By Erin White
RISMEDIA, August 30, 2007-(WSJ.com)-When working at a Washington, D.C., foundation a few years ago, Jennifer Christian Murtie was promoted to oversee three staffers. She worried about how to project authority without seeming mean.
“How am I going to get these people to listen to me?” Christian Murtie, now 31 years old, recalls thinking.
Developing a leadership style is a challenge for most young managers, but particularly for young women. Leadership experts say they must navigate a “double-bind”: If they assert themselves forcefully, people may perceive them as not acting feminine enough, triggering a backlash. But if they act in a stereotypically feminine way, they aren’t seen as strong leaders.
“This is a particularly challenging process for women early in their careers,” says Herminia Ibarra , a professor at Insead, a business school with campuses in France and Singapore, who has studied women’s leadership styles. “It’s one of their big hurdles.”
One major problem is a shortage of female role models. People often learn leadership styles by observing others; but there are often few female executives to observe. Women can watch male leaders too, of course, but men can’t illustrate how to navigate female stereotypes.
Experts suggest several strategies. If there aren’t many female leaders at their employer, young women should join professional associations or community organizations to find role models. These nonwork settings also offer young women a chance to try out new leadership styles outside the office.
At work, young women should enlist mentors and solicit feedback on leadership techniques. After a meeting, ask a trusted superior what behaviors worked and what didn’t. Asking subordinates for feedback, however, is usually a mistake because it can indicate the leader is unsure of herself — a perception young female managers particularly want to avoid. In theory, these mentors could be either men or women, but young women should realize that male mentors may not be as aware of the unique challenges young women face in asserting leadership.
Deborah Kolb , a professor at Simmons School of Management in Boston, says it is important for young female managers to ask superiors to back them up when others second-guess them. Women should ask their bosses to be ready to explain why they were chosen and what skills they bring to the position. Many women don’t ask for this support.
Christian Murtie wasn’t sure how to exert authority initially. She had just been promoted from office manager, loosely supervising the receptionist, to administrative director with three reporting to her. It was her first job with real authority managing others.
She was preoccupied with wanting to be seen as nice. “The most difficult thing for me was taking an authoritative stance when I needed to — part of it was age, part of it was gender and part of it was my personality,” she says. “I was uncomfortable having to give negative feedback.”
Early on, one of her employees wasn’t performing well. She gave him “a little pep talk” with a sympathetic tone, but wasn’t explicit. “Nothing changed,” she recalls. She realized she needed to be more direct. So she spelled out specific requirements for him to keep his job. She tried not to be harsh, but clear and straightforward. It worked; his performance markedly improved.
She sought out a mentor at work whose style seemed like it would work well with her own personality. Her mentor was “very straight and to the point and upfront, but in a really nice way,” Ms. Christian Murtie says. She asked the other woman about her leadership style and observed how she led others. She noticed the woman led by example. She gained respect from staffers because she herself was willing to work extra hours when needed and threw herself into projects.
Murtie is now a manager at an investment-consulting firm in Boston. There, she has had to ask an underperforming employee to leave. The woman had only been working there a couple of months but wasn’t up to par. Murtie told the woman that she wasn’t coming close to meeting expectations and that she would have to be let go. She believes the woman “appreciated the honesty.”
Murtie also had to manage the morale of her other staffers. She quickly held a meeting to explain why the woman had been let go, and how they would cover her duties while searching for a replacement. She told staffers the woman had seemed promising in job interviews, but wasn’t doing a good job. Murtie said she would take on some of the work herself rather than dumping it all on others.
The meeting “seemed to go really well,” she says.
It reinforced the importance of being clear and direct with her staffers. “When people feel like they don’t know what’s going on, they get very disheartened,” she says.