Coach at work: 'They say I'm 'dominating'. Maybe I'm just a strong woman?'
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Coach at work: 'They say I'm 'dominating'. Maybe I'm just a strong woman?'

We put your workplace woes to an executive coach.

I lead a large in-house legal practice that's had a stellar and lucrative year. Our efforts didn't go unnoticed: I got a nice bonus, which I'd say was deserved, and I get a kick out of using my industry nous and technical skills to pull complex deals across the line for clients. So on the business side: tick.

My problem seems to be people. My manager told me on the fly recently that I need to "stop dominating everyone" if I want to make it through the next round of promotions. Since I just earned this shop a fat wad of cash, I'm more open to hearing what a great job I'm doing than vague prognostications on my lack of "soft" skills.

"I don't want to change who I am just to please someone who's wrong about me."

"I don't want to change who I am just to please someone who's wrong about me."

I know people find me too direct. Surely this might have something to do with the fact that I'm a woman? I don't really want to change who I am just to please someone who might be way off base about me.

The coach:

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Some of this might have to do with gender. As I've noted previously, women get a harder time at work about being both too assertive and too timid. The answer to your question ("do I need to tone it down?") could be both "yes" and "no" – by which I mean that, if this is about gender, the critique about style will follow you no matter which way you jump in terms of the way you communicate.

The coach: Jacqueline Jago.

The coach: Jacqueline Jago.Credit:Sari Sutton

You can name the gender elephant in the room by simply asking questions: "Hmm, I'm wondering whether you'd feel differently about this if I were male?" or "If your views on this were coloured by gender, how would you know?" Easy? No way, baby. But your appetite for challenge and your obvious pluck should see you through. My best tip for sticky conversations is practice, practice, practice. Tick.

On the "maybe this has nothing to do with gender" side, I confess to finding your written style both cool (in a good way – I have three powerhouse sisters) and icy. Icy in a bad way. My skill as a professional rests in part on my ability to approve of everything you do, and I do! In fact, the best part about being a coach is hearing the human stories of effort and frailty behind the professional facades we all wear.

But if your letter scares me, I'm wondering how your style affects your colleagues [possible quote], and whether they can love you for it as much as you deserve. Sarcasm is a defence against hurt feelings, and it sounds like you might have cause for some. That's the risk of feedback "on the fly" – it leaves everyone with their pants down, looking hard into the unforgiving earth.

Peeking through your letter, asking for visibility, are clues about what you value beneath the heroics. You talk about your team, and "our" effort, rather than reflexively falling into a pattern of claiming all the glory. Great. As a senior lawyer, your assertive style might be more habitual (feels like "me" after all this time and training) than authentic ("lines up with what I care about"). You could check whether there's a part of you that intuits greater possibility in the way you show up at work, but has dug in, boots and all. This clinging to your current "way" could be a response to critique that feels unfair. It also suggests respect for the norms you were "raised" in, professionally speaking – no bad thing for a lawyer.

So I suggest you address that fine legal mind of yours towards the question of who you want to be at work, and how you'd like to be remembered. And I declare that "soft skills" are an obsolete misnomer for the kind of genius unleashed by the slog of self-confrontation. The work involved in getting the best out of yourself and your people adds up to mastery: hard-won, and a long-term project that's never really over.

Here's a terrific read on the subject of growing beyond a heroic leadership style, recommended by my colleague, Amanda Horne: Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change, by Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs. It maps the stages of adult development (how the mind learns to handle greater complexity over the human lifespan) against defined stages of leadership, and is chock full of practical insights you can adopt in your work routines as you move your style towards greater maturity – and effectiveness.

Growing up as an adult – and a professional – comes via the painful means of learning things about yourself that you didn't know, and maybe didn't want to find out. In other words, self-knowledge is the source of your professional (as opposed to your technical) mastery.

Introspection is the means by which the adult mind develops. Curiosity about what others see is exactly what you want to cultivate, both for you and the culture of your team. I've no doubt about your ability to act on what you find out about yourself.

If your letter scares me, I'm wondering how your style affects your colleagues.

If your life as a heroic leader is drawing to a close, there'll be a lot to celebrate. Fat wads of cash! Yay, if that matters to you. In the next stage (described by Joiner and Josephs as the "achiever" phase), having come to terms with the part of you that needed all the glory, you'll get your kicks out of resourcing others and enabling collaboration. It only looks easy ("soft") to people who aren't actually doing it.

Jacqueline Jago is an executive coach and the principal of Bloom Coaching & Consulting. Send your questions to counsel@canberratimes.com.au.