Saturday September 03, 2022

I was a director at The Wing. I made some big mistakes

I was a director at The Wing. I made some big mistakes

Hillary Clinton. File

Frenchie Ferenczi, The Independent

The Wing is officially gone, and the artifacts of the girlboss era are fading away into a distant, Chanel-scented memory. For those not familiar with The Wing, it was a co-working space with a mission to advance women through community; in other words, somewhat of an all-female members’ club. The first location opened in October 2016, when liberal New Yorkers were certain that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. When that didn’t happen, The Wing was supposed to be the millennial pink salve that women needed — a space for women, by women, championing women. The timing was perfect to scale the mission.

I was the Director of Community at The Wing from May 2018 to June 2020, and in those two years, I went from beloved manager to loathed leader. How did that happen, and, more importantly, what can the next generation of female leaders learn from it?

In June 2020, we were wrapping up another “firefighting” Zoom meeting. Audrey Gelman had stepped down as CEO. Active employees staged a digital walkout. Former employees started an Instagram account (@flewthecoup) calling out the dark sides of working at The Wing. At the end of the call, my colleague pointedly asked me, “Are you okay?” She mentioned Flew The Coup, and then she disappeared from my screen.

When I checked @flewthecoup’s profile, I saw what she was talking about. They had created a petition. My eyes scanned the page until I spotted my name and froze. “We ask for the removal of Frenchie Ferenczi for her lack of leadership and support of the part-time team, as well as continuously misidentifying the GNO and non-binary staff members across multiple locations,” the petition read. Then, I saw that more than 11,000 people had already signed. Over the past two years, I’ve started to understand what went wrong. During my two years at The Wing, my focus shifted from prioritising my team’s experience and well-being to prioritising the company’s growth. During my onboarding, the team told me they were overwhelmed by constantly shifting priorities. They detailed the frustration they felt at reporting issues that never got fixed (looking at you, rain leaking in from the SoHo roof.) They spoke about a lack of clarity about their respective roles. I made it my goal to resolve these issues — until I realised that growth metrics trumped culture metrics.

To be blunt, I didn’t join The Wing because of the mission; I joined because of the career opportunity. I wanted to be a part of startup world’s shiny object du jour. Most other team members, however, joined because of the mission. Those people found themselves regularly disappointed that The Wing wasn’t as different to the outside world as they hoped. It was just another VC-backed startup with all the pressure, growth pains and issues typical to VC-backed startups — except it came with a beauty room, cozy blankets, and rainbow bookcases.

The mission was to advance women, but in the thick of growth, that mission got brushed aside. We needed to hire fast, and so we lost sight of following a truly inclusive hiring process. With the pressure to retain our members, accepting their disrespectful and entitled behaviors felt necessary. We often failed to follow up when staff complained about their behavior or their words.

We all had more work than we could handle. As a disciple of the business, I implicitly and explicitly made choices that contributed to the toxic culture of the company. Could I have left? Yes. Did I have the courage to do so? No.

I started to see how for we’d veered away from the original mission, but I didn’t speak up. I pushed harder. I believed I was doing my job. More recent (more ethical) replications of Stanley Milgram’s infamous research into destructive obedience found that 79 per cent per cent of participants were likely to continue inflicting harm when instructed to, even after they were aware of the harm they were causing.

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