Bull in a China Shop


In my career, I’ve been in a leadership position of some sort for over ten years now. And my leadership journey has come a long way, but also evolves as I continue to grow as a woman. In my first leadership role, I was very results-driven – which matched the culture I was in. Advertising is a client service industry and at that time, the culture was do whatever you have to do to get the client what they want when they want it. This meant really long nights, working most weekends, staying connected during vacation – if you took any days off that is. And off is in quotations there because you were never truly off. Ever. That is what I felt was expected of me, and therefore that’s what I expected from my team. 

At the same time, I had a male counterpart that was the fun one. He was British and the life of any room he walked in – kind of like me when I wasn’t at work. He would come in late, spend about an hour walking around people’s desk joking around with them and he would get invited to all of the happy hours. He would get praised for doing such a great job – everyone loved him. But he annoyed me. He annoyed me because he didn’t actually do much work. He was great at getting others to do work for him, but here I was, busting my ass every day and it seemed like people dealt with me because they had to. But, there are multiple studies that have shown that women that lead with typically “masculine traits like assertiveness” are less liked and sometimes are seen as less competent. 

In my mind, as a young female leader, I had this underlying pressure to constantly prove my results through my work and my results. I pushed the team hard, but I would always say I never expected them to do anything I wouldn’t do. The problem with that? 

The lesson learned from that experience? Maybe what I was willing to do, was actually too much. Maybe my expectations of others was too high because my expectations of myself were as well. Maybe there was some benefit of being more like my male colleague. Showing more of my personable side. My human side. Because while I was a leader, I was also human no? Also, maybe what was happening was I was feeling the pressure to work harder to be assessed at the same level of competence as my male counterpart. I had to work differently, not harder. I was being labeled as the dreaded “bossy”, because I wasn’t leaning too heavy in the masculine behavior and not enough into my femininity. 

The idea of masculinity and femininity is still a difficult one for me to comprehend. One one side, I understand these are societal traits we’ve assigned to each gender and it’s been ingrained into our brains starting from day one. Boys get action figures with guns and we get dolls with cribs and diapers. Boys race their hot wheels and we get an easy-bake oven. We’re told when a boy makes fun of us and is mean to us on the playground he likes us, and we should be nice to him – or take the submissive role. 

But at the same time, while this is how we’ve grown up, as an adult woman, I have come to understand that all of us have “masculine and feminine traits”. If we consider masculine traits as assertiveness, strength and anger and feminine traits as softness, vulnerability and emotional intelligence – then every single one of us has all of these to some extent. The difference is how much each of us has developed these traits. 

Fast-forward to my next leadership role. I was leading a team, trying to balance a mix of being results oriented as well as compassionate and friendly. I was finding my stride. I was showing vulnerabilities, letting people get to know me better, but still setting clear  expectations that we were working off of and things were going well. But now I was getting feedback, from my female leaders above me, that I was not serious enough. That I was too friendly with the team sometimes and I needed to respect the hierarchy or they never would. I was treating them more as equals and that may give them the wrong idea. The thing was, after my last experience, I believed having a team mentality was the better way to go. Instead of hierarchy being the driving force, I looked at it as everyone on the team had a role, a valuable input they were bringing to the team. No matter our titles, we all were equally as important to making the team as a whole succeed. 

Because of this, I did develop closer relationships with my team than my previous leadership role. And they opened up to me more about the good, the bad and the ugly. It gave me more insight as to how the whole team was actually feeling and gave me the opportunity to be more proactive in my leadership than reactive because I could anticipate things coming like team members getting burnt out or considering leaving. 

Every week, we had a leadership meeting where we discussed different issues within the department. The question came up on why we were seeing increased turnover of a certain level on the team. Because of my relationships with the team, I was excited to discuss because I could provide valuable insight as to the core issue we were facing in hopes we could then work together, as leaders, to come up with solutions. After a round of comments from my colleagues that were completely off base and out of touch, I gave my analysis. Crickets. No one said anything. Then the head of our department just said, no, I think you’re wrong and the meeting ended. 

A week later, my boss brought me to her boss to give me feedback that my analysis wasn’t appreciated in that meeting. That meeting wasn’t the right forum for that conversation they said. I was so confused. Weren’t we in a forum of our leadership colleagues? Weren’t we asked for our thoughts on the cause of the turnover? Also  – why were two levels below the person that was upset by my comment the ones talking to me on her behalf? That seems a bit ridiculous. 

In that moment I realized that if I wanted to continue my leadership journey of being a mix of results and compassion, this wasn’t the place for me. So I moved on. 

My next role helped me become the leader I am today. I was able to build strong relationships with my team, have fun with them, get to know them but also drive results for the team and my company. It was a great mixture. And I started to build relationships not just with those that reported into me, but my colleagues and those across different departments. For the first time, I had people from other departments seek out my advice and ask for my mentorship. I was so proud that I had finally felt like I reached a point in my leadership career that I was allowed to be authentically me. 

