“How do Men and Women Behave?”

I’ve been noticing increased gender comparisons in the media lately. Being privileged to work with smart and ambitious men and women, I’m more and more conscious of behavioural differences between the sexes. Whether these differences originate in the brain or culture or socialisation, as women want to advance their careers to the top level, they need to pay attention to research.

When men get together, they almost always talk about their success and achievements – even jokes are to establish dominance. All-women groups in contrast share stories of blunders, gaffes or confusions to reassure each other and establish intimacy. It seems men need to command respect and women build rapport. It becomes highly apparent when in meetings men are far more likely to interrupt – and interrupt women – to gain status.

Even the pace of decision making is distinct. Men arrive at an individual decision quickly to demonstrate independence and authority whereas women tend to confer and consider an array of outcomes first. If managers are not aware, decisions taken by men are valued more because they are first to arrive at the decision even if it may not carry the support of the team.

It’s a mistake however for a woman to adopt a masculine approach. She is likely to meet with opposition and criticism for being ‘unfeminine’. Deborah Tannen, Professor of Georgetown University points this out in her book “You just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation”. So what to do as a woman if you want to gain leadership status in a male oriented environment?

In my view, there are four strategies that help develop women’s gravitas and leadership: –

  1. Women need to recognise their strengths, expertise and contribution and need to promote recognition for what they achieve.
  2. They need to be more aware of their “why?” – their purpose and vision for their lives. They need to be self aware, to know their limitations and work within them; to claim what is genuinely theirs and refuse to accept how others define them.
  3.  To be able to manage stress, acquire a calm presence and self assured assertiveness under pressure. This will become very powerful in commanding a room.
  4. Build rapport with people who matter and learn to influence them.

Woman have no need to jeopardise their femininity, just learn to be confident in it and themselves to gain advancement and leadership position.

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“Saying “NO” More Often: The Push-Back That Defines You”

I remember working with an ambitious senior woman a few years ago. She was hugely frustrated. She’d recently applied for the top job in her company. And someone else far less qualified got promoted over her head.

She was at her wit’s end. She didn’t know what she’d done – or not done – that prevented the Board from appointing her.  She was hard working – indeed, she often took paperwork home and  worked into the night, evenings and weekends. She got results. She was successful in her role. She inspired her team with loyalty. So what was the problem? What could possibly prevent her from being leader?

File:Margaret Thatcher.png

I was never a fan of Margaret Thatcher(see above), one of the most successful of British leaders of the 20th century. She was a controversial politician who was able to polarise opinion, even at her funeral. So what I’m about to say is not out of admiration. Respect, yes, admiration, no.

To be a leader is to be respected. One of the key ways to winning respect is to be clear as to what you stand for – including being ready to say, “No”. Thatcher was famous for saying, “No!” In this clip she said it three times….

Margaret Thatcher’s body language and voice are authoritative, emphatic and direct. She is utterly in control and knows it. Even with the massed ranks of the Opposition in front of her, she looks confident and impressive. Worthy of respect.

Now what mistake could my senior woman client have been making? The clue is in what I told you about her earlier. She had so much to do, she was taking work home. Working this much meant she got overtired and became emotional and reactive. She was working all weekend. She was failing to delegate as much as she should. Constantly firefighting, she had no time to initiate ideas. Because she didn’t give herself time to think, she failed to anticipate – hence the firefighting and lack of delegation. It became a vicious cycle. Most importantly, she failed to win respect of her colleagues since she was too willing to do as she was asked.

Many senior women that I have worked with are great at winning rapport. They are charming, easy to get on with and well liked. They work hard and the quality of what they produce is first class. These qualities got them promoted to their current position. However they won’t get promoted beyond this role until they understand how to make a stand and take the hard decision to say “No” from time to time.

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“Be excellent to yourself, dude”

From “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (cult 1989 American science fiction comedy)


Anyone in the UK will know that over the course of the last 12 months, the Post Office has celebrated the magnificent achievement of the UK gold medal winners in the London Olympic Games by painting letterboxes gold in their area. This one sits on the corner of Hilltop Road and Divinity Road, here in Oxford. The more keen-eyed of you will see it’s dedicated to our local heroine, Lily van den Boecke MBE, paralympian gold medal winner and coxswain of the mixed coxed four.

You may remember in my blog post, “Keeping You Eye On The Prize” how impressed I was by the courage of athletes processing around the stadium at the Opening Ceremony. Their courage is in confronting their fear again and again of losing – because of injury, accident and of failure to make the grade. And yet they keep on, keeping on.

