For the last 9 years, I have been leading a one-day professional development program for women senior associates at a major professional services firm. Up until recently, the program -- entitled Managing Career-Life Choices -- was available only to women, but this year we opened three of the ten sessions to men. And while this was a small sampling, we saw some surprising outcomes. The men really did do things differently.
In the first co-ed session, the first man to walk into the room came up to the front center table and put down his belongings before walking over and shaking my hand and introducing himself. This quite startled me because in the over 100 sessions I had led previously, each with 20-40 participants, I had never had any woman do the same thing. It’s not to say the women weren’t friendly or that if I went up and introduced myself that they didn’t greet me in kind. It was just that women rarely chose to sit at the front center table and never thought to approach me directly in the first few minutes of arrival. When I asked him why he had done this, he seemed surprised that I asked. As he said, I was right there in front of him so of course he wanted to introduce himself.
What if women acted like that?
Take the Airtime
The next surprise came in the second co-ed session when I introduced a standard exercise that I use as an icebreaker. In this exercise, there are three roles – the interviewer, the interviewee and the amplifier. When I outline the directions, I make it clear that everyone will gather in groups of three and decide which role they will play first. Each person will play each role in turn. First, the interviewer will ‘interview’ the interviewee by asking them “what is your superpower” and then the amplifier will ‘amplify’ the interviewee’s answer.
This is a modification of an improv exercise so it requires that the amplifier improvise their answer – basically they make it up – building out a story about the interviewee that talks about why having this superpower is so amazing. After the amplifier has ad-libbed for a minute or two, everyone rotates roles and they keep going until everyone has a chance to play each role.
I have led this exercise in groups of 6 and groups of 600, mostly at women’s conferences, women’s trainings and women’s events. And as there is no one answer to the question “what is your superpower” every round is different. And while some people might get confused by the directions at first, this was the only time this exercise went awry in quite the way it did.
Usually, in an all-women audience I have found that one of three things happens: women aren’t comfortable sharing their superpower so they downplay or even fib about what that superpower is so they don’t appear to be bragging; they are reluctant to be the amplifier because they don’t know the person they are ‘interviewing’ and they might make a mistake or run out of things to say; or they really get into the exercise and have a lot of fun. Even in the last case, the whole exercise takes about 5-7 minutes and then everyone chats in their threesome while they wait for the others in the room to finish.
In this case, as I was observing the group, I noticed something odd. One of the male participants did not stop talking. It was obvious that he was in the role of the amplifier and he was going on and on and on. The women in his group were getting very uncomfortable, particularly the interviewee, but he just kept talking until finally I went over and let him know that he should give someone else a turn. He seemed surprised, because he hadn’t realized that he was talking too long and said he thought I’d let people know when to rotate.
Now this could have been an honest mistake, but when thousands of women have done this exercise, they have never made that same error. What I’ve observed is that women never choose to abuse the airtime – in fact they avoid taking up too much time and often cut the exercise short when they get uncomfortable. What if women felt that we deserved to speak for as long as we wanted? What if we let go of our reticence and spoke up?
Now I can hear you thinking – but that guy talked too much. He got it wrong. I don’t want to emulate him. Well, yes. But, he would never have made that mistake if he hadn’t believed that he deserved the airtime. I believe there is a lesson there. And, I also wondered afterwards, why didn’t the other women in his group stop him? They knew he was talking too long yet neither of them called his attention to this, nor requested him to stop. Why didn’t they feel they had the right (even the obligation) to do that?
Create the Network or Host the Briefing
In my final co-ed session, there were two men who made a big impression on those in the room. As part of a morning exercise, I ask each participant to share one thing that they are celebrating – something that has gone well for them in the last few weeks or months. Based on research that celebrating our successes increases our happiness, I always enjoy hearing from a few participants about what they are celebrating.
Usually, the celebrations are about promotions, certifications, new babies, engagements, new clients, accolades received or getting healthier. But when the two men shared what they were celebrating, their experiences were quite different. One said that he had successfully launched a network for people in his practice area that was focused on an emerging technology topic and the first event had gone very well. He welcomed the other participants to join the network if they were in his area or interested in this topic.
The second shared that he had recently hosted a breakfast briefing session bringing together partners from his firm with CEOs from client and potential client companies. The topic for the event was what to do financially amid economic and political uncertainty. He reported that they’d had a great turn-out and that the partners in his group were very pleased with the outcome.
I was honestly very surprised to hear about these success stories, particularly because I had never once heard a woman ever talk about organizing anything similar. Neither of their efforts was part of their job description and there was no expectation for either of them to take those actions. Yet, in both cases, it was obvious that by stepping out of their expected role, they were building their profile, connections, and learning.
I asked them both how this had come about and both replied they had just decided it was a good idea and implemented it. Perhaps there was more to it, perhaps not. I kiddingly asked them whether they had received some special ‘male-only’ handbook that suggested these actions and one grinned and agreed that there was such a thing but he couldn’t tell me anything more about it.
Read the Secret Handbook
Now I know there isn’t a special handbook or secret handshake that men are taught and women are not. But I still came away wondering – how do men know to walk right up and shake the speaker’s hand, introduce themselves, sit in the front of the room, take up their share of the airtime and organize strategic networking events? And how come (most) women haven’t caught on to these strategies and done the same?
Why are women often doing the opposite – sitting quietly, downplaying their strengths, staying out of the spotlight, letting the men take (too much) airtime, hoping to get noticed for their hard work rather than expanding their opportunities to be noticed? (And on the flip side, I have to wonder what did the men learn from being in the room that day about women’s success strategies? What are they not doing that women are doing well to succeed in their roles and organizations? But I will leave that for another post.)
Either way, I’ve now modified my training moving forward and will be sharing these stories widely. Women need to know what the men have figured out. In most big companies, we are still operating in a man’s world and the very best way to win in that world is to learn their methods and act accordingly. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when we wish it weren’t like that. Even when it’s not our natural style.
Please let me know what surprising secrets, methods and counter intuitive behaviors you’ve learned to adopt in your organization so we can all succeed together.
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I started my first company when I was 26 and in my eclectic career I have worked for start-ups, Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, politics and had several companies of my own. After an early career in technology, I founded and ran the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs helping women start and grow [...]