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Re-Thinking The Alpha Female

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One thing we can do for ourselves is re-conceptualize power and what it means to be a powerful person.

By Karen Gifford (Co-Founder & Principal, Broad Ventures Leadership)

If you are like most women, there comes a point in your working life when you want to do something of your own. You may have learned a lot from bosses and mentors over the years, but working to advance others’ goals has lost its shine. Whether you want to run your division, lead a trial team or leave corporate life and start something new, you want to bring your own vision into the world.

This should be a time for taking yourself to a new level of achievement and satisfaction. Unfortunately, it’s when many women stumble, and many of them never get back on track. Stepping into a leadership role is challenging for anyone, but if you’re a woman the transition can be much more fraught, because it’s often the first time the world takes a really good shot at you.

The extra challenges we face as ambitious women are real and call for systemic solutions. At the same time, as individuals we can’t wait for social change to be complete before pursuing our aspirations. For now, we need to do the only thing we can do in the face of difficulty – draw deeply on our own strengths.

One thing we can do for ourselves is re-conceptualize power and what it means to be a powerful person.

No One Told Us It Would Be This Hard

Before turning to how our view of power should change, I want to spend a moment looking at what stands between us and power. What extra challenges do we women face as we move toward actualizing our own ambitions? They’re predictable really, but there’s so little frank discussion about them they catch many of us by surprise.

A woman setting out to lead for the first time faces right into mainstream society’s deep ambivalence about female success. (A couple recent examples here and here.) This is when people’s unconscious attitudes and stereotypes start to surface, and can impact you in a practical way. Depending on your age, you may never have experienced sexism personally before, and when you do it can feel very personal.

Now you’re dealing directly with people at the highest echelons – the head of your company, executive management, venture capitalists, investors. Most of them are men, and all of them are used to interacting with men. You see your experience and qualifications being played down or ignored. They talk about your clothes when you’re trying to discuss your ideas. Your demeanor suddenly goes under a microscope. You hear yourself being called too aggressive – or even a bitch – for the first time. To be clear, I’m not saying that everyone or even most people treat successful women this way. But if you’re on the receiving end, it doesn’t take much of this to make an impression.

Male colleagues also begin see you as a threat, and start to play hard ball. They may capitalize on the fact that they’re in the boys’ club and you’re not, or simply take advantage when you make a mistake or show weakness. Feeling backstabbed by someone you thought of as a buddy hurts, and almost worse is seeing someone stoop to behavior you thought was beneath them.

And just when you need advice and support, it may be tough to find. Chances are, most models of success you have to draw on are male. Male mentors are great – where would we be without them? – but it’s still hard to find your way forward with few or no women ahead of you. Female peers have likely also fallen away, since there are fewer and fewer women at higher levels. Many women at this stage of their lives have young children, so add in the difficulties of meeting family commitments, and it’s easy to see how many women poised on the brink of new leadership find themselves feeling isolated and a little roughed-up by the world.

Bad Advice

This is when the advice we receive can be so very bad. If you’re successful at all, people probably told you the way to get ahead was to be one of the guys, and you probably followed that advice, at least to some extent. I know I did that as a young attorney in the mostly male world of business litigation. I left part of my personality behind when I went to work, and ignored a certain discomfort that comes from being in a slightly alien environment. I made sure to read the sports section in the morning, kept pictures of my kids out of the office, rolled my eyes tolerantly at crude jokes and was ready to go if a crowd headed out for drinks (of course, not many drinks – God forbid I let my guard down!) after work.

What I found was that being one of the guys isn’t that big a deal in the early part of your career; we all have a masculine side and it can be fun to connect with it. It’s a strategy that can work extremely well up to a point. You may be a funny looking guy, but your career is probably advancing nicely.

The problem comes now that you want to step up, when things have gotten harder and the stakes higher. People tell you that as a woman with big ambitions, you should double down: not just be a guy, but the worst kind of guy you’ve ever met: ruthless, competitive, image-conscious, controlling, impatient, aggressive, manipulative, dominant. An alpha male.

A Different Kind of Power

There are so many things wrong with this advice, but the worst is it cuts you off from your own power. To make your mark on the world, you need access to an authentic authority. If you spend your time parroting a caricature of a powerful man, you’ll sound hollow and you’ll undermine your own credibility. And if you force yourself to act against your own instincts and values, you’ll lose access to profound sources of strength that underlie true confidence.

I experienced this myself quite dramatically at a trial techniques seminar I took several years into practicing law. By this time I was working as an enforcement attorney at the Federal Reserve. I was bringing civil actions against bankers accused of violating the banking laws, with penalties that included industry bans and fines in the six-figure range. It was a very contentious area of practice – shouting and swearing were definitely par for the course.

I spent the first half of the seminar trying to outdo the aggression of the mostly male attorneys around me, and looking ridiculous. The men dominated the courtroom space with their six-foot bodies and loud voices. My arguments got lost in that testosterone-laden environment. No matter how strong my logic or how well I presented the evidence, I just sounded shrill trying to make my voice as loud as the men’s. Aping their movements with my much smaller and slighter frame – unsurprisingly – did not make me look imposing or help me maintain control over the courtroom. After watching me get my head handed to me yet again by my booming-voiced opposing counsel, one of the instructors, a seasoned trial lawyer, took me aside and said, you can’t do what he’s doing, and you shouldn’t try. He said, you have natural elegance and dignity, use that. Be the queen everyone is trying to please.

I hated this advice. I didn’t want to be elegant or dignified – that sounded stuffy and girly to me. But it was great advice, not least because it showed me I didn’t need to turn myself into a big guy to succeed. I followed it, however reluctantly, and it worked. It turned out that when I let myself be poised, I also came across as self assured and reliable. I learned to use silences rather than shouting to get attention, and found that when I did the whole room listened.

I won the mock trial we did at the end of the two weeks, as well as plenty of other real courtroom battles later on. I won’t say I never had trouble dealing with a macho opposing counsel again, but I left that seminar with a deep confidence in my own style and instincts that has served me well ever since. And that experience did make me re-think in a fundamental way what it means to wield power.

The True Alpha Female

We are living in a time when some women are beginning to shine and succeed at the highest levels, on their own terms. Now we need to do that in numbers, and to do so, I believe we should turn a skeptical eye on received notions of how to be powerful.

Instead of taking the alpha male construct and putting a skirt on it, I suggest that as women we re-conceptualize the idea of what an alpha female could be and make it our own. This is an exciting and interesting project to me, not least because there truly is no positive, socially sanctioned model for how to be a powerful woman. So the field is open. Marina and I have been exchanging ideas about what our alpha female might look like, and we’ll share some of them in upcoming posts.

This post was originally posted at Broad Ventures Leadership.

About the guest blogger: Karen Gifford is Co-Founder and Principal at Broad Ventures Leadership. She has been active in the start-up world as a founder, investor and advisor. Previously, she worked in the financial industry, first as an attorney in the private sector and at the New York Fed, where she did litigation and enforcement. She and her co-founder Marina Illich started Broad Ventures Leadership with the goal of supporting women to become exceptional leaders. Follow them on Twitter at @BroadsBlog.