“Constant change is here to stay”: It was the oft-repeated mantra of Fran’s dancing mentor, Irmgard Bartenieff. Constant movement can be destabilizing. Change is stressful, as it necessarily disrupts equilibrium. But an awareness of flux can also be deeply invigorating. Sensitivity to the shifting modulations of one’s physical context is liberating and empowering.
In the second act of Fran Parker’s career, her context changed dramatically: from dance to business. The pivot was unexpected, but the pirouette that shaped such a change in direction was inspired.
Hacking Finance: Fran, we’re surprised you’re taking this call from home!
Fran Parker: I know. It’s typically very hard for me to concentrate in quiet environments. I need noise and disturbance. I like it. When I’m working in Princeton, and I have to do some writing, I go to the public library. There’s a kind of hustling around, movement. I can look up and see something a little different each time. I’m not one for visual monotony. I get concentration and focus with change.
This stems from my experiences as a dancer. My dance mentor, Irmgard Bartenieff, always said “constant change is here to stay.” One of the things about movement learning is that it’s integrated. It’s a great model for organizational change. Think of yourself on a surfboard: your perceptions at that time are understood as a whole. They’re not fragmented. You’re integrating your feelings, your sense of your body weight, what’s happening in the environment, the other people on the boards. It’s very inclusive.
When I was in my 20s, I took a year-long program in Laban Movement Analysis. It’s an intensive program in movement training and analysis, observing and understanding body language and all its myriad manifestations. It’s a pretty complex way of looking, and it’s non-interpretive. For example, if you stand with your arms crossed, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re closed. It’s about seeing movement in context, in interaction, and understanding it culturally. Just being able to describe physical dynamics and how that may be expressed in personality.
That feeling gives you a flexibility to adapt to a continuously changing environment. From the get-go, the ability to think, feel, relate…it’s integrated in the experience of the body. That starts in early learning, and it’s embedded in our nervous system.
HF: How did you bridge the world of dance to finance?
Fran Parker: I didn’t make an abrupt transition: “Now it’s over, I’m hanging up my shoes, I’m hanging up my tights,” and so on. Dance is an early career. Lots of dancers go into different careers after dancing, but my path was gradual. As I did less actual dancing or teaching, I started to help people one-to-one with body awareness to improve their performance and recover from injury.
And then I branched out to helping people audition. That really was a turning point, because it brought in the mental focus and mindfulness—embodying mental preparation. [Many actors and dancers] have great technical ability, but they’re not always able to nail it under pressure. That opened up thinking about how to handle the psychological factors, like feeling judged and being uncomfortable with being evaluated.
The training is about keeping the body calm, being in touch with your feelings without letting them control you. A kind of mental toughness.
Around this time, a friend from the movement world had begun working for the head of career services at a large investment bank based in New York City, and she brought me in when her remit there expanded. It was great because she’s someone who spoke my language.
That’s how I originally got in. But I’m not sure I would have gotten hired today.
HF: What makes you say that?
Fran Parker: There’s always a rhythm I see in HR and big companies between being decentralized and then centralized; between being progressive and accountable; process-based and skill-based; the person or the outcome. The rhythm in the financial services sector changed around the financial crisis and the recession, because, in a cost-cutting environment, saving money and HR programs that can reach the masses are prioritized.
It makes sense, financially, but the drive to centralize and focus on skills can also become a justification for not understanding the importance of more talent-led coaching for individuals inside the organization. Fewer programs these days have that kind of diversity of development. I find they ask for more conformity now than when I started.
HF: What did you see the first time you entered a financial services office?
Fran Parker: Right away, I saw the desks, all laid out, this sort of sea, in these little cubicles. To me, it was like the corps de ballet. Very quickly I saw, oh yeah, this is a classical hierarchy. You have the corps, where there’s this enormous conformity, including the way people dressed. And then you have soloists, and then you have the principals. This was back in the day of the literal corner office, the importance of being on a higher floor, what working in mid-town meant versus downtown. Space mattered. People would actually describe someone as being “two down from the CEO,” “three down from the CEO.”
