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How women can break through: Act like women, not men

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

It's easy to see why women leaders have to behave differently than their male counterparts in order to be effective. The characteristics of traditional leadership fit male, not female, stereotypes. The stereotyped concepts of "woman" and of "leader" are quite different. Behaviours expected of leaders are viewed as "role-discrepant" when exhibited by women and are perceived more negatively than the same behaviours when exhibited by men. In other words, women who demonstrate male-stereotype leadership characteristics hazard being labelled "bitch".

Women must demonstrate leadership in a way that bridges the expectations we have of them as women and the expectations we have of leaders. Generally, women build that bridge by demonstrating a democratic and inter-personally oriented leadership style.

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But what are the specifics of that bridge? What are the behaviours that cause a woman to be seen as a democratic and inter-personally oriented leader? How can a woman demonstrate the behaviours associated with effective male leaders without being seen as a "bitch"?

I have interviewed women in the C-suite and worked with countless others to identify a specific set of characteristics and behaviours that define a successful executive woman, describe what she did to get where she is, allowed her to be a more democratic and inter-personally oriented leader, and indeed let her break through the brick wall of "bitch" to be seen as an effective and likeable leader.

What surprised me about my findings? I discovered an unmistakable theme. The truth is that executive women temper their leadership behaviours with some stereotypical female traits and behaviours! The women included in the research varied in their level of expression of femininity and their sexual orientation; they varied in personality type; yet the behavioural theme was the same. These women are being women: assertive, yes; driving, yes; in control, yes; but they have filed smooth the hard edges associated with stereotypical male leadership.

But 20-plus years of consulting with organizations on their culture, and the leadership characteristics that will drive their culture, has taught me that one size does not fit all. The Women's Leadership Blueprint is generic. The profile is a composite based on executive women from different organizations, from different industries, and in different jobs. So these behaviours may not tell the whole story for every setting or circumstance. Different cultures require different leaders. But the Women's Leadership Blueprint certainly reveals how women have adapted leadership behaviours and successfully advanced to the executive level of their organizations, regardless of industry, company, or functional area. This is how women are breaking through "bitch."

Women's Leadership Blueprint

There are nine key competencies that successful women leaders embody. Following is a brief description of each competency and how it allows successful women to break through "bitch."

Achievement Drive

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Successful executive women are driven to do more or better than their peers and higher-ups expect. They set high standards for themselves, striving to accomplish unusual challenges. They seek out opportunities to achieve more than has ever been done. They do this in such a way that they are not seen as competitive and hard on their teams.

Conceptual Thinking

Executive women can see relationships and connections among seemingly unrelated pieces of information. They draw parallels and translate complex information into basic terms, "telling the story." They offer their insights so others understand, in a way that they aren't blown away or intimidated.

Confidence

Successful female leaders have a strong belief in their ability, taking on challenges with enthusiasm. They take smart risks, "stepping up to the plate" in tough situations. They exercise their authority, by sharing power with others, rather than stridently and independently enforcing their position of command.

Cultural and Political Savvy

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Successful executive women see the cues and nuances of culture and group dynamics, adapting to work most effectively within the system rather than posturing to advance their own political power and status.

Inspiring Commitment

Successful female leaders create a company atmosphere of excitement, engendering a sense of belonging and loyalty. They get groups of people to buy in to the company or a team project, being solicitous of others' opinions and building relationships with and among others.

Persuasion

Successful executive women find ways to connect to the core values and passion of the person or company they are working to influence. Using empathy, women are able to sway people in positions of power in a way that doesn't threaten their power. They position themselves as a collaborator in accomplishing something together that they both want.

Self-Development Savvy

Successful executive women ensure that they get the appropriate developmental experiences and exposure in order to advance. They are pro-active about managing their progression, taking positions that are stepping-stones to their career goals, avoiding those that could be "dead ends," and finding mentors and sponsors. Successful women take ownership of their career growth, rather than being bitter about a system that impedes them or at least doesn't help them.

Strategic Control

Successful women leaders steer critical initiatives by delegating to and empowering others, while maintaining control. They focus others on understanding and achieving exactly what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it. In this way, executive women are in charge but are perceived as being collaborative.

Tempering Assertiveness

Successful executive women take the edge off their assertiveness through humour, empathy, establishing common ground, and building rapport. By doing this, they put others at ease, creating a sense of relatability and approachability.

The behaviours in the Women's Leadership Blueprint work in unison to achieve the desired result of breaking through "bitch." The strident ambition of achievement drive, confidence, and strategic control blend with the engaging egalitarian-ness of tempering assertiveness and inspiring commitment. The intimidating brilliance of conceptual thinking blends with the ability to connect and adapt, essential to persuasion, cultural and political savvy, and self-development savvy.

The Women's Leadership Blueprint is consistent with what one would expect among all successful executives – that is, striving to achieve the best, showing confidence, effectively influencing others, leveraging cognitive ability, and having awareness of – and compensation for – organizational politics. Executives that I have interviewed demonstrate most of these competencies at some level, but women demonstrated them differently than men. And that difference makes all the difference.

Adapted from BREAKING THROUGH BITCH: How Women Can Shatter Stereotypes and Lead Fearlessly (Career Press, 2015), by Carol V Mitchell, cofounder of Talent Strategy Partners.

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