Women get a bad rap in the work world, and we don’t have to look much further than pop culture for examples. Consider Monica from Showtime’s “House of Lies.” Being an addict, uninterested mother, and demeaning boss somehow makes her incredibly successful at work. Or take, for example, the famous caricature of Anna Wintour in “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Fortunately, executives like Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg are fostering an important discourse that is reaching female and male executives alike to spark change. And we’ve already come a very long way. Women can be executives who drive results, empathic mentors, and loving mothers all at the same time.
Nevertheless, female CEOs remain subject to intense scrutiny. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer has been widely criticized for working through her maternity leave and for putting a nursery next to her office, and recently she’s been in the media because “good-looking CEOs get better returns.”
The question is, does this type of scrutiny have a trickle-down effect for other professional women?
There are socioeconomic factors at play that we cannot solve overnight. We need to teach women how to be confident in the workplace so they can succeed on their own merits. I offered some tactics in my previous piece, “Confidence Breeds Success — And It Can Be Taught.” However, individual confidence is only part of the equation. We also need to support and champion women in the workplace, particularly when we, as women, are the executives.
The best mentors I’ve seen are those who do the following:
- Relinquish your need to be right. It’s a common adage among CEOs: hire people smarter than you. Assuming you’ve done that, give those smart people an opportunity to do what they do best.
- Fix, don’t blame. At an event last year, I heard Sheryl Sandberg offer this advice about good bosses: “A great boss gives credit to everyone else when things are going well. When they are not, she asks, ‘How can I fix it?’” Blame is where solutions go to die. So create an environment that fosters collaborative problem solving.
- Disagree respectfully. Disagreement is not synonymous with argument. In the office, love, like and hate should take second chair to respect. Look to drive consensus and action, not stalemate.
- Give credit generously. A rising tide lifts all ships. The accompanying economic concept is that general economic improvement will benefit everyone. I use these words to remind employees that the act of giving credit confers its benefits onto you by proxy. If the people who work for you are successful, you will be seen that way too.
- Trust your gut. Intuition is real, but it’s something you have to learn to trust. A therapist friend once told me that her patients who’ve suffered physical attacks have one thing in common: they sensed something amiss before the act occurred. This does not mean they could have prevented it, of course. But it demonstrates the existence of instinct. At work, intuition can help us read the room, parse good customer engagements from bad, and identify potential in an unlikely candidate.
- Build consensus, not factions. Don’t save your complaints for the secrecy of closed doors. In her book, Woman’s Inhumanity To Woman, Phyllis Chesler writes, “Girls learn that a safe way to attack someone else is behind her back, so that she will not know who started the attack.” Gossip is toxic, so stop it by dealing with issues quickly, calmly and openly.
- Never say, “You will understand when…” This reduces a younger woman’s feelings to simple naiveté. Supporting one another means commiseration and support. Judgment only teaches the recipient to seek help elsewhere.
- Develop a thick skin. Every leader will be criticized. It’s part of the job, so find a way to take the things that matter seriously and brush off the distractions. It’s an amazing example to set for younger women executives.
Godspeed, Marissa Mayer! May many come after you and because of you.
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