5 Min ReadCareer 03 June 2020
Let's take a page or two from Serena Williams' playbook, shall we? As the only female c-suite executive in a male-dominated industry, I am often asked by other women, in rather hushed tones, "How do I deal with the double standard?!" Invariably the phrase "I feel damned if I do, damned if I don't…" had a starring role in their inquiries.
I call it the double bind because so often a woman is damned if you do and damned if you don't.
There's no denying how what's happening in the world of business, politics and even in sports highlight the continuing double standard that exists around what behavior is acceptable for and/or required of a woman versus that of a man. In responding to the women who come to me, it's helpful to draw parallels to what was happening in society to anchor in the learning. So let's reflect on an incident that happened just last year at the US Open Women's Tennis Championship.
You remember. The one in which Serena Williams was penalized several points for arguing with the (male) chair umpire and was eventually penalized points that cost her a game. Serena argued that men have said far worse things than she did without being penalized as much.
Many debated: if Serena were a man standing on the court would there have even been an issue? How pervasive is the double standard in sports, business, and everyday interactions, especially when it comes to how men and women communicate during unpleasant confrontations?
Very pervasive still, unfortunately. It only takes watching a professional football game on Sunday to see it. The male athlete who's in the ref's face over what he perceives to be a bad call while society proudly hollers along with him, commending him for having “passion!"
But when a woman takes a stand like that, somehow she's viewed as having “poor sportsmanship" or considered to behave badly "for a woman."
I call it the double bind because so often a woman is damned if you do and damned if you don't. Passionately argue your point? You're labeled as too aggressive or the proverbial bitch. Sink back quietly and say nothing? You're considered weak.
And unfortunately such double standards extend beyond the sports court; they still exist in the boardroom too. I would know. Over the course of my career and as an international C-suite executive and only woman in an all-male team, I've witnessed more than my fair share of this double standard. So have the women I coach.
Two clients are in the thick of this muck right now. Perhaps you can relate? One's been told she's “too much"; the other, that she creates an unwelcoming environment with her assertive style. Like Serena, they've both choked back tears as they describe behavior on a much worse scale by men in their organizations who seemingly can get away with murder.
While we can argue about how such double standards aren't right or fair 'til the cows come home, let's instead focus on the lessons we can take from Serena for how to handle such situations –– because they can and will come up. Knowing how to successfully communicate during heated confrontation can make or break your career.
Lesson 1: Serena Had A Conviction And She Spoke Up.
Oftentimes women in such situations don't speak up and won't defend themselves because they either don't know what to say or they're overly concerned about what other people will think. When you don't speak up, people will continue being highly argumentative with you, putting you down, making passive aggressive digs, etc., because with your silence comes your permission for them to treat you that way.
It takes courage to use your voice in powerful ways, especially when the stakes are high and something completely out of the blue catches you off guard. The best way to speak up in such moments is to learn how to have a fierce conversation well in advance. The resource I recommend to all my clients is the book called just that: Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott. The section on handling strong emotions on both sides of the table is gold!
Lesson 2: Serena Regained Her composure And Her Graciousness Quickly.
Heated debate and disagreements are going to happen. How you handle them in the moment matters, but what you do after the moment oftentimes matters more because that's what people remember. It's about knowing how to say the tough stuff (lesson 1) without remaining in a funk for days on end after, because if you stay angry and bitter folks will run the other way in avoidance.
And avoidance is the corporate plague that'll kill off any chance of respect, influence, promotion or success you've dreamed about.
So how do you regain your composure and grace quickly?
First, breathe! It's an age-old solution because it works!
Second, don't take things personally. Someone else's behavior is usually all about them, not you. To regain your composure and grace it really helps to look at things as removed from the core of who you are. This isn't about being in denial or pretending that something wrong didn't happen. It's about disassociating the other person's venomous actions or words from your self-worth.
Lesson 3. Serena's Not Going To Let That One Situation Keep Her Down.
The level of resilience needed to be a professional, driven woman in business today is significant and requires that you:
Are confident in who you are, having an inner strength that allows you to dig deep and stay centered when the world is swirling around you.
Know that business is a marathon, not a sprint—so be mindful of your own pace.
Don't try doing it all alone.
That last bullet point is especially important. Having a mentor who can help you navigate these choppy waters is essential.
And I'm not talking about your mama, your boo or your best friend at work! We love them but they are not in a position to give you objective advice. Your mom just wants to console you, your boo is likely concerned with protecting you, and your girlfriend is there to commiserate with you. None of that is actually going to help propel you forward in what you need to do to confidently handle the double bind at work.
It's vital you have someone objective in your corner, ideally, someone who is at least two pay grades above you, who has been around the block and can really guide you on how to finesse these situations when they come up.
Know that success in handling confrontation at work and in life is like a muscle: it needs time and practice to get stronger. Do not beat yourself up if your words come out a little jumbled at first. With practice and leveraging the tips I've shared here, you will grow in your ability to advocate for yourself and others. And when you do, others take note. You gain more standing and respect. And your own inner-confidence grows and shines a light for others to follow.
This piece was originally published May 15, 2019.
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3 Min Read
"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.
Find A Need And Fill It
I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.
Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.
Have Working Capital And Credit
There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.
I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.
Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.
My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.
Know Your Product Thoroughly
I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?
My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.
My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!
More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.
Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth
I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.
I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.
Delegate From The Bottom Up
I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.
In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.