In search of executive presence

October 31, 2013

Joanna Barsh fought perceptions of being 'young and bouncy'

"I tried for many years to be taller, more serious, having gravitas as if I’d just come from a funeral…but that’s just not who I am.” - Joanna Barsh

Last week at the Working Mother conference, I was in a session on women in leadership and found myself in a small group discussing the idea of ‘executive presence’. We’d just heard a lively presentation by Dana Vandecoevering of Intel. She mentioned that Intel has a program in place for its women employees to essentially coach them so they stay on an advancement track and don’t ‘fall out of the pipeline’ as so many women do, leaving us with the sparse population of women at the top we’re all so used to hearing about. I was fascinated to hear that one of the things Intel coaches its women on is how to develop executive presence, that elusive quality you need to convince others you’re ready to lead – that you’ve got the goods in the form of your persona, your bearing, your appearance, and so on.

Executive presence, though, can be subjective. It’s something other people see in you, and it’s a lot harder for women to be seen to have than men, simply because as a society we default to seeing men – usually white men – as leaders. One woman at my table told the story of someone she knows who went grey early, in her twenties. The woman’s mother begged her to dye her hair but the woman, who was ambitious, refused, as she was on the fast track at work and felt that as she was young, she very much needed that grey hair to be taken seriously. We then got into a conversation about how you develop executive presence (see this Harvard Business Review piece for one author’s take) and how you even start that conversation with someone in whom you see potential.

One of my favorite interviewees on The Broad Experience was Joanna Barsh, a long time senior partner at McKinsey and Company and an author of much of their respected research on women in the workplace. What I loved about talking to Joanna last year was that she was open and willing to talk about herself and how she’d either been let down at work or let herself down. Going back over my notes, and my tape, I found a part I didn’t use during the show she appeared in, where she talks about ‘senior presence’:

“I happen to be incredibly short…I’m also an incredibly bouncy, energetic person and despite my old age I don’t have any grey hair…so here I am bouncing through as a senior consultant and there were many, many times where the organization in evaluation meetings said, ‘Does she have…senior presence?’…I tried for many years to be taller, more serious, having gravitas as if I’d just come from a funeral…but that’s just not who I am.”

Joanna let herself age into her gravitas, and it worked. She recently retired but is still very outspoken on women in leadership.

Of course this entire conversation gets us back to a question many women ask all the time: why should women have to be anything other than themselves? Why should they have to change their voices, their posture, their hair, anything, in order to fit in? Why can’t the corporation meet women where they are instead?

All I know is that because we still live in a world, and particularly a work world, that defaults to ‘male’, women still need to fit into that world to get anything done. Only when more women are running things will we skew more female in our thinking. But to get there, those women rising up the ranks today still need to work with largely male groups, and that means going at least some way to communicating in a way men understand. 

When women work for free

October 4, 2013

This piece by Tess Vigeland, 'Me, Work for Free at This Point in My Career?' really hit home when I read it the other day. Career changers or those experimenting with an additional line of work are usually expected to do a lot of work for nothing, either to prove themselves or to 'build their brand', as Tess discusses in her piece. As she says part-way through:

"I haven’t even addressed the gender behavior issues that are most certainly at play here. Without placing all blame on my womanhood, dozens of studies have shown that females are, generally speaking, terrible at asking for what they want in the working world — in my case, to get paid fairly for my services."

She is spot on. Many women have real trouble valuing themselves (genuinely thinking of themselves as having any value in the world, for one, and then putting a monetary value on their services), and a few days before reading Tess's piece I was much struck by this one on Forbes, written by Adrienne Graham, 'No, You Can't Pick my Brain. It Costs Too Much.' Graham points out that women tend to have trouble saying no and turning people down, thus they end up having a lot of coffees and phone calls with acquaintances and strangers who want to tap some of their expertise - expertise they might otherwise be charging for. This is something Financial Times columnist Mrs. Moneypenny addresses in the latest episode of my show - she has come up with a way of turning down these requests in a firm but graceful way. Women - to generalize - enjoying helping other people. It's one of the things I remember really liking about the job when I was an executive assistant. But our desire to help others can often lead us to sacrifice something we need for ourselves - like money.

