On my first day as a CEO, I had a surreal moment. I was in a meeting, convened to discuss ideas for a new product launch. I was the new CEO, but I was not new to the company; until one day prior, I had been the CFO. I had earned my promotions, all the way to the C-suite, by learning to have bold opinions, and to state my ideas loudly. If I didn’t advocate for my ideas, chances were no one would ask my thoughts or listen to them.
Usually a louder voice would talk over me. But this day was different. A product manager kicked off the meeting by laying out the pros and cons of different approaches to market our new offering. After a few minutes, I jumped in, in my usual style. “We should do this, this, and this,” I declared with confidence. I was used to others jumping in immediately and challenging my idea, usually iterating it to something different or better. But today, the room was quiet. I looked across my desk to the manager, who was writing vigorously in a notebook.
“What are you doing?” I asked with confusion.
“Writing down what you said,” she responded.
“Because you said to do it.”
Whoa. My brain nearly exploded. These people, literally the same people who one day earlier had been very comfortable challenging and disagreeing with me, were listening to me and treating me very differently now I was the CEO. If this seems like a dream come true, think again; it was terrifying. Few, if any, of my ideas are action ready when they emerge from my brain. I rely on others to take the seeds of an idea and help me work it into clarity. I definitely didn’t want people running off doing every single thing I said to do! I realized that I needed to radically change my approach.
So when I read stories about Bill Gates and his uninvited approaches over the years at Microsoft, I was shocked by the willingness of some to absolve him of responsibility because he had always given the women an out. The workplace he created was clearly uncomfortable, but workers were automatically burdened with correcting the situation.
According to a story in The New York Times, “some of the employees said that while they disapproved of Mr. Gates’s behavior, they did not perceive it to be predatory. They said he did not pressure the women to submit to his advances for the sake of their careers, and he seemed to feel that he was giving the women the space to refuse his advances.” And in 2006, Gates wrote the following in an email when asking a female coworker on a date: “If this makes you uncomfortable, pretend it never happened.”
It does not make it okay to ask someone to do something they might be uncomfortable about, just because you told them it was okay to be uncomfortable. As a CEO, I’m always mindful of the power dynamic with my employees. I might be very approachable to me, but the sheer intimidation factor of the job title and the power it holds can throw people off. It’s quite possible that they will not only be uncomfortable about my request, but they will be afraid to say no. Even if I told them it was okay to do so. Now when I’m having a discussion with my team, I hold back; I wait until others have had a chance to share their ideas before I share. I know that some people—no matter how often I tell them that I welcome their disagreement—won’t be comfortable challenging the CEO. So I don’t put them in the position where they have to; I let them speak first.
In order to run more inclusive meetings, it’s important to do the basics like allowing everyone room to speak and set an agenda in advance. But from there, also pay attention to signs that someone wants to speak. Women notoriously have a hard time getting a word in edgewise in business discussions. As reported by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, nearly 70% of women have been interrupted or spoken over in meetings. Make sure to notice the subtle signs that someone is trying to get into the conversation. And from there, use your authority to moderate the conversation. When the individual in charge has something to say, people turn and listen at the slightest signal. Instead of taking those opportunities to speak, use your power as a CEO to break into the conversation on someone else’s behalf, prompting, “did you have something you wanted to add?”
In a different sharing context, I openly invite and encourage my colleagues to connect with me on all social media. As a senior leader, it’s a great way to share a more authentic and personal view of who you are, and to learn about others. But here’s the catch: I never make the first move. Be aware of the power dynamic. Are you really offering them a choice? If I request to follow an employee on Instagram, I’m making a personal request to spend time with them in that forum. They may or may not be comfortable with that. It’s not enough for me to say that they can feel free to reject my request if they are uncomfortable. Because I know that some may be uncomfortable connecting with me but will find it difficult to say so. In reality, no matter how I couch it, the request may feel like a demand.
Here are some tips on how to be a more accessible leader.
- Normalize work and home conflicts. Work and home life intrude upon each other, especially this year, and especially for working mothers. Be open about your own home obligations and don’t hide the times you choose to prioritize family over work; it will make others more comfortable with their own choices.
- Don’t ask people to stay late. It’s very stressful to be asked to stay beyond your planned working hours when you don’t have childcare coverage and have to scramble. Yet many people are not comfortable saying no when their boss asks them to adapt to a new plan. Avoid last minute schedule extensions, and think about the impact they have on everything else going on in the lives of your employees.
- Listen and follow their lead. Show that you care about who people are and be genuinely interested in what they are willing to share. Do so by listening and engaging, rather than by probing. Let your employees set the boundaries.
CEOs have power, and they know it. They can inspire, and make decisions, and give orders. But they can also do great harm. With that power comes an obligation to be extra careful about what you ask for and how you ask it, considering the possible impact on the well-being and safety of your employees. If you think they might be made uncomfortable by a request of a more personal nature, don’t just tell them it’s okay to say no. Don’t ask.
Kate Eberle Walker is the author of The Good Boss: Nine Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work, and CEO of PresenceLearning, which provides teletherapy services for special education programs in K–12 schools.