A personal friend of mine, who has asked to remain anonymous, is a fast rising engineering executive in a very traditional (male dominated) and wildly successful mid-western manufacturing company. She recently shared this series of events for the purpose of my forthcoming book, Road Rules for Leading Ladies, in the hope that she can receive some outside feedback on how best to proceed professionally as well as to shed light on what the glass ceiling looks and feels like in 2013. My girlfriend and I would love to hear your feedback on how YOU would advise her if you were her coach/mentor/friend:
“Lately I have been thinking about the ongoing coaching I receive from my boss—he is at a very high level in our company and I am his only direct report. He is also revered as a successful female career coach. While all of this provides me with a great opportunity to work on my career self for a while, it also poses a challenge—how much do I lose me, while trying to create my “business self”?
Let me dig into some examples. Today is our company’s first day back at work after the holidays and the first time my boss and I have had a chance to debrief on our recent business trips in Asia. During these semiannual updates with the president and his staff, I spend a business week with these individuals (12 in all, only 2 females) who are in the top 50 or so in our company. We stay in the same hotel, eat three meals a day together, and have drinks at times. I am the youngest, most junior person in this group. The leadership group is all in their 50’s and somewhere between 5-12 levels above me.
Last December we had a celebration dinner in conjunction with the ground breaking of our factory. There were 25 or so people there and only 2 women, one being myself. The group was comprised of my colleagues (on average 2-4 levels above me) and our leadership team detailed above. My colleagues (all male) proceeded to drink massive quantities of wine. I followed suit. My colleagues were loud, telling stories, boisterous, even went to another bar afterwards. As you know I am also not the quietest drinker and was right next to them celebrating as well. (However, I did skip the bar and went to the hotel instead.) What I didn’t realize is that the more senior group in the room was analyzing my every behavior.
A few of our Vice Presidents told my boss the following week, “Seems like XXXX likes to drink and have a good time.” My boss said to me, “Their feedback is not good on your personal behavior and: you are limited to 1 glass of wine only during business trips/dinners, you need to practice an indoor voice, you are constantly under a microscope, practice more observation and contribute less, don’t joke too much, etc.” Apparently the microscope even extends to every area of my personal life since we all live in the same town and I was told that I needed to watch my behavior even if I was at the gym, grocery store, restaurant, etc.
Flash forward to September of this last year. There was a leadership forum where that same group of leaders spent 2 days with the top 15 leadership prospects in our Division. I was among those 15 participating. HR put on the event and during the first half of the first day, I practiced the feedback my boss had provided me last December—I observed and provided input on a limited basis trying to make it more impactful. I wasn’t too loud, didn’t take over the room, didn’t joke around, wasn’t too jovial, etc. Little did I know HR was actually observing us during that time.
Do you know what feedback I received from the female HR manager? She reported, “You seemed remiss XXX. My impression was that you didn’t want to contribute, that you were too quiet, and you were not coming off as a leader.” She even said that when I did speak up that I had a happy bubbly personality that she wanted to see more!
Now let’s review my conversation today about our December update in Asia. Feedback from the President and his staff on me: “She has very good business maturity, especially considering she is only 30. She needs to work on her social maturity and the volume of her voice.” My boss’s feedback: “…observe more, say less, and joke less. Be like the only 2 other females in the room—quiet, reserved, only really contribute at select times, and don’t socially contribute unless they are prompted by other members of the leadership group.”
My boss told me today, “You can decide when you will stop adjusting yourself based off of feedback and not care when they are watching, but you also have to accept that at that point, your career advancements could very well end.” I was also told I should consider “hiding” my engagement ring around certain more “fiscally conscious” leaders and not talk too much about the house we built for fear that I will upstage them.
In the back of my head I have a constant fear that he is right—despite every ounce of me that wants to scream to him and all of the leaders—we are not robots! Why do you want to make every up and coming leader one of you? Why do you want to make every woman one of you? Isn’t it our unique personalities and vantage points that have contributed to the successful evolution of our company? Why do we have to be scared that we could offend each and every leader on some level and not just concentrate on performing at our job and for the company?
I sure wish my crystal ball was here that would help me understand whether or not changing who I am at work will really impact the longevity of my success, or if it will make me grow more frustrated with the leadership I am working for and with. When I was early in my career I had a desire to become a strong female leader, to show all of those younger women in our company that we have a place next to those 10 male leaders. However, I am unsure that our leaders are ready for such colleagues. I wish I could interview our president or the VPs and ask them, “Is your coaching of me a reflection of your personal tastes in how leaders should behave? Or is it because I am female?” I don’t want to rise in the ranks of a company who is molding robot after robot, or trying to transform women into their own likeness.
What would you suggest to my friend if you were her mentor, coach, boss etc?