“Isn’t it exhausting?” That’s a good question to ask any female leader who has fought boldly to attain professional success, braved unfair treatment, and advocated for her contemporaries. And likely many would admit that, yes, it can be a long, wearying journey to claim small victories, face defeats and carry on.
That’s why it was wonderful to talk with Lou Ann Layton, Global Head of Broker Relations and Marketing at Beazley Group, the global specialist insurer and Lloyd’s underwriter. After years of trying to fight every battle, Lou Ann says she learned to ‘pick her moments’ – and her words – to tackle the challenges that mattered most and build a personal brand that ‘leads from the middle.’
Learn to pick your battles
Like many women who began their careers in the 1980s and 90s, Lou Ann was often the only female in the meeting room, at the conference table or client dinner. Although she credits a very supportive senior leader who mentored and sponsored her for new opportunities, she found herself under the constant scrutiny of other male executives.
Recalls Lou Ann, “I felt like I had to work a lot harder than my male peers, deliver more results, and produce successes of a greater magnitude.” And, despite her hard work, as a young, single female, she was left out of conversations with the men.
Her solution: “I got a subscription to Sports Illustrated and The New York Times, so I could talk with clients and find things in common with them. I also read everything published about my clients, so I became a better conversationalist and a much better listener.”
Unfortunately, Lou Ann’s head full of facts didn’t help her get heard at the table, where men ignored her suggestions – or claimed them as their own, to earn praise from their colleagues.
In response, Lou Ann recounts how she learned to selectively pick the right spots to defend her position, rather than battling every injustice: “If a man took my idea, I’d find a way to say, ‘That is a great idea, I’m glad you agree with me. And, I would add this…’ to build upon the idea further. I wasn’t worried about getting credit, as long as I was heard.”
Carefully compose your position
This philosophy of “carefully pick – and position – your battles” also became important when Lou Ann was the lone voice for women in the workplace. “I felt an obligation to speak up for women at work, but after a while I realized the men in the room were tuning me out and they thought I only had one lens focused on helping women,” says Lou Ann. “So, I learned to choose my spots instead of attacking every little thing. And, I began to frame the discussion around diverse experiences and fairness to persons of all backgrounds, rather than just gender.”
That said, Lou Ann chose her moments to call out gender bias. For example, she couldn’t stay silent in one meeting in which several men described their female colleagues as ‘women with sharp elbows’. “I asked the group what was meant by the comment, and why no one referred to confident men in the same way?” says Lou Ann. “After one man tried to explain himself – and dug himself into a hole doing so – our manager said that, ‘We will not use that term again to describe women.’”
Shape your brand – lead from the middle
Lou Ann is candid about the fact that she learned these lessons through her mistakes. And, she made a concerted effort to change her personal brand when she was appointed to a senior leadership role.
“Of course, no single piece of advice rings true for all women, but I learned the concept of ‘leading from the middle,’” explains Lou Ann. “Often men describe women in one of two ways: We are too bossy (or the other ‘b’ word), so colleagues will not work for you; or, we are too soft for leadership roles. So, I gradually shifted my brand to better balance the two ends of the spectrum- to be seen as tough but fair, and willing to show my emotional intelligence.”
In fact, Lou Ann admits that she initially resisted advice from a career coach to shift her brand so people would like her. “I believed that I needed a hard edge in business and I never thought I had to be ‘liked.’ I wanted to be respected. However, this coach advised me that my ‘all-business approach’ meant that people didn’t like me, because they didn’t know me.”
To remedy the situation, the coach suggested that Lou Ann pick three things that she was comfortable sharing with people in her daily interactions. “I started opening up and letting my team get to know me, and I could see these relationships change for the better.”
On fine-tuning one’s brand, Lou Ann also cautions women not to let their passion turn into emotion. “When some men say, ‘She’s very passionate about that’ they actually mean, ‘She’s too emotional and isn’t open to other ideas.’ So be passionate, but make sure you don’t become emotional about issues.”
Focus on what’s most important
Summing up her advice, Lou Ann notes that, “A lot of women still think that working hard will get them noticed and promoted. Then, they face obstacles, get frustrated from not being heard and leave their employer.” She admits that she too left a role that had become a boys’ club. “Although my CEO remarked that I was good at handling those situations, I responded that, ‘Yes, but I don’t want to anymore.’”
Looking back at the tiring routine of constantly outmatching her peers, she says, “One of the things I learned a little late in my career was that you have to figure out what the firm and your boss value most. Then, deliver on those things, as well as what you value. That way, you can be an authentic leader, be taken seriously and people will follow you.”
At the end of the day, even the strongest leaders will admit to fatigue against never-ending challenges. But the smart ones, like Lou Ann, have learned to pick their battles carefully and shape their personal brands to find balance and success in the middle ground.
For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.