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Maria Shriver

You Do You: Why Women In Leadership Should Just Be Themselves

Business people rolling luggage in lobby. Ariel Skelley / Blend Images via AP

From their body language, to their word choice, and even the frequency of their smiles, working women hear a constant and often contradictory chorus about all the ways they should be behaving if they want to make their way to the corner office.

The broader message to women seems to be that they are simply not acting the part, and it’s the “acting” side of this which Barbara Annis -- a gender intelligence expert and the Chair Emeritus of the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard Kennedy School -- sees as problematic.

“The women I see succeeding bring their whole self to it,” says Annis. “They’re empowered, and they’re driven by their values. The key is really to be authentic.”

For Annis, successful female leadership is about women who have broken the glass ceiling by being themselves, rather than those who have made strides by adopting male behaviors. Her point is that by emulating the male style, women trade away their greatest strengths, which is their own unique and valuable skills and qualities.

“We need to move away from what I call sameness thinking. A few years back, we studied 28 of the top leadership books to see what we are teaching leaders, and what we’re teaching them is the male leadership model.”

Here, Annis explains women’s strengths as leaders, the hurdles that still stand in their way, and the many false assumptions made about their confidence, their competitiveness, and their work-life balance.

Let’s talk about this idea of authenticity, because women get a lot of advice today about how they should modify their behavior to get ahead in the workplace.

It’s almost as if we’ve taken male leadership and just decided we should add “Fe-” in front of “male.” So the advice to women is: don’t smile, boom your voice, and so on. I mean, these were the sort of things that I was told back when I was the first woman in sales at Sony: stand this way, control your voice, don’t ask open-ended questions, don’t end your sentences with a question mark, make sure you crack the first joke. I went back and applied all that and it didn’t serve me well at all. So, the key is: be authentic. I was successful because I was myself with my clients.

It’s almost as if we’ve taken male leadership and just decided we should add “Fe-” in front of “male.”

Many women who want to get ahead choose to, or are coached to, adopt the manner of men. Why is that a poor long-term strategy?

There is a cost in this for women. I spoke to a top female lawyer, and she said to me, “The truth is, if any of my family members came to work with me they would not recognize me. Not my children, not my husband, not my parents.” And that to me is such a sad statement, and she is mentoring a lot of the women within the law firm. They’re looking at her as the role model of who you need to be to succeed. So, I asked her what she thought the cost of that was, and she looked at me and she said, “I don’t even want to go there.” There is a huge personal cost, and I think there’s a huge cost for organizations who aren’t getting the best out of people, and the diversity of that.

There’s been a lot of discussion about women’s lack of confidence holding them back. Do you see that in your work with these companies and their employees?

In almost 30 years of doing this work, I have not seen this confidence issue. And I have to tell you, because of this confidence conversation which has started in the last six months or so, now I hear male CEOs and leaders saying, “Oh, well that’s the problem.” But, you know what? It wasn’t there before. We’ve created this thing and it sets us back. Are there times when women’s confidence level erodes? Absolutely. Do they get back up and move on? Absolutely. They don’t get stuck in a confidence trap, which is an idea that is being perpetuated in the media today.

In almost 30 years of doing this work, I have not seen this confidence issue. And I have to tell you, because of this confidence conversation which has started in the last six months or so, now I hear male CEOs and leaders saying, “Oh, well that’s the problem.”

So if you were asked the top five reasons why women aren’t making it into leadership, would confidence even make the list?

No. We did research on women who had broken through the glass ceiling, and when we asked them about this, it completely dispelled the myth around confidence. These women are through the roof confident. Now, I want to emphasize that there are times in a woman’s life when confidence is lower in comparison to their male colleagues. When women aren’t valued in organizations they do begin to question their place in the organization, and the way that they express it can sound like they’re lacking confidence.

What are women’s unique strengths as leaders?

Women bring tremendous executive social skills that increase team work and move away from the hierarchical command and control model where power is viewed as rank and status. Women tend to work in a much more egalitarian, team-like way. So, they bring out the best in employees but they also encourage a high level of social skill in terms of being self-aware and being aware of the health of the team or division.

Women also have expansive thinking, which has to do with the hard-wiring of the brain; they use web-like thinking and they expand strategy into a longer term view. They bring new ideas and innovative thinking, because, again, women see different possibilities. There’s also a lot of conversation now about the value of empathy and collaboration, and that is something which is just innate for women, it’s part of the hard-wiring but it’s also part of how we’re socialized.

Of the women who have achieved leaderships positions, and have secured the respect of the men they work with, what do you see as the common denominator in their style?

It’s coming from a win-win. It’s women who have the ability to influence and challenge and debate, without men feeling they have been put down. There’s nothing that frustrates men more than feeling like they have been put in a one-down position. It’s about building strong, trusting partnerships.

There’s nothing that frustrates men more than feeling like they have been put in a one-down position.