To be the best in the world, you need to be prepared to confront both your fear of failure and of success. Michael Jordan according to the National Basketball Association “the greatest basketball player of all time” said,

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Each time you are given a promotion, a new appointment or perform up a level, you discover that new set of skills, language and culture is required – and what is more, a new world picture. It can take a while to adapt to this new way of being. In these acclimatising days, your confidence is likely to be challenged. You are entering a zone of ‘cognitive dissonance’, where whatever you have understood up to this point may be useless or in conflict with what you are now learning. It’s likely to cause you  discomfort. You may well be working in a highly competitive environment – and who isn’t, during this economic period? I imagine you’ll find this dip in your confidence unwelcome and inhibiting. Each time you speak, you’re nervous and unsure. You ask yourself what others think of you. This can be particularly true if you’ve been appointed over the heads of former colleagues. To your surprise, you become self conscious and awkward. Your performance is impaired.

Many bright women in science and engineering I know and work with have what’s rapidly becoming known at “Imposter Syndrome”. As Wikipedia puts it: –

Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

In fact, it’s what makes them excellent at their jobs. That worm of doubt has sharpened their wits and compels them to redouble their efforts. They remember the vital detail, construct the convincing argument, dedicate themselves over weekends and travel extensively for work. They look immaculate, impressive and at the top of their game. And yet, and yet…… they are trapped in a vicious cycle – the more they’re pursued by The Furies, the more The Furies pursue them.

So how to turn these unrelenting dark shadows into kindly enlightened ones? How to “be excellent to yourself, dude”?

  • Be the leader of your own life – take a strategic approach to your career. Recognise your strengths and promote them. Spot what’s important and do more of that and don’t stress over unimportant trivia.
  • Have a clear vision for what you want out of life without being too concerned about how to get there. Keep your eye on the ‘what’, not the ‘how’ and the ‘how’ will emerge.
  • Say “no” more often to demanding colleagues/friends. It raises morale and increases self respect. Be clear about your boundaries.
  •  Recognise when to put pressure on yourself and when to ‘coast’.
  • Eat healthily – and avoid carbohydrate when you’re tired. Carbs encourage sleepiness.
  • Yes, you’ve heard this before – exercise!
  • Rest and sleep.
  • Cultivate gratitude.
  • Stay close to friends and mentors – the ones who think highly of you and nurture your wellbeing. 
  • Be bold about doing something unusual – it’s satisfying to discover new things.
  • Forgive yourself. Sometimes you fall short of your own high standards. Good grief, you are human!
  • Feeling guilty distracts and undermines your performance. Accepting responsibility is different. Accept responsibility and sort things out without guilt.
  • Find ways to relax. A simple exercise is for just 2 minutes, focus on your breathing. That’s all. 
  • Keep a list of all the ways you enjoy being excellent to yourself – and keep on doing them!

Instead of being pursued by the “Furies”, the inner voices of self recrimination and criticism, you transform them into the Eumenides “the Kindly Ones” who support and sustain you in victory or defeat. This is real excellence. This is the gold within you.

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“10 Ways To Get Leadership Gravitas”

Do you lack gravitas? Recently several senior women entirely independently have contacted me because they’d been told this by their superiors.

This information is hard to digest. Most people know it when they see it. And they miss it when it’s not there. But how many know how to acquire it? I’d bet if anyone of those superiors was asked to be specific, they would talk in vague terms about  inner command, authority and executive presence. They wouldn’t be able to pinpoint how to get it.

In my early twenties, I was appointed teacher in a large (2,300 pupils) comprehensive secondary school. Over the course of the following years I learnt that in order to survive, I had to impose my authority very quickly.  If I didn’t, I would be regarded as ‘soft’ and easily dominated. Being quite introverted, I felt I was distorting my personality to exert power in this way. Though yes, in the first few weeks of the autumn term, I insisted my pupils stood up when I came into the room. I didn’t smile. Instead I raised eyebrows and stared in silence if there was a hint of misbehaviour. Indeed, before I entered the classroom, I had to prepare myself by setting my intention to stay in control the class. After a few weeks when I had satisfied myself the class was compliant, I then could afford be more warm and pleasant and more naturally myself. It gave me room to manoeuvre.

In retrospect, what gave me the power over my class was both internal and external. Internally I had to choose to lead – or at the very least, pretend to. It was a conscious choice. My external behaviour was set by that internal choice.

