We may argue about the differences between men and women at work, but there is one truth no one can deny. There continues to be a gender gap at almost every company — both a gap in promotion to senior leadership roles and a gap in salaries for comparable roles.
What a disappointment! For the last three years I have been following the adventures of Wendy Rhoades, performance coach extraordinaire, on Showtime’s Billions. I was fascinated by this portrayal of my profession and impressed by how often the show got it right — I even wrote an article about what a great representation it was.
Leadership isn’t easy for anyone. To be great, you need a wide range of abilities and behaviors — high intelligence, analytic skills, strategic thinking, emotional maturity and awareness, interpersonal finesse, the ability to inspire and influence, clarity about priorities, the discipline to get the job done — the list goes on and on.
A friend of mine has been having trouble with bullying and harassment in her workplace. People with more power than she has have been using inappropriate language, limiting her access to resources, and intruding on her physical space.
There’s a fundamental puzzle at the core of the gender diversity issue. By now, it is well established that businesses led by women and teams that include women tend to outperform their all-male competitors. Large, well-designed, global studies have supported this finding again and again.
So, if you’re a business leader who wants to see your company thrive, why aren’t you rushing to hire women into senior roles as fast as possible?
It started out fine. Interesting, high-powered women invited to a lovely luncheon sponsored by a financial services firm. A panel of three women who are outstanding leaders in the hospitality industry. Beautiful setting, tasty food — it seemed as if it would be all good.
So why did I flee an hour later, rudely walking out before the event was over? There were two main problems.
“Hear the one about the blonde who was so dumb she …. ” The stereotype of the dumb blonde has been around for a while, and like many stereotypes it can be harmful to the aspirations and reputations of women with light-colored hair. But new research suggests there’s an upside to being towheaded. My brilliant blonde daughter-in-law sent me an article showing that blondes are over-represented at the top of large corporations. Blondes constitute about 2 percent of the world’s female population and 5 percent of white women, but they make up almost half of the female S&P 500 CEOs.
The recent Annual Conference of the Society of Women Engineers was an energizing event. Thousands of women engineers gathered in downtown LA to learn, network, and celebrate. These are groundbreaking women who are using their intelligence and drive to carve out new roles and pave the way for others. I was honored to be an invited speaker for a Mega Session on “Finding and Using Your Power.” Among other aspects of mobilizing female power, I talked about the power of women working together. I shared “The Sisterhood Code,” a document I had written a couple of years ago after hearing about “The Bro Code.” Some audience members asked me to post The Sisterhood Code on my website, so here it is:
The Sisterhood Code
I will combat negative stereotypes of women.
I will cheer the successes of other women.
I will stick up for other women.
I will look for ways to promote other women’s careers.
I will trade favors with other women.
I will value other women’s work.
I will measure my success in part by how well I help other women to succeed.
I will be inclusive of women.
I will value myself, my talents, and my contributions.
I will guard against my own anti-woman thoughts and behaviors with vigilance.
Women won’t achieve equality without the help and support of our male colleagues. But we can start by ensuring that we are helping and supporting each other.
Everyone knows that having a child makes a business leader’s life more challenging, especially if she’s a woman. But now there is evidence that a pregnancy can be a smart business move. Mindy Mercaldo, the Illinois President and Chicago Market President for Citibank, was the speaker this morning at a breakfast for StepUp, a great organization that provides mentors for promising teenagers. Mindy reflected on her own decision to have a child in her late 30’s when she was already a senior executive. Mindy had built her career by being a hard-driving, high-achieving leader who strove for perfection in everything she did. But after the baby came along, Mindy realized she couldn’t do it all herself. She got better at delegating and fostering the talents of her team members. She discovered that talking about the baby helped to build warmer relationships with her employees. And to her delight, her business results sky-rocketed. So there you have it. Far from being the career-derailer we hear so much about, having a child can be a career-enhancer – if, like Mindy, you pay attention to the lessons you can learn.
It should be an interesting autumn for the Mayer family. A day after Yahoo announced their new CEO – Marissa Mayer, a 37-year-old VP from Google – Ms. Mayer told the world she is expecting her first child in October. Bravo to Ms. Mayer! Talk about going for the gusto – that woman has ovaries! This story illustrates what the women’s movement has been about – freeing women to make the choices that are right for them. There are three major points to be made here:
- There is no one-size-fits-all. What works for one woman isn’t the best choice for another. I was always a working mother, but I chose to dial down my career when my kids were young. Other women choose to stay home full-time, or to focus exclusively on their career and not have kids. And some, like Marissa and many others, go for the whole enchilada. Bravo to all of us. It’s great to have choices.
- Choices have consequences. No one has it all. Every choice means you don’t do something else. I have a wonderful career, but I know I had the potential to do more. Women who don’t have children miss out on a whole realm of human experience. Ms. Mayer will rarely have the opportunity to accompany her child’s class on a field trip, and she may not be there when her baby takes his first step. We need to make our choices with our eyes wide open.
- Everyone needs help. Women like Ms. Mayer have the resources to hire great helpers. But just like the rest of us, they still need the support of a loving family, a circle of friends, and a flexible workplace. The more we support and care for each other, the better it will be for all women – as well as for our children, our partners, and the businesses we work for and lead.
Many years ago, Sigmund Freud wrote the plaintive question, “What does a woman want?” Like many men, he found it difficult to understand the motivations and desires of women. Business leaders often struggle with the same question, and it is becoming increasingly important to their success.
The numbers are clear – women consumers control the majority of spending in a wide variety of businesses. Figuring out what women want and how to deliver it is one of the keys to thriving in the current environment.
And guess what! It turns out that when businesses create a great environment for their female employees, they do better with their female customers. Makes sense – build an engaged, productive female work force, with opportunities for professional development and promotion, and those women will use their energy and enthusiasm to engage and serve your female customers.
Wolf Means Business is a firm that teaches companies how to engage their female employees – from entry-level to C-suite – as well as their female customers. As part of their leadership team, I have worked with the firm to build programs and interventions to further the success of their female work force. My affiliation with Wolf is part of my on-going commitment to fostering the development of women leaders and building a world where men and women work together as equals.
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.
Referent power is just one of many ways a business leader can gain and exercise power. Some ways are heavy-handed. There’s positional power, which is, effectively, “I am the boss and you have to do what I say.” And there’s punishment power, i.e. “If you don’t do what I say, I’ll fire you.” Both of these types of power can be effective in specific circumstances, but 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.
For women leaders looking to get things done, referent power is usually the best type of power to choose. Referent power is about gaining others’ followership because they respect you. They want your approval and they want to be like you, so they do what you say. 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 women can build and use referent power
If you’re struggling to get the support of your team, try following these four tips for building referent power:
- 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 management best practices. 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 in the way that referent power can.
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.
To earn more about building your referent power, email me.