Marcia Reynolds: An interview by Bob Morris

Marcia Reynolds has a passion for discovering and sharing how the brain works. She speaks globally on leadership topics and coaches top talent women in making big decisions, building important relationships and showing up with strength and grace.  In addition to her book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction, she authored Outsmart Your Brain and has been quoted in many publications including Harvard Management Review, Psychology Today and The New York Times and has appeared on ABC World News. Marcia is a true pioneer in the coaching profession and was the 5th president of the International Coach Federation. She was one of the first 25 people in the world to earn the designation of Master Certified Coach (MCC). Marcia’s doctoral degree is in organizational psychology with a research emphasis on the challenges and needs of smart, strong goal-driven women in today’s workplace. Read more at

Morris: Before discussing Wander Woman, a few general questions. First, at which point in your life did you become fully aware of the nature and extent of barriers and limitations that are unique to women’s aspirations?

Reynolds: I think I had an inkling that there were barriers for women even as a child. My mother was a good mother, but not a happy one. She never had the chance to live out her dreams. As a child, she had to work while her brother played sports. There were only enough funds for her brother to go to college. When her mother died in a car accident, she left a letter in her will explaining why she was leaving the inheritance to my mom’s brother. “You can find a man to take care of you. He can’t.” My mother was in her early twenties.

A few years later, she was married with the first of four children on the way. Throughout my childhood, my father was the center of attention in the family. No matter what good work my mother did, she never got the applause and adoration he did. She passed away twenty years ago. I dedicated the book to her, wishing she could see that she helped me live out my dreams even when she couldn’t live out hers.

I didn’t experience the barriers for myself until I entered the corporate world. I was always told I could accomplish anything I wanted to. The message I received as a girl was vastly different from my mother. I got to go to college and choose my own path (which I have done few times in my life as I wander around my career). I did very well in school and knew I could excel at most everything I liked scholastically.

Yet when I entered the workforce, I was shocked when the recognition wasn’t as forthcoming. The lack of recognition and choice of projects was a cold slap of reality. Then when I moved from healthcare into high-tech, a male-dominated world, I felt I had to fight for everything I earned. Even then, I sometimes lost the fight. Not only was it harder for me to get support for new ideas than the men I worked with, but I often felt misunderstood. I had to tone down my passion. Sometimes, I felt I had to tone down my commitment. This left me feeling disappointed as well as frustrated. When the intolerance grew to a point I couldn’t live with, I moved on. My longevity with any one company was less than five years. I was always evaluated as an excellent performer. Yet the daily difficulties weren’t worth the titles or pay.

It wasn’t until I started doing my doctoral research on high-achieving women that I realized I was not alone. Thousands of women were just like me, with the younger generation even less tolerant than I. I don’t think we should be teaching women how to succeed in a man’s world. I believe we should be teaching men how to understand and support our challenges and needs. Profits will greatly enhance when women are given environments that understand and encourage them to show up as their best selves.

Morris: Other than family members, who have had the greatest influence on your personal development? How so?

Reynolds: I learned one of my greatest life lessons—if you don’t know who you are, you will never be content with what you can do—in one of the darkest places on earth, a jail cell. A year after high school graduation, I ended up spending six months in jail for possession of drugs, an experience I swore would never happen to me. In truth, the sentence saved my life.

In addition to stopping my negative spiral, I learned that scary strangers called inmates could be unexpected angels. In particular, the leader of the toughest gang decided I should be her friend. Vickie was a smart and vocal woman. She was also a mother and a daughter. I wrote poems for her to send to her family. She liked to play cards and I proved to be a great challenger. I think Vickie and I learned a lot from each other during the many nights we talked as we played cards until morning.

Yet the moment of truth came for me when we staged a nonviolent protest, hoping to move to a larger cellblock because we had been locked down so many times for being overcrowded. When my idea failed and we ended up in an isolation cell, I declared my life to be one big failure. Vickie jumped at me, pinned me to the wall, and said, “You have no idea who you are, do you? You’re smart. You’re strong. But for some God-knows-why reason, you care about people.” She pointed to my heart. “When you can see what you are hiding in here . . .”—she then pointed beyond the bars—“you’ll figure out how to be happy out there.”

