In my first job after business school, I was hired to lead two consulting project teams: One in Washington, D.C., and the other on the west coast. Save for a couple of graduate-level organizational behavior classes, I was untrained and ill-prepared to step into a people leadership role. I dove into it with a lot of energy and big ideas, but I had no idea what my management style was or how I wanted to lead.
Over the next decade, I stumbled from one management role to the next, trying to figure out who I was as a manager. In every annual review, I received not-so-helpful feedback from my male bosses (I have never had a female boss) on how I should lead differently. I was too aggressive. I was too passive. I should say “we” more, and “I” less. I should “bring the hammer down more” but also “be less emotional in my reactions.”
Women managers face an unfair bias in how we lead, and there are fewer of us to emulate and mentor. So how do women discover and develop their management style?
We should lead like we want to be led. Observe what’s working (and what’s not) around you, and pick the best of those tactics in a way that resonates with you.
Take a look at the teams around you. Identify the high-functioning teams and observe how those managers — male and female — lead. How are they interacting with their staff members? What is their communication style? How do they run meetings? Now take a look at the team your colleagues call the “hot mess express” when huddled around the coffee machine. How is that manager leading? How is she addressing problems with the team and in their work? I had one boss, a former Army Ranger, that led every meeting with ruthless efficiency. I appreciated his promptness and adherence to the agenda, but we weren’t invading a small country. A little levity could have improved our team dynamic.
Now that you have identified what works in your organization, see if you can figure out what style resonates with you. Get very granular here. For example, "I want to run a meeting as effectively as Bob, who makes sure every voice is heard," "I want to write short-but-inspiring emails like Melissa" or "I want to give feedback the way Tom does, in a 'feedback sandwich' (positive, negative, positive) so that my teammates are open to hearing the hard stuff but leave the meeting feeling good."
In every management role, you will grow. You will stumble, and there will be tough situations you have to navigate. Take time to be reflective. Could I have handled that feedback conversation differently? Should I have been that harsh when the infraction was minor? Did I adequately anticipate this problem? One lesson from motherhood that has directly impacted my management style is my desire to pick my battles. When I see a typo on an internal memo or I don’t appreciate the tone of an email, I ask myself, “Is this the hill I want to die on today?”
When it all comes down to it, you have to do you. If you’re an introvert but come out large and in charge you won’t feel comfortable. And if you’re not comfortable, you can’t lead effectively. Your staff can sniff out an inauthentic management style faster than the can of tuna your colleague left in the trash can. I have a colleague whose management style may be described as “southern preacher.” He hugs (with permission of course). He cries. He’s passionate. And he is beloved by his staff. People beg to get on his team. His style isn’t mine. I couldn’t pull that off in a month of Sundays. But he is 100 percent him and it works.
So how do I lead? Like I want to be led. I hire professionals and let them do their jobs. Once a vision is collaboratively defined and a strategy is in place, I don’t micromanage “the how.” I work hard to build trust-based relationships so that when issues arise, we first assume good intentions and work towards a resolution that works for everyone. I probably still wear my emotions on my sleeve, but I’m okay with that. This is me, this is how I lead.
Jennifer Folsom is the chief of corporate development at Washington, D.C.-based data analytics consulting firm Summit LLC. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and three sons, 17-year-old twins Josh and Will, and 12-year-old Anderson. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood,"The Ringmaster," will be out this fall.