Women Leaders: How to Win Greater Latitude in the Workplace
By: Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link between Merit and Success (Harper Business, 2014)
Women seeking to demonstrate leadership by commanding a room run up against an extremely narrow band of acceptability.
These six strategies will help women leaders generate greater latitude in the workplace and cultivate executive presence:
1) When you show teeth, show that you have the best interests of the team at heart.
Assert your difference of opinion, but take the “I” out of your argument, advises Intel’s Rosalind Hudnell, a leader who’s perfected the art of “arguing with grace.”
Too often, she says, women and people of color set themselves up to be branded “not a team player” by framing their argument in terms of what’s bugging them personally.
“Don’t make it about yourself, because that only underscores your status as the outsider,” says Hudnell.
“Remember, when you’re working for a company, you’re responsible to that company. Whatever you’re going to argue, whatever decision you don’t like or want to push back on, you need to come not from a position of what’s good for you but of what’s best for the company.”
2) When speaking truth to power, widen your band of receptivity with a judicious use of humor.
Stella, a global leader on our task force, tells of a boss she had whom she admired tremendously for his intelligence, his knowledge of the business, and his ability to analyze a situation and render a decision. She did not, however, admire his leadership style, which was so abrasive that he effectively preempted any and all pushback.
“He’d pound the table, curse, and denigrate anyone who took issue with his analysis,” she says, “and it worked: He was so intimidating no one dared to challenge him.”
But Stella isn’t a person who keeps her thoughts to herself when she knows she’s right, so when her boss gathered his team to discuss implementing a new sales strategy, one that he believed would drive revenue, Stella refused to be intimidated.
“I believed his approach would have a negative impact on customer satisfaction, and therefore on revenue,” she recalls, “so I countered his position, not confrontationally, but objectively.”
He went nuclear. “Goddammit!” he shouted, striking the table with his fist and glaring at everyone around the table. “Does anyone want a piece of Stella before I get mine?”
For two heartbeats, Stella remembers, the room went absolutely silent. Then she said, “No, Bob, they’re waiting to see you do it.” Bob burst out laughing.
Stella did another thing to ensure her remarks enhanced rather than detracted from her gravitas: After the meeting concluded, she sought out her boss to explain that she hadn’t been contradicting him but rather ensuring he had the knowledge he needed to render the right decision.
“I just want to make sure you had the whole picture,” she told him. “If you go in a different direction, okay, but it’s my responsibility to put the facts on the table so that every one of your decisions is fully informed.”
He told her he appreciated her intent, and admired her for her courage. “His respect for me probably tripled as a result of that encounter,” Stella says.
3) Hit the Mark by Taking More Careful Aim
Too often, says AllianceBernstein’s Lori Massad, women take a broad-spectrum approach to communication that leaves them open to crossfire. Instead of listening to others’ views, they blurt out their own first; instead of sharing their best insight, they download everything that’s occurred to them; and instead of waiting for an opening that might maximize receptivity, they stream consciousness.
Better to be a sniper, says Massad: Pick your target, pick your moment, and fire your best shot.
“If I am participating in a meeting, my first communication cannot be meek,” she explains. “I do not speak up unless I have a really good point to make or insight to add. I usually wait to speak until I am prepared to make a counterpoint, or ask an insightful question.”
The opposite applies, she stresses, if she’s leading the meeting. “I take charge immediately by offering a bold statement. I do not do small talk or ask about people’s weekends or their family. ‘Here is what I need. Here is my objective. Let’s get started.’ ”
4) Build a Personal Brand that Grants You Lots of Latitude to be You — and Be Relentless in Projecting It
Take a page out of Richard Branson’s playbook. The CEO of all things Virgin cast himself early on as an iconoclast, someone who delighted in taking on challenges and doing things differently.
That brand has inoculated him from criticism on a number of fronts; indeed, Branson generates as much revenue from his failures as he does from his successes because his brand — embracing challenge, doing things differently — celebrates the attempt, not the outcome.
5) Buy More EP Latitude by Wielding your Credentials More Consciously
CTI’s director of research, Laura Sherbin, wields some impressive credentials, including a Ph.D. in economics. But back when she joined our organization in 2007, she struggled to exude gravitas because she looked young — young enough to be thought of as a student of mine at Columbia, rather than someone credentialed enough and experienced enough to teach her own course (she is currently an adjunct professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs).
How did she handle this? Whenever it made sense, she (tactfully) requested to be introduced as Dr. Laura Sherbin, and when presenting our research to an external or new audience, she worked in mention of her faculty position at Columbia.
6) Show You Care
For women in particular, winning more latitude in the public’s eye depends on showcasing activities that demonstrate you care about the disenfranchised. This works wonders on the likability front. Indeed, you won’t find a female leader out there who hasn’t come to embrace this tactic.
Feedback can be helpful in pointing out which paths to take — and which pitfalls to avoid — but at a certain point, many people feel constrained by parameters that narrow the choices between comfort and conformity.
Yet walking that fine line is the ultimate test of executive presence.
Copyright © 2014 by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation, a Manhattan-based think-tank focused on helping companies and professionals to fully realize their talent potential. She is the author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success and Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career.