I wrote an article on ‘Handling direct challenges to authority’, aimed at women executives. A few men also liked and shared it on social media.Good for them I thought. One of them though told me how much he liked it. I was intrigued. Who was he ?
Turns out it was someone who is a senior ex-CIA veteran (more than 20 years) and handles a high risk portfolio in the corporate world (Chief Security officer of Microsoft :worldwide). I was simply blown away.
Mike is one of the leaders who is passionate about the cause of women and leadership. Given his vast experiences in handling all sorts of challenges to authority, I am very excited that he accepted an invitation to blog for the WOW factor (see below). His blog is reflective of his deep insights into creating a workplace that is equitable for all. Please do read and share the article, and leave a comment on how the story resonated with you. You can follow Mike on @MikeHowardmsgs
All of us, at one time or another, has probably had to face “Challenges from Across Boundaries,” meaning challenges to your authority or position based on things like age, gender, color, nationality or functionality. Though these challenges are always unpleasant to varying degrees, they can be learning experiences that make you a better person. By learning from other’s mistakes or negative points of view you can grow both personally and professionally. Let me share a story that illustrates this.
Many years ago, I was working for the CIA (U.S. Government) in a particular unit that over the years had traditionally been staffed by men. These men, like me, had backgrounds in military and/or law enforcement, and so the unit had a very macho kind of culture. There had been only a few women to ever do the kind of work this unit performed and even then, these women had similar backgrounds of the men.
She doesn’t belong here !
Things changed one day when a woman arrived on the scene, assigned to our unit, with no previous military or law enforcement experience. However, she did bring specialized skills that added tremendous value to the work we were trying to do.
My role had also changed, as I was no longer an active member of that unit but had been promoted to a senior level role that managed both that unit and another. I approved this woman’s role in my former unit, having worked with her in the past overseas and knowing well she was top notch in her operational skills and acumen.
Initially, however, she came under criticism from certain members of the unit, both men and women, with the usual set of biases; “she is not qualified to do the work” or ‘this weakens the unit” etc. It wasn’t from all quarters, but as in any work ecosystem, there will always be a few who are reluctant to change, especially where boundary issues are concerned.
This very capable woman did what she was supposed to do – meaning, THE JOB! With quiet and determined confidence, she proved over and over that when it came to the proverbial heavy lifting, she did just as well as anyone else in the unit, male or female, and in some instances, did much better due to her specialized training and experience that she brought from other disciplines, which most of the other unit members did not have. To our benefit she was also able to impart some of this specialized knowledge to various unit members, making them better employees in the process!
Part of it was also the support I, and her manager gave her. We gave a lot of credence to the troops regarding her background and training. If the unit members did not get her expertise they would be limited in how far they could go in the organization (at a macro level).
Part of it was also that she was comfortable in her own skin. She had done things that many of the other folks had not. Her ability to withstand the challenge was rooted in the knowledge that she and her work experiences were valuable and no one was going to let her believe otherwise ! It was very interesting to see the transformation of those in the unit who initially resisted this woman’s coming to becoming total teammates with her, in the span of a year!
Mental models and work
I know this one illustration is not only common to traditional “macho” professions, but also happens in many different disciplines and enterprises. I think this a very common mistake made by both men and women in the areas of “snap to judgment” and “misperceptions.” Too often, when a group is socialized to work together and think alike with the same values, background etc., it is too easy to label someone without that degree of social integration as “different,” “not qualified” or whatever labels people put on one another.
One mistake that you can also make, if you are being ostracized or shunned, is to go with the proverbial “eye-for-an-eye” response. Meaning hitting back as hard as you were hit, with a negative attitude and the desire to “get even.” This usually only brings added elements of stress to an already stressful situation. However, in the case that I illustrated, the woman being ostracized did just the opposite. With quiet determination and skill, she made sure everyone in the unit knew she was a team player, but would not let them walk all over her. She stood her ground displaying grace and dignity, with confidence in her abilities. Traits we can all embrace and admire.
Right here, right now: Things you can do
Finally, there are three things that women can do to strengthen their position when dealing with gender based challenges:
1. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Use the example I gave. Be strong, but don’t treat people poorly, even though they are doing the same to you. Getting even only means that the ones who are exhibiting the bad behavior win – you lose!
2. Don’t let naysayers erode your confidence in your skills, abilities and talents. You know who you are, what you have accomplished, and what you are made of. If you are qualified to do something, don’t let people make you believe you are not. As they say in the Nike ads “Just Do It!”
3. Help others recognize your value: Determine what skills and talents you have that can make others in your org, even naysayers, better employees and colleagues. Again in the example I cited, this woman rose above the situation. She parlayed her unique skills, and freely gave of herself to improve the operational acumen of these people. It is kind of a paradox but being selfless and giving yourself, in the face of opposition is a winning strategy. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this concept and used it effectively in the civil rights struggle
In the final analysis, it was not so much of a question of if ‘she’ had what it took to do the job but did the ‘team’ have what it takes to look beyond stereotypes and work together effectively.
Fortunately, both sides did indeed rise to the challenge.
Chief Security Officer, Microsoft Corporation