In 1990, I went to work for a very progressive company. Ironically, despite their progressive attitude, I was one of only three women hired for the 300-person sales staff. I spent the next five years of my life pursuing one, and only one, goal: to beat the top salesman.
While I admit that I achieved a certain level of success using the top-selling man as my motivation, it also led me to make some very unwise choices. I incorrectly focused my time and effort on winning at all costs. My misguided attempt to outpace him ultimately cost me my health, then my job.
He wasn’t responsible for my success, but I blamed him for my failure to get promoted. My obsession had become an energy drain that had taken over my life and had obscured me from the truth: sex had nothing to do with my failure. I had everything to do with it.
Your Best is Not Attached to Your Sex
The good thing that came out of this 5-year debacle was a new way of seeing work. I realized that success comes from competing with myself, not from competition with others. It was easier to use the #1 salesman as an excuse, but he wasn’t the one chasing someone else’s coattails: I was. The fact that I wasn’t a man had nothing to do with my inevitable departure. The problem was that I was trying to be someone I wasn’t.
Michael, the salesman, and I were two different people. Because I was trying to mimic him, I was a second-rate version of Michael – not a first-rate version of Wendy. I wasn’t giving my best, and it came through in my work.
For the last 17 years, I’ve woken up with a new goal: to do my personal best each day, and to always go the extra mile. No matter what circumstances or conditions I’m facing, I commit to giving 110% every single day. I don’t use circumstances as excuses, but I do take them into account and change the standard I hold myself to, based on what’s possible. This perspective has served me well in holding myself accountable for being me, at my best.
As a leader, this is also the best way to approach your staff. I’m only concerned with one question: did you give your personal best? As long as the answer is “yes” and the person hasn’t shown a pattern of deceiving me or himself, I am satisfied. After all, what can I ask of anyone but to do his best? This gives my team autonomy, and it prevents me from comparing them to each other. Best of all, it eliminates the question of whether or not we’re looking at their performance based on gender – we’re only asking them to consider their own work.
Your Worst isn’t Attached to Your Sex, Either
Being a better leader or positioning yourself for upward mobility has little to do with whether you’re a man or a woman. It has more to do with how often you light up the room versus how often you darken the doorway. You can flex your title as a way of getting people to perform, but you’ll never get them to maximum performance using that philosophy.
A great leader not only sees the road ahead for the organization and navigates the path, but he also sees each person for the value and utility he brings to the company. While you’re trying to bring out the best in your people, you have to remember to deal with their worst delicately. When you sit down and truly get to know someone and appreciate them for their uniqueness and creative capabilities, you remove barriers and allow trust to develop.
Physical wounds can heal, but emotional wounds inflicted by destructive criticism can last for long periods of time and ultimately hurt your productivity. This is true whether you’re a man or a woman, although society tells one group to buck up, and lets the other one cry. Think of your group, and name someone who’s been so unhappy with a decision that the person clammed up or became perpetually grumpy. I bet you thought of both a man and a woman. We’re all human; we all have emotions.
Because of this, you can’t ignore feelings. When your team isn’t giving 110% – or they are, but are still failing miserably – you have to be empathetic in your approach. I once had a CEO tell me that my best trait was that I could take people to the woodshed and metaphorically beat them, and they said, “Thank you, Wendy.” Nobody likes to be on the receiving end of criticism, but if you have to deliver it, become an expert at delivering it in a way that is meaningful but not hurtful. You’ll never get 110% from your staff again if you don’t.
Don’t waste time thinking about how your sex is hurting you in the workplace, and don’t compete against your colleagues. If you do, you’re setting the bar too low and discounting your own abilities. Focus, instead, on holding yourself to a standard that utilizes what you do best and allows others in your company to flourish, too. If you don’t focus on sex, no one else will, either.
Wendy Komac is a business turnaround specialist and author of I Work with Crabby Crappy People, a humorous and highly informative book about achieving happiness and success. She is also a Principle at Sustainable Innovations Group, LLC, and the Senior Vice President at SIRVA Relocation.