Advice on Being a Boss

Getting to the C-suite isn't always as easy as it seems -- being a boss can be trying in new and challenging ways. Whether you need some help getting to be a boss, or now you're a boss and need advice on things like delegating and managing subordinates -- we've got you covered.

Executive Presence for Women Leaders

Executive Presence and How to Get It (Or Fake It) | CorporetteHow would you define “executive presence,” particularly for women? Have you worked to build your executive presence? What are your best executive presence tips? Here are some qualities of women with executive presence that Corporette readers have mentioned during conversations that have taken place in the comments:

  • having a “cool, calm, and commanding” presence
  • being a skilled public speaker
  • appearing put-together (clothes fit well, hair is neatly styled, etc.)
  • seeming “knowledgeable but not a know-it-all”
  • staying cool in a crisis
  • showing confidence
  • having an attitude of “the buck stops with me”

Earlier this year, we discussed new research that showed that looking “put-together” and exhibiting “good grooming” can boost women’s salaries (even more so than being considered attractive), and a couple of years ago we talked about a study that stated wearing more makeup makes women look more competent. Today we’ll go beyond that to take a closer look at executive presence and what it means for women leaders at work. (In the past, we’ve shared posts on imposter syndrome, the difference between confidence and arrogancebeing taken seriously when you look young, and books and resources to help you become a leader and a better manager. We’ve also discussed the book The Confidence Code.)  

According to research from Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, executive presence is composed of “how you act (otherwise known as gravitas, the most important quality), how you communicate, and how you look.” A 2013 Business Insider article describes it with 7 Cs: composure, connection, charisma, confidence, credibility, clarity, and conciseness. Hewlett (whose book we link to below) says that executive presence “accounts for as much as 28 percent of a woman’s success” (!).

These definitions sound straightforward enough, but cultivating executive presence requires women to walk a very fine line, thanks to the maddening contradictory messages we receive about how to act at work. You know: If you don’t ask for a raise, you’re blamed for the gender wage gap, but if you ask for a raise, you’re viewed as “greedy, demanding or just not very nice.” If you act with confidence and strength, you’re “too aggressive” or “a bitch”; if you don’t appear assertive enough, your behavior is interpreted as weakness. (As social psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson puts it, the typical dichotomy for women is “competent and cold — that’s the bitch — or warm and incompetent — the doormat who no one takes seriously.”) Of course, this predicament extends to physical appearances, too; research shows that women with “unkempt nails” lose executive-presence points but that those with “overly done” nails are also viewed negatively. Faced with this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” minefield, some women are paying $2,000 to $5,000 to attend special workshops on executive presence.

Putting all of that aside for a moment, here are a few concrete tips on exhibiting executive presence at work:

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Should Your Work Friends Include Your Assistant?

Should Your Work Friends Include Your Assistant? 2017 Update: Administrative Professionals’ Day is April 26, 2017. You can check out our most recent thread on what we’re getting for our assistants on Administrative Professionals’ Day here

Do you socialize with your assistant or secretary? Do you consider him or her to be among your work friends? Or do you keep your relationship with staffers friendly but avoid turning it into an actual friendship? If the relationship has swung too far towards “friendship,” how do you bring it back to “collegial”? Reader N wonders…

How do you reformalize a working relationship with your secretary? I work in law and I have been cognizant about not talking down to my secretary, who is also a young female. I have noticed recently she has interpreted this to mean we are “friends,” which is fine. Recently, she has seemed to step up her attitude, and does not make requests of me politely. I don’t want my niceness mistaken for passiveness or that she does not need to respect me the way she does others who were not as nice.

Hmmmn… tough question, Reader N! With Administrative Professionals Day observed this Wednesday it’s a good time to revisit the issue. In general, I think it’s fine to be friendly with staffers and other subordinates, but the closer the relationship gets, the more complicated it gets. One reader wrote to us a while ago where she was the only female lawyer, and the group of female secretaries was being very welcoming — in that case, where she already had an uphill battle to be/feel accepted with the other lawyers, I think she was right to keep her distance.  Outside of that circumstance, friendship with subordinates can also be complicated because if the assistant screws up, needs redirection or criticism, or just generally needs firmer deadlines and oversight, all of that is easier to do with an arm’s length, professional relationship, without adding more intense emotions of doubt and betrayal (“but I thought we were friends” / “why is my friend betraying me”). (We had a great discussion on whether a boss should be respected vs. liked just last year.)

