You can launch 1,000 clichés about women in business, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re hardwired to be caretakers. Does that mean they cannot be great leaders? Of course not! Women have to properly navigate the fine line between mothering and smothering. There’s mothering: teaching skills, setting up the company for success, being tough when it’s necessary. Then, there’s smothering: doing it all yourself, wrapping everyone else in proverbial bubble-wrap and taking all the stress and all the consequences upon yourself.
You don’t want to devolve into a caveman, using brute force and intimidation, but you also cannot be soft as a marshmallow. If you’re a successful and benevolent leader, when you do exercise tough love, it will be all the more powerful and effective.
It’s probably in your nature to hear problems or excuses and respond with soothing encouragement. If you’re working with a contractor, don’t fall prey to this instinct. Enter into projects with clear expectations and deadlines. Hold service providers responsible for their end of the bargain. Never (okay, almost never) pay in full up front. If you have an issue with the work, document it in writing. If construction or contractor services go wrong, even just off-schedule, it can cost your business time, energy, stress and money. Unless you’ve thoroughly documented everything, it will be hard to seek damages or any other sort of reparation. When it comes to contractors assume the worst — that if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile — so you can achieve the best possible outcome.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate with service providers and business partners, especially if you have a significant amount of purchasing power. Keeping good records, making concise requests and paying your bills on time (or early) will keep you in their good graces. By being a good customer, you’ll earn the credibility to ask for a rush shipment or special favors from time to time. If something isn’t as promised, give them the chance to correct it. If it’s a one-shot deal, like a rush printing job for a major meeting, tell your provider that it’s a high-stakes job. Give the provider an opportunity to wow you. If you’re using a Plum Card from American Express to pay vendors, you’ll have the added benefit of purchase protection, just like a personal card, which can take a big load off your plate.
It’s a catchy saying: “The customer is always right.” It’s less catchy to say, “Most customers are right, but some customers are users and not worth having at all.” The latter, however, is closer to the truth. In every industry there will be customers who take you for granted. They’ll want to take advantage of a tiny misprint in an ad or return an item that’s been used until it’s nearly unrecognizable. Customers that are leeches are generally not worth having, but it’ll be up to you (the leader) to identify and deal with them. Asking your entry or lower level associates to do so could end in disaster.
No great leader I can think of wakes up saying, “Wow, if I can scream at someone it would really make today fantastic.” Likewise, no employee walks into work thinking, “Gee, getting a verbal lashing today would really improve my morale.” Identify what is non-negotiable in your office and have clear job descriptions. Find areas where there’s a little room for interpretation or flexibility. Be clear with employees on firm and soft rules. When someone transgresses on a hard and fast rule, correct it immediately. If it isn’t addressed quickly, the employee might think it’s not such a big deal and escalate the behavior.
Women should never feel they are any less prepared and suited to be business leaders than men.
Antonio Maurice Daniels
University of Wisconsin-Madison