Female leadership is a sensitive, yet very important topic. In our new podcast edition, we talked to Lisa Ross-Marcus, a leadership coach for women, and asked her a dozen important questions about this "hot" topic.
What are the characteristics of a good leader? What are the examples of empowering female leaders? Which ‘female’ characteristics can women use to their advantage to become a leader? And, can every woman become a leader?
Listen to the full podcast in the player. Enjoy!
Una - [00:00:00] Hello everyone and welcome to our Fashion Potluck Podcast Sessions. My name is Una and I’m the content manager of Fashion Potluck. I'm here with Julia, who is the CMO of Fashion Potluck. And, our guest for today Lisa Ross-Marcus. Hello Lisa! Lisa is an executive coach and trainer based in Amsterdam. She's also the founder of “In coaching” and she's providing professional coaching and training programs for individuals and teams in private, public, and non-profit sector. One of her focus areas is leadership coaching for females and that's actually what we're going to talk about today.
So, we have a first question for you Lisa. From a young age, women are often encouraged to be nice girls, they're polite and well-mannered which is a behavior they often keep. Once they become adults, how and in which way can such behavior prevent them from becoming leaders?
Lisa - [00:01:03] Thank you for that. So, if I was coaching a female leader and she came to the session with this question saying to me: “You know what, as I've been raised, I experienced myself and other people experience me as being a very polite and well-mannered person. And I'm worried that this is preventing me from becoming a strong leader.” I would say to her: “Well, let's have a look how may it help you to be a strong leader”. And if you really start to think about that, there are situations where being polite and well-mannered could be really useful. If you're receiving some very important people coming to your organization and you're leading a meeting; if you're having to take someone aside and give them some bad news. And, I think you know this really has to do with recognizing that whatever qualities we have they're not things that we want to get rid of to be leaders but things that we want to build on.
Julia - [00:02:10] Yeah absolutely. For me, seems that the politeness and well-manners can only make you more empowering and a more successful leader. Of course, there are some qualities like being too soft, maybe they need to be improved. But qualities like politeness, it can be a really good point in being a strong leader.
Lisa - [00:02:28] Yeah, well I think there is a great example we had very recently of Nancy Pelosi, who is the speaker of the house in the United States. Now, she's third in line to be president. And, there was an incident where a younger female congresswoman had been overheard using some foul language to describe the president. And there was a big scandal made of that and somebody interviewed Nancy Pelosi and said: “Oh what do you think of that?”. And she said: “well, I was raised in a way where I don't use that kind of coarse language. But I'm not going to censor anybody else.”. So, she really kept her dignity and her embracing of “yes, well, being well-mannered and polite works for me”. And yet, she's one of the most important leaders.
Julia - [00:03:14] And, it works pretty well for her, right. This makes you feel like a more powerful leader.
Lisa - [00:03:20] Yes. And I think it's very important for women not to underestimate that. So, it's those qualities and then looking at, OK what else do I need to cultivate to become an effective female leader? And, an image you can look at as you know when you're buying an insurance policy you have the basic package, and then you have the module. So, the basic package we can see ourselves is this is who we are, you know these are the qualities that people know about us, that we know ourselves. As saying: “oh I'm a polite person, I'm an organized person, I'm a kind person”. So that's fine. But you can also say, OK, where do I want to grow and what could be useful for me to increase my leadership skills? So, you can say, OK, I'll take the module assertiveness, let's put some attention there. How can I develop myself to become more assertive? Or, the module accountability. How can I learn to hold people more accountable and feel comfortable with that?
Julia – [00:04:32] Yes, it is important, because I think the term “nice girls”, actually they lack assertiveness. “Well, I better not say no, I can do it”, “It doesn't cost me anything”. Or maybe, it's the strong expression, but maybe they can’t go on top of the heads if it's necessary – “You know I can live without it”. So, maybe assertiveness is a very good skill to improve for nice girls. It's not bad for you to be assertive and it's a very important quality of a leader I believe.
Lisa - [00:04:55] And I also think you know this is kind of jumping ahead a little bit using this word “nice”. I think that's something that sometimes really can be tricky for women who are in leadership roles, it can be kind of a pitfall, because if there's a real emphasis on wanting to be seen as nice and wanting to be liked all the time, that can also undermine your ability to be firm, to be assertive, to say - OK this is the plan, this is the decision. And to recognize it doesn't mean you're not a nice person. So, part of developing as a leader, as a woman, is to really be able to embrace all the parts of yourself. Also, the nice part of yourself, but to recognize in different situations that might not be the most useful part for me to bring forward.
Julia - How to deal with this desire to be liked by everyone because that's practically impossible?
Una - [00:05:56] I feel like a lot of people, a lot of women actually want to be liked. Maybe that's one of the most important things for them, and not to offend anyone.
Lisa - [00:06:07] So if you think of leaders and the responsibility of being a leader is sometimes you need to give bad news. And, sometimes you need to hold people accountable to say - Hey we agreed on this.
Julia - Or say no.
Lisa - Exactly. So, I think part of the process of being comfortable with leadership for women is to understand that you didn't get there because you're a nice person. Because an organization would be kind of irresponsible to hire you just because you're nice. You're there because of skills, expertise, experience that you have.
Una - But do you believe that women are not comfortable being leaders?
