I was confident right out of college. Confident may be an overstatement - let’s call it naïve bravery. But, when I moved into increasingly structured, corporate cultures, I received a lot of coaching about reeling in my opinions and candor. The teams I led didn’t take issue with me, but there was concern about broader stakeholders. For some, I was just too direct and that was off-putting. I was told that having an opinion and a willingness to voice that opinion wasn’t always valued ahead of office politics.
What happened next took years to undo. I started softening my approach. I still spoke up, but not without overthinking everything. I’d start by saying things like “this is just my opinion,” “sorry to jump in” or “can I add something here?” I felt less effective immediately. I was watering down my message. It felt wrong at first, but eventually I got used to it. It became my new normal.
Fast forward a few years. During my participation in an executive development program, I was told that I would be more likely to continue climbing the corporate ladder if I could communicate with more authority and candor. I. Almost. Died. The pendulum had clearly swung too far in the opposite direction.
Be strong, but not too strong; that’s a common mixed message sent to women. And sure, there is a valid fine line here, but I don’t think men have to walk this tightrope nearly as often.
In my career, I’ve led a collective 1,000+ employees. In all my years and all of those colleagues, I can remember coaching ONE male colleague about being too assertive.
Today, I know myself much better than I did back then. I have learned how to tone it down without watering it down - in every interaction I have. This journey has required me to find a way to channel my passionate, driven, opinionated self for the greater good - and take whatever comes with it. I’d say I’m a work-in-progress.
A few tips:
Never, ever stop contributing. What you say has value, whether it comes off perfectly every time or not. You can work on the rest.
If you’re genuinely in need of toning it down - tone it down, don’t water it down. Stay factual, unemotional and direct in your approach.
There are many companies today that value diversity of thought and opinion. Make sure the coaching you receive is in the spirit of YOUR success and not simply to help you blend in. Make sure your company aligns with your values and have a sense for what you will and will not compromise.
Observe other women and find the ones that balance this well. Find out what it is about their style that helps them strike the balance and succeed.
Amy Perkins is President of insideARM and The iA Institute and Chair of the annual Women in Consumer & Commercial Finance event. She also hosted this amazing video series called #fiveinfive, interviewing dozens of women about what they've learned and who they admire. You can follow Amy on Linkedin.