Theresa May’s dis­as­trous elec­tion gam­ble is just one high-pro­file ex­am­ple of a woman giv­ing every­thing to reach the top, only to em­bark on a self-sab­o­tag­ing course once she gets there. Anna Moore re­ports

The Mail on Sunday - You - - In this is­sue - One of the world’s most suc­cess­ful fe­male bosses, Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton

Why do so many women spend their lives climb­ing the ca­reer lad­der only to fall at the top?

When Theresa May called the snap elec­tion in April, her party a com­fort­able 20 points ahead in the polls, few imag­ined how far – and how fast – she would fall.

Only af­ter­wards, in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the shock hung par­lia­ment re­sult, did we be­gin to learn the truth about her lead­er­ship style. For a sea­soned politi­cian (the long­est serv­ing Home Sec­re­tary in more than 50 years), her mis­takes sound star­tlingly el­e­men­tary.

May swept into Num­ber 10 after last year’s ref­er­en­dum with a cab­i­net of ex­pe­ri­enced min­is­ters ea­ger to sup­port her in her new role. But in­stead of col­lab­o­rat­ing freely with them, she re­lied in­stead on a tight clique of trusted, un­elected ad­vis­ers: her for­mer joint chiefs of staff Fiona Hill and Nick Ti­mothy, whom she brought with her to Down­ing Street from her pre­vi­ous po­si­tion at the Home Of­fice. Th­ese two acted as the PM’s gate­keep­ers: they took con­trol of her diary, told min­is­ters what to do and kept them at arm’s length. They re­port­edly could be ‘un­ac­cept­ably ag­gres­sive’, send­ing cab­i­net min­is­ters ‘rude’ texts. Ig­nor­ing the wealth of wis­dom and ex­pe­ri­ence at her dis­posal in White­hall, May ap­pears to have cho­sen not to con­sult be­yond them. The re­sult­ing at­mos­phere has been de­scribed by in­sid­ers as ‘toxic’ and May’s work­ing style ‘closed, con­trol­ling, un­trust­ing’.

Al­though a leader’s role is to unite ev­ery­one around a com­mon vi­sion, few knew what May’s ‘vi­sion’ was, partly be­cause of this ex­ces­sive se­crecy – even her own cab­i­net min­is­ters were only given sight of the full elec­tion man­i­festo just 20 min­utes ahead of the me­dia. And as the cam­paign got un­der­way, May seemed elu­sive and un­know­able to the pub­lic, too. She avoided TV de­bates and hid from view, scam­per­ing to tiny gath­er­ings of party faith­fuls to re­peat ro­botic mantras (‘strong and sta­ble’, ‘no deal is bet­ter than a bad deal’) be­fore jump­ing back on her bat­tle bus. With hind­sight, the col­lapse of her ma­jor­ity seems less a shock re­sult, more a dis­as­ter-in-wait­ing.

Sadly, May is by no means the first highly in­tel­li­gent and ca­pa­ble woman who has doggedly worked her way to the top – in busi­ness or pub­lic life – only to come crash­ing down in the blink of an eye.

High-flyer and 2014 Veuve Clic­quot Busi­ness Woman award-win­ner Har­riet Green trans­formed the for­tunes of ail­ing travel com­pany Thomas Cook after ar­riv­ing as CEO in 2012. Two years later, she was re­port­edly forced out amid ru­mours of an at­mos­phere of anx­i­ety in the of­fice; that Green had ‘no re­spect for any­body’ and staff lived ‘in fear of her pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tions’, ac­cord­ing to for­mer col­leagues.

In the US, Marissa Mayer – the IT ex­ec­u­tive who made her name at Google be­fore be­com­ing CEO of Ya­hoo – is an­other ex­am­ple. She re­signed ear­lier this year after Ver­i­zon com­pleted its ac­qui­si­tion of the tech com­pany, hav­ing failed to turn its for­tunes around. Dur­ing her ten­ure, an em­ployee sur­vey found that work­place morale had fallen by dou­ble fig­ures and the com­pany’s se­nior lead­er­ship

May isn’t the only woman to have crashed down in the blink of an eye

were crit­i­cised for ‘not lis­ten­ing’ and ‘not un­der­stand­ing’.

In the me­dia world, Jill Abram­son be­came the first woman to serve as ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of The New York Times – and, in May 2014, the first to be fired. Its pub­lisher blamed ‘ar­bi­trary de­ci­sion mak­ing, a fail­ure to con­sult and bring col­leagues with her, in­ad­e­quate com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the pub­lic mis­treat­ment of col­leagues’. On the same day, ed­i­tor of the French daily news­pa­per Le Monde Natalie Nougayrède re­signed after just 14 months on the job, with staff com­plain­ing about her ‘Pu­ti­nesque ten­den­cies’. Ouch.

