Betty-Ann Louise Heggie &
Striking a Good Balance



In 1981 I began working at PotashCorp, the world's largest fertilizer company. At the time women were still a rarity in the corporate world, and this was especially true in the male-dominated agribusiness industry! Over the course of what turned out to be a 26-year corporate career, I learned quite a bit about what it took to survive in a man's world, and saw first-hand how men and women approached things differently. I came to realize how using both masculine and feminine energy alike was the secret to success in both my personal and professional lives.




While my (now former) company is immensely successful now, in the mid-80's commodity prices were plummeting and the company was losing money daily. The atmosphere in the marketing department was one of doom and gloom – there were rumors of massive downsizing, and co-workers were updating their résumés in anticipation of the axe falling. I loved the company, but the environment was making me just as miserable as everyone else. In the midst of all this, I got a job offer from another company. It was time for a second opinion.


I went to one of my mentors in the department, a company veteran who had often provided valuable advice as I tried to navigate the male-dominated corporate world. "Betty-Ann, I've seen situations like this before," he told me. "The ones who survive the ax aren't the ones who spend their time looking over their shoulders and stabbing each other in the back. It's the ones who put their heads down and prove their value by working hard." He also suggested that I start taking on more responsibilities and helping out overworked co-workers, as a few jobs had already been cut and the remaining employees were struggling to pick up the slack. I decided to take his advice, and turned down the other job offer.


A few weeks later, the ax fell hard, with dozens in my department getting laid off. There was practically blood on the floor from all the layoffs, and when I came in for work that day I saw friends already cleaning out their desks. There was no pink slip at my desk, though, and I rushed into my mentor's office to tell him the good news. I was shocked to see him filling a box with the contents of his office. He'd been laid off.


I tried to console him, but he was more concerned with giving me some parting advice. "The same thing I told you before, it still holds true," he said. "There's going to be a lot of work that needs picking up after all these layoffs, and you have a chance to really shine if you're the person who does it." I once again put my head down and picked up additional responsibilities, and sure enough, a few months later I was promoted.


It was a great lesson in the value of mentorship, and I tried to emulate his example by becoming a mentor for others as I worked my way up the corporate ladder. More than that, though, it also taught me the value of choosing the right energy for a given situation. So many of the men in my department displayed the worst of action-oriented masculine energy by stabbing each other in the back and trying to show off in front of the bosses. By contrast, I displayed the best of cooperative feminine energy by helping out others when extra work needed to be picked up. My hard work and cooperative nature got me noticed and appreciated.


Professional issue


Years later, I once again had to choose the correct approach to a difficult situation. We had just merged with a French-owned company, and I was sent to the US to negotiate some terms with their American office. The first meeting revealed numerous sticking points, and after we got back to the hotel I told my mentor that I wanted to take some of the employees out to dinner, hear their concerns, and make friends. It was emblematic of my cooperative, empathetic approach – an approach that was all too rare in the corporate world. I had previously applied this very approach to my networking, and found that forming close relationships with business contacts made them a lot more fruitful and beneficial for both parties. I saw no reason why I should take a different approach here. But my mentor had other ideas.


"Betty-Ann, you can't always be friends with everyone," he said. "They're not going to budge on their demands just because you take them out to dinner. If you want to get their attention and make them fall into line, you need to take them out behind the woodshed."


I was taken aback by this advice, partly because I didn't want to be the "bad guy" and partly because this was so at odds with the approach that had usually worked for me. Still, I decided to trust the wisdom of this mentor, as he had always steered me in the right direction in the past. I went into the meeting the next day and put my foot down.


To my surprise, this action-oriented, confrontational masculine approach worked like a charm. The employees fell into line, and the merger went off without a hitch. I learned that there's a time for making friends and a time for putting your foot down and getting things done. This was one of the former.


Personal issue


Shortly after I was transferred to Corporate Relations, one of my new co-workers made a shocking request: he wanted me to lose weight to present a better image for the company. Though I was furious at the request, I convinced myself that he was right. No, I didn't think that I was fat. But perception is reality in the world of investor relations, and if people perceived me as overweight, that was yet another strike against me. I already felt that I was out of my element; the last thing I needed was my weight holding me back.


So I went to war with food. I would skip breakfast and lunch altogether, reasoning that I could power through the morning on coffee alone; think of all the calories I was cutting out! Relying on snacks to keep me going – sometimes fruit, but more often candy bars – I essentially starved myself until I left work late at night, at which point I would head out to a local restaurant for a huge dinner and dessert. Hey, I'd earned it, right?

Decades later, in a conversation with a nutritionist, I realized how wrongheaded my approach had been. "What you're describing is more or less how sumo wrestlers gain hundreds of pounds," she explained. "They'll starve themselves all day so as to work up a huge appetite for dinner, then gorge themselves. What you should have been doing was eating five or six small meals throughout the day to keep your metabolism steady. Instead, your strategy pretty much guaranteed that your body would store the calories as fat."


And that's exactly what happened: where I'd been merely chubby before, I wound up nearly 100 pounds overweight. I had been so concerned with how people perceived me – and so concerned with getting ahead in my job – that I let it invade and distort my personal life. I'd gotten really good at balancing my approach to various problems at work, but I still had a long way to go when it came to balancing my personal and professional lives.


When I started my corporate job, I knew there would be a lot of challenges to face. I would have to "learn the ropes" of the business world and deal with discrimination based on my gender. But I was surprised to learn that the biggest challenges had to do with balance – learning to balance my masculine and feminine approaches to work issues, while simultaneously balancing my personal and professional lives. Where else do you see yourself needing to strike a balance?