Yda Bouvier is an executive coach, physicist, author, and international speaker. She firmly believes in the untapped power of the right brain for personal and professional success, as captured in her book, “Leading with the Right Brain.”

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role?

I am an executive coach and spend my days working with leaders individually, in teams or groups. Recently I published my first book Leading with the Right Brain. The practice of working, coaching and leading with the right brain came to life gradually over the course of my professional journey. I started out in Applied Physics, then moved to strategy consulting and leadership development at The Boston Consulting Group and then, 15 years ago, I began Yda Bouvier ltd, a boutique executive coaching business.

One of my main ambitions is to support female leaders and typically at least 50% of my coachees are female executives. For one of our client organisations, we run a yearly programme for female leaders who are in role transitions to become senior executives. Enormous progress has been made in female leadership during the past 30 years of my working life yet, as we all know, there are still many miles to go.

I am also driven to bring the wisdom of the right brain into organisations. Managers and leaders (both male and female) tend to be especially capable in left-brain functioning, which serves them well in building strong strategic, problem-solving, and goal-achievement track records. Yet, when left-brain functioning gets stuck, it can only be unlocked through bringing in the strengths of the right side of the brain. Our right brain sees the whole, the proverbial forest from the trees, and it sees the new, bringing fresh ideas and perspectives for any problem. The right brain also has access to information about ourselves and others that the left brain doesn’t have. To be clear, I am not arguing for using our left brain less but for using our right brain more. Interestingly, female leaders can often quickly access the strengths and qualities of their right brain, which can be a key differentiator professionally.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

I never plan, but I do regularly set direction. Occasionally in big ways, for example in my early thirties when I felt my career at the time was not the right one for me. This required a major reset. It took me a good 12 months to figure out that I wanted to move away from strategy consulting and into executive coaching. Realising that change took several years and no amount of planning could have helped me predict the path to realising it.

Nowadays I am in the field I want to be in, yet what still happens regularly is that my enthusiasm for certain pieces of work can start to wane. At such moments I need to step back, review what is happening, and look for something new. This always gives me a lot of energy.

While I believe having a direction is very important, even essential, I don’t find planning helpful. My approach is more organic. I consider a good next step that suits my direction, see how my world unfolds when I take that step, and then figure out the next one.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Yes, I have faced many challenges along the way and two specific ones come to mind right now. There was a time where I was part of a team with a colleague who was abrasive, untruthful and uncooperative. Accepting that I could not influence, in any way, how that individual was behaving towards me or others, was hard for me. I sought advice from colleagues, focused on the tasks at hand and on being professional, and started learning how not to take everything personally. Over time, the individual in question damaged their reputation and the organisation let them go. During this episode, I also experienced the value of patience, which is not one of my strengths.

Another challenge was the lack of female role models in my field. This had a big influence early in my career. What I didn’t know at the time is that, as leaders, we develop through imitation strategies. Outside our awareness, our unconscious looks for people like us yet more senior, whose behaviours we then copy and experiment with. For our unconscious, a different gender means “not like you” and at the time there were very few female leaders in my organisation, or in business in general. I only saw leaders, male or female, who I didn’t want to be like. In addition, where I am from, there are specific cultural expectations for women with families – from giving birth at home to working 60% and always picking your kids up from school yourself – and these expectations didn’t fit me either. Spending two years at MIT Sloan in Boston and moving to the UK, where I could see female friends and colleagues shape their own paths, helped me enormously to step away and figure out what life I wanted, professionally and personally. Sometimes we have to quite literally change environment to overcome challenges.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

In my wildest dreams I would not have imagined setting up my own business and pioneering a transformative way of working with the right side of the brain. With the blessing of 20-20 hindsight, I now realise that the collaboration between the left and the right side of my brain has been there for a long time. Our right brain processes in images, not in words. For instance, in my 1994 thesis on the orientation-dependent growth of Silicon (relevant for the fabrication of microchips), I illustrated the growth process with the image of tennis balls rolling down the street and getting stuck on the edge of the pavement. Depending on factors such as the slope of the pavement, this would result in a smooth or messy surface.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?  

What is very important to me, my overall purpose, is to show our daughters, and by extension many young women, how to combine a successful career with active and engaged parenting. To this end, I pushed myself relentlessly to find a career that would give me tons of positive energy even if it meant completely re-inventing myself. We have to show our kids that we are excited to go work. What do we teach them when we constantly say, “Sorry, I have to go to work,” or behave accordingly? We teach them that work is a chore, and this attitude is a big handicap for a successful career.

Over the years, clarity about my purpose has been a guiding light to make choices and compromises when needed. I worked part-time for a while, when I wanted to spend more time at home, then scaled back up to full time. There are many ways to have a successful career. “Having it all” is a useless myth. What matters is to “have your all” and to do that, you have to figure out what this means to you.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology? 

I have three tips. First, figure out what your strengths are. This is not a one-off exercise, we gradually discover our strengths and how we can apply them in our own unique ways. It’s a bit like your personal treasure hunt. Most likely, there are already a lot of clues in your educational and work experience so far.

Secondly, what holds women back in many organizations is the lack of sponsorship. I see a lot of women who try to get very clear about what they want first, before communicating and asking for support to get there. By that time, senior people have often already committed their time and support to others. Sometimes a women’s last-minute ask for support even looks transactional or opportunistic, which is actually the opposite of what’s intended. Find a way to articulate your professional vision early on (it doesn’t need to be precise) and build your constellation of stakeholders early.

Thirdly, use your sense of humour. This may sound a little odd but humour is so powerful. In tech environments I have encountered a lot of diligent, conscientious, serious folks and anyone who brought and used humour effectively was a force to be reckoned with.

What barriers for women working in tech, are still to be overcome?

The lack of role models, for the reasons mentioned earlier, is still a significant barrier for women and this is heightened in industries where there are fewer female leaders, such as Tech. The lack of role models affects women outside their conscious awareness so it requires individual and organizational attention.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Companies can take action to address the role model issue by bringing women together across the organisation and encouraging women to be part of interesting groups, initiatives or networks outside their organization. In addition, companies can actively stimulate women to build their constellation of stakeholders and male leaders can play a positive role. One of my good friends, a senior male executive and a very popular mentor in his organisation, took the decision to dedicate all his mentor time to supporting female leaders.

Finally, many of our beliefs and attitudes are shaped at a very young age. The role of schools is critical in supporting women in technology. At our girls’ primary school, I talked about physics with 6 year olds – using marshmallows to illustrate atoms. Schools need funding and dedicated time from women in tech who are willing to be role models to young girls. Companies can fund and facilitate both.

In an ideal world, how would you improve gender diversity in tech?

I would wave my magic wand and instantly change our stories of success. The current story of professional success is dominated by going as fast as possible, like taking the highway from the East to West coast. Many women, and increasingly men too, value taking a route that is about the journey as much as the destination, like Route 66 in the USA. I would make Route 66 the story of success.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Personally, I love watching TED talks –  bitesize inspiration that can stimulate a lot of reflections. Two of my favourites related to career development include Dan Gilbert’s “The psychology of your future self” (you will change more than you can possibly expect) and Ruth Chang “How to make hard choices” (embrace the power to figure out who you will become). Herminia Ibarra wrote an excellent HBR article “Women and the vision thing” which I consider a must read for female leaders.

Yda Bouvier is an Executive Coach and the author of Leading with the Right Brain