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“Women Leaders – damned if they do, damned if they don’t”
By Adriana Paun, Founder & CEO of theTop Executive Agency Brussels
In the current web of intense economic upheaval and stark political change, the need for talented, visionary women leaders has never been greater. Questions regarding the management of employees as well as objectives, competition and new technologies throw in sharp perspective the very ways in which we identify leadership skills in ourselves and in others. Indeed, it is as indispensible and desirable to recognise the value of good leadership as it is to evaluate financial and quarterly results, simply because the two are inextricably connected.
We are accustomed to regard leadership as a function of management, often tied to position or job description, rather than as a state of being. Yet in my sixteen years as a Human Resources director, I have had the pleasure of working with, interviewing and assessing hundreds of professionals (including executives, HIPOs – high potential employees - and senior employees, both male and female) whose leadership abilities and charisma often transcended their professional role. What’s more, meeting with these individuals over the course of their careers, I was amazed at their evolution as team members and colleagues. Their success frequently depended on their ability to understand issues facing their industry, to develop a vision and to inspire others. Not only did I notice this learning curve developing outside of the professionally-assigned position they held in their respective jobs, but their success also appeared unconnected to their personality or degree of confidence. Contrary to popular belief, leadership is neither inborn nor assigned, it is learned.
Of course, looking at the Indira Ghandis and Benazir Bhuttos of this world, it can seem hard to believe that their commanding presence is the subject of study or reflection. Too many people are convinced that being a leader is something that comes naturally or not at all; some people have it and some don’t. It’s all or nothing. Certainly there are very few people who have natural talent and who are able to display leadership qualities easier than others, but most of us learn by doing, by experiencing in everyday situations or by observing other leaders and adopting their behaviors. Most importantly, we develop our leadership styles by acknowledging that we each have our own individual approach to leadership when thrust into positions demanding that we take charge.
The task could be easier were we not bombarded with widespread misconceptions about women leaders and the dynamics that constantly beleaguer their approach to people management. For example:
Myth 1: Women's Leadership style is nurturing and caring
Quite often, we hear that women can’t be good leaders because they are not tough enough and take decisions emotionally rather than rationally. As stereotypes go, this assumption is not only baseless, but also the wrong way of looking at leadership in general. Any leader, male or female, must constantly be aware of and nurture growing talent in their teams, remain mindful of their customer’s needs and maintain a good relationship with suppliers. Whether or not women leaders tend to achieve this goal in a softer way than men is irrelevant, as long as the objective is accomplished.
Myth 2: With their leadership style, women have fewer chances of succeeding as leaders
Accepting that female leadership is different does not imply that it is less effective. Listening to different points of view, displaying empathy and being practical is often a desired but hard to find depiction of leadership, together with effective decision-making and direction setting. However, women have fewer chances of succeeding not because of their style, but because of the barriers they have to overcome, both socially and historically. Departing from the pit lane, professional women must frequently fight to overcome the gap created following the completion of academic studies until they are deemed relevant for leadership jobs.
Myth 3: Women focus on practical things and lack vision
Like perfectionists and multitasking virtuosos, pragmatic women are often victims of their own success. Indeed, whether their leadership approach is successful or not, they are often considered to be lacking in vision simply because they choose to captain their ship in a more concrete fashion than male colleagues. Alternatively, women leaders who prefer to formulate their ideas in a creative way are sometimes faulted for failing to provide solid direction for their teams. As the saying goes, women seem damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Much has been written on the subject of contrasting management styles, but it is worth reiterating that attempting a hierarchy of leadership traits is an enterprise as likely to succeed as Sisyphus and his boulder. A better use of such energy would be in recognising that expressing one’s vision in innovative ways neither diminishes its relevance nor reduces its reach.
More than an understanding of management techniques, succeeding in today’s uncertain professional landscape requires a sturdy grasp of leadership skills and the ways in which they can be developed. The absence of a blueprint makes such tasks both daunting and time-consuming, yet the first and most important step is in recognising that leadership skills are not cultivated in a vacuum. Through effective contact with other team members and an open mind, the emerging generations of adaptable, discerning and strategy-minded women leaders may soon surpass misinterpretation and witlessness to establish themselves as visionary trendsetters in their own right.
|Adriana holds a Master’s degree in Electric Engineering and an American EMBA . She worked for 7 years in R&D as Researcher before starting her career in HR management.
Adriana Paun has more than 18 years of experience in HR management positions, both at operational and corporate level, in different international companies and countries, in different industries: telecom, aviation, manufacturing and industrial services. For 5 years she was HR Director at Mobistar in Brussels, Belgium, a BEL 20 company. She held the Corporate HR Vice-president for International Mobility position at France Telecom in Paris. Adriana was in charge with Executive Recruitment at Schindler NV.
She followed several training programs on Leadership, Communication and Influencing across organizations and she is active in HR consulting, executive coaching and mentoring.
For the last 2 years, she has been an entrepreneur having started her HR consulting firm and is the Founder & CEO of the Top Executive Agency Brussels, an organization that supports international executives in career transition. Elected in the Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Belgium for 3 years in a row by Trends Magazine. She is fluent in English, French and Romanian, with basic knowledge of Dutch.
Back to PWI Magazine - Spring 2011