How Women Leaders Can Balance The Catch-22 Of Decisiveness

When it comes to making solid, quick decisions, female executives often must walk the line between being considered a bitch or an ineffective leader. Here's a guide for when and how to render decisions and show teeth.

The following is an excerpt from Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, in which she contends how you present yourself on the surface and whether or not you have executive presence often matter more than merit when it comes to getting ahead. Hewlett argues that executive presence--being perceived as leadership material--is an essential component to success, for women and minority professionals in particular.

Lynn Utter, who is today chief operating officer of Knoll Inc., a global leader in furniture and textile manufacturing, recalls the moment in her career when she first showed teeth.

She’d just been named head of the container unit at Coors Brewing Company, replacing a thirty-year company veteran to become the company’s first female senior leader. Just a few months into the role, Utter sat in a meeting with half a dozen male board members who were debating whether to invest millions of dollars to fund a start-up as part of a joint venture. Having done her homework, she was utterly clear on how and why Coors should do the deal. Still, she listened to others, hoping for insights outside her own, until finally, fed up with the equivocation, she stood and addressed the room. “If we do not invest,” she said with calm, sturdy authority, “we are not living up to the fundamental philosophy of our partnership. If we do nothing, in fact, the entity is doomed. Either we step up, or we call it off.”

Under her leadership, the investment went forward. “I do not think they expected me to have that kind of backbone,” Utter says. “But I’d done my homework and knew the numbers cold. I knew what we needed to do and felt it was up to me to show strength and point the way forward.”

Making difficult decisions is what we look to leaders to do. It is not so much about rendering the right decision, but about rendering a decision at a time when no one else dares, that confers gravitas, because it telegraphs that you have the courage, as well as the confidence, to impose a direction and take responsibility for it. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer showed she had the chops when she announced that all employees, starting in June 2013, would need to be working out of Yahoo’s offices. For the survival of the company, whose share price was tanking, she was revoking telecommuting privileges. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” read the memo that employees received from HR head Jackie Reses. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.” The move sparked a firestorm: Some leaders (Jack Welch among them) applauded the move as an appropriate piece of discipline for the ailing firm; others (Richard Branson was one) condemned it as “a backwards step.” But Mayer had the courage to recognize that business as usual was not going to bootstrap Yahoo out of its death spiral. She made a bold, if unpopular, decision. She showed teeth. That display of confidence and courage boosted her gravitas and, consequently, her shareholders’ faith in her ability to turn the tide.

CTI research finds that 70% of leaders consider decisiveness to be a component of executive presence for both men and women, second only to confidence in a crisis, making it a core aspect of gravitas. Being able to make decisions isn’t so much the issue as needing to appear decisive in public--the difference, again, between doing the job of a leader and looking like one as you’re doing it, between demonstrating competence and exuding presence.

Given that showing teeth draws on so many stereotypically male attributes--aggression, assertiveness, toughness, dominance--it’s ostensibly easier for males to appear decisive. Testosterone makes them feel bolder, louder, and more assertive, they say; as a result, they’re more comfortable showing teeth and taking risks. “It’s important to project an aura of invincibility,” one trader confided to me. The way he sees it, he’s buying job security--no small thing in an industry that’s shed one hundred thousand jobs since 2008.

Women, however, definitely have a harder row to hoe--not in being decisive, it bears repeating, but in appearing to be. Women like Marissa Mayer who render decisions that demand action risk being perceived as “unfeminine”--aka unlikable--in the eyes of their peers and subordinates.

It’s the classic double bind: If you’re tough, you’re a bitch and no one wants to work for you, but if you’re not tough, you’re not perceived as leadership material and you won’t be given anyone to work for you. It’s a high-wire act that every capable woman has had to perform, and the higher she goes, the more perilous the act.

Male or female, the way to walk the line between decisive and difficult may be, as Lynn Utter demonstrates, to dish it out very discriminately--to hide your teeth more often than you bare them. Real leaders don’t issue edicts just to look and sound like they’re in charge. Real leaders listen, gather critical information, weigh the options carefully, look for a timely opening (typically when everyone else is writhing in indecision), and then demand action.

“Oftentimes it is just as important to know when being decisive is not the thing to do--to let events play out in a certain way and bide your time,” cautions Bob Dudley. “I see a lot of people trying to be too decisive too quickly.”

When the moment demands a decision that you’re prepared to render, step forth and render it. Just choose those moments with care.

Reprinted with permission from Executive Presence by Sylvia Hewlett. Copyright 2014. HarperBusiness, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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