Female Leadership - how to make it happily to the top!

Be Yourself in your work environment


In our series of posts, we explore 4 factors to combine professional success and happiness:

1) Learn to be at one with yourself in your work environment

2) Create environments where honesty and risk-taking prevail

3) Maintain a healthy mind in a healthy body

4) Create a new ecosystem to support your work/life balance

Today’s post focusses on the importance of being yourself in the work environment.

 Throughout my career, I have experienced many pressures to “fit in and blend in” to male dominated environments.

After a brief entrepreneurial venture running my own theater company, I took a job at the age of 20, in international finance and was assigned to the international transport and aircraft leasing division. Whilst the managing partner was a man, the 35 people team was surprisingly diverse. I guess Canada has always been progressive. My direct boss was an extremely conservative and driven lady. She was excellent at her job. Whilst she wore really ugly three piece suits that my grandmother would have refused to wear, I admired her a lot. She was a great coach, always going the extra mile to teach me the inner workings of a deal. She gave me a lot of autonomy and guidance.

My first 6-month review was very strange. My female boss spent the first 30 minutes congratulating me on the quality of my work and giving me hugely insightful feedback. She then spent 30 minutes telling me that I had to radically change how I dressed and behaved at work if I wanted to progress in my career. My skirts were too short, my jewelry too flashy, my turtlenecks too tight. I made too much noise when I walked. My voice projected too much and my laughter was simply inappropriate. I also challenged my top bosses too much in team meetings and asked too many questions and showed little respect for hierarchy.

I was completely shocked and, for once, speechless.

There is no doubt that I have a really loud walk (people still comment on it: It’s a fast yet heavy masculine military-like walk). There is no doubt my voice projects (blame the first venture in theatre J) and my laugh is quite uniquely loud. As for my outfits, I have always loved bold colours and striking looks.

I could lie and say I reacted with maturity and dignity. I didn’t: I walked out and went home…The next morning I walked in to work with a very short leather skirt and a T-shirt I got custom-made overnight that said: “I am too sexy for my boss”. I wore a sweater over the t-shirt but at the pub after work, I proudly showed my t-shirt to all my work friends. My boss lost a lot of credibility and I was transferred to another part of the team. It was destructive for both of us. I genuinely believe she wanted to help. But her feedback fundamentally said “Don’t be yourself at work, if you want to be promoted”.

My next boss in finance, a woman again, was a revelation. She was a mother of 4, back from maternity leave, often with a shirt covered in bit of baby vomit from the morning breakfast, super smart, kind and soft spoken.  She was different from me in every way.

She thought my loud laughter was infectious and positive and my 1000 questions an hour healthy. She put me forward for a special program which promoted emerging leaders in the bank and gave me a 6-month assignment to radically change how the bank operated. She knew that my differentiation was an asset to create change. I thrived under her watch and eventually moved to project financing where I discovered my passion for innovation which led me to my career in start-ups and tech. She had found a fit for my exuberant nature and my desire to challenge everything. She also taught me to adapt my style as needed in more conservative environments. I accepted her feedback with ease because she was not trying to change my nature, my core but rather just to adapt the veneer.

Being true to yourself in the work environment is essential. If you are not genuine or if you mask who you are, your teams will sense it immediately and you will lose their trust. We often feel slightly alien as female leaders (or at least quite unique due to our low numbers).  We often make the mistake to mask our personalities to fit in more. But we shouldn’t as we then become fake. My philosophy is simple: Since I stand out anyhow as a woman in the board room, I might as well stand out fully and be myself.

Let’s be happy and successful!