I really couldn’t pass this up. The New York Times features four female CEOs addressing what it means to find their voice.
Now I must admit that I’ve become an avid fan of the “corner office” in The Times Business Section. One of the reasons is because of the opportunity to hear women talk about how they worked their way up to running the show, not to mention something of their personal stories that got them where they are.
I have used these informative corner office columns as a jumping off point a number of times. I do so as I “think out loud’ about aspects of organizational and personal success, not to mention the state of our working lives in contemporary society.
To the best of my recollection, I have never explicitly noted that these business leaders were women. I viewed them as executives; their gender was immaterial. In fact, I don’t think I expressly thought about their sex. They were speaking as CEOs, not female CEOs.
In “Executive Women, Finding (and Owning) Their Voice,” Adam Bryant points out that he has, over the years:
… sat down with more than 125 women to discuss leadership, but have generally avoided any gender-related questions… My goal from the start was to interview many leaders who happened to be women, rather than interviewing them as “women leaders.”
I’d say he did exactly that.
Women Speak Openly of Dealing With Obstacles
This column is different in that Mr. Bryant invites discussion of the special challenges these four women have faced – as women – coming into their own in leadership positions. And trust me, there are indeed challenges.
Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron is the CEO of the Y.W.C.A. USA, and she recalls a defining moment when, during a “stellar” performance review, her male manager expressed that others were uncomfortable around her “buttoned-up” style of dress.
Let’s just say, she politely made it clear to him that those comments were out-of-bounds. She took a risk in doing it. She also took a stand.
But can we imagine a manager saying to a man that he shouldn’t wear a white shirt and tie everyday – perhaps he ought to alternate with blue or pinstripe?
Another interesting observation she makes is this:
… in my leadership roles, I’ve found that people are very comfortable coming up to me and giving me unsolicited advice — “You should say this. You should do this.”
… You’re put in a leadership role because you’re deemed to have the skills, the experience and the expertise to do the job… I find, as a woman leader, that people cross those boundaries a lot, and they try to guide and direct you in ways that I just don’t think they would do with a man.
Paternalism in the Guise of Help?
Dr. Richardson-Heron also mentions that men may put women into leadership positions, and then tend to “guide” them in ways that can be an expression of paternalism. In case you are uncertain as to what paternalism actually means, Dictionary.com defines it as “authority that manages… in the manner of a father, esp in usurping individual responsibility and the liberty of choice.”
She also notes that men questioned her decisions though they had no qualifications to do so.
Both of these mentions give me pause. Looking back on the issue of paternalism, I wonder how a woman who is early in her management career can recognize where mentoring ends and paternalism begins. As for men with no qualifications to question a judgment call (who feel free to do so), that’s a common theme I’ve encountered more than a few times.
I do find, however, that in the years when I was living the traditional corporate life, not only did I have few examples of other women in any sort of leadership position, but I knew little of building the necessary coalitions that might have supported me. I wasn’t part of the golf course set or the after hours drinking set; I was also one of only a handful of women in any sort of management role. I recall one superb executive to whom I reported for a few short years – who happened to be female.
And that’s exactly how we should look at it – my manager “happens to be female” – and that’s how I saw the situation at the time.
As for the men?
If she had trouble with peers or reports, she never let on. But she did move on at a certain point. She was married with children, which I believe was a factor, though I wonder what the “straw” may have been that prompted her to seek a change.
You Are Not an Imposter!
The other CEOs Mr. Bryant interviews also offer considerable food for thought.
Sharon Napier, CEO of an ad agency, remarks that “having a pointed and hard conversation is something that women get judged on more than men” and like Dr. Richardson-Heron, that appearance seems to be a constant topic when it comes to women. There, too, women are judged on:
… What you’re wearing, your weight, your hair. You’re supposed to be like this or that. In the early years, you start to edit yourself. Maybe I should straighten my hair. Maybe I should wear a dark suit…
Bingo. Been there, done that. And to a small degree, I suppose I still do, though certainly not as I once did.
Also mentioned by Ms. Napier is the way women don’t talk up their successes like men. I find myself recognizing this phenomenon as well. It’s a fine line to walk to toot your own horn, while not being perceived as a “braggart.”
And this, which I was taught many years ago, is about confidence and preparation. It is excellent advice.
Women should have their elevator speech. We should be able to say in a couple of sentences who we are, what we’ve done, and then move on.
(Here are some examples of the elevator speech.)
Another great recommendation from Ms. Napier concerns not diminishing what we’ve achieved under the guise of luck:
… women sometimes use the word “lucky” to diminish what they’ve accomplished. We all have this little impostor syndrome that can lead us to say: “I shouldn’t really be here. I was just in the right place at the right time.” I don’t think men do that too much.
Body Language Speaks Volumes
I learned early on that we can undermine our authority with overly “feminine” gestures, and just as easily put people off if we seem unapproachable. Again, this is a narrow strait to navigate that men don’t typically deal with.
As for the ways in which body language contribute to reinforcing our strength, conviction and authority – or suggest that we’re feeling hesitant – consider the head tilt. How often have you seen women tilt their heads slightly suggesting deference rather than looking at someone straight on? Isn’t a straight-on gaze and body position more commanding?
And yet body language, like verbal language, is highly contextual. In a photograph, tilting the head or lowering the chin may be more “attractive” and women learn to pose accordingly. In a one-on-one that may require finessing, however, leaning in and cocking the head can encourage open communication and connection.
On a personal note, I realized I could be handicapped by being a woman of small stature. That meant learning to project “bigness” and confidence through my voice, my stance, my gestures and my walk.
If you haven’t read this Times discussion, I strongly recommend it. Do take the time to watch the videos. And I’m curious to know if you’ve observed any of these same behaviors, been on the receiving or giving end, and how you’ve managed them – or managed to move beyond them.
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