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05/01/2007 01:00 pm ET | Updated Mar 09, 2015

Office Management: Mistakes Female Bosses Make

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By Suzy Welch

Difficult leaders come in all genders, but female managers (though blessedly free of the oink factor) fall into their own particular traps. Suzy Welch points out the best ways around them.

The day I was made a boss for the first time, my own boss gave me a rhinestone-covered magic wand as a gift. "You're going to need this," she said with a wry smile, "to make all your mistakes disappear." Panic must have swept across my face at that moment, because my boss quickly winked at me. I laughed brightly in return, but inside I was thinking, "Mistakes? What mistakes are they expecting? They promoted me, didn't they?"

They had, of course, but they knew all too well what I was to find out. All bosses, even those with smarts and the most sincere intentions, make mistakes.

In the decade since I received that magic wand, I have encountered boss blunders of every variety. I didn't make them all myself, thankfully, although I did perpetrate more than a few. But the bulk of my exposure to boss mistakes has come from the firsthand accounts I've heard over the past several years from hundreds of working people, boss and not, in every line of work.

What I have discovered from these conversations, not surprisingly, is that most managerial mistakes cut across gender lines. Both men and women bosses, for instance, conduct performance appraisals too infrequently and without enough candor, and both men and women bosses get too caught up in daily details. And that's just the beginning of the list.

But there are a handful of mistakes women bosses tend to make more than men -- five, to be exact. Not that men don't make these mistakes; they do, but much less often. Why? The explanation, in each case, has its roots in cultural and social traditions, and maybe even genetics. In the end, understanding why women make these mistakes is less important than understanding how they can avoid them.

First, women bosses mismanage emotional distances. In 1977, when a close family friend first became a boss -- she ran a prominent Boston architecture firm -- she was determined to be taken seriously by her bosses and partners (all men) and her employees (all men except a lone secretary). To do that, she took the only obvious route: She mimicked the classic male boss -- tough and authoritative. She wasn't unfriendly to her employees, but she was certainly impersonal. In real life, this woman was none of those things, though she was probably right in assuming that, at the time, the Ice Queen boss was the only persona acceptable for women in leadership roles.

Today the Ice Queen isn't the only acceptable persona, but it still persists widely. After I graduated from business school, my first boss at a consulting firm was one, as were my second and third. These were smart and capable women, and I learned a lot from them, but they kept all of us at arm's length. It worked. We were motivated by clear directives, performance incentives, and yes, fear.

I lost my fear of bosses only when I joined a nonprofit organization several years later. There, almost all the women in power used a starkly different style of leadership -- what I've come to call the Good Mother approach. They were nurturing, endeavoring to know each of us personally. They did, and we knew all about them, too, from their favorite restaurant to their fifth-grader's problem with math.

Like the Ice Queen model, the Good Mother can be very effective. At my nonprofit job, for example, our boss made us feel like a family, and many of us cared about the work as if it were our own company. The problem, though, with both of these common leadership styles is that they mismanage emotional distances.

Ice Queens first: With their cool veneer and imperial demeanor, Ice Queens don't show much interest in their employees' hopes and dreams. Nor do they invite fun, laughter, or a sense of excitement into the workplace. They are managing emotional distances, yes, but by pushing their employees away. Ultimately, what a loss in terms of motivation and retention! People want to work where they are known and valued, and they give more when they are. Ice Queens may employ their people's hands and brains, but they're rarely able to unleash something more powerful: their hearts.

By contrast, Good Mothers can unleash too much. That is, they can invite too much emotionality into their relationships with employees, blurring the line between boss and friend. Such blurring can go along for a time, and it can feel cozy and wonderful, but it inevitably backfires when circumstances require the "friend" at the top to institute a strict workplace rule, for instance, or deliver a tough message about performance. Then -- crisis. Employees feel hurt or betrayed, or both. Their Good Mother, they grumble, wasn't a mother at all but a boss.

Handling emotional distances is one of the most complex challenges a boss faces, male or female. But the Ice Queen and Good Mother leadership styles, both so common, make doing it all the harder. The remedy lies in striking the right intimacy balance -- close enough to know your people, distant enough to lead them.

About a year ago, my husband, Jack, and I received a letter from a woman who ran a 14-person firm in South Africa. "We look after our people very well -- parties for birthdays, babies, and marriages -- and take a real interest in each individual," she wrote. "Still, people complain incessantly: too much politics, not enough appreciation, and so on. I am about to tear my hair out because nothing seems to make them happy."

The complaint sounded painfully familiar. Over the years, we have heard from dozens of women who have set out to create kinder, gentler workplaces, only to find themselves victims of their own munificence. As another woman executive explained to us, "I grew up in corporate America, where none of my bosses gave a damn that I had two kids at home and a husband who worked. No one cared about how hard I was working to keep it all together. When I started my own firm, I was going to wash away their sins." As CEO of her own show, this woman permitted 12 weeks' maternity and paternity leave, and allowed employees who were parents to pretty much come and go as they pleased. To keep things fair, she says, she also permitted nonparent employees to take sabbaticals and work from home.

"I just wanted everyone to feel good," she said. "But all I did was train my employees to ask for more, more, more."

