Real Leaders

How to Lead When You Have No Power

Last week I was sitting in conference room with three women managers of one of the largest technology companies in the world. They were very frustrated. Two of them have been with the company for over a decade. All had engineering degrees and one had topped off her education with a MBA. But none had any real power. It’s not surprising.

Technology companies have become notorious wastelands for female careers.

Technology companies have become notorious wastelands for female careers.While educators are busy trying to lure more girls into science and engineering, research confirms that tech careers have a nasty history of disappointing most women. Researcher Tracey Lien recently reported that a Harvard Business Review study confirms that 50% of women who work in science, engineering and technology will leave their jobs because of hostile work environments.

Most of the time the hostility is not overt. Rather, sexism is so baked into the structure and culture that it’s difficult to address head on. The women that I am training in leadership report that they are frequently not invited to important meetings, passed over for project leadership, or are just plain ignored when they surface concerns about execution or ideas for innovation.

And of course one of their most frequent frustrations occurs in meetings when they propose a course of action that is ignored, while moments later a male makes the same suggestion and it is acknowledged and adopted. It’s hard to feel invisible and also feel self-respect.

It’s hard to feel invisible and also feel self-respect

What’s the result? Google’s engineering workforce is only 17% female. Apple’s is 20%. And Facebook’s is only 15%. This is a much bigger problem than the political correctness of gender equality. Research from the emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman clearly confirms that women think differently than men and that they’re thinking is proven to be more accurate as complexity increases. In other words, when the path forward is uncertain or the situation ambiguous or when the reaction to a decision is critical, a woman’s brain is much more likely to make a smart decision that a man’s brain.

This is not hard to understand. Throughout history men have generally been the makers of messes and women the cleanup crew. It’s not surprising that an avalanche of research shows that our workplaces minimize the positive impact of women…but what can be done about it? How can women managers actually get senior management to ask women to lead new initiatives that matter? New research from University of Michigan gives us a proven set of success behaviors.

I warn you these won’t work all the time. There are no magic answers. But this will increase your influence and odds of success. Let me start with what not to do. The most hilariously awful finding by the researchers who study business decision-making is a doozy. The very worst and least effective argument you can make to senior executives is one based on morality. You know…we ought to do the right thing because not doing the right thing is causing people to suffer.

The very worst and least effective argument you can make to senior executives is one based on morality.

For instance, arguments that companies who use foreign contractors to manufacture their goods ought to ensure that their impoverished supply-chain workers work in safe and fair conditions because allowing powerless young girls to work in rat infested, firetrap factories violates the Golden Rule of basic morality fell flat.

It was only when sweatshop working conditions began to affect the company’s brand that action was taken. Likewise, according to consultants I know Wal-Mart’s leaders had absolutely zero interest in environmental sustainability until shown they could save millions by doing it. Show me the money.

Hard power leaders have separated business from morality for centuries.

I am sure this doesn’t surprise you. Hard power leaders have separated business from morality for centuries. Maybe since men could talk. I just found it quite startling to see in black-and-white research that the least valued reason to do something in business is a moral one. Hard power celebrates the seductively attractive psychology of greed is good.

And hard power rules business as well as the world. So please don’t sell your idea by saying it’s the “right thing to do.” As for what works… Make your pitch strategically relevant. I am working with a client right now whose CEO is obsessed with improving their dismal customer service scores. The only action that is getting any traction has to directly improve customer delight.

Transform your request for a budget from an expense to an investment.

Make a business case. Most senior leaders are only interested in activities that will make money or save money. Growth or profits. Transform your request for a budget from an expense to an investment. And be bold when estimating the payoff. Men tend to inflate positive outcomes while women send to understate. Frame yourself as the perfect leader to lead the initiative.

You do this by making an evidence-based case on your expertise, experience and commitment. (If your track record is short, focus on your understanding of the solution you are presenting.) One more thing…never let your work speak for itself because it doesn’t. Balance both threats and opportunities as motives. People are moved to act when fear of loss is balanced with the feeling of confidence from the problem solver. So take a deep breath, quiet your self-doubts, stand up and present your action plan.

People are moved to act when fear of loss is balanced with the feeling of confidence from the problem solver.

Create allies. If you are a lone women presenting to a group of male decision makers you need a strong male sponsor who will be your champion. Be sure to directly ask him for his verbal support in the meeting as well as consistent support afterwards. Strong sponsorship is often the make or break factor in getting your project approved with you as the leader.

Strong sponsorship is often the make or break factor in getting your project approved with you as the leader.

Don’t be discouraged by initial failure. Show some grit. We are in a period of major transition in which women’s leadership is ascending. I believe this because I see it. More women in senior leadership is becoming a competitive advantage not because it is the right thing to do but because it is a smart thing to do.

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