I read and hear a lot of the same ideas that are geared toward women, advising them how they can be at their best as leaders and successful in the workplace. And a lot of this advice is past its prime. In the New Year, here’s what I propose as a new paradigm to help support the success of women in the workplace.
Old: “It’s a man’s world, so learn and play by the rules.”
New: “What rules?”
I’m a little amazed that people are still preaching the idea of learning the “rules of the male workplace” and abiding by them – but I see people doing just that at conferences and in print. I would hope that we would instead encourage women to challenge the status quo instead of accept it. This might feel risky in a workplace – where is the balance between abiding the culture and daring to be different? We also might think that one person isn’t powerful enough to have an impact on the system itself. Debra Meyerson gives great examples of people who successfully did just this – initiated wider organizational change through personal efforts – in her Harvard Business Review article Radical Change, the Quiet Way. She refers to her extensive research on people who “work quietly to challenge prevailing wisdom and gently provoke their organizational cultures to adapt.” When we tell women to adapt to existing culture, we are potentially limiting opportunities for individual initiative to be the catalyst for broader change.
Old: “Women have innate skills – leverage them.”
New: “Trends within a group don’t define one individual’s talents.”
If you want to get a group of technical women to roll their eyes, tell them how great their “soft skills” must be because they are women. Which is exactly what happened when I was at lunch the other day with two female friends and colleagues of mine, also with advanced degrees in engineering. There is a trend in leadership literature these days to emphasize “female” qualities that good leaders must possess, like communication, teamwork, and building relationships. There are even some reputable studies out there that support that women leaders display these three leadership competencies more than men, including this one by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. The problem begins when we start to view individuals through generalizations and make assumptions about their strengths. As a naturally introverted, logical techie, the three qualities for leadership listed above are all ones that did not come naturally to me, and I had to work hard to develop them. It’s easy to take the Zenger and Folkman study as evidence that women more readily possess “soft skills”; but it also can’t tell you the talents of any one individual and what they bring to the table. (By the way, the same study showed women also score higher in the competencies of driving for results and technical/professional expertise).
Old: “Here is the blueprint for success.”
New: “The path to success goes through you.”
Recipes for success sell well, whether it’s weight loss, or how to get rich quick, or how to succeed in business. And blueprints are helpful – it’s harder to figure out on our own the best way forward, especially if someone else has already invented the wheel. But what I learned from coaching is the very important distinction between telling someone what they have to do and be, and helping them find their own way. I realize that sometimes we just need instruction, like when we first change a flat tire, or when we learn calculus. But we assume that others need our instruction, and that we require that instruction, far more than they (or we) actually do. When I teach leadership classes, I have leaders go through the exercise of speed-mentoring each other – but they are not permitted to give advice, only ask questions to help the other person think through their situation. When we assume that other people are capable and resourceful, we empower them to come to solutions and conclusions that best reflect them, their strengths, and their situation. Instead of telling women how to be, let’s support them in being their best selves.
Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s to new paradigms and possibilities in 2015.
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