There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to meet the professional and personal needs of employees, but such a dynamic can spiral. Soon enough, in entitlement cultures like this CEO's, employees start to think the organization is primarily about them -- not customers, not the competition, not new market opportunities, not productivity. Needless to say, work suffers. And the boss suffers with it.

The best way to deal with an entitlement culture, of course, is prevention. But if you find yourself stuck there already, the only way out is a candid conversation with employees about the way things must change to refocus the company away from the internal Garden of Eden and onto the outside world. Hiring right is, at best, a 60-40 proposition. Even the most experienced bosses will tell you that finding the right person for a job is never easy. A candidate can look great on paper and in the interview but upon arrival just can't do the job or fit in with the team. It happens.

And when it does, effective bosses let the hire go. Sure, they may give him or her up to a year's time to improve, but if that doesn't occur, they ask the person to move on. Women bosses often wait longer. They tend to avoid confrontation and worry about the employee and her family, who depend on the paycheck, so they give the new hire more chances to get it right. They coach and cajole the employee more; they may even change the job's parameters to make it work. And in these efforts, they often impose upon the whole team to make up for the hole in the system.

Basically, women bosses try to minimize hiring mistakes rather than eliminate them. Again, men fall into this trap, but women more so. One possible reason is lack of self-confidence, because self-confidence is what you need to publicly admit a mistake and fire someone. And where does self-confidence come from? Well, surely some of it is inborn. Some of it comes from life experiences, like school and sports. But at work, much of it comes from the organization's degree of trust in you. And women, particularly early in their careers, perceive less of that coming from above, sideways, and below. No wonder they can be reluctant to come out and say they've screwed up. People, they worry, will just trust them less.

Ironically, the opposite is true. Few hiring mistakes are a secret, and a leader's reputation in an organization only improves when she has the insight and guts to face a problem and fix it quickly. As one woman boss told us in Phoenix, "I held on to an incompetent marketing director for about a year too long, and it wore me out." His lack of ability, she said, also drove the rest of the team crazy, albeit out of her earshot. The day she finally asked him to look for another job, she told me, "I felt sick to my stomach -- scared witless I was going to get reprimanded for hiring him and not being able to make it work."

Instead, the incident passed without comment from anyone upstairs until a week later when she bumped into an executive in the elevator. "Why did you wait so long?" he asked her.

I recently read an inspiring article in my local newspaper about Boston businesswomen who volunteer to mentor high school girls, helping them navigate the complicated route to college. What a great program.

But it reminded me of a persistent message to women: Find a mentor. Find that one special person who will advise you along the way -- a parent, pastor, coach, and cheerleader, all in one. I heard this message before I left high school, and it got louder through college and business school, and louder still when I entered the corporate world. By the time I was made a boss, ten years into my career, the message was practically deafening.

"You have to find a mentor," the CEO of my company told me every chance she got. "You need to find somebody -- a role model, a teacher -- who can help you."

I never did, and it was only years later that I realized I didn't have one mentor because I had so many. Friends, colleagues, former bosses, a neighbor who was the CEO of her own company -- I turned to them all, and countless others, for advice and counsel. I had mentors who lasted three months and others who lasted three years. A literary agent I met by accident in 1995 is my mentor still. So is the family friend, now 74, who ran the architecture firm. Each person has taught me something different.

Interestingly, I have long observed that men receive much less pressure to get a sole mentor, and in particular, I have never heard of a male boss being urged to do so. Perhaps it's thought that men don't need the extra help; the corporate world favors them to begin with. That might be true, just as it might be true that some women are fortunate enough to find that all-in-one individual who teaches them everything they need to know. Still, I would posit that too many women make the mistake of seeking a single magical mentor. They need to seek -- and find -- as many as they can.

Something critical changes when you become a boss. The most important thing in the world is no longer your success -- it's the success of your people.

That concept is hard for both women and men bosses. After all, on the way up, you have to care passionately about your achievements. You have to raise your hand first and highest; you have to deliver the best and brightest answers. But when you become a boss, your personal performance is only as good as the performance of your team. You will do well -- if they do. You will win -- but only by basking in the reflected glory of their winning.

Almost no one makes this part of the leadership transition easily. But women have more trouble. It's hard to know why for sure. My best hypothesis is that by the time they are promoted, women have spent more time as individual achievers. They have an older, more deeply embedded habit to break. It could also be that women, once promoted, hold on longer to a sense of precariousness. They can't believe they've made it. And so they keep trying to raise their hands, so to speak. They keep trying to look good for their bosses. They keep thinking it's about their individual results.

There is nothing individual about being a boss. Many women bosses take too long to find that out, but they shouldn't. It's just a realization away.

Correcting each of the mistakes listed here is, too. Just understanding that emotional distances need to be managed with care and balance is the first step in doing so. The same goes for coming to see that there can be no Garden of Eden workplace in the all-too-human world. Knowing that women bosses tend to hang on to hiring mistakes too long is the beginning of the fix; the rest is taking decisive action. And when you hear the word mentor, just put an s on the end, and that potential error is averted.

As for the magic wand my boss gave me the day I was promoted, I dutifully taped it to the top of my computer. It didn't stop me from making mistakes. But it did remind me to pay attention to each of them so that I wouldn't make the same ones twice.