Women and Power at the Executives’ Club of Chicago

Wow, what an amazing event last Thursday! An audience of 950 people, almost all women. A panel of three incredible women leaders: Tonise Paul, CEO of Energy BBDO; Anne Pramaggiore, President and COO of ComEd; and Sheli Rosenberg, Of Counsel at Skadden. I had the wonderful opportunity to moderate the panel on “The Strategic and Effective Use of Power.”

Tonise, Anne, and Sheli are three very different women, each with her unique leadership style. Together, they shared their experiences with and wisdom about being a powerful woman leader. What did they teach us?

• Power is about being able to drive change. Assess a situation and find the “fault lines” where you can make things better. Then use your power to drive the necessary changes.
• Women are wired to want to be liked, but to be powerful we must focus on being respected, even if that sometimes means people don’t like us.
• Powerful leaders need a whole toolbox of different kinds of power behaviors, plus the savvy to know which tool is needed in which situation. Use a hammer when you have a nail in front of you.
• Don’t focus on who you are, focus on where you are. That means looking outward beyond yourself.
• Make sure you let your supervisors know about your successes. They are busy – how are they going to know if you don’t tell them?
• Never settle for “good enough.” Be excellent.
• Everyone knows that sexual attraction happens in the workplace. Address it and move past it – don’t push it under the rug. Women leaders need both male and female mentors. Don’t let the fear of sexual gossip stop you from making relationships with men who can help you.
• When assessing whether to mentor a younger woman, look for resilience. How does she react to setbacks and failure – can she bounce back? This is one of the strongest predictors of leadership potential.
• One of the changes in the leadership landscape is that in most settings women no longer have to be clones of men. (Sheli was wearing bold polka-dot socks with her classic suit.)

Many of the audience members said they wished the panel could have been longer. It was a truly inspiring event.

Building Your Referent Power

There are many ways that a business leader can gain and exercise power. Some of these are heavy-handed, such as positional power (I am the boss and you have to do what I say) or punishment power (If you don’t do what I say, I’ll fire you). While these kinds of power are effective in very specific circumstances, they don’t work well as long-term business leadership strategies.

They especially don’t work well for women. Most people react swiftly to a domineering woman with strong dislike and anger. We expect women in authority to be smart and forceful but also kind and empathic.

One kind of power that often works well for women leaders has been labeled referent power. Referent power is about gaining others’ followership because they respect you, they want your approval, and they want to be like you. Think about the leaders you have worked with who inspired your loyalty and spurred you to do your best. Were you afraid of them? Probably not. Did you admire them and want to please them? You bet.

How can a woman leader build her referent power? Here are four key suggestions:

  • Practice what you preach. Don’t expect others to do what you won’t do. Live the values you expect from your team. Treat everyone with respect and courtesy, all the time, no matter what.
  • Be honest. Keep your team informed. Be frank about what you don’t know. If you make a mistake, admit it and correct it. Never lie.
  • Earn trust. Do what you say you will do. Defend your team members, and make sure they know when you are sticking up for them. Share credit for wins and take accountability for failures.
  • Celebrate wins. Give praise and rewards lavishly for a job well done. Praise people publicly (if they like it). Bring fun and celebration into the workplace.

Under the pressure of driving performance in challenging and competitive business environments, many business leaders ignore these behaviors. They place unreasonable expectations on their team members, they are deceptive or unreliable, and they focus more on problems and failures than on successes and wins. These behaviors sometimes gratify a business leader’s own needs to feel powerful in the moment, but they do not build real and lasting power.

Business leaders do not have to be bullies or egomaniacs to get the job done. True leaders influence their people by deploying a range of powerful tactics – and using their referent power is one of the best tools in their toolboxes.

Developing a Powerful Voice

Part of the definition of power is that when you speak, people listen.  Some years ago, the financial advising firm E.F. Hutton made this their advertising slogan – “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”  One of the challenges for women leaders is that our voices often do not command attention.  In my experience there are two main reasons women have difficulty making our voices heard.

The first reason is behavioral.  Many women have vocal qualities and speaking styles which undermine their authority and impact.  Voices that are quiet, high-pitched, or breathy are more difficult to hear and do not ring with authority.  Many women have a speaking style which turns statements into questions, either through their words, “Our business did very well last quarter, don’t you think?,” or through their intonation, by raising the pitch of their voices at the ends of their sentences.  The solution to this is for women to listen to tapes of their speaking styles and work to correct any habits that undermine their authority, using a voice coach if necessary.

The second reason women have difficulty making our voices heard is psychological.  As the mother of three sons, I have learned that, at least in American society, for a boy to become a man requires that he emotionally breaks away from his mother.  This process is often quite painful for both the boy and the mother, but it is a necessary step in male development.  Breaking away from Mom often involves the young man tuning out his mother’s voice.  The problem is that many men generalize this tuning out to other women’s voices.

As a result, many women in business settings find it difficult to get their male colleagues’ attention and alignment.  What woman hasn’t had the experience of putting forward an idea, being ignored, and then hearing her idea put forward a few minutes later by a male colleague, to enthusiastic response?

The solution to this challenge is more difficult.  It requires women to think about how we can avoid broadcasting on the “Mommy channel.”  This may mean kidding around as if you’re one of the boys.  It may mean being unexpected and unpredictable, not stereotyped, in your interests and opinions.  It may mean not falling into the role of being the nurturing “Office Mom,” which is typically not a powerful role.

In spite of these barriers, many women leaders do indeed speak with a voice of authority and impact.  One of the best tips for women is to watch and listen to those leaders, analyze what they are doing, and copy those aspects of their style which are authentic and genuine for you.

 

The Strategic and Effective Use of Power

I go to a lot of women’s networking events, and I have to admit I have become a little burned out. So many of them fall into one of two buckets. The theme is either “Why won’t the boys let us into their tree house?” or “How can women leaders live meaningful lives?” I don’t think we need to be talking about either one of those topics. Complaining about the boys isn’t going to change anything. And most women are already good at leading meaningful lives. What we need to be talking about is power – how to get it, how to wield it, and how to manage the complexities of female power.

So I am delighted that the Executives’ Club of Chicago has invited me to moderate a panel on “The Strategic and Effective Use of Power” at their Women’s Leadership Breakfast on February 23. The panelists are extraordinary senior women leaders who have up-close and personal relationships with power. I am eager to learn from them, and I’m looking forward to passing on their wisdom and experience to you. Registration is open to both members and non-members. If you are interested in attending you may register for the event by visiting their site here.