What are the common challenges you see for women who aspiring to leadership but are not getting there?

It has to do with building credibility, navigating the male network, and being able to have men advocate for them. Often, I find women make it to the table and the perception is that they made it there because they’re a woman; and that can really become a challenge for a woman trying to build her credibility. I was recently talking to a brilliant woman who had made it onto a very traditional executive board where she was the first woman and the first minority, and she told me that she was having a hard time getting her point across, and that’s the credibility factor. As far as navigating the male network, we see that women at the C-suite level have really figured that out, and women who are one level below that, are still trying to figure out how they can network strategically in terms of who they need to know, or how to get the right kind of mentors or sponsors.

The lack of women in the executive ranks is often framed as men being resistant to female leaders, do you see that? Or is it perhaps the case that people gravitate towards what feels familiar, which currently is the male leadership style.

I don’t see men resisting female leadership. I mean, sure, do we have the odd dinosaur, yes. But for the most part, I see men being very interested and willing when it comes to including women, and they see it as a benefit. But, yes, the problem is the comfort level with the traditional paradigm of leadership which has been male. I often see a group of men talking in a room, and when the woman enters they’ll kind of straighten up and change the subject because they don’t think she’ll be interested. So there is that kind of uncertainty in men about how to be inclusive and how to empower women.

I don’t see men resisting female leadership. I mean, sure, do we have the odd dinosaur, yes. But for the most part, I see men being very interested and willing.

Do you see assumptions being made about women’s appetite for leadership based on work-life balance?

It is an assumption and what’s feeding it is that we as women perpetuate it, because when we leave companies we tend to say that it’s for work-life balance reasons. That is a challenge, but it’s often not the key reason women leave. We see two main reasons, one, not feeling valued and, two, women not seeing a future for themselves in the company. But in an exit interview, women will say it’s personal reasons because they don’t want to burn bridges; they want the referral so they don’t want to say that they couldn’t stand working there. Six months later or so, when a woman is situated in another position, often I find she will begin to talk about the real reasons she left.

In an exit interview, women will say it’s personal reasons because they don’t want to burn bridges; they want the referral so they don’t want to say that they couldn’t stand working there.

There’s also a common and stereotypical assumption that woman aren’t as ambitious, and I have to tell you that is not true. We just did research around this, and women rate their ambition through the roof. And we also looked at India, where we asked women and men aged 25 to 30 about their ambition, and what we found was that the women in India actually outscored the men.

The percentage of women in senior management roles has hardly changed since the 1990s. Why do companies struggle to identify women who have leadership potential?

Because they’re trying to identify them on the basis of sameness. So, when we go in and look at how a company assesses their talent, what we see is that they’ve evaluating behaviors that are based on the male model. So, take ambition, women and men tend to express ambition differently. Men will say, “I want the CEO’s job.” Women will say, “I’m here to add value.” But what also happens is that there’s an added scrutiny lens for women. Men are identified based on their potential; women make the list based on what they’ve done.

Can you give an example of a competency that puts women at a disadvantage because companies identify it using the male model?

One example is being strategic. Women are very strategic, but they tend not to be strategic in the linear way that men are. Women tend towards web-like thinking, and if the culture does not value both ways of thinking -- and you do actually need both ways of thinking -- women get labelled as not being strategic enough. I heard this from a top executive. He had a woman on his team who he thought was so fantastic, so committed and so passionate, but he said she was not strategic enough. I asked him to explain what he meant by that, and what it came down to was that she just did not think in the same way that he did, so she didn’t make the list. And they lost her; she went straight to the competition and got a huge role.

Is there also an assumption that women aren’t competitive, that they don’t have the “killer instinct”?

Yes, absolutely. And, again, women express competition differently. Women influence in relationships. So, when I was closing a deal -- and I closed big ones -- I didn’t hunt for the kill, I worked on building a trusting relationship. That’s what I led with. Now, did it take me longer sometimes to close that deal? Yes. But I closed a bigger deal, and I built a longer term relationship. So, when you misinterpret the competitive instinct, in terms of how it’s being expressed, you don’t see that women use their ability to influence.

Some might assume female leaders are naturally gender intelligent. But do women leaders sometimes have equal blind spots towards men?

Yes, and I know this from personal experience. When I went from sales into management at Sony, and I had only men reporting to me, I would get so frustrated, I would say all the time, “Seriously, people. Get with the program.” What I was really saying was, “Think like me. Be like me. Behave like me.” So, yes, we misinterpret men; I misinterpreted men. It wasn’t until a couple of years after I left Sony, after I had done a deep dive on the concept of gender differences, that I realized I had just been trying to make the men more like me. So, yes, there’s gender blindness on both sides, which is why when I start working with people, I always say, “There’s equal learning here for both men and women.” We often assume that it’s the men who have the most to learn, simply because we have been in the minority for so long, but there’s actually some beautiful aha! moments for women too.

This interview has been edited.