Toughness Has Risks for Women Executives

August 10, 2001

M OUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — The first Thursday of every month, about a dozen women executives gather in this Silicon Valley town to repent and change their ways.

They sit in a ring, the picture of corporate propriety in their suits and low-heeled mules, turning off cell phones before the confessions begin. "I'm Suzann," says Suzann Manteufel, a financial executive at Sun Microsystems (news/quote), "and I'm a recovering bully broad." She slumps in her chair. "Or maybe I should say, a relapsing one."

They continue around the circle. "I came here — excuse me, I was sent here — two years ago because of my intolerance for incompetence," says Debra Martucci, vice president for information technology at a software design firm, "and for having a level of passion for my job that scared people to death."

By many measures, these women would seem to need little help. They are experienced executives who have pushed their companies to higher profits and wooed the most clients. But nearly all have been told that the toughness that made them six-figure successes has become a liability, preventing them from rising higher. Their no-nonsense ways intimidate subordinates, colleagues and, quite often, their bosses, who are almost invariably men.

And so they have ended up here for an unusual kind of executive coaching, a program called Bully Broads that offers a new set of rules for getting ahead. For women to succeed now, they must become ladies first, says the program's founder, Jean A. Hollands, who has coached hundreds of executives over the last 15 years. Ditch all that hardball stuff from the 80's — being assertive, standing firm — and learn to hold your tongue, stammer and couch what you say. Don't choke back tears if you start to cry at a meeting.

"Talk right through the tears," Ms. Hollands writes in her coming book, "Same Game, Different Rules: How to Get Ahead Without Being a Bully Broad, Ice Queen or Other `Ms. Understoods.' " "You will look and sound more courageous if you can appear to be focused and steady, and the tears are just those little nonsense things running down your face. You will really make an impression when you finish."

Such advice, needless to say, raises the hackles of any number of women executives and management experts; life and work are more complicated, they say, than a stark choice between being tough and being tearful. Still others note that being tough certainly seems to have worked well for men. "I think women in many cases need to be more aggressive," said Alexandra Lebenthal, chief executive of the brokerage firm Lebenthal & Company.

Yet in training female executives, Ms. Hollands realized that she was repeatedly tackling the same problem: their companies found them scary. Two years ago, she gathered 30 women for what was to be a one- time meeting. But the women, she says, wanted it to be continuing, and 17 have stayed with the program from the start.

Nobody defends abusive behavior by top executives, male or female. But men, Ms. Hollands says, seldom hear that vulnerability is the route to power. Few men who come to her coaching firm, the Growth and Leadership Center, are labeled bullies, with the vast majority sent to learn how to delegate or handle stress better. But of the women who come, 95 percent, she says, are sent because of "intimidating styles."

"Many of the things these women do would not be as inappropriate in a man," Ms. Hollands said. "We want these women to be more powerful and not feel more victimized, thinking, `We don't get the same consideration men do.' We don't. So what? We've only been in the work force as leaders for 50 years. Men have a 600- year head start on us."

Nearly all the women who attend Bully Broads were sent to Ms. Hollands by their companies, and most, at the beginning, rolled their eyes like they do when they hear dumb things at staff meetings.

"I feel like I've landed at an A.A. meeting," said a distressed Kyung Yoon, a first-time participant who runs the North Asia operations for her executive search firm. "I'm not a bully; I'm not obnoxious; I'm not unreasonable," Ms. Yoon says, chopping one hand into another for emphasis and looking around for backup.

"Where'd you get that gesture?" asks Laura Steck, one of the group's facilitators.

Ms. Yoon will probably come around. The first stage in the Bully Broad makeover is always denial, Ms. Hollands says. Some longtimers are still shaken from hearing what others at work think of them, information culled from so-called 360-degree job reviews that allow not just superiors, but colleagues and subordinates, to assess one's performance.

Helen Kinnaman still thinks that maybe she rubs colleagues the wrong way because she is an over- caffeinated New Yorker in laid-back California. Many Bully Broads are, like her, Eastern transplants. The senior sales representative at an office furniture company, Ms. Kinnaman, 45, was once told by her president that she walked, talked and thought too fast.

"And my reaction was, what's wrong with that?" she says. "You think fast, it means you get more done."
Her clients loved her. Her co-workers didn't. She didn't say please and thank you or greet everyone as she walked down the hall. Many men at her company don't either, but she was sent to Ms. Hollands for her "intimidating style."

"Some of the, um, modifications Jean suggested have helped me," Ms. Kinnaman says. "I just said `um.' I never used to say `um.' But I'll pause more now. I'll pause after a stressful call before sending off an e- mail or talking to someone about getting something done."

