Lessons from the velvet hammer

Jan 15 2010 by JulieAnn Derby Print This Article

Recently, a woman at work let me in on a secret. My nickname is 'the velvet hammer'. It seems it was coined following a recent senior leadership meeting and it stuck. When I asked her what this meant, she said 'as a leader, you demonstrate incredible strength, intelligence and grace'. She added, 'your capabilities often come as an unexpected surprise to others'.

That was probably one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. I believe she was showing appreciation for my apparent effectiveness in navigating through what is often a tumultuous, male-dominated, technology-driven work environment.

Clearly, women in executive technology roles must pilot through a different terrain than their male counterparts. I cannot imagine my colleague giving this compliment to a man, regardless of his grace under pressure. One just wouldn't suggest to a man that they were surprised by his capabilities. Rather, one would likely note and praise the skills demonstrated of a male associate.

So, this exchange inspired me to take some time and consider more deeply the issues that I face as a women executive. I came up with the following imperatives. I offer these to working professionals everywhere. My hope is simply to improve the work experience for everyone - women may find this advice helpful and men may better understand the "other" people that they work with.

Velvet Hammer Imperatives
Expect challenges to your competency: Some may discount your abilities both directly and indirectly. Here are some of my favorite examples:

  • You can be publicly undermined when presenting your ideas to senior executives
  • You can be considered the 'token' female on the executive team
  • Peers can place 'seeds of doubt' regarding your competency to upper management
  • Others think they are more qualified than you simply because you're a woman

So, be as prepared, smart, graceful and strong as you can be when encountering this form of resistance. You have what it takes or you wouldn't be there. Remember, women are still a minority within the senior management ranks. It is what it is. Clearly, you will stand out more the higher you rise. Make peace with being a target for others and remember "the best defense is a good offense".

Look for ways to make your boss successful: Your progress and value directly correlates to the effectiveness of your boss and your ability to enable him/her and advance the organization. Find a leader that you respect, can learn from, and can take calculated risks with to better the company.

If your current boss doesn't satisfy all of the three criteria, do your job well and look for a new boss who will. You can learn from every person above you in an organization, even those that you make you cringe. Poor management will teach you what to avoid when you manage others.

Lastly, if you feel you are doing the job of your immediate superior, make sure it is obvious to others and more than likely you will be seen as a candidate for a promotion opportunity.

Look for mentors outside of your reporting chain: While it feels terrific when it happens, don't expect your boss to be your mentor. In fact, it can serve you well to have an outside perspective and coaching, too.

I've found that I have gained immense value from a variety of people I have worked with, including more experienced colleagues, management consultants and personal coaches hired by the firm to specifically improve the quality of the entire management team. Seek out advice from those who may have been there before and are willing to share ideas and insights that will make you better.

Develop impeccable timing: Being at the right place at the right time is usually a planned occurrence from a career perspective. Having impeccable, or flawless, timing speaks to positioning yourself as the clear candidate for a more senior level job opening / new position.

To develop this skill, become a student of your business/industry, deliver unquestionable team results, enable the success of your boss and you will demonstrate your potential and desire to perform at the higher level. Take on tasks outside your comfort zone, or assigned domain, to build credibility with other leaders and show you can work with a team outside of your organization.

Lastly, make sure you are able to prepare material, and confidently present complex ideas to senior executives and large audiences.

Be leery of backstop promotional opportunities: Organizations often backstop an underperforming supervisor with someone that they think will do the job for him/her. While this scenario can actually result in a financial / title promotion, no one wins here. The supervisor doesn't improve and you get stuck doing two jobs.

If you sense that this "terrific opportunity" is disguising a backstop situation for an underperformer, you should gracefully take a pass.

Promote the success of others: Find others that you respect and make it a point to promote their success. At the executive level, your success depends on your investment in your key stakeholders. Key stakeholders are (anyone that can influence the outcome of your work and / or career) those above you, those below you and those within your peer group.

