Break Your Own Rules: Proceed Until Apprehended

Excerpt from "BREAK YOUR OWN RULES: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women’s Paths to Power," by Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath and Mary Davis Holt (Jossey-Bass, September 13, 2011).

By Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, and Mary Davis Holt

There are plenty of instances in life when proper protocol entails obeying the rules. However, there are many othertimes when you need to give yourself the green light to proceed.

Being bold and resolute takes practice. The best way to add assertiveness to your repertoire is by looking for opportunities to flex your muscles. Here are some hints to help you proceed until apprehended:

  • Act like you mean it. It’s not just what you say but how you say it that causes people to take your authority seriously. Speak honestly and directly with a minimum of “in my opinion” qualifiers. Keep your voice on an even keel. One of our clients, someone who’s worked hard at being assertive, is a pro at owning her ideas. If she’s first to propose a plan, and then one of her colleagues takes the credit, she’s quick to say: “That’s a great idea. By the way, I just said that.” She says it without an edge of emotion. Her colleagues have a laugh, and she gets credit for her idea.
  • Break a few rules. Doing everything by the book is required to perform CPR or to make a perfect soufflé. In business, however, you have some latitude to do things differently. Change-makers and radical thinkers, after all, aren’t generally the pushovers in the crowd. So do things your own way once in a while and show people you are your own person. Watch, you’ll gain the admiration of your colleagues.
  • Be the dissenter. Being assertive means you need to learn to be comfortable delivering bad news or an opposing position. It’s acceptable to be the dissenter or play devil’s advocate as long as you have the ammunition to make a good case. If you can do so in a firm, non-emotional way, people will respect you for it.
  • Don’t over-do it. Assertiveness and aggression are two altogether different things. Being assertive means you effectively stand up for yourself, your beliefs, and your interests. But being labeled overly aggressive, especially as a woman, will have the opposite effect—you’ll lose credibility, and colleagues will stop listening.

Make Things Happen

Research on what it takes to be a senior leader points to a number of key competencies. One of the competencies that we emphasize in our coaching is the ability to create a vision for change. In fact, when we conduct 360-degree interviews, we always ask this question: “How would you rate this person on being able to lead change and make things happen?”

The answers we get are very revealing.

  • “She needs to lead something that is her own; a big account that she runs and controls.  She is usually in a supporting role. She needs to get her own thing.”
  • “She needs to be more assertive. For example, in a senior leadership role. There are  hard-nosed decisions to be made and arm-twisting to do. I fully believe she can do this, but I haven’t seen it so far.”
  • “If change were easy, we could all just snap our fingers. It’s not. It is messy, complex, and tiring to make change happen.”
  • “She needs to inspire her team to a new tomorrow.”

Many very accomplished women who have made it to mid-career status are not good at managing change. In fact, we recently coached and trained a group of 21 high-potential women for 18 months. The lowest score each of them received on their 360-degree feedback was the ability to drive change and make things happen. One of our most difficult assignments for this group was to create a vision for change and to make a presentation about that vision to the rest of the group.

After we gave that assignment, you would have thought we had asked each woman to sacrifice her first-born!

We worked individually with women during our coaching sessions to help each one figure out a vision for change in her marketplace or office. The idea was to articulate her vision in a way that would inspire others. Rehearsals included one-on-one sessions with a speech coach and practice sessions with a video camera to help hone presentation skills. After the final group training session, each presented her vision in front of the rest of the group, plus some other leaders from the firm. It was a great day. Every one of the 21 women presented a passionate, compelling vision for change and convinced the audience of her commitment to lead it.

The “visions for change” exercise exceeded our expectations. As a result of their visions, several of these women were recognized by the CEO and were asked to take on larger roles in the firm.

Most of us are not naturally visionary leaders who can easily drive change. But as the women in our coaching session learned, these are skills, like any other, that you can hone. If you want to be viewed as senior leader material, you need to demonstrate you can inspire others and make change happen. So step out of your comfort zone and rise to the challenge.

Excerpt from BREAK YOUR OWN RULES: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women’s Paths to Power,by Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath and Mary Davis Holt (Jossey-Bass, September 13, 2011).

Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath, and Mary Davis Holt are nationally recognized experts on women’s leadership and co-authors of Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women’s Paths to Power. Each has commanded senior-level positions in Fortune 100 companies, and each has experienced the hurdles that still face executive women today. Now, as principals of Flynn Heath Holt Leadership(FHHL), they partner with Fortune 500 companies to customize and implement research-driven development programs that put women into top positions. Their expertise spans the critical areas that drive individual and organizational performance in every sector and at many levels—executive coaching, leadership development, training design, and organizational change. FHHL’sclients span industries and include financial services, energy, manufacturing, professional services, nonprofits, and government. Join the conversation at FlynnHeathHolt.comand on Twitter @FlynnHeathHolt.

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