That was my first lesson in understanding that “who I am” is different from “what I can accomplish.” I didn’t know who I was inside my shell of achievement. Even though I didn’t fully understand her message at that moment, her words gave me the gumption to put my life back on track when I was released. I will never forget her words. I have been working on discovering and claiming my intrinsic value ever since.

Morris: On your professional development?

Reynolds: I have had many coaches the fifteen years I have been a coach and one has been very significant for me. Whenever I feel lost on my business path, I call her. She brings me back to what is the truth in the moment. She revives my sense of purpose and passion. She helps me take the next step forward, and the next, and the next until I am back on track again.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most significant differences between an executive coach and an executive mentor?

Reynolds: When I mentor someone, they come to me for advice based on my knowledge and experiences. I may listen to them explain their situation, but then I do most of the talking, sharing what I know to help. When I coach someone, I act more as their thinking partner, helping them to discover the true source of issues before formulating solutions. When they see issues from a broader perspective, their own possibilities for action emerge.

I ask more questions than give advice. Yet the outcome is usually profound. People often realize they know more than they thought they did. When they come up with their own solutions through my questions and guidance, they are more committed to and feel more confident about moving forward.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Wander Woman. Please explain its title.

Reynolds: There is a chapter in the book that looks at the archetypes of high-achieving women. Archetypes can be defined as various aspects of your personality. The chapter teaches the women how to expand their concept of self, seeing they have many aspects to draw on. This gives them a richer sense of self. When I was talking to the archetype expert, Jim Curtin, he asked me to describe the dominant behavior of the women today. I told him they often feel underutilized, bored, unfulfilled, and fearful that they are not living up to their potential or having the impact that they know they are capable of. Their solution is often to wander from job to job, career to career, business to business in search of fulfillment. Jim then said, “Oh, they are Wanderers.” We then explored the archetype of the Wanderer and I knew the women I wanted to reach were “Wander Women.”

The Wanderer seeks new opportunities and freedom. When you act with this pattern of energy, you accomplish many things because of your constant desire to move forward, even though ultimately you aren’t sure where you are going. You tend to base your career decisions more on present needs than on a long-term vision. If you don’t like what is going on, you move on to the next opportunity. You trust you will land on your feet. However, you can also lose your sense of self in the process of constantly leaving. Your need to wander may become compulsive, never allowing you to settle down and be still.

Morris: To what extent is women’s restlessness beneficial and what extent is it not?

Reynolds: It is good that we are always testing the limits of our potential. However, this can leave us feeling disappointed, frustrated and exhausted as we continually search for “motion and meaning” in our lives. Also, we often make critical career and life decisions based on what we want to leave behind more than on having a long-range plan. Therefore Wander Woman focuses on both helping women find contentment and enjoyment in their days as well as to clearly define who they are and what they want to create in this one lifetime.

Morris: Two separate but related questions: Why must some women wander to find what they need and desire to feel fulfilled? Why do other women feel no such need?

Reynolds: My research focused on women who are driven by goal achievement more than relationship needs. It is not that they don’t care about relationships but that they have a very high need to be active and accomplished. Not all women fit this profile. Some or more content nurturing the aspirations of others or making sure there is security in their lives. I am not addressing these women. In fact, I used an assessment to identify goal-driven women for my research. There were some women who wanted to be in the study that I had to turn away because they did not match the factors in the survey. This research was the basis for my doctoral dissertation so I had to be clear on my research parameters.

Morris: What is the “Impostor Phenomenon” and why is it self-defeating?

Reynolds: An important study was done in 1978 that found that, despite their gains, most accomplished women in the 1970s felt they weren’t very smart and had fooled anyone who thought otherwise. They attributed promotions to “luck, timing, an overestimation of abilities and faulty judgment by decision makers.” Even if at some level these women knew they were intelligent, they were cautious about expressing their ideas. They calculated their moves and hedged their bets. It took years of experience before they claimed their own brilliance and creativity, if they ever did at all. The researchers referred to this behavioral pattern as the Impostor Phenomenon.

Although there are many women today who still feel they are impostors, today’s Wander Woman demonstrates the opposite behavior. She is totally confident in her abilities, including her brilliance and creativity, and frustrated when her talents are not acknowledged or underutilized. Today’s women are not impostors. Their challenges and needs are different. Yet, this is still the research that drives much of the self-help books for women on the shelves.

Morris: What is an “unintentional transformation”?

