If you are a woman executive, you do not need the recent McKinsey study, or words of guidance from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, or “The Perfect ‘Body’” ad from Victoria’s Secret, to know that you struggle daily for the respect and recognition that you deserve.
Most of the diversity programs in the corporate world today focus on not breaking discrimination laws, rather than on achieving true gender equity. And for many of our male-dominated management teams, this seems enough.
However, the competent women executives with whom I work in my executive coaching practice are too often only a few steps ahead of women in abusive domestic relationships. While not physically abused, they are often psychologically abused by years of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) put downs and character assassinations that take a heavy toll on their self-esteem and confidence.
Over the past several years, most of them have had sustainable success in breaking free of this system, by applying a few simple ideas to reframe how they engage in this leadership world. I offer these same ideas below in the hope that many others will benefit as well.
First – Take Responsibility
As distasteful as this may sound, take full responsibility for the situation in which you find yourself. Own it. Fully.
This does NOT mean blame yourself for it. It does mean empower yourself to change it. Which you cannot do as long as you hold anyone else responsible for the situation. If I see you as responsible for what happens to me or what I feel, I give you my innate power to drive my own choices, and I make myself your victim.
However, when I hold myself responsible, I can ask myself empowering action-biased questions.
Try This… Ask yourself questions like, “What can I do here?” and “What can I use this for?” Contrast this second question with the victimizing “Why me?”
Second – Look at Your Choices
See the choices you are making as you accept this responsibility. When we see that we are making choices, we further empower ourselves to make better ones. Until we see that we are making choices, we have no option to make better ones.
Try this… Every time you hear yourself saying or thinking, “I have to…”, reframe the situation by saying or thinking, “I choose to…”. E.g., “I have to work late because my CIO wants to review this presentation first thing in the morning.” Or, “I have to leave early because my kid’s school just called to tell me he got into a fight.” Or, “I have to accompany the team from China for dinner even though I’m exhausted.”
What shifts for you when you reframe these or your own situations to a version with “I choose to…”? If you are like most of my clients, one of two shifts will occur. Either you will see that you truly do choose to do this and you will feel much better about that choice. This will free up your energy to make the most of it and deal with any resultant conflicts. Or, you will see that you really don’t have to do whatever you thought you had to do, and will make other more satisfactory choices about how to handle the situation.
Third – Be Yourself
You have many strengths and characteristics that make you unique. As a woman, you tend to have a higher “Empathy Quotient” than many of your male colleagues. Don’t give away your leverage by trying to play someone else’s game. Define and play your own game, by your own rules.
One of my clients was the only woman on a management team of alpha males at a financial services company. She came to me to learn how to hold her own with them by being “rough and tough” in their weekly meetings.
Instead, we focused on how she could leverage her skills in hearing what was not being said and in crafting shared understanding. She quickly emerged as the defacto group leader because the guys trusted and respected her more than they did each other.
Try this… Think about what you already know about your skills and strengths and how to leverage them in unique ways. Or take a “DiSC Work of Leaders Profile” and learn more about how you engage with others. Then identify opportunities to better use your style.
Fourth – Know You Belong
The first and most important person to sell on your right to lead on an equal footing is yourself. From a very young age, you’ve likely been taught by our society that you are valued for a pretty face and a body to enjoy. Our media has told you that you have to look a certain way to have any worth or influence. (See this great post by Kelly Flanagan titled, “Words from a Father to his Daughter from the make up aisle” at Huffington Post).
Even some of the most successful women feel like impostors in their positions of power, because they tell themselves story after story about how they are not good enough. Rather than respond to what is, we react to the stories we tell ourselves about what is.
Try this… Stop trying to get from where you think you are to where you want to be. Rather than trying to get somewhere else in the future, try “coming from” that place right now. E.g., if you wish you were cool, calm and collected, take a deep breath and do a bit of Improv and play the role of cool, calm and collected.
Seem silly? Try it and see what happens. You may discover that if you change your behavior you change how you feel, and that you are already in the place you’ve been wishing to be. Once you wear that, others will see you too.
Fifth – Try Easier
You can’t do it all! Doesn’t work at home when you try to be Super Mom, Worlds Best Lover, Best Daughter, and all those other roles in which you strive to be perfect. It doesn’t work in your career either.
Prioritize. Strategically pick and choose where to focus your energy. Give yourself permission to say “No.” Delegate. Hold others accountable. Slow down. Slow… Down… S L O W D O W N… and explore how to be more in this moment.
Try this… Read “The Power of a Positive No” by William Ury. Learn how to say Yes to your values, No to requests that conflict with those values, and Yes to alternatives that express your full creativity and uniqueness as a leader.
Sixth – Lead!
The most effective leader in the room is not the one with the greatest command of the facts. In fact, being the “smartest” person in the room positions you as a manager, not a leader.
The most effective leaders are great at engaging and inspiring others to clarify ideas and move into action. You already have intuition and empathy working for you. Now try a few of these super-simple techniques to show up as the leader you are. Test them out on a smaller stage and see how they work for you. Then own them and have fun with them.
Don’t say “I want…” or “We want…”. Say instead, “I will…” and “We will…”
Don’t “Tell”… “Ask” questions instead. When we make declarative statements our listeners try to find fault with them/us. When we ask them questions they automagically engage with us.
When you do need to Tell, focus on connecting with each person in the room, one at a time, rather than focusing on presenting your information.
It’s not enough to be right. We also need to be helpful. Ask yourself “What would be helpful here?”
Don’t ask “Why” something happened or why someone did what they did. Ask “What happened” and “What needs to happen” to achieve success.
Recognize that your email In-Box represents everyone else’s priorities, but never yours. Use email sparingly and connect via conversations instead.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please comment below.