The boardroom can be an intimidating environment, especially when you're new to it. Old school boards can be either full of 'yes' men and cigar smoke with a controlling chair, or a noisy room full of jousting and bravado. Neither is ideal. Global agency network boards are steadfastly male dominated, so it's something I've had to adapt to, fast.
Given that authenticity is key to effective leadership, mimicking any style is problematic and the idea propagated in many older business books that women should ape men and 'lean back' at the board table doesn't fit for me. It's certainly a far cry from the 'leaning in' Sheryl Sandberg encourages today.
Women can get emotional and more so than the majority of men. Fact. We are also built differently and we can get 'waverly' of voice, or go high and squeaky. A senior woman I know and admire has a wonderfully deep voice which instantly adds gravitas, but she got voice coaching to acquire it; she worked at it and it pays dividends. Everything she says, however trivial, sounds somehow much more meaningful.
But while I respect her decision to change her voice, I refuse to accept female traits as 'deficiencies' that we have to somehow 'overcome'. Studies have found that female leaders have a tendency to appear less confident and more cautious, displaying lower aggression and risk-taking qualities compared to male counterparts. Interestingly, the same studies almost counter-intuitively note that women are equally effective as men when negotiating on others' behalf because it's consistent with the expected female role of caretaker.
I view many feminine traits as ideal leadership characteristics and am more than happy to play them up in the boardroom and beyond. Being feminist and feminine are not mutually exclusive.
But while I don't buy into the old patriarchal set of rules, I do feel strongly that some behaviours make for effective boardroom discussion, while others are best avoided:
- Vary your style - lean in, sit back. Leadership can and should be situational.
- Listen hard - there's a reason we have two ears and one mouth.
- Work out how to influence - suggestion allows the space to breathe and think; it can be a powerful tool for building consensus.
- Prepare, prepare, then prepare some more (or fail)
- Bring a unique 'gift' to each and every meeting -a fact, a piece of information other attendees won't know, an article that might be relevant; something that shows pre-thought
- Be nice - people might forget courteousness, but they will definitely remember rudeness
- Copying others
- Dominating and speaking too much
- Being silent then writing long emails afterwards - you are there to have a voice!
- Saying "In my old company we always did this"
- Or saying "in my experience this always works" - it devalues everybody else's experiences
The case for so-called 'kinetic leadership' is strong. Great leaders switch up and select leadership styles with the calculated analysis of the matter at hand and end goal as a pro golfer choosing their club. Then, an NED should use a different style to an executive member. But a great chairman will know how to manage and conduct a boardroom filled with both conflicting and complementary behaviours so above all, be authentic...be yourself. I know that I don't need a briefcase and suit to succeed, so I refuse to play that game.