I'm curious to know the extent to which men say yes to these kinds of 'pick your brain' coffee meetings, and how much work career-changing men consent to do for nothing. I'd be willing to bet they're a lot more protective of their time and earnings than women are. But say you are in the kind of situation Tess is in, or I'm in as I try to get the word out about The Broad Experience - when does it make sense to work for nothing and when doesn't it? This topic arose on a conference call I was on this morning with three other entrepreneurial women. The concensus seemed to be that you had to weigh up not just the money side of things, but how much personal pleasure/fulfillment you get out of whatever it is you're doing for nothing, and how that feeds into everything else. But where does a pleasant, sharing-your-knowledge type of interaction end and exploitation begin? At what point do you become cynical about the karma and goodwill you're assured will result from your actions? (In my case, frankly, probably far too early. I am British after all. ) I'd love to get comments below from anyone who's been in this situation and has views on where to draw the line. What has worked, and what hasn't? Has pulling back from a 'free' situation ultimately led to actual paid work? The Broad Experience wants to know.

How working women have created a less equal world

September 26, 2013

My well-thumbed copy of The XX Factor

Alison Wolf is just arriving in the US to discuss her book, with its provocative (sub) title - The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World. I met her in London recently, and she'll feature in the next episode of The Broad Experience. I tore through the book, though I didn't really expect to. Perhaps I've become too used to reading self-helpish books like Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In (which I enjoyed), but knowing Wolf was a longtime professor and expert on labor markets, I feared I might have to plow through a pretty dry tome. But, career academic though she is, Wolf thankfully doesn't write like one. 

The book talks about the extent to which modern working women's lives would be impossible without the poorly paid labor of millions of other women. People like me, and probably you, Wolf says, can have the lives we do because some other female is looking after our children, cleaning our house, doing our dry cleaning or looking after our elderly parents - all work that would have been done by women - for free - just a few decades ago. She's not saying this is a terrible thing, but she takes readers on a fascinating tour of just how much educated women's lives have changed in the past half century or so, and how, by comparison, less educated women's have not. She reminds us that, until the pill came along, sex really was the key to women's livelihoods, whether you look at that from the perspective of women 'saving themselves' for marriage - which was their livelihood in many cases - or women actually earning their living through prostitution. She also has interesting data on how many sexual partners women with degrees have compared to other women, and how much this has changed over the years - this is all part of her contention that 'elite women' live quite different lives from everyone else on the planet. In short, highly educated women, on the whole, have sex later than others (all the better to concentrate on our grades and careers). But education seems to make women more adventurous - or encourages them to take their time in finding 'the one', because these days women with degrees have a slightly higher number of sexual partners than those without.

And you know how we all think of the Scandinavian countries as beacons of equality? 

"The thing no one believes till I tell them is that Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries have the most segregated labor markets in the world in terms of men and women working separately...if you walk into the Swedish or Danish parliament you see lots of women…but the Scandinavians very early on outsourced domestic life, daycare centers, care for elderly...all the sorts of things mothers used to do in the home they turned into paid labor. So what happened was vast numbers of women who used to do female type things at home [now do] female type things in the labor market.

...So you’ve got this enormous female workforce that’s staffing the welfare state, and a professional life that is not more integrated than anywhere else." 

The book is packed with interesting data (of note: it wasn't the advent of the vacuum cleaner or dishwasher, but the invention of frozen meals that really saw women entering the workforce in numbers), and information on working women in different parts of the world. Wolf also takes her hat off to the educated women of the past who spent many hours a week volunteering. That world has pretty much gone, Wolf says, and we're worse off for it. 

That said, she has no desire to go back to the kitchen. 

The new show will be out on October 7th.

Never enough hours

November 27, 2012

Sometimes this entrepreneurship business seems like too much. Yes, I said it. There are days when I feel unequal to the whole thing. Today I've been fielding a flurry of email (largely started by me) about what I should be doing for The Broad Experience on social media, the site itself, PR, etc. and it's all piled up to make me feel as if I'm sadly behind where I should be. I would love to be on top of everything, have an amazing site, understand SEO completely, and let the whole world know that my show exists. But I'm human, and I am one human at that. I wish I could clone myself, but that doesn't seem to be an option (though if you're aware of any advances in science, please let me know). As a result, I may for a while be lagging behind all that the marketing gods, and the show, require in the early 21st century. I did do one daring thing today, relatively speaking (thanks for the idea, Sheila Butler!) I wrote to several people I know who listen to the show and asked them to leave me a good review on iTunes as a way to get The Broad Experience a little more notice. 

Changing the subject, and talking of Sheila Butler, here's her penultimate Successful Women Talk interview on developing online influence, with guest Stephanie Sammons. I recommend it for any woman going out on her own. My ears really started perking up around the 10 minute mark. Stephanie has good advice for people on 'drilling down' to what it is you want to say. I like the term 'nuggets of wisdom'. 

Talking of wisdom and nuggets thereof, I'll be presiding over a TEDxWomen event this coming Saturday on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I say presiding, but perhaps jollying people along between talks is a better description. It'll be my induction into the mysterious world of TED and its younger siblings, the TEDx events.