Are you Mary Poppins — or the Iron Lady?
Thursday, January 8, 2015
Posted by: Barbara Francella
By Michele Hanson
Are you "Mary
Poppins" or the "Iron Lady" when it comes to your leadership
style? I've been called both.
my career for The Pillsbury Co., I found myself in a sales position where I was
one of few women. My boss referred to me as "Mary Poppins," because I
could get the job done in a nice, orderly and perfect way. As I progressed in
my career and moved into higher leadership roles, the comments made were more
in line with: "If you give her a job, she’ll get it done [not always in a nice
way]." During this timeframe, I was sent to "sensitivity"
training because my "Iron Lady" was in high gear.
Related: 5 easy steps to build your personal brand
leadership style was most successful for me? Which leadership style felt most
comfortable? The answer to both of these questions is: "Neither." In
each case, I was trying to be the leader that I thought the organization and my
superiors wanted to see. I was trying to fit into a male dominated world and while
I was able to achieve success in my career, it didn't feel right. There was
something missing. That something was my authenticity — being true to
In the male-dominated
culture found in many retail, consumer goods and services industry, women must
walk a tightrope to be effective. One of the original studies on the topic was done
by Catalyst in 2007. "The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership:
Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don't" identified the quandary that female
leaders often experience in the corporate environment where they are
traditionally being measured against male leadership styles. Women are
perceived in extreme ranges of either being too soft or too tough, too
supportive or too driven, the study showed. They are viewed as competent or
likable, but rarely both.
Much of the double-bind
stems from societal norms and expectations. Should we "be nice and get
along" like we were all taught as girls or should we act like the boys and
show our "toughness?" The dilemma with this is that we are going to
displease the top-level men with the "Mary Poppins" style and other
women with the "Iron Lady."
A more recent
study (2011) at the Stanford University Graduate Business School went a bit
further with the topic and found that women who are aggressive, assertive and
confident, and who can turn these traits on and off, depending on the social
circumstances, get more promotions than either men or women with more feminine
traits. This study also indicated "that there is no evidence that 'acting like
a lady' does anything except make women more well-liked. Women with
ultra-feminine traits are still seen as 'less-competent' in traditional
Through my work
with female leaders, including my participation on a NEW Florida discussion panel
last fall, I've observed a few successful strategies for women at work. My advice:
1. Bring your "authentic
self" to work. Don’t be someone you are not. Those who you work for and
with will pick up on it immediately. Use executive-level assessment tools and
coaching to truly understand yourself and your work style. I highly recommend
using the Birkman Method as it offers a heightened level of insight into your
strengths, needs and stress responses. These are all important factors to help uncover
your authenticity and assure that you are true to this "authentic self."
2. Be ready to
"flex” your style based upon the situation. This is not always easy, but it can
be done using models and coaching. After using style-flexing techniques for one
to three months, they'll become common practice and offer you long-term
3. Keep a
leadership journal. Note leadership techniques that worked with
certain types or groups of team members or clients.
4. Be open and
ready to learn. Those working for and with you will offer you learning and
feedback in many ways, from direct conversation to a facial expression or, in
some cases, what they're not saying. Be aware of the cues and ask open-ended
questions to clarify and understand what is being communicated.
Women can bring
a new and collaborative leadership style to the corporate environment. If we
can learn how to manage our strengths and flex our work styles to meet the
needs of others while still being true to ourselves, we can see great success
and eventually provide a balanced work environment that is accepting of diverse
Michele Hanson, the first president of the Network of Executive
Women, is CEO of ExecuInsight LLC, a top resource for
executive-level coaching, style awareness and presentation technique training,
conflict resolution programs and women’s advocacy tools.
expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not
necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its
Officers, Board members and sponsors.