Women executives unlearning uptalk

Yesterday I had to laugh. I can not recall exactly where I read it now but it was about how women interested in the corner suite have to learn how not to uptalk or upspeak.  Frankly, I had not heard of these terms.  However, I did a search to find an apt definition for this post and I found this description in an article that appeared in Fortune last year on how to be an irresistible leader. Fortune was talking about a new book that they say is required reading at Harvard Business School

"Naturally for a couple of communications coaches, the authors offer remedies for habits of speech that undermine people’s influence at work. One of these is “uptalk,” that annoying Valley-girl intonation that makes every sentence turn up at the end like a question. It’s a verbal tic that inadvertently signals “submissive approval seeking” and “creates the impression the speaker is uncertain about things that should not be in doubt” — neither of which conveys strength (or warmth either, for that matter)."

So here is why this all made me laugh. Years ago (many) when I wrote my dissertation, my topic was whether fathers used different communications styles when talking to their 2 year old sons and daughters. My dissertation in general was on the importance of fathers in children's lives and how they influence their early growth and development. One of the findings from my research was how fathers did speak differently to girls and used "upspeak" significantly more often than with their sons. Little did I know how detrimental it would be to women getting on those power lists! I am sure someone out there will now infer here that there has been an ongoing conspiracy among dads to keep their daughters lower on the career ladder to save their own jobs but I hope not. I just thought it was worthwhile to mention that upspeak-training starts pre-kindergarten.

I think that fathers may be more conversational, back and forth, and engaging in their dialogue with their daughters when they are young. With the sons, the fathers held back more and let their sons do their jobs (which consisted of building things). With daughters, dads joined in on the play more often and engaged in uptalk. 

Little did I realize that this style of communications would have to be undone. 

Crisis Lessons to Chew On

Lessons on dealing with a crisis are always helpful, especially when your company's reputation is in jeopardy. I found this list particularly worthwhile because it was written by Sallie Krawcheck, one of the most senior women on Wall Street. I heard her speak at a Forbes conference years ago and really enjoyed her tales of juggling work, family and husband. She was very down-to-earth, approachable and humble. She recently wrote on her LinkedIn page about the lessons she learned from leading through various crises and as she says, watching others make career-ending mistakes handling crises. Here is a brief synopsis of what she advises: 1. Be heroically available. I wholeheartedly agree with her that there are times when executives wish they could just close the door and wait until a crisis fades. We all also know that this strategy does not work and rarely happens. She mentions a colleague who hosted a call for Financial Advisors when investments had gone south and how he said he'd stay on the call until every last question was answered which lasted late into the evening.

2. Allow people to ask real questions, even if you don't want to hear them. We have all been in meetings when no one wants to ask the hard question and most people just throw softballs. Leaders have to create an environment where the hard questions can be asked and there are no repercussions. Sometimes I advise a leader to ask the question himself, provide the answer and get on with it. Once the question is asked, others might have the courage to speak.

3. Frequency matters more than perfection. Krawcheck mentions how her management team had a call at the start and end of every day when the economy was tanking a few years ago. She says that some of the calls were not all that good and packed with answers but at least everyone knew they would be getting an update on a regular basis.

4. On your message: Repeat it, repeat it, repeat it. And do in different media. That is dear to my heart because those of us in public relations understand that to reach people who need certain information, you have to reach them where they are. And they are often not where you think they are. Some people read company emails, some ignore them. And as Krawcheck says, some people are readers and some are listeners. Some are in facilities where there is no easy access to electronic information. Make it easy to find out what needs to be known.

5. Bring in people who know more than you do or provide a different perspective. I found this one unusual since so many companies keep all their information and goings-on close to the vest. And rarely do they want to admit that they might not know something. She mentions how during the recent downturn, her company brought in some experts to bring a new voice into the conversation even if they were saying the same thing she was saying. This is good counsel.

6. Let them see you sweat, but don't let them see you tremble. Another piece of good advice and a good way to end this post. It is okay to work super hard and show that you are not home for dinner with the family night after night when crisis is on your doorstep but make sure that your team does not see you scared. Being confident "goes a long way." Yes indeed.

Steve Jobs and Eve

 Strange juxtaposition. While I was away in Europe for two weeks, I read the Walter Issacson book on Steve Jobs. It was truly captivating and compelling. I finished it on my flight home from London and was intrigued from the first word to the last. The book is written in the style of Apple which is that it is simply written, elegant in its prose, effortless, intelligent, and intuitive as you learn how his early thoughts translated into his future work. Like Jobs' overall thinking, the book, like his computers, could be for anyone, techologist or not, male or female. When I got home Friday night, I sorted through some of the magazines that had arrived. New York magazine's cover story was about the rise of Ms. magazine and had Gloria Steinem on the cover. It was commemorating the feminist movement at its start in 1971 and as an insert in New York. The opening lines were a stark reminder that women have come far.  In the 1970s, women had trouble getting credit cards without a man's signature. Almost impossible to believe, right?

The two reads -- the Jobs book and the magazine commemorative article -- made me ponder. While reading the story of Steve Jobs, I mentioned to one of my traveling partners that I was disappointed that women figured so small in Jobs' life.  The book is full of men he loved and loved working with.  There was little mention of his mother, Clara, and few women populated his life at Apple except for two or three. The preponderance of characters in Jobs' life were men who had technology, engineering or design backgrounds and helped build the wonder that is Apple.  There were indeed insights about his daughters, his wife, his former girlfriends and his sister but the ratio of men and their achievements and contributions at Apple, Pixar and NeXT far outweighed the women's.

I am not sure what to think about the lack of women in high places in Jobs' hierarchy but I would have been curious to know what he really thought of the second sex and technology.  I understand the relevance of Adam but where's Eve's place in the story? The reputation of women in the techology world, in Silicon Valley and in digital today is a question that begs exploring. I imagine that someone else will notice and clarify for me. And I imagine that someone is writing a book proposal about Steve Jobs and the women in his working life.

Reputation in Words

   Sometimes I wander through Letters to Shareholders from chairmen or CEOs. This might have become a habit when I first began following CEOs and brushing up on companies and their reputations. When I am asked about a company or its competitors, I like to download the CEO Letters and get a glimpse of what is on their leaders’ or founders’ minds. Sometimes a lot of personality and perceptiveness shows through, other times not. So I happened to be looking at the letter from Baron Benjamin de Rothschild of the LCF Rothschild Group and these words caught my eye in its closing:

“I take pride in picturing that, in the next generation, our Group will inevitably be presided over by women, for I have four daughters. Like my mother and like my wife, whose intelligence and support are invaluable to me, my daughters will know better than we do how to safeguard substance. Because women beget life, they find it too precious a thing to gamble with. If I may be allowed to paraphrase Alfred de Musset, they do not toy with love or money.”

As a woman and mother of daughters, I found them full of humanity and sentiment, especially in light of the economic downfall surrounding so many banking institutions. I am confident that the reputation of the Rothschild’s banking empire will be in good hands in the generation to come.