Credit: Victor1558 on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–I still remember the instant I recognized that, as a woman, I was bringing a different perspective to the workplace, and that what I brought was valuable, insightful and made a difference. It was the mid-1970s and I was a second line manager in IBM’s Federal Systems Division.

To put the situation in perspective, so you will understand why this was such an epiphany and such a risk for me, I have to describe the times. In those days, female managers were a rarity. There were two or three women in senior manager positions in my division– mostly in the technical areas–and none to whom I reported.

My only role models up to that point in my career had been men. I had been one of only two women in my master’s degree program at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. It was me and one other woman among a class of 30, and all my professors were men. My first job out of graduate school was with ATandT Long Lines, where I was one of the first two women ever to be hired in the management training program.

When I moved to IBM, all the successful managers I met and worked with were men. I did not know any way to lead but the way I observed these successful managers–all of whom were men–leading. As a result, I adopted men’s leadership styles, learned how they made decisions and followed suit and accepted their values in business as my values. The few books written for women entering the business world warned us to avoid managing like a woman.

An Epiphany

It was a Tuesday morning. I was scheduled to discuss a personnel situation with my director. As I did on my morning jogs, I prepared for my important meetings that day. I played out the meeting with my director in my mind, from entering the office, through the discussion and to the end, evaluating my arguments and key points from a business point of view.

I knew what would be considered the “right” decision–the employee should be fired. Yet, as I played it out in my mind, I wanted to argue to save the employee, to strongly advocate that firing him was not in the best interest of the company. “Don’t be silly,” I said to myself. “That’s just a woman’s point of view.”

I can recall the epiphany as if it were yesterday. “But,” I thought to myself, “I am a woman!” And I believed my woman’s analysis was, in fact, the best strategy for the company as well as for the employee. At that moment, I consciously began to recognize and value the different perspective I brought to the business.

I took the risk. I built the business case in my mind for not terminating the employee, took a deep breath before going into the meeting and argued my case. To my total amazement–and delight–my director agreed.

A Good Decision

Happily, my recommendation turned out to be a good decision. We saved the employee and he contributed to IBM for many years to come. After that, I became aware that in many ways, I managed people differently from my male colleagues. In addition to looking at the numbers, I added personnel and organizational considerations to my business decisions. I realized my success as a manager was in great part due to the added context I brought to decision making. My teams had always been highly committed to achieving our goals, and I realized this was one of the reasons–before finalizing major decisions–I had already considered the impact of the decision on my teams and usually had consulted them.

Most interesting, I noticed my director began to make me his informal sounding board on decisions affecting our business unit, asking about what impact I thought the decisions would have and how the decisions would be received by employees as well as the internal customers we served.

I also realized that the way to gain acceptance for recommendations that were different from what management would usually decide was to present the recommendations in business terms. In this case, I had included the corporate investment in training the individual, the value he had brought to the company over the years and the projected value of his future contributions to the company. I made certain to acknowledge the potential risks and included what we would do to minimize the impact of the risks.

After that, as I traveled around the company, I made a point of meeting and getting to know female managers. I observed them in meetings and followed their careers. I noticed that the highest-level women were hungry to discuss their leadership styles and how they were dealing with the challenges of being female leaders in a predominantly male environment–both to exchange information and to gain affirmation for their styles.

So began my journey of studying how women lead, how women overcome their challenges and what women have to do to assume their place in the top echelons of business leadership.

Sharon Hadary is principal of Sharon Hadary and Co. and founder and former executive director of the Center for Women’s Business Research. She teaches, writes and speaks nationally on the subject of women’s leadership. Laura Henderson is president of Henderson Associates and founder and former president and CEO of Prospect Associates. She teaches leadership in the University of Maryland Doctorate Program.

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