A friend and I last Sunday had a treat watching that enjoyable film, “To Sir With Love”. Sidney Poitier plays a teacher who admirably commands extremely difficult young people with quiet gravitas. He doesn’t befriend them, he doesn’t pander to them. He expects and shows respect to each of them. He expects them to show that respect to each other. What he gets in return is love – and not only from his class. He gets it from the parents, friends and relations of his pupils.

How does he do it? How does one ‘get’ gravitas?

  1. Let go of trying to prove yourself.
  2. Recognise your values and strengths. Pay attention to your resourcefulness.
  3. Cultivate inner stillness.
  4. Stay focused.
  5. Allow pauses and silence. Wait before replying.
  6. Be aware of your opinion though keep it to yourself. Only state it when and where necessary.
  7. Ask questions rather than supply answers.
  8. Be succinct.
  9. Be relaxed about your mistakes.
  10. Keep your eye on the prize. Be strategic in your thinking.
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“The easy job search solution in 30 minutes!”

Dr Graham Wilson is an expert at supporting senior executives finding new jobs. He then acts as their confidant when they’ve been appointed to their new position. He was at one time the other side of the desk having been Group HR Director of Sodexo, responsible for 54,000 employees. He has earned an enviable reputation in Organisational Development, is a trained psychotherapist and member of the BACP and has chaired scientific conferences both here and abroad. Many of his current clients are ‘people of power’ in top positions of large organisations. He knows what he’s talking about.

How about you? After several years of hard work and creativity putting together a thesis to get a doctorate, you’ve decided you can’t stand working in academia any more. So here you are, highly qualified and with a fantastic track record of academic achievement. Then you get a shock. To work in the commercial field you discover with a sinking heart that you’re likely to be in competition with graduates who’ve already been in work several years. You’ll find yourself at a disadvantage unless a doctorate is required in the job spec.

At your level of achievement, Graham feels strongly that 90% of the best jobs that could be yours to enjoy are not likely to be advertised. Or if they are, they’re a formality. His long experience leads him to believe that having a chat with the decision maker is far and away more valuable than going through the standard interviewing process. I recommend his post on “Converting online applications to job interviews – the 30 minute solution” which illustrates beautifully the point he makes.


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“The Secret to delivering an Expert Conference Presentation”

When early career researchers present at conferences they’re in a very different environment to the one they’re used to. When they present internally to colleagues, they’re merely reporting on history – “We did this, we did that, we discovered this-and-that and our conclusion is such-and-such.” Their audience is already on board and hardened to the usual abysmal succession of slides that have too much text, exhaustive detail and minute images. “Experts often possess more data than judgement” says Colin Powell former US Joint Chiefs of Staff. He should know.

An academic conference has an expert audience with similar interests. However it’s a different animal. You must engage your audience. Yes, yes I know, an obvious point – though too many researchers neglect to do this. The tragic consequence is failure. Fail to make an impact and the head of a lab, clinician or investor is already deep in a laptop or has left the hall. Many original ideas fail to get taken up because of this failure to engage.

Looking like a leader when giving a presentation and people behave as though you are already a leader. They are likely to believe you, regard you as the expert and are more ready to be convinced by your argument.

One of the most powerful secrets to achieve the demeanour of a leader is to learn to relax. There are several reasons for this:

  • You reduce stress. Relaxation forms an insulating layer to protect you against the buffeting of stressful events and people.
  • You access your unconscious mind and consequently your imagination and creativity. You uncover creative solutions and imaginative left field ideas. You are able to contemplate acceptable risks and take them.
  • You implant ideas and thoughts directly into your mind to programme your thinking. You’re the master of your attitude and reactions.
  • It cuts down on fire fighting. You stop reacting automatically.You slow down. You have a split second to choose what to say and what to do. Plenty of time. Instead you become solution focused.
  • You appear calm, confident and steady – necessary characteristics of an authority in the field.

Fear impairs your performance. However talented you are, anxiety dominates and masks what you do. You resort to familiar patterns. You lose the strategic overview and dwell on detail. You stammer, speed up or hesitate, lose impetus. You get overwhelmed by the unexpected. Others get distracted by it, get tense themselves and mistake your best efforts. Anxiety communicates itself. Your audience, your team, colleagues and especially those you want to impress get irritated. Then they become critical and resist to your message. You have failed.

The secret to good communication is to relax. Easier said than done. Not for nothing is there an excellent book by Andy Lopata “….And Death Came Third!”  The title is inspired by the New York Times survey on Social Anxiety in 1984 – death came third on the list of people’s most dreaded fears AFTER walking into a roomful of strangers and public speaking!

