Executive Women: Finding (and Owning) Their Voice

Dara Richardson-Heron, MD, CEO of the Y.W.C.A. USA.Here is an excerpt from an article by Adam Bryant for The New York Times. In his conversations with four chief executives, they describe the importance of taking stands, and of making sure they’re heard: Dara Richardson-Heron of the Y.W.C.A. USA.; Sharon Napier of Partners + Napier; Jenny Ming of Charlotte Russe; and Jody Greenstone Miller of the Business Talent Group. To read the complete interview as well as Bryant’s interviews of other executives, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo Credit: Daniel Rosenbaum for The New York Times

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What does it mean for women to have a “voice” in meetings? How can they navigate perceptions around assertiveness, particularly when they are often judged more harshly than men? And is much of the conversation around women and leadership really just about power?

These are just a few of the themes that arose during interviews with four executives about the challenges they have faced at work over the years and the advice they would give to other women about surviving and thriving in the workplace.

These conversations are a departure from my usual Corner Office interviews. Over the years, I have sat down with more than 125 women to discuss leadership, but have generally avoided any gender-related questions. Not that I considered those questions taboo. My goal from the start was to interview many leaders who happened to be women, rather than interviewing them as “women leaders.”

But women and leadership remains a topic of intense interest, and a year ago I went back to four women I had interviewed previously, to conduct a second conversation about the headwinds they have faced in the context of work and the pointers they’d offer to other women. Given the overwhelming reaction to the interviews last year, I sat down for a second conversation with four more women. Their stories, insights and advice have been lightly edited and condensed.

Here is the first of four conversations, with Dara Richardson-Heron, MD, Chief executive of the Y.W.C.A. USA. Women who are leaders need to advocate for themselves, she says. That means communicating goals, but also setting the expectation that they will lead.

What were some headwinds you encountered in your career? And were there tailwinds that helped you through them?

The tailwind was my parents. From as early as I can remember, they told us never to be limited by your race or your gender. That’s my lens. So when you begin to encounter headwinds, you almost have a denial mechanism.

The earliest headwind in my career that I can remember happened in the middle of a performance review. It was a stellar performance review, but then the manager said that he did have some feedback for me — that I was always so buttoned up in terms of the way I dressed, and that it was making other people uncomfortable. I’ve always paid a lot of attention to how I present myself and how I dress. I think presentation matters.

I was incensed. It was a defining moment for me, because I could either let it pass or I could make it clear that this was unacceptable. I said to him, “From this point on, I want you to judge me on my performance, not my appearance.” I said it in a very respectful, very clear way, but I think he was shocked. He knew not to cross that line again.

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Other examples of headwinds?

Another is what I call “a wealth of unsolicited advisers.” Any leader wants to have their own personal board of directors, the people you can call on to ask if you’re off base or headed in the right direction.

But in my leadership roles, I’ve found that people are very comfortable coming up to me and giving me unsolicited advice — “You should say this. You should do this.” I don’t think they would be comfortable doing the same thing with men. I like to get constructive feedback, but it’s not always constructive.

And when the feedback is unsolicited, there is a line that people need to understand. You’re put in a leadership role because you’re deemed to have the skills, the experience and the expertise to do the job. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to others, but it does mean that there should be a certain respect for the role. I find, as a woman leader, that people cross those boundaries a lot, and they try to guide and direct you in ways that I just don’t think they would do with a man.

And why is that?

I hate to use broad generalizations, but by and large people find women to be more approachable, and also there is some internalized sexism. I think that women sometimes discredit other women leaders and think that they need more guidance.

Another phenomenon I’ve seen is paternalistic micromanagement. There have been men who feel that they can put you in a leadership role and then tell you exactly what you have to do. Not only do they give you the goal line, but they tell you how to get there. And that doesn’t work for me. If I’m going to lead, tell me the goal line and I’ll figure out how to get there. Even worse, I’ve had men question my judgment who really didn’t have the qualifications to do that.

Any advice you’d give to young women?

One of the things I see sometimes is that women mistake words for voice. They feel that because they have a seat at the table and they say something, that’s good. But it’s important for women to know that having a voice really means having a track record of success and accomplishments, so that people want to listen to what you have to say, because you’re saying something of value. So use your voice, but use it strategically.

It’s important for women to know that having a voice really means having a track record of success and accomplishments, so that people want to listen to what you have to say, because you’re saying something of value. So use your voice, but use it strategically.

Another piece of advice is to stand up for what you believe in. As I did with the person who spoke to me about how I dress, you have to take a stand. You have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say: “This aligns with my values. This aligns with my opinion of who I want to be, and my personal legacy.” A lot of women allow things to happen because they worry that if they take a stand, it’s going to derail them. But if you don’t take a stand, it is going to derail you personally, because you’re not going to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, “This is who I am.” I think it impacts your authenticity.

Other thoughts on the topic of women and leadership?

There are so few women in leadership, and the burden on women who are leaders is so high, because you’re expected to be everything to everybody, and to pave the way and bring more women in, and root out all the bad stuff. And all the while, you’re not given support, and by that I don’t mean remedial support. You need people to block and tackle, and to say: “You know what? You’re not giving her the benefit of the doubt. You’re treating her differently than you would a man. You really have not given her enough resources in order to do the job. You haven’t given her enough praise for the work she is doing.” These are small things that can go a long way.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article and the videos that accompany it.

Dara Richardson-Heron‘s career highlights: Chief executive of the Greater New York City affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Chief medical officer of United Cerebral Palsy. Had several roles at Consolidated Edison, including special assistant to the chairman and chief executive.

Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here.

His more recent book, Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation, was also also published by Times Books (January 2014). To contact him, please click here.

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