Reynolds: If you want to change how you relate to others and run your life, you have to first transform your concept of self. If you try to change your behavior without first transforming who you think you are, the changes will last a few days until you quit thinking about them. Then you will return to the same exhausting behaviors. Transformation is not a technical skill to be mastered. It is a process that includes identifying, reflecting, imagining, letting go, allowing things to unfold, and experimenting before you can step into the person you are most happy to be.

The questions change from “What can I do?” to “Who can I be?” which takes some mental adjustment. The success you have created so far is built on what you brilliantly do. Now you have to define, refine and compose a new perception of who you are as you continue to perform. This is Intentional Transformation and why in Wander Woman, we first focus on expanding self-concept before looking at any skills or techniques.

Morris: What is “fuel for wandering”? How can it be obtained and then renewed?

Reynolds: Our fuel is our overall sense of self-confidence, pride in our work, and passion for life that keeps us moving forward with joy for our lives as well as our accomplishments. The exercises in the book focus on each of these areas: expanding our self-concept, focusing on what we contribute instead of on our weaknesses, finding a sense of purpose and passion in each day, and focusing on the good we are doing now and in the future as we continue to grow.

Morris: What are the dominant characteristics of a workplace within which there is little (if any) restlessness?

Reynolds: Some top motivators for women are also true for many men—especially the younger generations—but they are strikingly true for women. The workplace where Wander Women thrive include the following:

• Provide frequent, new challenges. Women love to learn and tackle new, complex challenges. Never assume that their outside responsibilities will get in the way of a demanding new task. Let your employees make that decision.

• Continually affirm their contribution and value. Women typically want to know how well they did in relation to the people they touch, including their peers and customers. It’s not enough to praise their knowledge and ability. They need to know the impact their contribution made.

• Create an innovative and collaborative environment. Women like environments with an open flow of communications. Ask them to help you design work that engages everyone in the process, instead of working through hierarchies.

• Provide meaningful work. Many women struggle with committing to a monetary goal or a drive focused solely on beating competitors. They are more likely to align their energies with profit goals when they understand the significance of their work to the bigger picture.

Engaging and challenging your women employees makes good business sense for both productivity today and your company’s growth tomorrow.

Morris: What are the drivers of Wander Woman?

Reynolds: Extreme Confidence (“Give me a stick and I’ll build you a bridge”), Constant Need for New Challenges (“Give me a stick and I’ll build you a bridge, unless I have already done that, so give me a bigger challenge or I’ll move on to something else”), A Strong Drive for Recognition Based on Performance, Not Gender (“Don’t do me any favors; just applaud me when I’m done”), Work Is Your Life’s Blood (“Retire? Never. I love knowing the world needs me.”), and Experience Is the Best Teacher (“Kick me down, I’ll bounce back up. But that will never happen again.” Note: this driver leads us to thinking we shouldn’t ask for help and that we are alone on our journey).

Morris: To what extent (if any) can supervisors – female as well as male — nourish and support these drivers?

Reynolds: I find that awareness always precedes change. When I share these drivers in my speeches, the women instantly feel I know who they are and what they are grappling with. From there, we can talk about focusing on the light instead of the dark side of these drivers. Additionally, supervisors need to recognize that the constant need for new challenges is about learning and growing, and this need won’t go away.

So checking in with the women is vital even if they are doing good work. They need to discuss how the women feel about the projects not just talking about how well the steps are going. They also need to acknowledge the effort put into the project, not just the results. Finally, it is important that high-achieving women know they are not alone. They need to come together in support of each other plus they need champions and sponsors within the organization to help them navigate the politics and pathways to success.

Morris: What is “the burden of greatness”?

Reynolds: When artists create masterpieces and bestsellers, they feel an unrealistic expectation to repeat the miraculous. The same is true for many high-achieving women. They drive themselves crazy being excellent. Then, after spending little time enjoying their victories, they are back on track trying to repeat or even best their most outstanding performance. Because they can accomplish anything they put their mind to, this mental program is a never-ending loop.

Then, in addition to the endless pursuit of excellence, the work needs to be meaningful and important. This puts an extra burden on the women as they continually search for the next significant thing they can apply their greatness to.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Wander Woman, you have much of value to say about “the perfectionist cycle.” What is it? Which assumptions keep people locked into an “endless loop”?

Reynolds: Here’s the cycle: You start a job and quickly fall into the ranks of Perfectionist because you work hard to be right and amazing. You set and meet very high standards. You judge others against these standards even though they will never be able to clone you.