Lisa - No. I think that, like everybody, I mean men also have their challenges to become leaders. I just think it's important to recognize like so what are the possible pitfalls? What are the kind of habits that you, let's say, rely on, that have helped you in your life? But now you're in a new situation, you're in a different context, so it's a question of again sort of putting your attention on the other module, on the assertiveness model. So, it's about developing those qualities and the way we develop them is actually step by step. You know, you can understand this idea of going out of your comfort zone, it may not feel comfortable to be assertive in certain situations, but it takes a kind of changing of your mindset to realize: if I want to be a leader I have to learn this and to see it as a learning process.
Julia - And it is indeed. I think it will become easier and easier with time.
Lisa - Absolutely. Because the more you do it the more, you know, you will see what the response is. And that actually is a kind of a false assumption to think: oh people won't respect me or people won't follow what I'm asking them to do unless I'm super nice about it. Actually, sometimes people just need a firm no, this is not going to happen.
Una – What is the role of the male-dominated environment and culture which supports men as leaders? And, is that one of the reasons women do not aim for leadership positions? How can we encourage them to aim for leadership positions?
Lisa - [00:08:54] Well, I do think that women aim for leadership positions. And, so, again I would challenge that assumption. There are many sectors where women are actively recruited and encouraged. There's even some legislation being made in countries or in organizations that, you know, our board has to have a certain amount of women in it. So, I think there's been a lot of initiatives to recruit women and to also train them in leadership skills and organizations.
Julia - Has it only started recently or do you think it's always been the case?
Lisa – No, it hasn't been always, for sure.
Julia – Exactly.
Lisa - But I would say in the past 5 or 10 years, I think. So, the question that interests me as a coach and also what I encounter when I work with women in leadership roles is - What happens when they struggle? When a woman struggles in an organization and it's feeling a lot of pressure, it’s feeling not appreciated, it's feeling like she is unable to set her boundaries, to say no. So, these are situations where you reach a kind of a tipping point which determines OK, this woman who is in a leadership position, has a leadership role in a company, in an organization, or it could even be in a smaller situation in her own company. You know, maybe she's a startup entrepreneur. What does it take for her to take a step back and reflect? What's going on here? What's contributing to me feeling like there's, let's say, more negative than positive going on? What's my role in that? And, what can I do to change that, so that I can stick it out here so that I can keep going? And, that's what I like to support women in doing is like - stay in the game.
Julia - [00:10:59] Do you think this pressure makes them not want to become leaders? And, it might be a big question, but why there are more male leaders? I mean, right now women are still the minority. It is definitely changing, as we said, over the past five years. We see more and more women leaders and so many companies. Especially, we live in Amsterdam, so I can see every day a successful woman in the company. What is the reason? Is this the pressure?
Una - [00:11:32] Can I just add something. Is that maybe a consequence that women do not speak out even if they think they are ready for a leadership position? They're not going to fight it because they might think they don't deserve it.
Lisa - [00:11:44] Well, I would not say… I think you're getting at something and what you're saying and this is what I think is a really important condition for a woman to develop as a leader and to succeed as a leader and that is to take ownership of your accomplishments. Which means in how you profile yourself, whether it's on LinkedIn or when you are talking to people who maybe, potentially could help you or even just people in your environment. What I encountered a lot is that women are very hesitant to talk about themselves in a way that is really highlighting what they've achieved. It's very quickly seen as bragging. And, I see this as a problem because there's a gap between and I've encountered this quite a lot with even women I know personally, who are very accomplished. And then when it comes to them having to promote themselves, suddenly these things become sort of: “Well, yeah, I did that once but I'm not going to really talk about that. Well, that wasn't such a big deal”. And I think this is what creates a gap.
Una - [00:13:00] But why is that? I think we do have it, at least I sometimes also have that behavior. So, I really can understand. But I don't know why.
Lisa - Have you any idea?
Una - I don't know. I’m trying to think about it now, but that's the thing, it's bragging, you know, I would rather them to check if I'm good in something than say - OK I'm good in this. But then if you don't promote yourself, you might not even get the offer to show it.
Lisa - [00:13:29] And that you know that speaks to a statistic that's pretty well-known, I don't know the exact number, but apparently if you ask when a woman is offered a challenge, a professional challenge, she will often think - Can I do 95% of this role that's being offered to me? OK, yes I'll do it. A man will look and say - OK can I do 60%? Ok, I'll do it. So, there's a discrepancy in comfort with risk. And, I often, when I have conversations with women about: “Wait you can do that, and you can do that too, and you're also really good at that. And wait you've also done that?” Sometimes I'm like: “What?”. And, this is how you’re presenting yourself? They will say - well yeah, but I've not done this, and I don't know. And then, I always ask this question: “Well, what is the worst thing that could happen?”...
Listen to the full podcast in the player above. The podcast is also available in SoundCloud, Spotify, Apple/Google Podcasts, CastBox, Stitcher, and other platforms.
If you have any questions or suggestions, make sure to leave them in the box below. Enjoy!
The Fashion Potluck Team
Lisa Ross-Marcus is a leadership coach for women and an intercultural consultant.
She coaches struggling female leaders in the business and non-profit sectors, who want to regain their sense of purpose and ease while continuing to grow their leadership skills. Lisa helps professionals to develop a mindset for successful global working by increasing their cultural awareness and broadening their communication skills. Through her company In-Coaching, Lisa offers executive coaching, global communication coaching and a variety of intercultural training programs. You can find out more about coaching and training with Lisa through her website: