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Timeless Female Leadership, with Sally Helgesen

Timeless Female Leadership, with Sally Helgesen

Episode 126: Timeless Female Leadership, with Sally Helgesen

Since Sally Helgesen, Women’s Leadership Consultant and Author, wrote her first book about women’s leadership in 1990s, she has written numerous other books and articles, and gave workshops on the importance of characteristics of female leaders as well as the behaviors that help women get ahead. On this episode, Sally talks about the evolution of female leadership and how business and society came to embrace women leaders.She also shares her insights about characteristics of leadership, important factors that help women leaders get ahead, the behaviors that often hold woman back, as well as how to overcome them.

Episode Transcript

00:12 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate podcast. This is your host Kristy Wallace, with my co-host Maricella Herrera, and today our special guest, Sally Helgesen, the author of How Women Rise. Maricella, what is your favorite book?

00:31 Maricella Herrera: My favorite book is The Little Prince.

00:36 KW: I knew that, we talked about this.

00:40 MH: Yep.

00:40 KW: 'Cause you are gonna get a tattoo, right?

00:43 MH: Next week.

00:45 KW: Next week? No kidding, I didn't know it was that soon.

00:47 MH: Well I mean next week from when this airs. Yeah.

00:49 KW: Okay. [laughter] So is that your special birthday gift to yourself?

00:54 MH: That is. That is my... My birthday gift from me, to me. That and taking a few days to go home, it's good.

01:04 KW: Yeah.

01:04 MH: That's... That's all I wanted.

01:05 KW: Self care, self care.

01:07 MH: Self care.

01:08 KW: So important. Gotta love yourself first.

01:12 MH: Yes. [laughter] Yeah, no, I feel like my birthday was kinda hitting me, hitting me close to the heart this year, which is today when this podcast airs. But taking a little bit of time to do nothing, and lay on a beach and be with family was exactly what I needed.

01:35 KW: Yeah. That art of doing nothing. I know, I know that there's some book or there's something about that which I should read because it's... Especially I feel being in New York and hobbies, and work and friends and family and all that stuff, that we just don't stop. I don't stop. I can't even remember the last time I just sat and watched a movie, and just chilled out or something.

02:07 MH: I do. I have, being very honest, I have to take time to do nothing, sit in my apartment, watch TV, hang out with the cat. 'Cause if not, I don't function. I think the introvert in me needs that.

02:24 KW: Yeah.

02:24 MH: But it's not that usual that you actually can.

02:29 KW: Yeah, I mean, so you're right, I do... I read a lot and that's my introvert coming back to center, but yeah, you just have to make the time, absolutely. Well, I really enjoyed talking to Sally and her book, How Women Rise. She's actually written a number of books around women in the workplace, leadership, and has some fascinating and very important and eye-opening insights into the ways that women can break habits that are holding them back, and focus on getting your next raise, your next promotion, your next job, which is something at Ellevate we love to talk about. It's just action, it's forward moving action. Finding success and meaning, however that resonates with you. And Sally's really clear steps for achieving that resonated with me, and I really appreciated her sharing her insights on the podcast.

03:33 MH: I can't wait to hear it.

03:35 KW: Absolutely, let's get to it.


03:48 KW: Sally, thank you so much for joining us today on the Ellevate Podcast. We're excited to have you, you're just an unbelievable author, speaker, leadership consultant, doing some amazing work around women in business, and I would love to learn a little bit more about your journey and what led you to the point you're at today.

04:07 Sally Helgesen: Certainly Kristy, it's great to be here, a real honor. My journey in women's leadership really began almost 30 years ago, with the book, The Female Advantage Women's Ways of Leadership, which was the first book to focus on what women had to contribute, rather than how they needed to change and adapt. As a result of that book I started getting called into organizations, this was in 1990, the book was published, to work with and consult and do some coaching, and I just grew ever more fascinated with the topic. So that was in 1990. I've written seven more books in the field, lots of articles, and delivered leadership programs and workshops all around the world ever since then. So it's been an ever growing body of work. And that first book, The Female Advantage Women's Ways of Leadership, was really inspired by my own experience in the 1980s in the workplace, and seeing the extent to which the organizations in which I worked in those days, in corporate communications, had no idea how to take advantage of the best talents of their women.

05:23 KW: Thank you so much for sharing that. And I love that story because I, oftentimes am speaking to women who, and sometimes men, but definitely women, who don't think that their... Or don't perceive their experiences to be, or their insights on their experiences, to be shareable. Meaning, yes, I've had this experience, but it's a... I don't have anything to share. And clearly, you have such great insights to share and you really took it upon yourself to, with that first book to say, "Okay, here's what's happening in corporate America. Here's what I'm seeing, and let me share that with others that we can start to change this."