As to reader N’s question, how can you bring an office friendship with an assistant back to a collegial relationship? I’m curious to hear what the readers say here, but I think the answer is “very carefully.” My $.02 tips:

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How to Delegate: How to Start Delegating Work To Your Assistant

how to delegateLadies: let’s talk about the art of delegating work to your secretary, assistant, or another third party. More and more I feel like knowing how to delegate is key to success in work and life — you can’t micromanage everything. Besides, if you bill by the hour, remember that your client doesn’t want to pay, say, $500 an hour for someone to photocopy something! So: what tasks do you delegate? How did you learn how to delegate, and what are your best tips for women thinking about what they should assign to others? (Previously: we’ve talked about how to show your appreciation to a great assistant, and when to fire a bad assistant, as well as apps like Fiverr that let you delegate some things to third parties.)

For my $.02, for working women with an assistant, I’d seriously look at delegating tasks like:

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The Bad Assistant: When To Switch, When to Fire

When to Fire a Bad Assistant | CorporetteWhat should you do when you’re stuck with a bad assistant, secretary or subordinate — and your assistant doesn’t assist? When is just time to switch assistants, or even fire the person? Reader K wonders:

We are a small (12 people) conservative professional investment firm serving high net worth clients. I recently moved from front office to portfolio assistant. The young woman who replaced me thinks she is doing a great job even though she was told by management that she needs to work on skills. She says she has a photographic memory and doesn’t take notes on anything I try to explain. I prepared “how to'” notes for her, but have had to print them for her repeatedly. She makes “to do” lists but rarely does items on the list. When I try to explain something, she has gotten up and walked off or continues to stare at computer screen. Her history shows that she is constantly on the Internet. I was told to monitor these things, but feel uncomfortable. I am working an extra 15 hours a week trying to do my new job and picking up slack on hers. Needless to say, I am stressed. Management is aware of issues, but not that I am really stressed out over this. How should I handle this?

Wow — I’m sorry, K, that sounds like it really stinks. You say she’s been warned; you say management is already aware of these issues. That all leads me to the following advice:

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Feeling Jealous of a Younger Colleague

Feeling Jealous of a Younger ColleagueWhat should you do if you’re feeling envious of a colleague who’s younger than you, seemingly unappreciative of the opportunity you’re giving her, and also — in your opinion — inappropriately flirty at networking events? Reader J wonders:

I’m a 40 yr old business development manager at an engineering firm. I’ve formed a group of female colleagues that helps with networking and business that’s getting notice in my city (like a Stiletto Mafia). A few months ago one of the key ladies in my group invited my junior engineer in my firm to join.

This engineer is funny and smart but also a gorgeous 24 yr old. Now I am torn between wanting to be a mentor and jealousy. I am jealous that she has access to this group of high powered ladies that are my friends and doesn’t seem to grateful that I’m including her. This engineer also occasionally helps with networking. It’s frustrating to attend a business event while these men are flirting with her. She isn’t overt, but she is aware of her looks and plays them up.

I’d like to drop her from the group and ask her to focus on current clients vs networking. Am I being a hypocrite?

I think you’re being honest, Reader J — a lot more than most people would be in person. I don’t think this is unusual, though; I think a lot of younger women alienate good mentors by being too entitled (like the reader who expected her boss to help her network) or arrogant at work, or, here, too focused on other parts of life like flirting. (We have offered some tips in the past on how to network with older women that may help younger readers here!)

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Should You Ever Hire a Friend?

hiring-friendsHiring friends: yea or nay?  Does your answer vary if you’re hiring a friend to be a colleague/equal versus hiring an assistant?  We’ve talked about interviewing with friends, but not the reverse situation, hiring a friend. Reader M wonders…

I work at a small law firm. I’m pretty junior, but I have a considerable amount of input on decisions about the business. We don’t have an HR department or a formal hiring process. We’re getting pretty busy and I think it’s time to hire a new assistant to help us handle the work. A friend’s girlfriend recently moved to our city and has experience working as an assistant in a professional environment. I’m thinking of asking her if she’d be interested in the job – I know how hard it can be to find a good job in a new city and I know she’s qualified, so I’d be happy to help her and add some one likeable and competent to our staff in the process. Is it always a bad idea to hire a friend?

Interesting question, M.  There are two things that concern me about this situation.  First: she’s your friend’s girlfriend — not your friend.  You don’t know if/how things will end between them, or how awkward it’s going to be if you have to choose sides.  The second thing is that she’ll be an assistant — and being friends with staffers can get kind of murky, particularly for women.  In this situation there are two considerations here — first, if you and she are pals around the office, your superiors might start viewing you as “one of the girls,” which isn’t going to be good for your career.  Second, if you know this person enough to let your hair down around her, socially, it’s going to be a bit awkward giving her assignments and acting like a boss with her. (After all, you need to be respected, not liked.)  There needs to be some separation between work and life — and to me this is way too little space.

Readers, what are your thoughts — would you ever encourage a friend to apply to an administrative/secretarial position at your workplace?

Psst: we’ve talked before about using friends to network, as well as competing with friends for jobs.

Pictured: New Best Bitches set of friendship necklaces, available from Etsy seller guiltyeocrc for $4.50. 

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