Women and power: Are you owning yours?

Numerous studies have shown that companies with women in top leadership positions outperform their competitors when it comes to stock price, as well as median return on assets and equity.

Why, then, are so few women succeeding to senior leadership roles at a pace on par with their male counterparts? After a recent discussion I had with Sharon Melnick, an author, executive coach and women’s leadership expert, I came to the conclusion that the answer might lie in power — how women claim it, use it or surrender it.

Having served as a corporate executive, I’m well aware of the value of positional power — the authority and autonomy that one might enjoy based on their job title or role. But the kind of power at the heart of my discussion with Melnick was power born of presence, in which you know who you are, ask for what you want from your authentic self, and are listened to, heard and respected by your colleagues.

As a mid-level manager early in my career, I struggled with the notion of my own leadership power until an event at work brought me face to face with a choice: to cede my power or to own it.

At this point in my career, I was responsible for the company’s relationship with universities around the world. We had a strong commitment to recruiting recent college graduates, who made up the largest percentage of the company’s new hires annually. Since having a positive presence with university students was an important part of our strategy, I was delighted when approached by a publication that was distributed to students on campuses across the country.

They requested an interview our company CEO, which was an excellent opportunity. So, I worked to gather relevant data and develop a binder of information to prepare the CEO for a successful interview.

Shortly before I sent the materials to the C-suite, I was promoted to a new position at another location. Nature abhors a vacuum, as I learned in my early years of studying science, so one of my male colleagues, more senior than I, stepped in. He requested that my former assistant give him the binder and cover document that I’d written to the CEO. He promptly removed my name from it and inserted his own.

When I discovered his actions, I confronted him and retrieved the materials, despite knowing that he would likely report the incident to a vice president with whom he shared a close personal friendship.

My instincts were correct, and I sat through a difficult conversation with the VP in which I was chastised for my reaction to being plagiarized. Nevertheless, I stood my ground and inquired about why he wasn’t more concerned about someone on his staff taking credit for another person’s work. Unfortunately, a satisfactory answer was never forthcoming.

According to Melnick, I avoided one of three common mistakes that women make with respect to power:

Leaking power

When some women experience their capabilities and talents being downplayed by others, especially male colleagues, they expend emotional and mental capital reacting to how they were treated, wasting time and energy focused on the other person. Engaging in “empty calorie thoughts” prevents us from maximizing what we can control and utilizing our power effectively.

Giving power away

This was the mistake I avoided by wresting control of my own work product from my colleague. Often, Melnick notes, women spend too much time worrying about how others will perceive them. They will, at times, have something valuable to say that goes unsaid for fear of what others will think about them or in pursuit of perfection. This can show up in numerous ways, including giving ideas away to male colleagues who later take credit for them.

“We outsource our evaluation of ourselves to others,” said Melnick. “While other’s feedback matters, it’s better to see this as input. You get to decide how much of that feedback resonates as true for you.”

Squandering power

We all have power that we can access, so women who focus only on positional power squander what they otherwise might leverage. Individuals at all organizational levels have the ability to influence outcomes and seed thinking.

One leader I know, for example, consistently queries her company receptionist about the job candidates she interviews. She’s interested in understanding how that candidate treated the receptionist upon arrival for the interview. If they were not respectful of the receptionist, the candidate never made it further in the hiring process. The company receptionist, in essence, had the power to make or break a career.

What, I wondered, could men do to support the development of women, especially as it relates to understanding and managing their own power and having others respect it? Melnick suggests these actions:

  • When you have a woman on your team, ask them about their ideas. Help to nurture female colleagues and be proactive about it.
  • Show real presence when a woman is speaking. Be sure you are actively listening. Spend less time judging how the message was delivered and more time on the quality of the input itself.
  • Support women’s contributions in the presence of other men. Be especially vigilant about giving credit to her ideas when other men are repeating those ideas.
  • Be objective about what women are contributing. If you know that she’s doing the lion’s share of work on a project, be intentional about acknowledging and rewarding that effort.

Implementing these actions makes it safe to be authentic, not only for women but for everyone on your team, which increases engagement and productivity.

Yet, the impact of doing so for women may be even more significant, according to Melnick: “When a woman is in her power, she raises everyone around her.”

This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, February 2021.

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