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Succeeding in the corporate world without being the typical white alpha male

Most of the corporate career funnels cater to the white alpha male. So, what if you are a woman or an introvert? What if you have a different (ethnic) background or sexual orientation? As an outlier of any kind it is challenging to naturally fit in with the leadership of the typical corporate environment. Standard career funnels are not designed to select outliers, so how to be successful despite the differences?

Sure, one thing you could do is to try to fit in and change yourself into a well-intended copy of the current leaders of your organization. But in the end, you will never be exactly like them and you pay a high price for constantly playing a role which does not come naturally. It’s exhausting. Do you really want to eliminate what makes you unique or can you, instead, use it to stand out?

“To be honest my whole career has been a mixture of fitting in and standing out. In many cases, I have compromised and tried to fit in”, Maureen Hughes tells me when I interview her about her career success. She is a Global Partner in Consumer Business at Deloitte, a worldwide consultancy firm. I was happy to interview her because she has become successful in a white alpha male dominated corporate culture.

“I am a partner too…”

Maureen: “At this point in my career, I am able to say what I want to say. As a young woman on my way up I couldn’t always do that. The pressure is on you when you are the only woman in 95% of all meetings. You stand out which can be a blessing and a curse. If you say something awkward, it WILL be remembered, so often I conformed to be someone I am not”.

She was chosen as the first female Consulting partner in consulting in the Netherlands at Ernst & Young. Despite this accomplishment, on a number of occasions she was clearly the anomaly. “Often I found myself in a position of not being seen as a partner because I was a woman. It was normal for people to assume my husband was the Deloitte Partner when we were together at events. I had to make it clear to people that I was actually the partner”.

One could think these challenges would make her bitter, but that’s not the case at all. She laughs when she shares an anecdote where she was getting a room ready in London and a consultant from the UK practice was helping her not knowing she was the Global Supply Chain Leader for Deloitte at that time. “At a certain moment in time he asked me if I had organized the coffee. I realized he actually thought I was somebody’s assistant. When the meeting started and he saw me leading it he wanted to crawl under the table”. Also she remembered giving a presentation at the American chamber of commerce where afterwards she was presented with a set of cufflinks with the American eagle on it. They apparently had no gifts for women speakers.

The delicate dance between fitting in and standing out

Her ability to know when to fit in and to know when to stand out clearly paid off as seen in her success. She rose in status and augmented her influence. She travels the world and leads international consultancy teams for multinational clients.

To make yourself heard, fitting in is definitely essential. It is known that when women speak two or three tones lower they are taken more seriously. Maureen adds: “During a Women to the Top session we voted for hypotheses. The statement ‘I have to behave more like a man to be successful’ was endorsed by all the women at manager level and up”.

Research from Stanford backs this chameleon-act but adds an important insight; women who are flexible in how they behave achieve more success in the managerial ranks. Being aware of when to fit in (use competencies typically associated with men) and when to stand out (use competencies typically associated with women) result in women receiving more promotions according to insights derived from comprehensive interviews, surveys, and observational data from 132 business school graduates over 8 years.

As with everything, it’s all about finding the right balance. It was during a meeting that Maureen realized that the ‘too much fitting in’ took its toll.

“I always felt I was fighting for the right to be there. I was fighting to survive and that takes an awful amount of energy”.

She realized that however hard she tried, she could never be one of the boys. All she could become is the poorest version of one of the boys. “So if that is the case, I might as well try less hard and be more myself and see where that leads me”. She started to express herself as who she was as opposed to what she thought the organization wanted her to be.

“Like chooses like”

Since then she is a passionate advocate for women, but essentially she has an eye for everyone who is an outlier. Because the more of an outlier you are, the harder it is to reach the next level because the leadership selection process is still fine-tuned to find the white alpha male. This is not something that organizations do intentionally - unconscious bias still remain.

In discussions on promoting more women into leadership roles, there are always those who bring up the fact that it should be about quality. In such cases Maureen replies “Oh, so women and quality are mutually exclusive? Thank you for educating me”. She uses humor a lot to get through those heavy situations.

I ask: ‘What makes you an advocate for outliers given your demanding job, is it your big heart?’ Maureen: “I don’t necessarily think I am a kind person. I do have an enormous sense of justice. This can’t be right”. She can’t wrap her head around the fact that opportunities are not equal for everyone. The workplace still suffers from many unconscious biases and it hurts her to see that women still have the feeling that they should change in order to fit in. She adds something I believe is very true.

