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Are you Mary Poppins — or the Iron Lady?

Thursday, January 8, 2015  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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By Michele Hanson

Are you "Mary Poppins" or the "Iron Lady" when it comes to your leadership style? I've been called both.

When starting 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.

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Which 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 myself.

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 managerial settings.”

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 success.

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 leadership styles.

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.

Views 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.

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