Build a stakeholder map and specify, by individual, what you need to do to make them successful. By making them successful, they will be more inclined to speak well of you and support your team's agenda.

Remember to always be grateful and appreciate the contributions of others. Take the time and effort to say thank you in a way that is meaningful to the person you want to recognize.

I believe a great part of being a manager is rewarding and recognizing talent. It spreads good will and enables others, further it develops a healthier work environment. It can never hurt to support, recognize and promote people you respect.

Build a winning team: You can be the smartest person in the room, the hardest worker, the most dedicated team member and your results will always be limited by your individual contributions. By building a team and delivering unquestionable results, you are exponentially more valuable than what you can deliver as an individual contributor.

Paradoxically, you must be deliberate in building and nurturing your team. Be sure to establish and socialize your team's mission, expected results, success criteria, critical skills and the action steps / key milestones that will define impeccable results. These go a long way towards creating an environment where successful teams can flourish.

Keep developing your messaging skills: Being able to deliver a compelling story, engage an audience, and facilitate a fruitful discussion is an essential component of your toolbox.

I have been amazed at the sheer number of senior executives who lack one or more of these components. The ability for an individual to successfully present, engage, influence and guide an executive group effectively separates those who will continue to climb the corporate ladder from those that will plateau.

Many companies invest in their employees by providing training to develop these capabilities. This type of critical thinking, presentation/story creation and 'showcase' capability is considered a competitive advantage in the workplace. Seek out such opportunities.

However, with dedication, one can develop these skills on their own. If you don't already possess these abilities, include them to your two year development plan and take action. To penetrate the senior executive ranks, you will need them all.

Establish and protect your reputation: Your reputation and integrity is critical, don't lose sight of what other may be saying about you. As a woman, you may become a target for office gossip. Women of higher ranks are often bolder targets and more susceptible of being accused of using their sexuality to advance their careers.

Navigate politics and office games with great team results. Avoid engaging in office gossip and take note of those who thrive on it. All of us work with people who truly enjoy speculating and talking about others in the office. Some take it to a new level and work out schemes and strategies to gain power and influence.

This is especially true, if you are new to a company. It is almost a compliment when others pull you in by sharing their insights and stories of others. Be careful. If you want to be valued don't align yourself with one faction of the office or another. By doing so, you will limit yourself. Be extremely selective on where you place your trust. Who you surround yourself with at work reflects what you value in others.

Be mindful of your presence and still be a woman: Be acutely aware of how you present yourself to others. Earlier in my career as an aerospace engineer and a development director, I found women who reached the vice president level often emulated their male peers.

These women seemed to purposefully adjust verbal and non-verbal to be more masculine and have a complementary masculine appearance. Although it was likely their work and team results which promoted them to this level, how they presented themselves sent a confusing message to the junior work force, both males and females.

The irony is that concurrently women at staff levels often dressed in a manner which commanded attention, and at times diverted attention away from their actual contributions. Don't make that mistake.

Rather, adopt 'if in doubt, don't' dressing principle. Dressing provocatively or flirting is never acceptable in the workplace. Remember, you want to be known for your work not the way you look. Subtle femininity works, so use it.

The advice offered through these ten imperatives does not represent the end of the discussion. Rather, I hope that they inspire further thought and dialogue. We should consider them a starting point. If we do this, I am optimistic that they can form the foundation for greater understanding and, ultimately, an improved working environment for us all.

About The Author

JulieAnn Derby
JulieAnn Derby

JulieAnn Derby is Chief Project Officer at a leading insurance software company. She has nearly 20 years experience spearheading integral business initiatives and innovative programs.

Older Comments

Your question and commentary is appreciated. We all face challenges in our career regardless of yoru demographic. What is important is that we open our eyes to the issues and navigate our way to success with each other. Diversity can often bring creativity and balance to our work environments. Figuring out how to leverage each other's strengths is how we will pave a better road for our successors (and our children) in the future. Thanks for taking the time to share your feedback.

JulieAnn Derby