As he tries to tiptoe out of the office, Ron Steck, a vice president at the Growth and Leadership Center and Ms. Hollands's son-in-law, is summoned to the meeting to offer a man's insight — the prevailing insight — into the ways of powerful women.

"With a male executive, there's no expectation to be nice," he said. "He has more permission to be an ass. But when women speak their minds, they're seen as harsh."

"Well, I'd tell the men to get over it," says Julia Campbell, who recently stepped down as the head of information technology at a company because, she suspects, she could not hide her lack of respect for the founder.

Ms. Hollands counters: "Can you get over your DNA? This is a deeply embedded thing in them."

One new arrival to the Thursday meeting this month recalled telling a colleague, a favorite of her bosses, that she was "disappointed" he had usurped her professional turf. Some women praised her for staying calm and using the word "disappointed."

But Ms. Hollands worried she had burned her bridges with a rising star. "Did you use any foreplay?" she asked.


"When you deliver bad news, you have to give foreplay," she said. "You know: `I know you must be busy, and I know this is a big field, and it's been hard for me to accept others on it, so I might get a bit testy as I talk about this.' "

A Silicon Valley contractor, Rudolph & Sletten, sent one of its woman executives to be softened up by Ms. Hollands. Norma Adjmi, the company's head of human resources, said that the change may not have been profound, but the executive came back having learned to treat others more gently.

Ms. Adjmi herself was coached by Ms. Hollands, and said she was shocked to be categorized as a "silent bully broad" — one, apparently, who exudes disapproval without actually voicing it.

Asked if she is now prepared to cry at meetings, Ms. Adjmi said: "I'd try not to. But I've tried to make myself more vulnerable, and it made my relationship with people better. Did it cost me something? Yes. Did it always work? No, but I felt better for trying."

Ms. Hollands says that about 25 of the 30 participants in Bully Broads have received better job reviews, more responsibility or promotions.

Management experts agree with Ms. Hollands that expectations for office behavior are changing, but they are concerned that her advice reinforces a longstanding double standard at work.

Joyce K. Fletcher, a professor at the Simmons Graduate School of Management in Boston, which offers the nation's only women-only M.B.A. program, said the new corporate approach favors using more inclusive, softer language to coax employees to speak up. But women who talk that way, she said, are seen as lacking in confidence.

It is the Catch-22 of that corporate mindset that needs to change, she said, more than the personalities of individual women. "I have no problem sending women to executive training to deal with a hostile environment," said Professor Fletcher, "but not if you aren't doing something to address that environment."

Still, the Bully Broads premise seems to reflect the moment. Whether in love or work, it can seem these days that the most acceptable woman is the nice girl. The woman whose playbook is "The Rules," the best- selling throwback guide to playing hard to get, stands the best chance of snaring her dream man. The spouse who cedes control to her husband, as prescribed in another best seller, "The Surrendered Wife," stands the best chance of keeping him.

The cultural message sent to women "is confusing," said Jean Baker Miller, a professor of psychology and organizational training at Wellesley College. "Should you be like men? No, you shouldn't be like men." And so women figure, "Oh well, let's just go back to the old ways."

The desire to climb higher on the corporate ladder — and perhaps a longing to be liked — keep most of the executives in Bully Broads coming back to their new finishing school. But if the women manage to get over their disbelief at being labeled bullies, acceptance of ladylike ways is harder.

Michelle Whiting, 42, is one of the few women to enroll herself in Bully Broads. From 1993 to 1997, she nurtured a start-up, as its controller, into a $178 million company that she helped take public. Despite her success, she knew she had a reputation for being tough.

"I'd talk to people and make them cry, and then I'd become more infuriated because I thought they were weak," she tells the group. "God, I can't imagine what they were saying about me behind my back."

For the last 18 months, she has worked hard at letting go of the daily battles at work to build lasting good will. But Ms. Whiting says she's "in crisis" now, having spent the last three days arguing with her boss over pay and other issues.

"Have I told Jean this? No!" she said in an interview. "She would tell me never to yell at a manager. But damn it, if I hadn't yelled at him, I would never have gotten this meeting to sort out the situation. You need an act of civil disobedience to get any attention at that firm."

Dressed in a bright yellow shirt with the word "Human" on the left breast ("It's a clothing brand," she says), Ms. Whiting waffles about her commitment to niceness. "I know I'm not supposed to say this," she says, "but I like the fact that the women in our group are proud, have strong convictions and aren't afraid to speak their minds."

She considers her own transgressions and finally adds, "Do I feel bad that I yelled? Well, yeah. But, hell, maybe we can't be reformed after all."