From Blue Suit to Blue Jeans: How a “Suit” Took on a Start-Up
Traditionally 'Male' Qualities Such As Having The Courage Of Your Convictions Are Necessary To The Successful Training Of Women Managers
I climbed the corporate ladder wearing expensive pin stripes and Ferragamo heels for almost twenty-five years. Readers will know exactly what that climb entailed: I worked 12-hour days, produced the deliverables, offered (yes, offered) to get the coffee, hung up the coats, called for taxis. I bit my tongue, argued compellingly, conceded graciously that the gentleman re-phrasing my point was absolutely correct. Usually, I was the only woman at the conference table.
My experience was far from unique; most senior women have similar stories. On the other hand, I suspect that most women executives wouldn’t even bother to mention it, except as amusing small talk, because that experience was our classroom and the lessons we learned there were very valuable. I learned commitment, focus, loyalty, and stamina; I learned analytical techniques as well as inductive and deductive thought processes I hadn’t acquired in business school; I developed observation skills, other-orientation, creativity, the ability to prioritize, attention to detail, and patience. Above all, I learned to work as a member of a team, putting the larger goals of the organization ahead of my own.
There is a life cycle to personal growth as well as to products, however, and by the end of my fourth corporate tour of duty (a total of 24 years with a major reference book publisher, IBM, Wang Labs, and Xerox, in that order), I began to get restless. I had risen to business-unit general manager (my function but not, of course, my title; I was still female and, after each successful market entry, the sky darkened with planes as male VPs were sent in to take over).
I had begun to leave fingerprints on the things I touched and I liked it! I liked the accountability as well as the responsibility, and I enjoyed the sense of closure and satisfaction that came from overseeing all aspects of a complex project. Today, my experience is called “intrapreneurship,” which means working independently within a larger organization—running a skunk works, in essence—with no substantive worries about funding and resources. What would a “real” start-up feel like, I thought, and had I learned enough to contribute to one?
About that time, a man who had formerly led a competitor’s launch team called me. He flattered me, telling me that I had been a tough and capable adversary when the two of us had gone head to head in front of the press and shoot-out groups at trade shows, and he was calling to talk about an opportunity that he had developed. He wanted to explore my interest in running marketing for his start-up company. Of course I took that job, thereby stepping off the corporate path and beginning the next phase of my career, the phase where I hung up the suits and put on the blue jeans.
During the next six years, I served my old adversary and three other men as second-in-command at four start-up companies. Three of the four were blue-blooded entrepreneurs—driven, intelligent, clever men who gave their all to the companies they founded. Throughout this period, I often disagreed—not only with the decisions they took and the initiatives they deployed, but with the way they prepared for them, communicated them, managed them, and spun the results. But the same three men had not grown up in corporate life. I found myself advocating corporate discipline, teamwork, and preparation in a world dominated, then and now, by cowboys! Of course people moved from corporate life to entrepreneurship every day; I had just happened to find three men who had skipped the corporate step.
Then, through the good auspices of a friendly board member, I took over a company that not only needed leadership but had the good sense to know that it did. This company had been founded by a father/son team, both smart men who had spent not one day in either high-tech or a corporation (one was an accountant; the other was a social worker). And it was true that neither of them questioned or second-guessed my judgment or my methods.
For at least two months, I was in heaven. I established goals and objectives, metrics and milestones. I had been hired with the understanding that we needed to raise money right away, and I put together a creditable business plan with exhaustive financials. (The fact that we began looking for funding in March of 2000 tells the rest of the story!)
A kindly board
Next I looked at the state of the technology, which was being directed pro bono by a kindly board member whose heart—and conceivably even his experience—were in the right place. However, nothing looked right to me: the developers were working without a customer requirements specification (CRS), the design did not accommodate use by our most important target market segment, quality assurance was not only not in place but wasn’t even anticipated, no development milestones had been agreed.
I told the board what I had found, but, instead of recommending an immediate, albeit temporary, halt, I proposed to backfill the current development methodology (how could I have thought for a minute that what was going on could be called a “methodology”?) with an adequate CRS that corrected the course of development (by about 180_, as it turned out), QA by the management team (us) using an Excel spreadsheet, and milestones that emerged as we went along. The developers balked. So did the kindly board member. In retrospect, I should have called that halt four months into my tenure with the company.
One imperative for entrepreneurs beyond knowledge and judgment must be a bias for action. I successfully avoided other traps into which women (and probably men, if truth be told) often fall: It didn’t take me long to figure out what was wrong, I wasn’t concerned that my conclusions weren’t popular, I understood how to map the technology to the business plan, I knew that any development process needs a support infrastructure.
The one attribute that I hadn’t learned at the corporate knee was courage. In this case, the right course of action would have been to thank and dismiss the kindly board member, fire the contract developers, hire a contract CRS writer, and use the new CRS to screen and hire new developers. In retrospect, I believe that I had known all of that at the time, but I lacked the courage to implement it because it would have required immediate increases in cost and time that would have been very hard to sell. One board member even counseled me to “stop thinking long-term”!
think “courage,” or a bias for action, is basically a gender issue, just as “sensitivity” might be for men. In that sense, it’s a personal development challenge, rather than a management training issue. I’ve been somewhat skeptical of the many “coaches” who have emerged from the ranks of the recently unemployed; nevertheless, I think this is a job for a really good coach.
The best business coaches begin with the individual and help her develop expertise in being proactive. Then they move on to help her link her individual talents to meet the changing needs of her organization. Wendy Wallbridge, CEO of On Your Mark Corporate Coaching and Consulting (www.onyourmarkcoach.com), taught me this and much more…but only after the fact.
In my current role as Executive Vice President of WITI (Women in Technology International), I am cognizant of the need to bring real-world experience into our various training initiatives and of the necessity to increase the quantity, quality, and urgency of the leadership training that is one-third of our three-part charter. With Dr. Nancy Snyderman, I believe that being women “has everything to do with everything we do,” and I work to both emphasize the advantages and overcome the disadvantages that derive from the differences in leadership style.
Both genders bring tremendous assets to the management arena, and the playing field moves a degree or two closer to level each year as more and more women take senior positions. As we train women managers, however, it is important that we not minimize the traditionally “male” qualities, like courage, that are absolutely necessary to our success as leaders.
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