Being tense means your fear stands in the way of your message. Being relaxed means you’ve stepped aside so the message gets through. It helps you think more clearly, move in a more fluid manner and sound much calmer. You speak more slowly so your delivery is timed better. You pause. People (who after all will take their lead from you) see you relax and consequently, so do they and listen. They absorb your message. They respond more warmly. Looking like a leader means you have a far greater chance of winning them over and getting the message to land.

The success of your presentation will be judged not by the knowledge you send but by what the listener receives.
Lily Walters

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“What are your limits?”

I remember reading a piece of research in the 1980s. It was a study into CEOs of the top FTSE 100 companies and what they had in common. What were their secrets? What made them successful? What was the magic ingredient that accelerated them and their companies ahead of the competition? If we knew that, the researchers thought, we’d help HR win the advantage by knowing who to appoint into that position.

They went into exhaustive detail – was it that these men (yes, they were all men) were great communicators? Were they able to sway shareholders with their deathless prose, inspire their subordinates to outstanding feats? Excite the media with their charm? Or were they brilliant strategists –analysing and predicting accurately? Were they able to see the consequence to a particular decision and respond appropriately? Were they visionaries? Were they determined? Were they rapport builders?

A number of characteristics was explored and analysed. The questionnaires were answered and the results came in. The research was remarkable disappointing. No, none of the CEOs had a profile in common. They were so different. Some were more and some were less effective at one thing or another. The outcomes were very mixed. However when the researchers went back and dug deeper, one thing stood out. What was it?

These powerful and highly successful men had just one thing in common: they knew their limits.

So they knew their limits. They knew themselves so well they were aware of their strengths and what they were capable of. And they also recognised what went beyond their capacity, skills, talents, ability and experience – and got someone else to cover what they lacked.

How well do you know yourself? What are your strengths? What then are your limits? Where are the boundaries to your knowledge, expertise, interest?

The approach to education and parenting in the UK has traditionally been based on weakness and failure. In order to get things right, historically a child has been told what they’ve done wrong, where they’ve failed to make the grade, what disgrace they’ve brought upon themselves. When I was young, children who failed to make the grade were made to stand in the corner of the room with a dunce’s cap on their head. When my father was young, they got hit with the cane.

Even now in our culture, the media is dominated by reports of what mistakes and misjudgements people make and what wrongdoing has been discovered. Newspapers go to town over the misdemeanours of those in power. It is a far rarer and more unusual to hear how well people have done and how much they have achieved.

Admittedly my experience of education is historic. The following though is a minor example of what I mean. When I was teaching English teenagers in the early 80s, I asked my class studying Civics to do some homework. I wanted to find out what had influenced their opinion of themselves. They were to fill in 2 columns over a week. In one column, they were to note down the compliments they’d received. In the other, they were to put the criticisms.

The following week I asked the class to tell me the results. A great many hands went up. I invited a bright and co-operative lad, Shane, to tell the rest of us what had happened to him. Shane reported that he’d filled up 2 pages of critical remarks.

When I asked, “So what about your Compliments Column, Shane?”

He replied, “One line, Miss. ‘You look nice today, Shane.’ “ He paused, then went on, ”though that was a bit of a cheat really Miss. I wanted to fill up my Compliments Column and it was still empty so I asked my mum whether I looked nice this morning and she said, ‘Yes’.”

When I asked other young people in the class they had a similar story to tell. It was a universal experience – not one young person had any entry in their Compliments Column, not one!

Now to be fair, they may not have been primed to hear when people were being positive. They were very sensitive however to negative remarks and kept note of them.

Those young people are now adults, many are parents – maybe (horrific thought) even grandparents! They make adult choices. Who knows, a few may be leaders. What kind of leaders do they make when they’ve been made so very aware of their failures and yet their talents, abilities, skills, character and contribution are unknown to them?

Do they know their limits? Are they self aware? I don’t think so.

Many high achieving scientific women and researchers I work with believe themselves to be frauds. They fear others will tumble to how fake they are. So they work and work and slog and slog and become more and more expert. They know so much, others consult them, they gain more and more recognition and promotion. They achieve magnificently. However, they are driven by the fear of their imagined humiliation of being found out. And boy, they have a wonderful imagination.

However much they rise in their careers, however much they develop magnificent businesses, they’ll fail to influence with any conviction. Worse, whatever senior level they achieve for themselves, they fail to reach the top level until they acquire strong self belief. Something will always hold them back. Something will always stop them from following through. Something prevents them from fulfilling their wonderful potential. And it will be the mistaken belief that they’ve conned their way into their high position – and don’t deserve to be there.

If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”  Henry Ford

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