Thursday, October 17, 2013

Leadership language

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
The New York Times has a very interesting feature in the Friday and Sunday Business sections called Corner Office. For this past Sunday's installment Corner Office's guiding light Adam Bryant followed up with some of the leaders he had previously interviewed--leaders who happen to be women. For round two, he decided to ask each women new questions regarding how perceptions of gender had affected her ascent to leadership. The result is a fascinating read, largely because Bryant stays away from discussion of work/life balance, feeling those issues had been "fully voiced" (see Sandberg and Slaughter, among others). But, he wondered, what additional specific advice/insight could these women give that addresses the way women lead in business? And what could they share with other women who are navigating their way up the corporate leadership path?

These leaders all have terriffic insights, and I urge you to read the article for yourselves. What jumped out at me was the prevalence of discussion about communication, and in particular, the repetition of the word "voice." These leaders reinforce the message that in order to succeed, a woman needs to find her own voice and make herself heard. Easier said than done, though, in a male-dominated workplace. Many women over-compensate, trying to be aggressive in ways that may not be natural. Or as Amy Schulman, General Counsel of Pfizer, puts it, "in an effort to do precisely as they've been told they sometimes will over-occupy the space." One of these woman found claiming her rightful place hard--at first. Lisa Price, Founder and President of Carol's Daughter, originally did not sit at the head of the table because she felt she did not have all the answers.  But eventually she did, realizing that is what her company--and her people--needed. She says she still does not know everything, but " I do know this brand better than anybody else. And that's the authority that I have, that's the voice that I have to be, and that's who they need me to be."

Women face internal and external conflicts about communicating their leadership. How do we fix that? I think Schulman puts it quite well: "What we have to do is teach strategies, because here's the thing about unwritten languages, whoever owns the language wins the conversation. We need to teach women the difference between a native tongue and a language." I love this: it is the perfect way to put it. For women as well as for men, by the way. But men may not have such a difficult time embodying "authentic" and "leader" at the same time as women do. (And that is a discussion for another time...)

All you emergent, aspiring, or even acting leaders should be aware of this. Your leadership language may be quite another language entirely from the one that comes naturally. Nonetheless, you need to learn to speak it fluently if you are going to successfully communicate with those you want to lead. It is not their native language either. But it is the one they are expecting you to use. Think of it as workplace lingua franca. 

No comments:

Post a Comment