06:07 SH: It was a real leap of faith, and I'll tell you that the world wasn't precisely ready for that point of view at that time. Coming out of the 1980s, we were in a time when Fortune Magazine was still doing a yearly cover story on America's toughest boss, and they would describe a man whose behavior today would be seen as outright abusive and sort of talk about him as a hero boss and leader because his numbers, however temporarily, were looking very good.

06:41 SH: So it was a very different time. I was told, "Why are you focusing on women's skills, on relationship? Relationship isn't... It's a soft skill, it's not really needed." But Kristy, what has kept me going, because it hasn't always been the easiest journey, although it looks pretty good, what's kept me going is watching over the last, as I say 30 years, as every single characteristic of of women leaders at their best, that I began to study, outline, and put forth, every single one of those characteristics has become more and more recognized, mainstream, and relevant as the nature of the economy, the technology, and demographics has shifted. So I really have seen the world come around to a much greater understanding not only of what women have to contribute, but of the value of what the characteristics that women bring is.

07:44 KW: And what are some of those characteristics?

07:47 SH: Well, as I talk about in that first book, the characteristics that I saw great women leaders had in common were number one, a real focus on relationship and the ability to build strong relationships, not only themselves with others, but create organizations in which that could be done. Comfort with direct communication, rather than communication up and down a chain of command, the hierarchy that was so established at that period. Comfort with as opposed to tolerance of diversity, because they themselves have been outsiders and understood in their bones what condescending expectations and behaviors, felt like.

08:34 SH: But also because they knew the kind of value that fresh eyes and a fresh perspective could bring. A willingness, an eagerness to put themselves in the center of things rather than at the top and lead from the center, creating what I called and later wrote about as webs of inclusion. And finally, an ability of flexibility so that they could draw information, observations, insights, and skills from their private lives and bring them to the workplace, and vice versa. So they were very comfortable with that work-life integration that has since become recognized as a leadership skill. And as you can see, every single one of these characteristics has become more and more relevant as a leadership characteristic as the last decades have evolved.

09:27 KW: Yeah, no, and it is so interesting, it's... I think about this a lot as a leader myself. And there was a time when I entered the workforce, that you... We worked so hard to not exhibit those characteristics because that's not what the definition of a strong leader was, as you were talking about, that Forbes... The cover story. But now we're starting to see this shift in business and in society and culture, where being that authentic self and having these traits, embracing diversity and being more communicative, can really translate to results. And as the research is showing that is actually just the proof and revenues and innovation and business growth is showing that, we're starting to see how the definition of women as leaders can really start to be amplified and evolve.

10:29 SH: That's exactly right. I look at it... I remember a number of years ago, I got an interview in the New York Times with Laszlo Bock who was basically, the chief of Talent Development at Google. And they had done a big study using Google's algorithms on what employees did the best at Google. And what was fascinating to me is, as he enumerated what those characteristics were, they were just identical [chuckle] to the characteristics I set out in The Female Advantage. So the times have caught up with us, and I think the technology has been really key and important part of this, because it results in more work being done in teams, it results in people who are comfortable with direct communication, obviously, have a great advantage in this environment. So, those characteristics of The Female Advantage have really gone mainstream. And it's a good thing for women, and it's a good thing for men and it's a good thing for organizations. I think we're all seeing that.

11:36 KW: What are some of the factors, or what are... What are some of the things that are still holding women back? So you're talking about these characteristics that are really valuable and unique, and how we are evolving towards a business and a society that embraces and values those characteristics. But we're still not there. And how do we get there, how do we transcend the divide, what are the barriers that are continuing to push forward this very aggressive alpha male mentality around leadership and success that we are still continuing to try to break down?

12:19 SH: Yes, we certainly are not there, there being where we want to... Or I would suggest need to be in order for organizations to be healthy and whole. And for we as women to have careers that are energizing, sustaining, and rewarding, and I see that really... That impediment lying in two areas. And one I'll just mention briefly, and the other I want to address more. Briefly, I want to mention that, although increasingly women are recognized for these skills, what research demonstrates is that women are still not perceived of as visionary by senior leaders in organizations, and this is really worldwide. So women are often held back by not being perceived of as visionary. "Well, she's great at relationship building, negotiation, etcetera, etcetera, but she doesn't have that big picture vision." And I wrote a whole book about that called The Female Vision, why that was and what women could do to better position themselves to be visionaries, because I happen to believe that one of the things women are strongest at is having a great vision. But often there is a reluctance to trust their gut.

