On the latest Fortune 500 list released in May 2019, only 6.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs on the May 2019 list are female. While this is an improvement from 2018’s total of 4.8%, it is still a paltry figure, disappointing not only for women, but for the organizations and companies that would benefit from female leadership.
It is not surprising, then, that many women executives at that level, who would be the logical potential fillers of the C-Suite, feel unfulfilled, frustrated, stepped over, angry, burnt out and bruised bloody from hitting their heads so hard on the glass ceiling. While companies are being advised that female leaders bring high levels of competence in the areas of both people management and strategy https://www.inc.com/marcel-schwantes/why-you-should-hire-more-female-leaders-according-to-a-new-study.html, women still feel unheard and unseen in the business world and beyond. What is the disconnect? Is it just entrenched sexism and patriarchy, as many would claim? Are women not “leaning in” enough in this man’s world, as Sheryl Sanberg wrote back in 2013? Or is something else at work?
Having worked as a counsellor and coach with hundreds of women since the 1990’s, I’ve had a bird’s eye view on the lives reflected in these statistics. Many of my clients are the envied women who “have it all”—nice husband, beautiful kids, big job, lovely home. Many are gorgeous on top of it. Yet somewhere between the ages of 38 and 55, these women show up in my office with panic attacks or total burnout. Are these privileged women merely ungrateful, or have we missed something else entirely?
Whether they know it or not, people who show up in my office nearly always have some unfulfilled potential that is threatening to undermine the tenuous personality balance they have achieved by burying inconvenient parts of themselves. At first my clients hope I will help them silence those annoying parts once and for all, but instead I invite them to speak. As we probe, we begin to find answers to Freud’s age-old question: What do women want? It is not, as Freud suspected, exactly what men want. Beneath their achievement-oriented lives, most women crave passion, beauty, connection, meaning, and a sense of the sacred. (They also want some sleep, which current research shows women need more than men, in order to feel content.)
The inconvenient parts crying to get out are often the feminine parts. My clients have spent their lives trying to best men; competing like men, organizing their time like men, and putting out aggressive energy like men, until they are exhausted. We have millions of sleepless, cranky women spending their lives in the fast lane and running on adrenaline, which women are not wired to do. One day they walk into a meeting or a presentation and melt down. Their hearts start pounding. They can’t speak. They lose their voice.
One client tells me her father used to punch her in the arm when she would cry, and say “Be a man.” I am sure he thought he was toughening up his daughter to survive in what is still a man’s world. He wanted to empower her. How could he know that conscious femininity could be her best strategy? While craving the gifts of the feminine as surely as a parched person craves water, our efficiency-oriented society has seen the feminine as extraneous at best, and dangerous at worst. How ironic that it is now the key to our success as a species and as women in the professional world!
It’s understandable that women in serious careers previously felt the need to suppress their femininity. After all, it was the excuse used for hundreds of years to undermine their confidence and keep them feeling incompetent and inferior. We still see vestiges of this lack of confidence in women, for example, demonstrated in women’s fear of speaking up for a job unless they are 120% sure they can handle it, whereas a man will volunteer for job if he feels 75% ready according to Best Buy CEO Corie Barry. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/28/best-buy-ceo-corie-barrys-advice-to-women-make-yourself-uncomfortable.html
Well-intentioned coaches and mentors dole out advice trying to help women overcome the obstacles. Alas, much of it is useless at best, like the oft-quoted Forbes article of two years ago consulting fifteen executive coaches on 15 blocks to women’s success https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/02/26/15-biggest-challenges-women-leaders-face-and-how-to-overcome-them/ – 6e1e449f4162. The first piece of advice dispensed in the article is “Be Confident.” Not only is that patronizing; it is obvious. No woman would have arrived at that point in her career without confidence. The same is true of “Generate revenue” and “Speak up.” Any woman knows this and is probably already doing it—like a man! Unfortunately, most of the advice a woman gets is to encourage and enable her to do just that: toughen up and behave like a man. And therein lies the problem.
Few women can out-man an alpha man. I have known only one in my career. She was a third-sex wonder to behold with great war stories, but definitely an exception. For most women it is a losing battle. Most of us get cut to ribbons when we come up against highly aggressive alpha men, which happens more and more frequently as we advance in our careers past the betas. Alpha men are wired to fight to the death against other alpha men. But they are equally wired to protect and provide for women, and that includes their female colleagues. This simple evolutionary fact could be the key to turning everything around.
Feminists have been perpetrating a rumor that men do not like powerful women. While it might seem that way at first glance, I have discovered that is simply not true of most men, particularly powerful ones. What they do not like are castrating women, women who go toe to toe with them as a man would and expect them to pull their punches because she is a woman—women who interrupt, behave rudely, suspiciously, and in general, offend their dignity. We have confused castrating with powerful. Men love and admire powerful women who can enjoy and receive their masculine contribution, which they are eager to give. To employ this power in a way that also empowers and appreciates men is the Queens’ Strategy.
I discovered this magic key several years ago when a young woman CEO of a high-tech start-up came to me with an urgent situation. Her CTO was trying to undercut her with her board and management in order to get her ousted and get himself appointed in her place. After about an hour of answering my questions about her management style and the personalities and interests of the various players (most of whom were men), she said, “I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. If I show vulnerability, they will walk all over me, but if I go toe to toe, this guy will cut me to ribbons.” She had made some bad mistakes to land where she was, and I was not sure I could get her out of it.
“You’re right,” I told her, “We have some serious repair work to do, and neither of those paths will work. There is only one path forward that stands a chance: If you become their Queen, they will fall on their swords for you, if need be.”
This was an entirely new idea. She was puzzled. “Queen?” she asked, “I don’t know how to be a Queen.”
“I can teach you,” I said, and in that moment everything I had learned from twenty years of coaching powerful women and studying gender relations coalesced in the teachings of the Queen Strategy.
Among the things I taught her were:
· To stand in her feminine radiance,
· To express feminine elegance; to stop dressing and acting like the boys,
· To receive masculine contribution graciously,
· To listen generously, yet act decisively,
· To hold her piece and not leak her feelings as she might with her girlfriends,
· To understand and make use of the difference in communication styles,
· To deploy the warrior strength of the men in her domain with appreciation, letting them be her heroes.
The story ended well. The CTO was ousted and my client retained the leadership of her company, which later sold at a price that allowed her to retire at 35.
Since then I have been coaching women in the Queen Strategy with great success. It has allowed women to melt glass ceilings rather than hit their heads on them, and several of my clients who were stalled in their careers are now being groomed or recruited for C-suite positions. Even better, these women are no longer exhausted from running adrenaline and trying to be men. They are able to relax into the authentic feminine selves they thought they had to leave behind to compete. Their male colleagues have miraculously turned from competitors to champions carrying their banners.
Just last week one of my clients who previously had a lump on her head as well as a chip on her shoulder from the glass ceiling of her consulting firm, got a call from the CEO had called to say he wanted to provide more help to make sure she was positioned to be his successor when he retires in a couple of years. This was a woman who had never allowed a man to help her in any way, not even opening a door for her. Now she is a Queen living in gratitude, grace and radiance. We discussed a strategy for how to best deploy his generous assistance as her champion and warrior without getting in the way as he carries her banner forward.