But then the pandemic hit. Teams were stressed, clients were struggling, my company was stressed. My relationship with my team enabled me to help them emotionally, however it also brought so much more stress to me in the process. Having close relationships with those around you, and hearing them go through such tough times is hard. I felt honored they were willing to open up to me and to be their most authentic selves, but I also was struggling with my own stuff during that time and it was hard to shoulder their burdens as well. 

But to me that is what leadership is. You have to find strength to be able to shoulder the burdens of your team and help find solutions. So I started to take the insight I was gaining through these close relationships and bring them to those above me so we could make decisions. I had faith this place was different from my last role. The insights would be heard and we had a relationship that we could work together to help our teams, those we care deeply about. 

However, what I didn’t take into account was that the pandemic, and the stressors that came along with it, didn’t just impact me, my colleagues and our teams – it also impacted the heads of the company. While I’ll never know the true extent of the impact, they also shouldered a lot of the burden and were struggling with how to adjust, how to make things better. My insights and emotional perspective of the team was maybe too much on top of what they were dealing with and they rejected my pleas for change. While this sounds negative, I’m happy this happened. For the first time in my leadership journey, I felt like I had found my leadership style. I could be results-oriented, but also approachable, emotional and vulnerable. 

I started a new role in February and brought all the lessons I had learned over the years on balancing my masculine and feminine energy. On being results-oriented, yet compassionate. On showing my vulnerability but also my capabilities in my role. I was starting to build relationships with those I work with the most. We were building trust, rapport and I was starting to feel like I was finding my footing. 

Then I started receiving feedback from some of my team members that my leadership style was very different than my male predecessor. I was more results-driven, logical and less emotional. Sometimes i was like “Bull in a China shop” as I worked to move things quickly and brought a lot of energy to meetings and people didn’t always know how to receive me. 

My first thought when I heard this is – are we here again? Did I just travel back in time and I’m once again the results-driven leader being compared to my male counterpart that was everyone’s friend? I was frustrated. I felt like I had come such a long way from that time. I had grown so much – how did I end up here? I felt a little defeated. I was so tired of being compared to men and because I was coming in, making changes, getting shit done – I was too much. Isn’t that what I was hired to do? Why does it feel like I’m being penalized for it? 

That’s the other thing that’s not talked about enough as a female leader – we are so hard on ourselves! And we have triggers that have developed from our past roles. And here I was, staring at one of my own triggers in the mirror. Once I realized that, I took a step back and considered what was truly being communicated. 

The people giving me this feedback felt comfortable enough to talk to me about it. Our relationship was in a place where we could be vulnerable in a conversation and I was only a little over a month in. So first of all, give myself a little credit. I had started to build relationships here so that wasn’t the problem. Then I realized that the people he was referring to hadn’t had as much access to me. I had limited interaction with them to date – a weekly meeting and other meetings here or there. And this was my first job where I started in the virtual world. So while in the past, even if I wasn’t in a lot of meetings with the team, I would see them in the kitchen, the hallway etc and could strike up a conversation and get to know them on a more personal level.

But in the virtual world, that wasn’t the case. I realized that it wasn’t my leadership style that was in question, it was the circumstances that had changed. I had to think differently as to how to show both of my sides – results and vulnerability – without the luxury of in-person run ins. So in my next meeting with them, I did just that. I opened up. I acknowledged the differences in styles, shared a little bit of my past and showed them the real me. The me they would have seen if we were in the same building. Not just the logical, businesses minded me, the human me. The authentic me. And from what I hear so far, I think that move was the right step forward to expand my relationships in the department. And it was a reminder that I have evolved, and I am the leader I want to be – but I need to remember that as we move up the ladder, not everyone has the same access to us and therefore our methods of building relationships needs to adapt accordingly if we are to show up as the authentic, badass women leaders we are. 

And when it comes to the workplace, studies have shown how gendered expectations regarding assertiveness influence performance appraisals. Managers (male or female) are significantly more likely to critique female employees for coming on too strong whereas the same traits are perceived positively in men. 75% of performance reviews for women include the feedback to “watch their tone”, whereas men rarely get this feedback. Women receive 2.5 times the amount of feedback men do about aggressive communication styles, with phrases such as “your speaking style is off putting”. And women are described as “abrasive” far more than men. 

Hearing myself being compared to a “Bull in a China Shop” was tough at first because I had felt like I had worked so hard to not portray that image. However I also need to remember that I had created a space in which that feedback could be given freely. That is a skill that I had to develop and I need to also give myself credit for that. But the thing about leadership, whether you are a man or a woman – is it never stops challenging you. Just when you think you have it figured out, you are reminded that there is always more to learn. There will always be new situations to adapt to. And the truth is – your leadership style is only as effective as how others perceive it. Instead of focusing on how you want to come across, focus on how others need you to show up. What do they need at that moment? And how can I meet that need? This requires emotional intelligence and humility every day -which is why I think women truly do make the best leaders. But I may be a little biased. 

Until next time! 

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