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Business leaders, embrace your feminine side

Woman in business suit

I was a rising executive in the financial services industry during the country’s last recession, when my boss gave me a seemingly impossible assignment: Change the direction of our company’s largest sales-generating business — one that historically rose and fell with the Consumer Confidence Index — and meet an improbable $96 billion sales goal.

Challenge accepted, my team and I turned the brand’s traditional messaging on its ear to appeal to nervous consumers. We didn’t meet the sales goal — we exceeded it by $4 billion, breaking a company sales record.

Sitting down with my boss for my year-end review, I was confident my stellar performance and leadership would be recognized and certain that accolades — and a promotion — were on the way. Instead, after a matter-of-fact “great job on sales,” my boss offered two pieces of feedback: “You wear too-bright colors” and “You’re too motherly.” It was a kick in the gut.

In that moment, I realized I could reach my career goals only in a company that embraced diversity and inclusion and nontraditional (read: non-male) leadership styles. I was not going to rise to the top in a culture that rewarded transactional leaders who were mostly uninvolved with teams unless a problem surfaced and led with a “command and control” leadership style.

While my boss was generally supportive — the feedback he served up was given to him by others in the company he was given credit for my team’s phenomenal results. My leadership style what’s traditionally thought of as a “feminine” leadership style — was not valued. If I stayed, I’d have to “behave like a man” to get ahead.

What that company’s senior leadership team didn’t understand — and what most c-suite leaders today are grappling with — is the realization that today’s business environment demands leaders with “feminine” leadership traits, such as empathy, humility and vulnerability. Leaders who are nurturing of teams and generous with their time to mentor and development others. Businesses need leaders who are patient enough to take the long view and who understand the importance — and can model — work/life integration.

21st Century leadership

Maureen Chiquet, former global CEO of Chanel and author of Beyond the Label: Women, Leadership and Success on Your Own Terms, argues that businesses will succeed now and in the future only if they cultivate “21st Century leaders” who have these leadership traits.

“Why should we separate art from business, feelings from logic, intuition from judgment?" she asks. “Who decided you can’t be determined and flexible, introspective and attuned, mother and top executive? And where does it state standing unflinchingly in your vulnerability, embracing your femininity, won’t make you stronger?"

In today’s workplace, the most successful leaders are those who collaborate; ask for help when they need it; have enough humility to hire the talent they need (not in their own likeness); and nurture open, diverse and inclusive workplaces where everyone can be their authentic selves and succeed at every level.

Why now?

Why are these leadership traits even more critical to business success now than they were when I had my a-ha career moment? Our workplaces are being rapidly reshaped by our youngest employees and emerging leaders. They are a technology-enabled generation, who voice their opinions on social media — and now they want to be heard in the workplace.

Our employees walk in the door talking about the social and political headlines. They want to — need to — talk about what happened in Charlottesville, about #metoo, about the gender opportunity gap and how it’s wider for women of color. They want to bring their authentic selves to work — and companies who recognize the business value of diversity of thought need them to.

Not long ago, employees were cautioned not to talk about politics or religion. Most c-suite leaders saw race, gender, sexuality and other social and cultural topics as lawsuits waiting to happen. Today our c-suite leaders must provide open forums where employees can address topics like gender diversity, the opportunity gap and institutional bias.

CEOs can no longer sit isolated in the c-suite wing. They need to be better communicators, show more empathy and model behaviors that will create a more diverse, inclusive workplace.

When I received the feedback that I was “too motherly,” it was given and perceived as a career-stifling trait — I was too feminine in my leadership style.  But now, I realize it describes my strongest leadership traits Good mothers are successful multi-taskers who are nurturing and generous with their time. They’re the problem-solving glue that keeps it all together.

I have realized, humbly, that I need to hire people who are smarter than I am, have more expertise than I do in certain areas and who have different ideas and perspectives.

It’s time to stop thinking of women’s leadership — of “feminine” leadership traits — as lesser than.

Gender diversity and equality in the workplace isn’t a program to be solved. It’s a solution to businesses’ most pressing problems.

This blog first appeared on

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Sarah Alter is president and CEO of Network of Executive Women, whose 12,000 members represent 950 companies and 115 corporate partners in 22 regions in North America.

Views expressed in blogs, posts 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 corporate partners.