There is an all-too common reason powerful women get plateaued in their careers. They rely on a default behavior set that worked extremely well to help them find success early on in their careers - but can end up working against them in senior positions.
I call it "Wolf Pit to Wolf Trap." And you CAN get out of it.
The phone rings, and I get a call like I’ve gotten many times.
“Ashley is great – incredibly smart, focused, dedicated and powerful. We’d like to promote her to the C-suite [Director, Partner, the next level], but we think she needs a coach, because she’s so assertive, and kind of arrogant, and is ticking off everybody. We’d like her to learn to be more diplomatic. She doesn’t seem to know she’s ‘made it’ and that she can stop fighting so hard now.”
Before you start lecturing me on “bossiness,” and challenges for women in management, this article is actually about something else. I have no trouble with women being assertive and powerful, and as for “bossy,” I’m okay with that, too.
This is much more about outmoded success strategies.
When Ashley, a competitive, ambitious, career-minded person, was starting out, she was just one of a batch of new, junior people jockeying for position in a hyper-competitive business environment. Assuming she served in many of the same functions that are also career entry points a lot of young men, it’s highly likely she was tossed into what I call The Wolf Pit. Down inside The Wolf Pit, in order to succeed and be seen above the heads of the rest of the junior pack, she had to bite harder, battle more, have sharper teeth, bark louder, and be willing to hold her ground against all odds.
When she did that, there was likely some person at a higher level rooting for her – saying, “Look at her go! She’s got the kind of energy and spirit we want to see!” They encourage, and smugly joke about how she’s out-competing all the people, particularly young men, around her. She's a bit rough, and there’s occasional collateral damage, but she gets results. They pat her on the back and congratulate her on her success.
And succeed she does! That is, of course, until she gets considered for promotion into senior management.
People have always complained about her aggressiveness. But it was usually people several levels down from the “You Go Girl!” folks, and the complainers were dismissed as unable to take on a young woman who could fight. As long as it wasn’t customers or clients who were complaining, (which would, in fact, knock her out of contention), upper managers continued to support and cheer her on.
However, once the complaints start coming from the same level, or even a level just below the people who had been pushing and mentoring her, then the “Wolf Trap” snaps shut on her. She finds herself using exactly the same tactics that brought her success, but now she is held in place by them, stuck. What she often does is fight harder to escape the trap – she gets more aggressive, more pushy, more angry - only making things worse.
And then I get a phone call. While I appreciate the business, it always makes me a little sad.
She has still, in today’s world (check out the stats) been unlikely to have had a powerful senior woman to model herself after – one who could be tough, directive – bossy, even – but who could also be open, thoughtful, diplomatic, and maybe even kind when needed. Men have a wider variety of mentors and role models to emulate. Also, they’re not expected to be quite so warm and kind as women. (Yes, I know there are other stereotypes, not the subject of this particular article, but maybe a later one!)
Fortunately, women and men can both be taught how to act, and even be, more diplomatic and expansive. That’s where I come in.
At the same time, I keep thinking, “You, you upper level guys, you created this path. You showed her how to be successful and competitive, and now you want her to be warm, too? She’s seen warmth work against women, and frankly, many “warm” women get relegated to lower-status/lower pay functions because they aren’t seen as "tough enough.” Many studies -search "warmth vs. competence for women"** - support an inverse correlation for women, that if they are warm, they are perceived as being less competent; if they are cold, they are perceived as more competent.
I know it is possible to walk this line, without getting caught in the trap. I have seen wonderful women who are warm, competent, and successful. Still, there are more ways to help women be fully-themselves as they succeed.
If we want more women in upper management, which integrity and ROI’s indicate we do, we have to start earlier, and find a way to make respectful, diplomatic behavior be the rule not the exception, so no one - man or woman - has to fight it out in the Wolf Pit, to succeed, only to be caught in the Wolf Trap when they do. I believe it will make for a better world for all.
**This stereotype doesn't hold to the same degree for men, unless they are from ethnic or religious minorities.
Copyright Cynthia Burnham 2007 All rights reserved.