Quit Girlie Nice

Monday, September 1, 2008 - 09:47

Women are natural-born leaders, argues author and executive coach Lois P. Frankel - if only they realised it. By Georgina Jerums

Author and executive coach Lois P. Frankel shoots from the hip when talking to businesswomen. You want the promotion? The corner office? The board seat? For your project ideas to be taken seriously, instead of ignored and later picked up when expressed by a male colleague? Then honey, quit being girlie nice, she says. Right away.

She means it.

Frankel, the 56-year-old Pasedena-based President of Corporate Coaching International and consultant to Fortune 500 companies, has spent well on two decades delivering wake-up calls to businesswomen around the globe. With a doctorate in counselling psychology from the University of Southern California, she's all too familiar with workplace behaviour sabotage, and has a golden rule for women: actively manage your career or get used to being overlooked for promotion.

It was Frankel's 2004 bestseller translated into 25 languages that got tongues wagging. Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office argues that women the world over are often passed over for senior positions because they act too damn nice (working hard but not smart) instead of behaving like assertive women. Girls are nice to have around the office, kind of like pets, Frankel once famously quipped. A comedy series based on the book is due to be aired on ABC Television in the US next year.

Her 2005 offering, Nice Girls Don't Get Rich, sparked water-cooler debate about why some women buy into childhood stereotypes and think it's unfeminine to want to get rich, thereby saving instead of investing, and using money as an emotional crutch.

And Frankel's recent release, See Jane Lead: 99 Ways for Women to Take Charge at Work, suggests that women possess innate skills that make them born to lead considering that the workplace of 2008 is crying out to be "muscled less and influenced more". In other words, controlling leadership styles need to be replaced with qualities like teamwork and collaboration as organisational charts flatten.

Sipping coffee in the club lounge at Sydney's Sofitel high above the rumble of city traffic, Frankel exudes a dynamic presence in her silk power jacket, despite having just stepped off the red-eye from Los Angeles. "I'm always on the go, like the Energiser bunny," she jokes, but emphasises she doesn't expend all her energy on work, often leaving her office at 5pm and finding time to dabble in photography, reading ("this morning I bought Maxine McKew's biography") and travel.

And here's the clincher. Frankel is exceptionally nice. Really. Yet also dead smart. That's the balance to aim for, she reckons: stay feminine but work hard to be taken seriously. During the interview, Frankel practises what she preaches to women, waiting three seconds before answering a question, expressing points succinctly and on no occasion does she make statements sound like questions or lean her head to one side when talking.

Yet despite many TV and conference appearances, Frankel admits she's classified as an extreme introvert.

And she definitely doesn't act like a man in business. "If you're a woman, you can't be aggressive; it doesn't work," Frankel shrugs. "I'm not saying that's right, but in most cultures people can't relate to it. That was one of the mistakes of Hillary Clinton; she was too aggressive. The Democratic race was hers to lose, and she lost it. Going on the attack doesn't work for women. Bill could do that, Barack could do that, but for a woman to attack other candidates, we don't like that." Ironic then, adds Frankel, that when an exhausted Hillary's voiced cracked while talking with voters, she won the New Hampshire Primary.

Women do have a secret management weapon to become better managers, bosses and CEOs, though. Society is crying out for leadership skills that come naturally to women, points out Frankel in See Jane Lead. They just need to find the self-confidence.

"Men lead companies, countries and communities, and the results - war, global warming, corporate greed - indicate things are going wrong," she says.

"Yet all the research shows that companies with women in senior positions outperform other companies. Women bring out the best in people, they collaborate, it doesn't have to be all about them.

"Command and control leadership is dead, because we have a younger generation of workers who want to be listened to, and they're not just going to listen to you because you're the boss. Women don't come from that command and control place. When the outgoing eBay CEO Meg Whitman was asked how she felt as one of the most powerful women in business, she replied, ‘I don't feel powerful, I'm just trying to do my job'. For women, it's not about power."

Yet how do you get more women into the top leadership gigs? Representation is still way behind.

Frankel nods: "There's only about seven female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, only 10-12 per cent of boards in the US have women on them, and women make up only about 15-20 per cent representation in governments around the world. Women have broken through the glass ceiling, but there's still a glass tree house they can't penetrate."

So, to close the gap and make it to the top in business, women need to play to win. "You have to be in it to win it," says Frankel. "Don't fool around. Write down your goals and have a strategy to achieve those goals. I always say every woman needs a ‘board of directors' - friends, coaches, family members or people at work - who will give you honest feedback."

Frankel adds you must continually update your strategy about how you will think and act at work to bring those goals closer to reality, and if you face resistance at work, make sure your personal values are values shared by your employer. Or move on.

And if you want to make it to the very top, be realistic and acknowledge that a seamless work/life balance is difficult. "I mean, wake up!" Frankel says, eyebrows raised. "Do you think women like Westpac's Gail Kelly have a work/life balance?"