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All Apologies: Women, Leadership & Presence

3 min read

There’s a permission-based thing that happens to many women – “I can’t take leadership because I don’t have permission” – my question is, are we testing that?

Pat RiordanPat Riordan served as the President-elect of the Greater Boston Area Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association. HBA is the premier catalyst for the professional development and leadership for women in the healthcare industry worldwide. After we partnered to present a “Communicate Like a Leader” training to HBA members, Pat sat down with us for a conversation on women and Leadership Presence and brings us this guest post.

I see women at all levels struggling to be present, struggling to show up in a confident, credible way without apology. As women we get busy with the “doing-ness”- we do, do, do and then we show up at meetings out of breath, frazzled, and apologetic.

We need to lift our heads up from the doing and take a look at what we can do differently to move the needle on our leadership presence. Technical capability only goes so far – how we show up is what truly helps us navigate our careers. If we appear ready – present, relaxed, capable – we’re perceived as being that way (no matter what our inner voice is saying!).

I was recently at a meeting with a client of mine; we were waiting for the key decision maker, a male executive who was running late. There was another leader in the room, a woman who reports to the executive – I was interested to observe that she apologized for his absence several times in the 20 or so minutes he was delayed, even as we elected to move ahead without him.

When he showed up, he simply said, “I’m sorry to be late,” and jumped into the discussion. No complicated apologies about traffic or what had delayed him. And in that moment, all the power in the room went directly to him, not just because he was the decision-maker, but because he was immediately present.

I was interested to observe that the female leader missed the opportunity to step into leadership from the outset. She could have said, “I know Mark is critical here but let’s start and I’ll catch him up.”

There’s a permission-based thing that happens to many women – “I can’t take leadership because I don’t have permission” – my question is, are we testing that? Are we thinking: “I can be Mark’s critical associate, I can operate at my highest capability here and if he doesn’t like it, he’ll tell me.”

In my experience we tend to short-circuit ourselves before we step over that critical line of leadership. We play it safe. There is data that shows that women feel ready for a promotion when they know 90-95% of the job they would be taking, whereas men only need to know 10% of the new job to feel ready.

The good news is that in the current business climate, there is great opportunity for women. Companies are doing more with less, so our impact is more pronounced. If we are really good at our jobs, there is more opportunity for higher ups to notice. The converse is true too – there are fewer people around to mask poor performance.

And every interaction matters – when you are in the hallway, when you are getting a cup of coffee – the opportunities to claim your value and demonstrate leadership presence are everywhere. What has always helped me is to think of myself as “The CEO of Pat, Inc.” In every interaction I am representing myself as the CEO of my career.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen these behaviors in your colleagues and direct reports–or perhaps even yourself?


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