Many years ago, I was handling a critical project for a very high profile customer of the organisation I worked for. This one customer was contributing to more than 10% of the revenue of the company. In addition, their margins were also significantly higher than other customers. Interestingly, customers are smart enough to know how critical they are for us.
One Monday morning an emergency review meeting was called. The trigger was the meeting between the customer’s CEO and our own CEO.
I was the only female Program Manager on the team. My peers were all fairly experienced and technically clever people. The meeting was intended to brainstorm on the issues raised and find immediate term as well as long term solutions. I suggested that we bring in Project Managers as well for the brainstorming, given that their perspective would be different and closer to the ground.
As the meeting started, I noticed that most of the people were suggesting changes which were more like big bang approaches, while I was of the opinion that we should first identify and initiate changes which are small in effort and high on impact. And it remained that, an opinion. I could not present it like a recommendation, even though eventually that was what we did, because every customer would give a ‘thumbs-up’ to that approach.
Nobody, except project managers from my own team seemed to listen to me.
Thereafter, I remained silent and decided to discuss it offline with my boss.
After the meeting, one of the project managers on my team came up to me and said –“Ma’am, you were conspicuous by your silence today”. At that time, in my less evolved avatar, I did not give it much thought, while it was a significant observation.
Now when I look back with my evolved perspective and through mentoring many women, I realise that, this is what we tend to do as women. We tend to go silent. There is ample research and evidence which reveals that the majority of ambitious and successful women tend to fail to assert themselves in high level meetings. Women at these important and crucial meetings, feel that they are less effective as compared to other business situations.
Meetings of this nature are often great platforms and give opportunities to demonstrate ones skills and capabilities. And till the time we continue with such behavior we will continue to lose opportunities – chances that could directly convert to bigger successes, like the kinds that are needed to be on Executive Leadership Teams.
Here are some of the points you can consciously train yourself on:
- PRE-MEETING networking – Before the meeting, liaise with key participants, including the men and get an idea of their views. Discuss and understand the REAL AGENDA of the meeting. This is often not very clear from the meeting agenda.
- Make it an engaging conversation – Prepare to articulate your points suitably so that you will get support. And make it more like a conversation, rather than a formal presentation.
- Stop being defensive – When you function from the mind-space that your colleagues are gunning at you, you tend to be defensive. Words like “Maybe we should….”, “In my opinion…” could be replaced with “My recommendation, based on ….”, “Looking at the facts, I suggest we …..”, “Based on the precedence (a,b,c..) we must…”
- STOP thinking that you are a minority – you are a valuable PROFESSIONAL as much.
- Stop towing the line with stereotypical mindsets of men and sometimes women colleagues. This only re-enforces the stereotypes. Rather than looking at them as male colleagues, look at them as just professionals, who come with their own set of knowledge, skills and BEHAVIOURS.
- Practice tonality – Practice the right tonality. Women have voices which are naturally high pitched and so the inappropriate tonality either amplifies to sounds like you are shouting or perceived as lack of confidence. These create communication barriers, which you cannot afford.
- Prepare – Make sure you have evidences handy for the recommendations you put on the table. With evidences, you will further gain credibility and the reactions from the others will not dampen your confidence at all.
- Network – This is the one big differentiator that the men colleagues have. And NETWORKING is the one factor that can transform your style of operation and garner support for your success. Take moments before and after the meeting to network. Don’t be in a hurry to dash off to your desk or get to your next appointment. After the meeting, stay around and get a sense of the tacit direction others are leading to. This will help you have a plan for how to generate more support to your ideas or how to manage the counter arguments.
Lady, you are a professional as much. Just believe in yourself and you will win.
There is no either / or between being competitive and collaborative. You have to be both and decide which in each situation.”
– Cathie Black, Former Chairman and President, Hearst Magazines