You may respond with humility when people pay tribute to your intelligence, resourcefulness, and ability but you never tire of the accolades. You may be surprised, even appalled, when people call you a perfectionist, but your commitment to doing extraordinary work drains your happiness and strains your relationships on a par with the purist perfectionist. When it feels as though people have quit recognizing your contribution or the promotions and challenges have slowed down, you see no reason to stay. You begin to look for a different job with new, interesting projects and people who will be dazzled by your knowledge and work.

The three assumptions — I am right, I can do the work better than anyone else, and people always disappoint me — keep you locked into this cycle because they feed your need of being the one who knows more and does everything best. These assumptions give you a sense of security even when the world is crashing around you. Essentially, they are your anchors. The more emotionally attached you are to these assumptions, the more the anchors lock in and keep you from growing. In the end, if you hold onto these assumptions, the path you wander will be an endless loop where you keep repeating the perfectionist cycle. The quicker you acknowledge and release these beliefs, the easier life will be.

Morris: What is an Appreciative Dialogue and how can it help facilitate problem solving?

Reynolds: Appreciative Dialogue is based on the popular approach to organizational change called Appreciative Inquiry that focuses on what’s working rather than trying to fix what’s not. This is an excellent technique to use when you feel stuck and can’t solve a problem. Taking an appreciative approach, you see your issue through a new lens, not the normal critical lens assigned to problem solving.

The exercise in the book helps the women discover what they contribute beyond their knowledge and skills. They look at peak moments in their lives, then uncover what gifts, talents, emotional outlook, attitudes, values, and perspective they used to create these moments. Then when they face problem, they look at their list of contributions and determine what they need to bring forward to help resolve the current situation. It is a wonderful way of attacking a problem using your gifts instead of rehashing old solutions.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most significant differences between high-achieving women and high-achieving men?

Reynolds: Women are quicker to move around than men. The difference shows up in their career choices, including the fact that (1) women still face more frustration in the workplace when it comes to getting equal pay, equal recognition, and equal chances for the best opportunities and challenges, so they leave instead of living with their frustrations; (2) many women have found creative ways to invest in both career and family as they choose to move around more than men, who tend to plan their careers along a more traditional path. In fact, they are more likely to engage their family in making career decisions than men will; and (3) women are more inclined to move around than men to find career opportunities that meet their need for new challenges and contribution and to find companies that align with their values.

Morris: What seems to be most helpful when trying to sustain personal transformation? Why?

Reynolds: Making the decision to transform yourself is easy; sustaining your commitment to fully realize your transformation is not easy. Changing habitual behavior patterns can take months of focused awareness, experimentation, and reflection. At times, when you are giving up old ways of being to try on new selves, you will feel as though you are driving through a patch of fog on the freeway. When you can’t see where you are going, you get frustrated by not knowing what choices you should make. Your brain tells you to take the first off-ramp and head back to where you came from. There is safety going back to old thinking and behaviors, especially the ones that served you well in the past.

To help you overcome your tendency to find other things to do than the work of transformation, you need to launch your change with a powerful emotion. Just wanting something to happen isn’t enough. You have to get angry at the present circumstances and then create a strong desire for what you want for yourself in the future. These emotions have to stronger than the fear or business that can get in your way.

Then you have to create  (1) positive evidence of success by routinely acknowledging what you have done well instead of what is missing; (2) a community of support of like-minded women; and (3) the frequent acknowledgment of what stirs your sense of purpose every day. The transformation journey takes a massive amount of courage and focused determination. You don’t just shift into a confident new you. You have to be honest with yourself, which can be painful. You have to try out less than perfect behaviors, which can be distressful. You have to ask for support and assistance, which can feel uncomfortably vulnerable. These are the monsters you face before you find comfort in your new definitions of self and success.

Morris: In Chapter Seven, you assert that transformation starts with an ending. Please explain.

Reynolds: You start transformation by recognizing what assumptions you need to quit believing so that you can move toward having more contentment and a sense of direction. Even though these beliefs served you in the past, you need to let them go to move on. The first phase of your transformation required you to say good-bye to who you were so that the work you do to bring in new beliefs, identities, and behaviors has a chance to take hold.

Morris: Please explain the meaning and significance of Chapter Nine’s title, “Raising the Flag.”