I saw all this social protocol around things that weren’t necessary. People were very circumscribed in their actions. People weren’t relaxed. They came in, they sat up. They’d been taught very specific ways of moving their bodies: you don’t cross your legs, or you have to sit upright, or you don’t lean, or you do lean. People were following this movement code to the letter. People were guarded, reticent.
How can you be authentic in those situations? How can you communicate? How can you get across your ideas in an environment with all of these silent rules? It’s just a natural inhibitor.
When you’re working on a role in the theater, or in a dance, you have to learn the steps. Once you’ve learned the steps, once you’ve got them memorized in your body, you then have to dance them. You have to bring your humanity, your body and mind, to the steps, and make them come to life. If you can’t make the dance yours, why are you even dancing?
What I saw that first day I walked into my client’s office was that people weren’t dancing their dance. They seemed to know what they were talking about, they had memorized the steps, but they weren’t embodied. They didn’t feel free to just show up, with what they had, and dance.
I decided I was going to help people actually dance the dance and get comfortable expressing themselves in a more natural, relaxed kind of way. Some of it was undoing, and some was helping them to find a way to express themselves a little bit more spontaneously.
There was a marked shift when the team would move from small talk to work talk. Work talk was really fast, robotic, jargon-laced, rapid-fire, loaded with information. It was a lot more hierarchical then, too. Going to a meeting, making a pitch or giving a proposal, was like a performance. You were on stage. And yet no one talked about it.
People were certainly feeling it. But there was no place to talk about that, let alone a place to learn how to handle it. I had people with serious performance anxiety just attending meetings: in full sweat and everything. And they had to try to cover it up.
HF: Even in today’s more casual “authentic” work environments?
Fran Parker: Financial Services has changed a lot. It’s exciting, even big companies are in the midst of really trying to change their cultures. I do feel it’s sincere, so that’s positive. But even though you might dance a different way, you inevitably still see it as a performance, albeit one that is less defined.
HF: Do you think Financial Services will really change? What’s been the biggest difference you’ve seen over the past couple of decades?
Fran Parker: We can’t underestimate the #MeToo movement. I think it’s been enormous, and although it doesn’t mean that organizations and cultures change overnight, I think people are now waking up to the fact that there are consequences.
One of the gaps I always felt was that people would tell you things in private that they didn’t feel they had any way of addressing more publicly. I think one of the many things that’s been beneficial about the #MeToo movement is the realization that speaking up can change things for the better, even though it’s scary.
But I still think there’s a lot of uncovering that has to be done. That means vulnerability, and I think that’s hard. People don’t want to do that. There’s still a fair amount of guardedness. People are really afraid of doing anything that lowers their status in a way that makes them seem unimportant or not good enough.
I think more companies are recognizing that you need to focus on long-term initiatives that focus on creative, more inclusive economic growth. There’s a greater commitment to sustainability, to helping people share the rewards of the economy and working with small businesses in the neighborhoods where you do business, helping with job development at all different kinds of levels.
HF: It sounds like you are feeling positive about finance’s ability to keep pace with cultural change.
I think it’s up to the people working inside financial services to keep moving full speed ahead. Rally for change, and see what you can embed in the system, because even when the pendulum swings back, it doesn’t always swing back to what it was. It’s not so easy to swing back once a certain amount of gains have been made. If you look at movements—I don’t know if you believe the art of justice sways towards progress—but changes are never perfect. I don’t think you ever reach a utopia. But I do think that once certain changes are made, once there’s more equity, you’re not going to ever have a total reversal.
There has been enormous change with women in the workforce. But there’s also been very little changes, in terms of women on boards of directors, and women leading companies. At other levels, though, there have been enormous kinds of changes. I’m always hopeful.
There are lots of things that you can always be afraid of. But the key in nature and the environment is to look carefully at the ways that we can adapt and learn through change and be aware of the dangers. To look for the potential within the inevitable change.