We have had the honor of listening to over 50 remarkable women leaders this last year, who have faced giant obstacles and persevered with all the might and courage they could muster.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we want to honor them by sharing their stories in the women’s leadership space. These women have inspired us in our journeys, not because they had an easy life handed to them, but because they faced giant obstacles and didn’t run away. They persevered with all the might and courage they could muster. This month, we honor them.
A “People First” Leader
We begin with my client, Anna, a medical doctor. She learned her trade as an operating room physician during her career in the military. After she retired as a decorated leader from the military, she pursued a leadership position in the corporate world with a healthcare organization. She landed an executive position as President, Eastern Region for the healthcare company and reported directly to the CEO.
Anna thrived in her position as an executive, and explained that it was the military that taught her how to be a leader by putting people first. “While the general public doesn’t usually see this side of the military, the military actually taught me how to be a people first leader by thinking through my decisions and the impact they have on those around me before I implement anything. I know that true leadership requires listening and responding, not ordering and ignoring.” As soon as Anna entered the private sector, she leveraged her “people first” leadership mentality. As President, she motivated her direct reports and shared her vision across her region. In fact, she was so successful at leading that she out-paced and out-performed all of her male counterparts.
The Biggest Challenge
I’m always curious about the experiences of other women leaders, so I asked Anna what her biggest challenge was in moving forward in her executive role. I love a great success story and I know that success is born out of challenges and hardship, so that’s where I often like to probe first. Anna said, “The biggest challenge I faced was being an outsider and navigating a culture that didn’t align with my values and wasn’t supportive of my leadership style. A people first leader like me wasn’t welcome in my healthcare organization.”
While Anna was celebrated and recognized for her successes the first two years, a new CEO entered the picture and Anna found herself in the midst of an organization in conflict. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what was going on; she just knew there were a lot of odd things occurring. Her “people first” style was no longer acceptable. The CEO wanted her to be more directive and assertive, like her male counterparts. A consultant also appeared on the scene and began conducting a culture assessment. The new CEO told Anna that he was conducting the culture survey because he was interested in moving out one of the underperforming regional presidents and was looking for information to help him do so. She soon learned that the consultant actually was gathering information about the culture in her region and on her leadership style and portraying them as problematic, because they were completely out of line with the rest of the organization. A week before Christmas, Anna found herself on an unplanned trip to pay her respects to a dear military colleague who had passed away. She planned an extra day after the funeral to visit with friends. That day, as the stress of the funeral and work lifted a little, Anna suddenly realized that the new CEO was plotting to fire her. She consulted a close confidant who advised her to obtain legal representation and therapy.
Anna left that position without being able to say proper good-byes to her staff. She felt humiliated and like she had failed in some way. She wondered if “people first” was the right way to lead. Through the help of supportive family, friends, and counselors, Anna eventually shifted her mindset from the negative spiral to a positive outlook. I asked Anna, “What would it have meant to have this challenge go away while you were there?” She responded, “It would have meant we were successful and we could evolve and grow people and profits at the same time and it would be a rewarding and fulfilling workplace.” After spending some time building her confidence again, Anna landed an Associate Dean position in a medical school. She is leveraging her “people first” leadership style again and thriving.
Anna acknowledged that while her biggest challenge didn’t go away, she learned a very big lesson. “We need to have more conversations collectively, men and women, about systemic things that need to change to create the right culture for women. We also need to appreciate the different strengths each gender brings. The efforts shouldn’t solely be focused on the woman trying to survive in a dysfunctional organization, but should be working toward more inclusive organizations.”
Are you wondering how to lead authentically, too? Maybe you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed and aren’t sure where to move. Perhaps you’ve had a traumatic experience like Anna. Whatever your story, I welcome the opportunity to work with you to help you find (or dust off) your authentic leadership style as you move forward with your career. Here’s a link to schedule a time so we can chat about how I can help.