After plenty of hard work, Jennifer has been promoted to Vice President of Sales. Now, rather than meeting with clients and delivering results for them, she manages a staff of salespeople.
“The problem is,” she tells me, “whenever I have a meeting with my team it’s as if I don’t even exist. No one listens, people talk over one another and we’re starting to miss our projected sales numbers. What’s happening? I’ve always gotten along with these people really well, but it’s as if they hate me since I got promoted. What’s wrong with me?”
Getting promoted from within can be the best of times, and it can also be the worst of times. It’s the best when you know the organization and all the rules — written and unwritten — and can use this knowledge to succeed. It’s the worst when your former co-workers turn into surly, passed-over subordinates — and use all their time and attention conspiring to knock you down a peg.
To shift her situation, Jennifer needs to take a hard look at her own leadership style. There are three places for her to focus:
1. Attitude. I’ve written about the managerial differences between men and women — to recap, women are prone to “mend and tend” while men are more apt to “fight or flight”. Jennifer needs to take a hard look at how she behaves in meetings. Is she so overly collaborative (tending) that she fails to be authoritative? Does she run meetings like an executive, or defer to others in hopes of maintaining a good relationship (mending)? Authentic leadership is a balance of collaboration and authority — and Jennifer may be a little too heavy on the collaborative side of the scale. To tip the balance more toward center, she can take small steps toward being more decisive, such as setting the time and date for meetings, writing the agenda, and running meetings herself.
2. Verbal cues. Let me tell you this: If the boss doesn’t hold onto her own power, you can be sure that someone else (who is certain she should have been promoted to Jennifer’s spot) will grab it. Women in particular often use tentative language. Some women end every sentence with a literal or figurative question mark — which tells the listener that she’s not quite sure if she knows what she’s talking about. Jennifer can use a small tape recorder or enlist a mentor to figure out her verbal style. Listening to how she frames issues, sets goals and objectives, and deals with squabbling among her staff can be illuminating and empowering. Jennifer can use this information to choose different words — words that transmit that she’s knowledgeable, skilled and at the helm.
3. Body language. Similarly, Jennifer needs to understand her own body language. Is she hunching her shoulders and transmitting submission? Or clasping her hands under the table, which can indicate either that she is a dutiful little girl or has something to hide (and can’t be trusted). Leaders sit with attention, hands visible — and they take up space. Jennifer may need to do a little learning about body language so she can assume the command she’s been assigned.
One of the big stumbling blocks for women leaders is giving up the pernicious need to please. They wonder, “If I’m a straightforward leader, and claim my authority, will people still like me?” To be honest, some women worry about this whether they’re a Vice President of Sales, or organizing a neighborhood coffee klatsch.
The bottom line is this: how long are you going to please others at the expense of your own authentic self? Jennifer earned her promotion. She feels a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in her work. And she might be letting her need for the approval of others to hold her back from being her best possible self and completely owning her power.
When it comes down to it, women leaders — whether they’re leading a company or a group of teen volunteers or just leading themselves through their own personal growth — need to put their best possible self front and center. They need to own their power, however it comes to them, and exercise it authentically. When they do, they operate from a sense of inner peace, honesty and integrity. And the support and respect of others follows along quite naturally.
[Just a note to my guy readers: switch out all the girly references with dude stuff and you’ll find it’s equally true. Being an authentic person who exercises appropriate authority when it’s called for — that’s how you lead effectively.]