Reynolds: The chapter contains a letter the women can send to their leaders. A copy is on my website, Even today, when I work with male leaders, I find that most do not understand what motivates high-achieving women and what they need to feel happy and fulfilled on the job. We can’t wait around for them to figure it out. We have to clearly ask for what we need. This chapter is intended to help the women articulate what they want and to raise up their voices together.

Morris: Do Wander Women comprise a tribe, lead a revolution, or both? Please explain.

Reynolds: A tribe indicates a set number of people, or in this case, a particular personality style. I don’t think there is a tribe of Wander Women. I believe the behavior of these women represents an emerging identity of women in general. As a society develops, so does the power of its women. As women gain economic parity with men, their confidence, independence, resilience, grit, and courage expand. They can define and go after their dreams, over and over again. Wander Women are early adapters of women embracing a new identity. As women take their rightful place in the balance of world power, they may settle into their new sense of self and clout, quelling the restlessness that stirred them to rise up in the first place.

When this happens, strong, passionate women may not need to wander once the structure of society and the design of organizational systems meet their needs.

Are these women leading a revolution? Not intentionally, at least not yet. They are leading an evolution of women. As they truly understand and can articulate, and even fight for, what they need, then the revolution will begin world-wide. In addition to the powerful worldwide consumer force that women represent today, factors such as urban migration, increased access to education, mobile technologies, micro-credit and low-market entry costs will create a global “she-conomy” where over one billion women will enter the workforce or start businesses by 2020. A recent study commissioned by Intuit surmised:

  • In the next 10 years, Gen Y women across race and ethnic lines will dominate the professional workforce, expanding their roles in upper management in professional services firms and in professions such as law and medicine.
  • Women, especially those in emerging markets, will be the dominant force in the global market — taking on increased leadership responsibilities across business and education.
  • On a global scale, 970 million women who have not previously participated in the mainstream economy will gain employment or start their own businesses.

We are a force to be reckoned with. Some unconscious men and non-progressive women may try to hold us back, but we have the numbers to make a difference. If we stand together, we can also have the voice.

Morris: Of all the barriers that women now face when seeking self-fulfillment, which do you think is most difficult to avoid or overcome? What advice to you offer?

Reynolds: The greatest obstacle to finding self-fulfillment today is the crushing amount of information we have to deal with in the form of emails, phone calls and the Internet. This can shift us into survival mode and threaten our resolve to transform. The average knowledge worker spends more than half her day rushing through e-mails and text messages, answering phone calls, sifting through pages, and listening to gossip whether she cares to or not, trying to find time to work on her priorities. Nearly 30 percent of our workday is lost to uninvited interruptions. The moment we feel overwhelmed, we forget about our commitment to changing and revert to old behaviors. This is when I hear the justification, “I am who I am, so what.” The brain has a program titled, “Who I think I am” that it prefers to play over and over, especially when we are under pressure.

With all this work to do, we then question the value of the self-focused work. For example, you might be frustrated with the pace of change because you were probably brought up to believe that when faced with a problem, competent people figure out what to do and “just do it.” This belief runs counter to taking the time you need to observe yourself, test new ways of being, reflect on the effects of your trials, and then talk about different possibilities before you fully claim a new sense of self. You can’t “just be it.” You must recommit to staying the course many times in the process.

It is easier to live with bad habits than to change them. Many medical studies confirm that most people who start health regimens give up and return to old habits without constant support and frequent evidence of the positive results of their efforts. Even when your decision to change makes perfect sense and you’ve decided you want the results enough to work for them, you may fall back into destructive behavior without certain tools to help you maintain your commitment.

That’s why it’s not only important to set up daily rituals and keep this time sacred even if it’s only a few minutes a day. Then I think it’s vital to have both a community of support so the women keep each other on track and a personal coach to keep our thoughts in line. Finding self-fulfillment can be a tough journey but absolutely worth it in the end.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Reynolds: “What led you to write the book?” The most interesting part of doing my research was when I discovered that there were thousands of women like me. I thought I was alone in my madness…the restlessness, the constant need for something more, and the inevitable disappointment. I had to share what I found and ways to move forward. Now, I get many emails from women saying the same thing, “I thought I was alone.” They thank me for letting them know they are not crazy and that they can talk about their dreams and challenges with other women. Now that is truly fulfilling for me!

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Marcia Reynolds cordially invites you to check out these websites:

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