13:34 SH: And that leads us to the point that I'd like to talk about today with you, which are behaviors that still tend to get in the way of successful women. We're human beings, and there are behaviors that get in the way of people in general. But I do... I have learned, in my experience, that often, not always, the behaviors most likely to hold women back are slightly different than the behaviors that are most likely to hold men back. And in the latest book that I did, co-authored with the leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith, How Women Rise, we focus on the 12 behaviors that in our experience, in our combined about 60 years of experience of working with, coaching, and delivering leadership programs to women. Marshall's primary coaching base is male, but he's worked with many, many women over his decades.

14:38 SH: So what we're trying to do there is to surface the behaviors that are most likely to get in women's ways. And these are often very different. They're behaviors such as we outlined in the book, a reluctance to claim your achievements, a behavior around expecting others to spontaneously notice and value your contributions, rather than bringing attention to them, an over-investment in expertise, perfectionism, which is a real issue for many women, and, and also what we call in the book, the disease to please, the need to be thought of as a wonderful person by everybody, which can lead us to have difficulty enforcing or asserting boundaries, and holding other people to account for what they need to be held accountable for.

15:33 SH: So we have 12 behaviors. We do not find these to be necessarily female behaviors as opposed to male behaviors, but they are the behaviors that are most likely to get in women's ways. One thing that's important in this book is to know that many of these behaviors that I just enumerated, are also behaviors that serve women well early in their careers, but they can begin to become problems as they move higher and begin to assume greater levels of influence and greater scope of authority. They can definitely get in women's ways. And so the book is aimed at not only surfacing those behaviors, identifying them so that women can have a better self-understanding of what might get in their way, but also giving them a template for addressing these behaviors so they can have the careers that they want and the careers that they deserve and the careers that their organizations really need them to have.

16:36 KW: Yeah, everything you're saying makes such sense to me. I remember early in my career, where how I was successful earlier on as coming in, I was a team player. I kept my head down, I worked really, really hard, I learned as much as I could, I took... Said yes to as many projects as I could, and that helped to differentiate me as a go-getter and someone who was a big contributor. But then there is definitely that inflection point where you have to then start really owning it. And it's like, "Okay, I've put in the time, now I need to really promote my successes, I need to start saying no more, I need to create more balance there." And so just like you're saying, it's like some of the things that can really help set you up for success early on, you need to be very intentional about stepping back from some of those habits as you progress in your career, 'cause that's what will hold you back.

17:35 SH: That's exactly true, and becoming more astute in terms of developing relationships, spending more time at that. What we often find is, and I've worked in dozens of cases like this, where women are so focused on their expertise and they become the best person at their job, with the belief that that will and should lead them to the next job. But being perfect at the job you do basically just proves that you are perfect at the job you do. It doesn't necessarily indicate that you're ready for the next step. And women can trap themselves in that. They can become indispensable to their bosses, and so that can begin to get in the way of their own career development. And women can also become somewhat isolated as they attempt to over-focus on their expertise.

18:29 SH: One of the things we also found that's really interesting in terms of the whole expertise and perfectionism, we had some really interesting research in How Women Rise about how, in organizations, women tend to be more rewarded for precision and correctness, whereas men tend to be more rewarded for boldness and risk taking, and this serves women very well early in their careers, where precision and correctness and doing everything right, crossing the Ts and dotting the Is is really valued, but it can... Perfectionism is allied to being risk-averse, so at higher levels, the ability to be comfortable with some level of risk and to be bold in the choices you make is highly valued in organizations. And by rewarding women for precision and correctness, often women don't really even have that chance to develop their capacity for risk taking, and certainly don't have the opportunity to position themselves as someone who is able to take intelligent and well-assessed risks.

19:42 KW: Absolutely. So what do we do about this, how do our listeners and the women in the Ellevate community, women, professional women all over. How do we break these habits and continue, as you say, continue to rise?

20:00 SH: Yeah, well I think what we have, and in the book we... In How Women Rise we present the behaviors in a way so that people really identify with. And I've been doing workshops on it, or leadership programs, almost on a daily basis. And this book came out on April 10th. And what I'm finding is there are about four or five behaviors that practically every woman in the room will subscribe to. So, once you've identified what the behaviors that are the most likely to get in your way, the first thing that's important is to really focus on either one behavior or one part of a behavior, rather than trying to... I have women who say to me, "I have nine behaviors. It's gonna be really hard to work on this." Well, don't work on nine behaviors. Don't work on four or even two. Start with one, but then... And I think this is probably the most important point in this book and we've got some great examples of how to do it. Enlist other people in your efforts to begin to change your behavior. Enlisting others, say you've had feedback that one of our behaviors is offering too much information, too many words, too much disclosure.