While no one doubts the abil­ity of th­ese women to go on to achieve great suc­cess again, statis­tics bear out the per­cep­tion that fe­male lead­ers are more vul­ner­a­ble than men to be­ing abruptly fired. Re­search by global strat­egy con­sul­tants Strat­egy& that looked at CEO turnover in the world’s 2,500 largest pub­lic com­pa­nies over a decade found that women were forced out of their po­si­tions more than a third of the time – for men, it was closer to a quar­ter. And given how hard th­ese women must have worked to defy the odds and reach the top (in 2015 women rep­re­sented only three per cent of new CEOs), that’s a crush­ing fig­ure.

Why do many women come so far only to fal­ter? Ca­reer and lead­er­ship coach Sue Clarke (inthe­hot­seat.co.uk) has seen it many times. One fac­tor, she says, is ‘im­pos­tor syn­drome’, which is com­mon in high-achiev­ing women: the fear that you don’t de­serve your suc­cess, it was down to luck and tim­ing, and you may be ‘found out’ at any mo­ment. (It’s cer­tainly true that May be­came leader of the Con­ser­va­tive party largely be­cause she was the only op­tion left after An­drea Lead­som stood down and Michael Gove and Boris John­son com­mit­ted hara-kiri.)

‘Step­ping into the top role if you’re har­bour­ing any doubts can be over­whelm­ing,’ says Clarke. ‘What can hap­pen is a kind of stage fright. You for­get all the ex­pe­ri­ence and skills that got you there in the first place and go to pieces.’

This mo­ment of tak­ing the reins is when lead­ers are most vul­ner­a­ble, says Mike My­att, lead­er­ship ad­viser and au­thor of Hack­ing Lead­er­ship. ‘Peo­ple who have spent years de­vel­op­ing skills, learn­ing and grow­ing as they inch their way to the top, fi­nally get there and think, “I’ve ar­rived!” In the worst cases, it then be­comes about hold­ing on to power and prov­ing you know every­thing, show­ing ev­ery­one that you have the an­swers. The best lead­ers never stop lis­ten­ing and en­gag­ing – they are life­long learn­ers. They con­stantly want to grow.’

But if you feel un­steady and – at root – un­de­serv­ing, you’re li­able to make clas­sic May mis­takes. ‘You fall back on what you know and think, “I’ll rely on what got me here in the first place be­cause that must have worked,”’ says Clarke. ‘So you bring your old peo­ple with you, you stick to what you know and de­velop a closed style of work­ing.’

This bunker men­tal­ity is lethal – es­pe­cially as a new role at the top takes you fur­ther from the coal­face than you’ve ever been be­fore. ‘Ex­pe­ri­enced lead­ers, suc­cess­ful lead­ers, will seek out dis­sent­ing opin­ions,’ says My­att. ‘They know they need to spread be­yond their com­fort zone oth­er­wise there will be gaps and blind spots.’

In­stead of treat­ing staff like a ‘threat’ to be kept in line, it’s cru­cial to view them as your best as­set, to del­e­gate re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and nur­ture lead­ers all the way to the outer edges of your com­pany. ‘If you try to do every­thing at the top, you get dis­con­tent and bot­tle­necks,’ says My­att. (In fact, May has been de­scribed as a ‘con­trol freak’, while Ya­hoo’s Mayer was ac­cused of be­ing a mi­cro­man­ager who in­sisted on per­son­ally re­view­ing the terms of con­tracts ‘line by line’, which was de­scribed by staff as a ‘colos­sal waste of time’.) It’s a vi­cious cy­cle. The more you con­trol, the less you del­e­gate, the greater your work­load, the more ex­hausted and the less ef­fi­cient you be­come.

‘I’ve seen this hap­pen,’ says Clarke. ‘When you step up into a CEO role, you are very quickly over­whelmed with work. The things you did in the past to help you cope – eat­ing well, sleep­ing enough, maybe go­ing to the gym – can very quickly fly out of the win­dow while you work 24/7.’ All this piles on pres­sure, raises stress, short­ens your fuse, clouds judg­ment and im­pacts per­for­mance. (Green fa­mously worked out at 5.30am and claimed she needed no more than four hours’ sleep; her staff might think dif­fer­ently.)

So what can fe­male lead­ers do to avoid th­ese pit­falls? There is lit­tle doubt that they are un­der enor­mous pres­sure, scru­ti­nised in a way men aren’t. May’s £995 leather trousers, picked out by Hill and worn in a news­pa­per photo shoot, made head­lines and caused a row at the heart of gov­ern­ment.

