking out for number one – no different than the average man in the same role. She is backbiting, sabotaging, plotting snares against collective success and winning because of her own unresolved trauma, sense of insecurity, and a perceived threat to her reputation (as a spotlight at-risk of being dimmed or snuffed out).

There is no open, public discourse or focus on character development and engaging personal responsibility for our actions and behaviors within most professional circles of women – beyond the incentive to be “paid well and equitably” on par with men.

When we shirk responsibility for how we stealthily sabotage, bully, and harm one another in the race to be “valued” at work – as one way to pull “power” – we actually devalue ourselves. 

This devaluation is felt and seen among women tech professionals through: 

  • increasing levels of mistrust and a scarcity mindset

  • loners-versus-cliques social circles

  • avoidance of direct, compassion-driven communication focused on resolving conflict to progress the work itself forward – versus taking sides, shifting blame, and virtue-signaling on “who works harder” as an excuse to continue acting in poor character.

As women, we often default to viewing our life and workplace as a realm of lingering victimization – never the place where we could fall into becoming a perpetrator. 

This blindspot causes us to forfeit our evolution as true leaders, uncommon allies, and gifted contributors – rooted in the critically important trait all humans need to flourish – empathetic accountability. This quality of accountability drives trust and actually reveals the measure of real effectiveness (“competency” and compassion-rich power) we’re capable of carrying, while deeply serving others.

Deep gratitude to Alissa Mears, Phil Vanstone, Heather Brown, and Nicole Husain for their edits, feedback, and gentle nudges to share this evolving lesson publicly.

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