21:12 SH: Say you've had some feedback, "Well, when you make a presentation in a meeting sometimes it's hard to follow you." In trying to get better at that, what you wanna do is ask other people to watch. "Hey, I'm working on this. I'm trying to become more precise in my presentation skills. You're gonna be in this meeting with me next week. Would you mind watching and seeing if you think I'm doing better, or offering any tips you could offer me?" Or conversely, you might also wanna go to somebody who you believe or you've observed, be very concise in their communication style and say, "Yeah, I'm trying to get better at being more concise. What has worked for you? What kind of preparation do you do in order to be very crisp when you have to present in a meeting?" So enlisting other people, it has a number of effects. It gives you a much bigger community of support, it's a way of starting to build allies that you'll need, you're trusting people with this kind of, by asking them to give you help.

22:17 SH: So, it enlarges your network in a very productive way. It gives you new perspectives on things you might not notice yourself, but also, and this is very important, it also advertises that you're changing, because in organizations people get sort of identified for certain behaviors, and it's very hard to change that perception. You may have gotten completely over something, but because people are busy and they're not necessarily noticing everything you're doing, you still have the reputation for behaviors that you've managed to get past. And so by enlisting other people, you're really advertising, or drawing people's attention to the fact that you're changing and you're working on changing, so they're much more likely to notice that. So what you're doing is you're both altering behavior and perception of behavior, which is doubly powerful.

23:13 KW: And that's important because by being able to alter the behavior and the perception, but also retain what's authentic to you, and leveraging your allies in the workplace to kind of help you navigate, "How do these behaviors translate to who you are and how you communicate, how you work in a way that makes sense, is natural, but is also very intentional about and deliberate about, okay, 'I want to identify these areas that may be holding me back and I want to break that, break from that so that I can move forward.' "

23:51 SH: Exactly, it's really about self-awareness, and I think self-awareness is a really important concept here because self-awareness is what is at the intersection of authenticity and being intentional. People often feel that if you're being very intentional, you're not being authentic. So it's kind of a zero-sum game. You choose one, either you're gonna be intentional, which they see as political and conniving, or you're going to be fully authentic, but no. Self-awareness lies in the middle and it's the way that you bring those two aspects of your behavior and your career management and career development together.

24:30 KW: My final question for you, which is kind of a little of a tangent, but I'm always fascinated by this. You've written a number of books, articles, speaking, which is incredibly valuable and powerful, sharing your insights and knowledge with the world. How do you stay up on that? How do you keep the juices flowing and continue to publish such phenomenal work?

25:00 SH: I would say that I get my source of inspiration, number one, from the audiences that I address of women leaders, and aspiring leaders all over the world. I can be feeling exhausted, I can be feeling as if the last thing on earth I wanted was to get on this plane and go to Singapore to address 350 women engineers in an Asian Pacific Alliance. I can be feeling exhausted by the very thought of this. And yet when I get with those audiences and when I see the skills, the commitment, the intelligence, and yes, to some degree, the frustration that exists in the women in the audience, and when I think of the potential that our organizations and our world has to become a better place if the talents and and full potential of these women is unleashed, then I'm immediately inspired again. The other thing that keeps me going is this extraordinary rich web and network of colleagues that I've developed over these decades. Extraordinary people, Marshall Goldsmith, my co-author on this being one of them, just an extraordinary network that I've had. So I feel like I'm part of an active learning community that's out there in the world making a difference. So those things are really what keep me going.

26:38 KW: Perfect, absolutely perfect. And I agree, the power of network and just gaining inspiration from others if we're always learning and listening and trying to understand and to then take all that information, how does that help others? It can be just such a powerful thing. So, thanks for all that you do. How, if our readers want to buy a copy of How Women Rise, where would they find it?

27:05 SH: They will find it anywhere. Any online book seller, independent books, bricks and mortar route. This book is everywhere, we... Most of the airports around the country, which also gives me a boost, is I [27:21] ____ So it is, it's very easy, it's very easy to get.

27:26 KW: Perfect. Well, thanks so much, Sally, for joining us today. Tt's been wonderful chatting with you. I'm so excited about this book and the work that you do and the impact you're having, so thank you.

27:37 SH: Thank you, Kristy. Just a quick shout out to listeners, you can reach me through my website, or connect with me on LinkedIn, I'm very active on LinkedIn, and always, always welcome new connections.

27:52 KW: Perfect. Alright Sally, thanks so much, it was really great chatting with you, and hope you have a great day.

28:00 SH: Thank you Kristy, I've enjoyed it.

28:05 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out, subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter @EllevateNtwk, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website,, that's And special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller, she rocks, and to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much and join us next week.


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