“If you force everyone in some sort of a cookie cutter mold you lose a lot of channels where they could add value from their uniqueness and the way they think about the world.”

To enhance the diversity within her organization, she advocates that there is always a man and a woman in any selection committee.

Maureen: “It is human nature that ‘like chooses like’. You naturally select someone you have chemistry with, mini-me’s that click with you.” It is true that we don’t automatically look for people that are different from us.

Maureen admits this is only is the tip of the ice-berg. If a woman has bent herself out of shape like she did to become a nice mini-me version of an alpha male her added value still remains hidden from the organization.

How to find ease with the uneasiness?

First Maureen had to prove herself in a competitive environment. Later she became an advocate on topics that were not on top of everyone’s list. How did she deal with all the drawbacks? Pushing back against a strong resistance is draining. “I guess I am stubborn and I guess I am a fighter to start of with. But also I have a very solid and great support system in my husband. Those things help you to keep perspective. My husband was also very good in sensing when I was reaching my limit.” Maureen encourages everyone to take a sabbatical as she did seven years ago.

“When you are busy with a very busy career, you start to be like a hamster in a wheel, running faster and faster not taking the time to reflect on what is really important to you.”

When she went on sabbatical, she realized that 90% of what she was doing was giving her negative return on energy. She started to make a plan. She would focus on doing the things that gave her positive energy, but she realized it is unrealistic that everything in work lifts your spirits. When she returned, she would aim for an energy-balance of 50-50%. “I am really happy to say that it is much more 80% positive and 20% negative energy now.” Of course she is still challenged. Part of this process meant turning down higher status roles which can sometimes make you feel diminished on a personal level, but in the end she appreciates the freedom she has and enjoys the opportunities where she can add the most value. She feels fulfillment in doing those things as opposed to having the status of a title.

Maureen wishes for everyone who is an outlier to have a leader that really believes in them, who is supportive and really sees their added value. Different people add different value, have a different outlook or bring in a different perspective, therefore are extremely valuable for a sustainable business result. “I did endure the knocks for quite a few years without receiving encouraging feedback from my leadership, being told that I was doing the wrong things or too fast. But I have to say what really helped me personally is our current leader in Consulting. He has respect for me and he knows the way I like to work, which is basically ‘let me do my thing’.”

Three questions for outliers:

Maureen has an eye for everyone who is an outlier and who doesn’t fit the standard leadership characteristics. She coaches (female) executives and managers on their way to leadership. So if you are different from the current leaders in your organization and find yourself stuck, unable to afford to wait until your organization changes, consider these issues below. They may influence your advancement more than you think.

* Do you wait to be asked?

What Maureen sees is that many outliers, mostly women, wait to be asked – they need others to tell them that they are ready for the next step. Most of the men decide that they are ready themselves. Maybe you are more than ready for advancement if you are really honest with yourself?

* Are you in the right place?

If you are exhausted and overwhelmed, there might be a different place within the organization that gives you more positive energy. Where is there a nice overlap of things that give you positive energy while adding value to the organization? If you are in the right place, you can make a real difference. When there isn’t such a place within your organization you probably need to have a different conversation with yourself.

* What is really sabotaging your advancement?

Many people who are told to get coaching in executive presence arrive at her doorstep. “One of my coachees had been stuck at senior manager level for seven years. She was told to develop more executive presence. But she looked like the definition of super executive presence! We started talking and it turned out that she was continuously being asked for internal projects which she did really well.” If you want to be promoted, at least in the large consulting firms, you need business cases, clients and you have to have the numbers. This woman’s problem was that she was being too amenable and saying yes to people who were using her to reach their own goals rather than thinking about her future and what she needed to be successful. She didn’t realize she was working on the wrong things to get promoted. Be honest with yourself, what might be really sabotaging your advancement?

Finding value in the difference instead of finding comfort in conformity

The beauty in Maureen’s story lies in the possibility to be successful in the traditional corporate world and at the same time be yourself. It requires the ability to fit in, coping with struggles but more than that, it takes courage. I believe it is Maureen’s courage that gives her the opportunity to leave a legacy.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where everyone’s significance is based on their unique added value instead of their gender, outward appearance, ethnic background or personality traits? What if we could find the time to look one or sometimes multiple steps further and find what others have to offer if they allow their masks to slide and dare to be themselves?

I wish us all success in finding value in differences instead of finding comfort in conformity.



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