More im­por­tantly, they’re sur­rounded by men, ap­pointed by men and, as one of the au­thors of the Strat­egy& study pointed out, ‘We tend to like those that are most like us.’ Women are more likely to come in as ‘out­siders’, while men have more op­por­tu­nity to work their way up within a com­pany. And fe­male CEOs of­ten fill roles where there are few will­ing can­di­dates; this is known as the ‘glass cliff ’, where lead­ers are set up to fail. On top of all this, they have to per­form bet­ter than men. US re­search, which drew on a decade of data, found that if a com­pany’s value rises by one per cent, male ex­ec­u­tives’ ‘com­pen­sa­tion’ (through bonuses and stock op­tions) rises by 44 per cent; the fe­male equiv­a­lent is 13 per cent. How­ever, if a com­pany’s value drops by one per cent, a fe­male ex­ec­u­tive’s com­pen­sa­tion falls by 63 per cent – a male’s by just 33 per cent. Given th­ese pres­sures and im­bal­ances, it’s hardly sur­pris­ing that per­for­mance suf­fers and some­times crum­bles.

So how can you guard against it? When it comes to im­pos­tor syn­drome, re­search sug­gests that the key to over­com­ing it is to recog­nise it, put a name to it and voice it to a neu­tral party, such as a men­tor or a ca­reer coach. Then ar­gue with it; face it down. Shar­ron Lowe, suc­cess coach and au­thor of best­seller The Mind Makeover: The An­swers to Be­com­ing the Best You Yet, has coached nu­mer­ous ex­ec­u­tives of global com­pa­nies and is adamant that you can think your way into fail­ure – or suc­cess.

‘The most im­por­tant opin­ion you

hold is the one you have of your­self,’ she says. ‘If you go to work telling your­self you’re not good enough, those thoughts be­come your feel­ings; your feel­ings in­form what you do and those ac­tions will cre­ate your out­comes.’

Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton, co-founder and ed­i­tor-in- chief of The Huff­in­g­ton Post, said her great­est ob­sta­cle has been the voice in her head that she calls her ‘ob­nox­ious room­mate’. ‘We all have an in­ner voice that plays all day,’ says Lowe. ‘Get to know yours. You can choose which ra­dio sta­tion you tune it to. Is it your friend that sup­ports and nur­tures you? Or is it your en­emy, telling you you’re not good enough, that you’ve made a mis­take and every­thing’s a dis­as­ter?

‘Draw on your suc­cesses and file away only the good stuff,’ ad­vises Lowe. Ask your­self when you per­formed best, when you ex­celled and how it made you feel. Write it down. Fo­cus on the pos­i­tive feed­back you’ve had. Keep copies of great ap­praisals, client com­ments and cus­tomer re­views on the way up. Clarke sug­gests tak­ing your­self back to a time when your con­fi­dence was high. ‘At the time you ap­plied for a lead­er­ship role, you must have had a de­gree of con­fi­dence, so re­mind your­self why you be­lieved you could do it and why you were re­cruited,’ she says. ‘Try to get back to the thoughts and emo­tions at the mo­ment you got the job.’

Con­fi­dence is cru­cial in a leader, says My­att – and with that, the rest can fol­low. ‘With true con­fi­dence comes the abil­ity to lis­ten to oth­ers, ad­mit mis­takes and shore up weak­nesses that we all have.’ A con­fi­dent leader will con­sult widely and har­ness all the tal­ent avail­able. ‘I worked with a new CEO re­cently who did a lot of walk­ing around,’ says Clarke. ‘Ev­ery week she spent a cou­ple of hours walk­ing around the whole build­ing, learn­ing, lis­ten­ing and mak­ing her­self ac­ces­si­ble. How­ever you do it – whether it’s reg­u­lar brief­ings or a sug­ges­tions box – you need to en­gage with staff and en­cour­age them to talk to you.’ ‘Only when you’ve spent some time get­ting to know the peo­ple and un­der­stand the en­vi­ron­ment can you di­ag­nose the prob­lems,’ says My­att. ‘There’s no such thing as a per­fect leader. Ev­ery­one knows you’re hu­man and peo­ple want to see that.’ Both May and Hil­lary Clin­ton ap­peared stiff, wooden and un­com­fort­able on the cam­paign trail, with one critic de­scrib­ing Clin­ton as ‘un­re­laxed’, whereas Jeremy Cor­byn and Don­ald Trump – whether you liked them or not – were more re­laxed and looked like they were be­ing them­selves. ‘Peo­ple will get be­hind some­one who is com­fort­able in their own skin and doesn’t hide be­hind a façade,’ My­att con­tin­ues. ‘In or­der to trust you, they need to feel that they know who you are. And again, to be your­self comes down to con­fi­dence. It all starts from there.’

There’s no such thing as a per­fect leader. Ev­ery­one knows you’re hu­man and peo­ple want to see that

For­mer top bosses (from top): New York Times ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor Jill Abram­son; Ya­hoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Thomas Cook CEO Har­riet Green ATION’ COM­MU­NIC TE IN­AD­E­QUA ‘



Crit­i­cisms lev­elled at for­mer

ed­i­tor Natalie Nougayrède, above, and Hil­lary Clin­ton, be­low Monde Le ES’ TEN­DENCI UE PU­TI­NESQ ‘


Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.